17 November 2008

A Visit To The Firing Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln

This hot lobang (rare opportunity)* came last week from Mr Kevin Lim who is currently pursuing his doctoral degree in Communication at the University at Buffalo. It was a private invitation to visit Thow Kwang dragon kiln which was fired last weekend after a long hiatus of 5 years.

Kevin was actually conveying a private invitation to a rare firing of the Thow Kwang dragon kiln happening over 48 hours from 14th (Fri) to 16th (Sun) of November 2008. His fellow graduate student Carolyn Lim (blog here and photos here) is a member of a local pottery group involved in the firing. This is the third time the kiln was fired by the potters group. The kiln was first fired in 2001 after being dormant since 1994. In 2002, the potters received an NAC grant to carry out kiln repairs, to experiment with local clay, some glazes and salting effects in a wood-fired environment. This was followed with two firings in 2003 (March and November).

It was during one of their monthly breakfasts (around July or August this year) that they decided to do the firing. Somehow after 5 years of inactiveness, everything gathered momentum. One of the reasons for the long firing interval is that it is labour intensive, back-breaking work.

Pottery making is one of the most ancient arts. The earliest known ceramic objects were dated to 29,000-25,000 BCE while the earliest known pottery vessels were probably those made around 10,500 BCE found in Japan. The main processes of pottery making are shaping, glazing/decorating and firing. It is only after firing that the article can be called pottery. Pottery are commonly fired in a a kiln which is like an oven. Kilns may be heated by burning wood, coal and gas, or they could be powered by electricity. You can read more about pottery making from this Wikipedia entry.

Pottery production is not only a nostalgic activity but could be a sensual one too as those of us who have watched the 1990 movie Ghost (starring Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze) would know.

Thow Kwang has a very kampong feel to it. There is a pond:

There is even a kampong house, complete with a guard dog (not made of clay):

There is no doubt that pottery making is a dying art. Nowadays, many objects are made of plastic. They are cheap to produce and will not shatter on impact. Have you noticed that even small flower pots which are traditionally made of clay are now made of plastic?

It is not known how long more the dragon kiln will be around as Thow Kwang is occupying the land on temporary lease. Places like this are a rare find in Singapore. If Thow Kwang moves, it certainly could not move the dragon kiln along with it. Therefore, I urge you to visit this last vestige of a very ancient art in Singapore before it is gone forever. The year-end school holidays have just started. It is a good and beautiful place to bring the children to. I believe they will enjoy the visit as much as I did. Thow Kwang is located at 85 Lorong Tawas (off Jalan Bahar), Singapore 639823.

* - Note: Since the firing kiln looked like a flaming hole, I have called it a hot lobang. ("Lobang" is Malay for "hole" or "opening". Hence it is also a commonly used colloquial word for "opportunity". A "hot lobang" would mean a "rare opportunity".)

Below (text in blue) are transcripts of the explanatory notes at Thow Kwang's Dragon Kiln:

About the Dragon Kiln

Thow Kwang proudly welcomes you to visit the dragon kiln, the one and only working dragon kiln in Singapore.

Built in 1940, the dragon kiln is a wood-fired cross-draught kiln capable of firing up to 5000 individual pieces of ceramic work in one session. The dragon kiln has been cared for and operated by the Tan family of Thow Kwang ever since 1965. Thow Kwang invites you to walk through, learn and relive some of the past and present glories of the dragon kiln - a heritage of Singapore's ceramic industry and an outstanding example of ceramic kiln technology.

Within the belly of the dragon contains many tales and memories. The dragon kiln stands as a lasting testament to a centuries-old tradition of wood-fired kiln technology originally developed by potters in China. Its presence today in Singapore is a reminder of the entrepreneurial spirit of Singapore's migrant forefathers. The dragon is a perfect legacy of a family trade started by Tan Kin Seh and now managed by the second generation headed by Tan Teck Yoke. In the over forty years under Thow Kwang care, the kiln has produced different kinds of earthenware and consumer pottery ware. Its changing production is a reflection of the changing state of industry and consumer taste in Singapore as well as internationally.

