I started collecting hashioki is the fall of 1993 when our family was living in Hong Kong.
One day my husband and I made one of our regular visit to the Hong Kong Museum of Art. Before leaving the museum we stopped in the gift shop to do some browsing, and I happened to spot a tiny pale green fish, lying on its side on top of a pedestal, with its head and tailing curving up in the air.
“What is that?” my husband asked as we walked over to the diminutive sculpture displayed on a glass shelf.
“I think it’s a chopstick rest,” I said, pointing to the pair of chopsticks propped on top of its mate on the shelf. “We saw them in some restaurants when we were in Japan.”
The fish was a little over an inch and a half long, and only one inch high, and weighed well under an ounce. It appeared to be carved out of nephrite, the translucent stone that is sometimes mistakenly referred to as jade. The carving was a little uneven, but the craftsman had given the fish an open mouth and one big round eye, and cut crosshatch marks into the top of the body to simulate scales.
“How much is it?” my husband asked.
I checked the sticker on its bottom. “Not much,” I said. “Twenty-one Hong Kong dollars.” That was the equivalent of three U.S. dollars.
“Let me buy it for you,” he said, taking the fish from my hand and heading for the cash wrap counter. Then he grinned. “Maybe you can start a collection.” Since arriving in Hong Kong to spend a year while my husband taught at a HK university I had pondered what kind of special souvenirs we might bring back to our home in the United States. Other expatriate wives I had met said they planned to return with strings of pearls or Chinese antiques, but I knew our one-salary, three-school-aged-children budget wouldn’t allow me to purchase items like that.
Chopstick rests, or hashioki in Japanese, seemed like the perfect answer. They were small and inexpensive, and would be easy to pack for our return home. My husband and I had a particular connection to Japan because we had met in a Japanese history class 20 years earlier. We often used chopsticks when we ate Asian foods at home. I remembered seeing hashioki for sale in other Hong Kong stores, particularly the Japanese department stores, so I suspected they would be relatively easy to collect.
“Just this?” the sales clerk asked when my husband placed the little fish on the counter.
“Just one chopstick rest,” I confirmed. For now.