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Re-Imagining Memorabilia: Singapore’s Thow Kwang Clay Artists Fan the Flames of Wood-Fired Pottery

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Search #pottery on Instagram and you will find an aesthetic of cleanliness, uniformity and precision. Bright, even layers of glaze adorn smooth surfaces, ready to be used as functional dining ware or decor in minimalist homes. 

A visit to the show Re-Imagining Memorabilia: Past To Present, which takes place at the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre from 15 to 22 January 2022, may then come as a surprise to visitors who are expecting a similar aesthetic. The pieces in Re-Imagining Memorabilia will introduce to audiences an entirely different form of beauty through the ancient and traditional process of wood-firing. 

A quick explanation on pottery is needed at this point. To turn a lump of clay into a ceramic vessel, it needs to be shaped and then fired in a high-temperature oven, also known as a kiln. While wood-firing kilns have been in use for millenia, modern potters mostly rely on an electric or gas kiln. These can be programmed to run a more predictable firing sequence without creating ash buildup in the process. 

While the pleasing uniformity of electric and gas firing populates the hashtag #pottery, wood-firing gets a lot less love from the mainstream public, with its craggy, rough exterior and “dirty” looking colours. But thanks to a group of passionate potters in a well-hidden part of Singapore, the craft has been kept alive over decades. Now, it is finally ready to make a full emergence into the public eye and renew our understanding of pottery.

History of the Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln

Re-Imagining Memorabilia celebrates the 80th anniversary of the Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln, the last operational one of its kind in Singapore. The dragon kiln is a brick-built wood-firing kiln brought to our shores by Hokkien and Teochew immigrants. It is named for its long tunnel-like structure, “eye” holes and the way it flames and smokes during the firing process. In their heyday from the 1940s to 1970s, more than 20 dragon kilns operated in Singapore, producing necessary wares for industrial and household use. These included latex cups for rubber plantations and orchid pots to support the orchid export industry. 

As trade died down, the dragon kilns were decommissioned one by one. Soon, there were only two left, tucked away in Jalan Bahar. Reinstated in the 2000s by a group of passionate potters, the Thow Kwang dragon kiln firings began once more – not to mass-produce this time, but to create artisanal one-of-a-kind pottery. Led by the efforts of Mrs Yulianti Tan, one of the second-generation owners of Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle, the dragon kiln now draws a committed group of local potters to keep the dragon breathing with their strong kampong spirit. 

The Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln in Singapore is not just a relic of the origins of local pottery but also serves as a custodian of local heritage. Re-Imagining Memorabilia showcases a remarkable 300 works, including a series of contemporary interpretations of Thow Kwang’s history. The work 3 Piece Meal by young potter Sheryl Gwee pays homage to the flourishing rubber industry that once sustained our local economy. Mimicking the utilitarian form of the latex-collecting vessels, Sheryl used the sgraffito technique to create surface patterns of interwoven textures, highlighting the surprising rustic, handmade quality of such otherwise functional vessels. 

3 Piece Meal by Ms Sheryl Gwee, a re-imaging of latex cups used in the rubber trade

The flames of passion and perseverance

The local flavour of the works on show is the result of potters from the Thow Kwang Clay Artists (TKCA), a group of committed potters who drive the firings 2-3 times a year. Pre-Covid, potluck and jolly company accompanied firings. The conversations traversed a variety of subjects, from technical knowledge on pottery to abstract thoughts on culture and life. 

Each firing takes place over a weekend and requires a massive coordination amongst the participating potters. They have to take up shifts and diligently maintain the fire’s high temperature. To raise the temperature slowly, potters on every shift  meticulously document the flames’ temperature and share the information on Whatsapp hourly to a designated “kilnmaster” who tracks and troubleshoots on the fly. 

TKCA member Mr Chua Hee Lai stokes the flames of the dragon kiln. An engineer by profession, he has been driving efforts to better understand the science of the dragon kiln and improve its effects.

The deeply technical process adapts to the weather and humidity, yet can appear to outsiders to be based on intuition more than science. There’s beauty in the unpredictability of the ash (that’s generated by the burning wood) flying through the air and melting with the glaze and clay body. Many different factors affect the outcome of the firing process: from the weather, the type of wood, and even from how the ceramic pieces are arranged during firing. 

Wares are packed tightly inside the dragon kiln to optimise air flow

 The firing is fuelled by sustainably sourced scrap wood from local mills, donated by the lorry-load from local businesses who have also become friends over time. Adding to the localisation are unique touches, like shells used to prop up the wares.  This prevents glazed surfaces from touching shelves and results in the outlines of shells being inadvertently imprinted on the surfaces. In countries like Taiwan and Japan, kilns use local wood, adding another dimension of distinctiveness to their ceramic wares. Variations in flammability and mineral compositions amongst the different species of wood can confer regionally unique textures.The artists from TKCA hope that they, too, can one day use wood unique to Singapore that has not been routinely fired in other regions to achieve pieces with a distinctively local finish. 