Where Did The Dragon Kiln Get Its Name?

Where did the dragon kiln get its name? Does it breathe fire like the imaginary dragons of legends and folklore?

Head of dragon kiln /front firing chamber

The main chamber

If you look closely at the kiln, you would see much similiarity between the kiln and the dragon, the mythic serpentine animal with a lengthy, graceful body. The dragon kiln was probably named so for its resemblance to the dragon. The Thow Kwang dragon kiln is 40 metres in length and 5 metres in width and contains three main parts - a front firing chamber, the main chamber where ceramic pieces to be fired are placed and a chimney at the tail end where smoke is emitted.

Image taken from explanatory notes found at Thow Kwang

The dragon kiln has 17 holes throughout the entire length of its body called stoke holes which the kiln operator uses during firing for observation and feeding of wood fuel. Its head is 1.2 metres tall and its tail rises to 2.6 metres tall, giving it the posture of a crouching dragon. Such a kiln design uses rising hot air to keep the top part of the kiln hot and dry and ensures that moisture from pieces to be fired is removed.

Thow Kwang's dragon kiln was built in 1940 and bought over in 1965 by Mr Tan Kin Seh, Thow Kwang's founding father who hailed from Fengxi in ChaoZhou Guangdong, China. When the kiln is fired up, deep rumbling and crackling sounds can be heard. Flame and smoke escaping from the expansion cracks of the kiln illuminate and emphasise its shape, giving it the impression of a raging flame-blowing dragon.

People and Stories of Thow Kwang's Dragon Kiln

The dragon kiln is not only a traditional kiln technology; the memories and tales of it are also the stories of its builder and the people who work together to bring the dragon flaming alive.

Image taken from explanatory notes found at Thow Kwang

Work on the kiln is never an individual effort. A team with many pairs of hands is required to load the kiln, cart timber, stoke the fire and patch the kiln walls during each firing process. And even before the firing is done, teams of potters would already have been working hard with their hands, pinching, pulling and shaping clay into all manners of shapes and sizes to be ready for transformation into finished ceramic work within the belly of the dragon kiln. When Thow Kwang was producing ceramic works in the earlier decades with the dragon kiln, labour was organised around the extended family with the founder-patriach, Mr Tan Kin Seh at its helm.

This family-oriented labour organisation had been the basis of village life and economy in which Mr Tan Kin Seh grew up a part of in the region of Swatow in Guandong Province. From the mid-nineteenth century onwards to the outbreak of World War II in Singapore, a large number of Teochew migrants from the present-day prefectures of Swatow and Chaozhou made journeys to seek a better life in the region south of China known as Nanyang in which Singapore was a major port centre destination. As a young man of 15, Mr Tan Kin Seh made the Nanyang voyage, sent by his family down south to assist an uncle who had earlier made the journey and had established a pottery factory in Malacca. After having gained a better understanding of the operations of a ceramic factory working for his uncle, he started his own pottery factory in Johore in 1946. Unfortunately due to the unfavourable political circumstances that prevailed, he was forced to close down the business there. He moved to the newly-independent Singapore having bought over ownership of the dragon kiln in 1965.

Alongside various places in Yio Chu Kang, Sungei Road and Serangoon Road, the Boon Lay area had excellent clay deposit suitable to be processed for ceramic production. When Mr Tan established Thow Kwang in the area, there were already eight or nine families organised around dragon kiln ceramic production, all operating on the basis of family labour, in the cottage tradition of ceramic production back in their home villages in southern China. These kilns were producing latex cups, flower pots and water jars for the Malayan market. When the Singapore land development and public housing authorities began developing residential and industrial facilities in the Jurong area in 1985, many of these family-owned ceramic businesses were forced to close down. Only Thow Kwang and Guan Huat Porcelain Factory were spared eviction because of their relative more remote location. Since then, Guan Huat's dragon kiln has ceased operations as its succeeding generation has moved away from ceramic production.

