One place in Singapore still tends to the flames that keep the art of wood-firing pottery alive. For the Tan family, it is not just business as usual: the Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle embodies their heritage, and is also their home.
When wood-firing pottery, the temperatures of Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle’s dragon kiln (龙窑) can reach a roaring 1300 degrees Celsius. This weekday afternoon in Kranji, however, the dragon lies sleeping on its belly, a volatile mythical creature disguised as a napping pet. If you duck your head, you can step inside the kiln’s cool and dim interior: it is 40 meters long and 5 meters wide, and can easily swallow the class of primary school children seated at a few tables away, learning the art of pottery.
On nights when the kiln is fired, Thow Kwang opens its doors to visitors who bring food and play music, watch fireflies, and stoke the flames. They are companions to the clay artists who spend over 24 hours bringing the kilnup to desired heat. Volatile salts and fly ash create an unmistakable glaze on the ceramic products during the process. The artists must wait a week for the kiln to cool before retrieving their creations. This technique of wood-firing goes back several centuries and originated in China before spreading to Japan and Taiwan.
The dragon kiln is capable of holding up to 5000 works of art. When Mr Tan Teck Yoke was a child, it also contained the occasional plucked potato and cassava. As the dragon awoke and flames started to rise, it was the perfect place for roasting a boy’s afternoon snack.
Enter the dragon’s dungeon
Mr Tan and his family are behind the operations of Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle: one can spot ceramic Goddesses of Mercy, porcelain Mao Zedongs and wooden imperial Chinese beds which appear to have been whisked off the sets of court dramas. As you wander deeper into the surreal maze of shelves, you are as likely to see a kindly Buddha statue with its upraised palm glinting in sunlight as you are to spot a startled child in school uniform on her way to the toilet.
Mr Tan’s father, Tan Kin Seh, bought over the dragon kiln business in 1965. As a child growing up with four other siblings, , Mr Tan said he was more interested in forming goli (marbles) with soil and refining his marble-throwing technique. The daily work of wrapping products, stoking fires, and helping with the manufacturing of items for sale; was tedious. Though upon entry into adulthood, Thow Kwang became central in his life and even more so after 1980 when his father passed away.
“Our lifeblood runs through this place,” the 58-year-old says. “We have had this dragon kiln for about 50 years. It was forged through the hard work of our ancestors and kept alive by its subsequent generations. I hope that the younger people will take over, so that we do not waste our efforts and lose our history.”
The history of Thow Kwang mirrors the changes that have taken place in the Southeast Asian region 50 years ago. When Mr Tan’s father bought over the kiln in 1965, it was surrounded by 10 or so other pottery farms, majority run by Teochew immigrant families from Chaozhou and Fujian. Almost all these farms that manufactured latex cups used to collect sap from rubber tree plantations for its production.
In the mid-1970s, the government supported orchid plantations in Lim Chu Kang and Choa Chu Kang to grow orchids for export. Subsequently, there was a demand for pots that were made specially to house these flowers. In 1985, these plantations shifted operations to countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, so local demand dwindled.
However, Thow Kwang handled the challenges steadily and noticed that people were packing up to leave their kampungs and settle into brand new HDB apartment blocks. People missed their plants fiercely, so Thow Kwang began to manufacture flower pots for residents to grow flora along the corridors and in homes.There was also an increasing demand for urns. Because the government had begun to exhume graves to make room for highways and MRT lines, Singaporeans had to incinerate their loved ones and re-house them in ceramic urns and relocate their ancestors to buildings of worship.
In the 1990s, the Tan family turned the business into an import and export one; selecting unique pieces from China, Thailand, Indonesia, and Myanmar to redistribute from Singapore. This was after they visited their ancestral village in Chaozhou, China, where the family patriarch Tan Kin Seh was born. At the same time, Thow Kwang also focused on producing elaborate ornamental pieces commissioned for display in restaurants and hotel lobbies, and as company gifts for honoured guests.
Home in the jungle
The Tan family has lived onsite for 50 years but not without uncertainty that the land lease may one day be terminated. Tucked away behind signboards, the imposing hulk of the dragon kiln and heaps of unfinished pottery products, the quiet Tan family home is a small building nestled against a big tree.
The land which the pottery jungle currently occupies was originally slated for redevelopment by a sleek eco-business park next door. It was only after the National Heritage Board affirmed the cultural value of Thow Kwang that its lease was extended temporarily. Like the sinuous movement of a dragon in the air, Thow Kwang continues to find new ways making itself relevant and accessible.
In recent years, the focus is to educate the public on the history of the dragon kiln and the place it occupies in Singaporean history, in hopes that this will help to preserve and sustain Thow Kwang. They collaborate with schools to give educational tours and excursions, work with clay artists from all over the world to produce exceptional pieces of art, and partner with local farmers’ groups such as the Kranji Countryside Association, to strengthen their cultural standing in Singapore.
In a nation voraciously hungry for space to pursue economic activities, the preservation of a place like Thow Kwang has, in Mr Tan’s mind, become increasingly important.
There are young faces in the family business: one of them is Stella Tan, Mr Tan’s niece. She is a capable, brisk young woman. On the afternoon we meet, she is wearing a casual shirt with rolled-up sleeves and her hands are dusty from work in the pottery jungle. Most women her age are facing computers in an office but Stella is a clay artist who does double duty as the only full-time staff member at Thow Kwang. She taps on the burgeoning handicraft market in Singapore to sell Thow Kwang’s wood-fired ceramic pottery pieces, using retail platforms such as Naiise to showcase her products, alongside bottles of cold-pressed juices and designer tote bags.
Firing the dragon kiln is a laborious process. You will require more than a week of working, waiting and a keen appreciation of the dragon’s fickle character. “You can only learn through experience,” Mr Tan says. “Like what happens when you place a pottery piece at a particular place: the temperature and length of time you can leave it there for. A lot of it is still trial and error.”
The results of Thow Kwang’s various attempts at public outreach have been varied but they say it is important to keep trying. They are much loved by their visitors, such as clay artists and families that come over for a weekend visit. The sense of warm camaraderie in Thow Kwang is reminiscent of the gotong royong sensibility popular in the past.
Yulianti Tan, the energetic and charismatic wife of Mr Tan, is encouraged by the number of youngsters who visit—particularly those willing to plunge right in to the craft of pottery-making.
She says the importance lies not in constructing grand masterpieces but in cultivating an interest and curiosity about the process. That is what will keep the art of wood-fired pottery alive: the willingness to experiment and thirst to understand the complex craft of pottery.
She recounts the time a group of young kindergartners visited Thow Kwang. After explaining that the craft of pottery is diminishing in Singapore, a child gazed at her and exclaimed, “But I want this place to stay!”
For the Tans, who have been here since the 60s, Thow Kwang is much more than just business as usual. It is the place where Mr Tan grew up washing the muddy soil off his white school shoes, where a marriage was forged, where a family decided that they will keep alive what they have inherited. They, too, want this place to stay.