Speaking to the potters behind Re-Imagining Memorabilia, it’s apparent that the potters develop an accepting and humble mindset when approaching wood-firing. Before each firing commences, members of the Tan family (who manage the kiln) participate in a time-honoured tradition to pray at the altar at the dragon kiln’s mouth for a successful firing. It is almost as though this is a signal for potters to let go of the control they are so used to wielding and let the kiln dictate the outcome. 

 

Knowledge for the next generation

The very fact that the Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln remains operational is a lesson on the value of experimentation, failure and perseverance. When the dragon kiln resumed firing in the 2000s, the success rate was low, resulting in large swathes of unsatisfactory works and lots of disappointment. But luckily, people held faith and kept coming back.

These firing experiences have built a wealth of technical knowledge for the potters involved, such as an understanding of the aero-thermodynamics in sustaining the draft (a smooth draft is needed to maintain the airflow and regulate the kiln’s temperature) and the ability to recognise different flame bodies. The accumulated knowledge and expertise from experienced potters are now finding their way to a group of younger potters who are passionate about wood firing. With meticulous post-firing debriefs, fresh ideas and new approaches to problem solving, the firings now produce truly spectacular work on par with international standards of wood-fired pottery.

Within the TKCA community, failure is seen as a learning opportunity and a tool to enable discovery. In a scenario involving an electric kiln, a failed firing could require no bigger effort than simply returning a piece to the kiln the next day for a second firing. But in the case of wood firing, it is not as simple as that, as the potter has to wait for months before the next firing. Sometimes, a piece can go past the point of no return. In the dragon kiln’s unpredictable interior, pieces could easily deform or accidentally “kiss” the surface of a nearby ware  This spirit of indomitable curiosity and perseverance comes through in the collection of work, reminding us that every successful pot is born from the ashes of failure. 

 

In a craft that treasures tradition and accumulated experience, the TKCA are surprisingly receptive of young blood and the new perspectives that they add. There’s often a tendency for experience to be protective, but new TKCA potters fan the flames of a community that has quietly sustained itself over the years on the fringes of urban life, as the rest of Singapore has digitalised. 

Throughout the years, newcomers have brought with them their own subject expertise, injecting new methods of refining the craft of wood-firing. While not all experiments will yield a successful outcome each time, the curiosity to learn and discover from these “failed” experiments fortifies the community. Each failure adds to the pool of knowledge that can be passed down to future potters. 

The Thow Kwang Clay Artists group gathered at least once a month pre-Covid.

With such a rich history and strong community, we couldn’t help but wonder: what do the TKCA hope to get out of this exhibition? Veteran TKCA potter and curator Chia Hua Hoong shared with us that the beauty of wood-firing has become a cause for the TK Clay artists. 

Thow Kwang’s lease at Lorong Tawas near Jurong West was supposed to end in December 2017, but was thankfully extended to 2023. Despite the extension, the potters know that the dragon kiln breathes on borrowed time, and are acutely aware of their privilege in accessing wood-firing as a technique. Chia hopes that letting the Singaporean public see the beauty of wood-fired ceramics can ensure that the craft still lives in 2030 and isn’t relegated to being behind museum displays. 

The Beauty of Unpredictability

There’s another way to look at it, and it’s through the lens of the dragon kiln itself. Kilns are often just a step in the process of making pottery, but the dragon kiln plays a greater role than simply being a tool. In a world moving towards digital experiences and prioritising control, wood-firing in a dragon kiln embraces unpredictability and the control that one must give up to co-exist and co-create with others. With 300 works on show, perhaps the exhibition turns the limelight away from the individual potters and onto the dragon kiln itself to give it a well-deserved time to shine. 

 

When talking about the beauty of wood-firing, curator Ong Sheng Hua shared that she understands that the appreciation of the beauty of wood-firing is something that needs to be slowly acquired, because she, too, needed to change her perspective when she first started with the craft. Appreciating the wabi-sabi beauty of wood fired pottery takes years to build up, but when the revelation comes, it can sweep in and take you all at once. 

At Thow Kwang, we were given the chance to handle some of the pieces that will be on display. They are cool to the touch and yet possess an enduring warmth. Turning them over in the hand carefully, no two facets are the same. With each angle and each turn of the vessel, there was always a new detail drawing the eye in.  

The same is true of Re-Imagining Memorabilia – whether you’re new to ceramics or a seasoned potter, there will always be another turn to take and something new to explore. 

 

 

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Note:

This article was written in conversation with Mrs Yulianti Tan, Ms Chia Hua Hoong, Ms Ong Sheng Hua, Mdm TIA and Mr Chua Hee Lai. We thank you for your time and for sharing the beauty of wood-fired ceramics with us

All photos are from Thow Kwang Clay Artists (https://www.instagram.com/tkca_sg/) unless otherwise stated

 

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