The persistent possibility of being evicted, coupled with a production process that was increasingly unable to match Chinese and Taiwanese export ceramic in terms of price if not quality prompted Mr Tan Teck Yoke who had taken over the business upon his father's demise to refocus the family business onto the import and export of ceramics. In 1987, Mr Tan started to import ceramics from his ancestral village. Some of the ceramic products were re-exported to England and America. In 1993, Mr Tan established a factory in Fengxi, Guangdong to directly manufacture ceramics for export to Singapore and elsewhere internationally.

In the process, the dragon kiln here in Thow Kwang breathed with lesser intensity. Even so, the dragon kiln has been fired numerous times in the last decade. It remains a perfectly functioning kiln representative of a long-established and well-refined kiln technology passed on to the present generation from migrant forefathers.

Products Of The Kiln

Ever since Thow Kwang's founding father, Mr Tan Kin Seh bought over the kiln in 1965, it has played witness to much changes in local and international ceramics demand as a result of changing industry and consumer taste. The dragon kiln certainly has seen more productive days but it is by no means a legacy of the past.

The initial products of the Thow Kwang dragon kiln were water jars and latex cups, unglazed earthenware vessels used for the collection of rubber tree sap in plantations up and down the Malayan Peninsula. Whereas latex cups were sold to plantations, water jars met the demands of the local consumer market as they serve multiple purposes including the storage of bathwater and fermented vegetable and even the rearing of fishes. Even though the kiln's products primarily served plantation and household needs, pottery figurines were also made and sold as toys to children.

Demand of latex cups went into decline in the 1970s as a result of a significant shift in the domestic economy. The young Singapore government was actively promoting the establishment and growth of orchid farms in the Lim Chu Kang, Choa Chu Kang and Boon Lay areas whereas the rubber industry entered a decline. Thow Kwang became an important part of this rising industry when it began production of pots of various sizes to be sold to local farm owners cultivating orchid plants.

Firing took place as frequently as every fortnightly when demand for these locally produced earthen and ceramic pottery ware was the highest.

From 1974 onwards into the 1980s, the dragon kiln began to turn out a greater variety of consumer pottery ware - planting dishes, ornamental vases, hanging pots, lamp-stands etc. After Mr Tan Teck Yoke and the rest of the Tan siblings and their spouses took charge of Thow Kwang in 1980 upon the demise of their father, production for the consumer market continued to grow and so did the import and export of ceramic ware. This new aspect of Thow Kwang's business was a response to the uncertainty of lease for the plot of land that Thow Kwang is standing on today.

Even so, the dragon kiln continued to turn out consumer pottery ware like burial urns and souvenir pottery for hotel and tourists. In the mid-1980s, Thow Kwang also pioneered a series of flower pots with a distinctive textured and unglazed surface fired in the dragon kiln. Through the 1980s, Thow Kwang made headway into the Australian and New Zealand pottery market with decorative earthenware produced by the kiln and also purchased from households in Singapore for the purpose of re-exporting. The past two decades has seen the emergence of export ceramic production from China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand and Burma. Since then, Thow Kwang has moved into the import of decorative pottery ware from these places.


Icemoon said...

Did you feel ......... hot?

Welcome back to blogsphere from the hiatus. You went on a holiday? Haha.

Kevin said...

A "kampong" that's still around in Singapore? I hope to visit one day. Very well documented Victor! :)

Anonymous said...

Right, your photos show a very kampong feel. Perhaps what is missing are some chickens ... I mean real ones, not clay ones.

Sathiya said...

//Have you noticed that even small flower pots which are traditionally made of clay are now made of plastic?//
Yes, it's really a dying art but I love it.

In India we use to drink water from these Clay Pots. It will be slightly chill. It's very good and better than the refrigerated water.

yg said...

the last time i visited the kiln with my colleague's family, her children crawled inside the kiln. according to this colleague, when she was young, she used to play hide and seek in the kiln with the other children of the village.

they allow children to have a go at the potter's wheel.

Lam Chun See said...

No wonder you kept us waiting so long. This is a really 'solid' article. I like that photo of the kampong house. Typical of those of the old days in Spore. Even the dog looked so 'kampong'.