Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A dragon in a pottery jungle, endangered

The mouth of the dragon; this is the fire-box and it has an altar on the top. Before every firing, offerings of three kinds of living creatures -animals or seafood and wine and tea - are offered to the kiln god to ensure success.

A self-confessed pottery addict as I am, my heart jumped when I read that a two Dragon Kilns still exist in the outskirts of western Singapore. Sadly, both of them are now threatened by a huge new "tech city" nearby, so I decided to make a quick visit there, just in case. Singaporeans are quite effective at work, and that is not always positive - at least when it comes to this kind of development projects. 

Entrance to the dragon's belly... up to 5 000 items can be loaded in for a single firing.

Inside the dragon kiln; temperatures reach 1200 C when fired up, and the whole process of firing up and then cooling down the kiln takes about one week.

Salt-glazed tea cups made by local potters; salt is thrown into the warm kiln and it forms random glazing on the vessels.

Anyhow, after a serpentine ride through the dusty building site, I arrived to the Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle - Thow Kwang translating to "Pottery and Prosperity" - and jumped out from my taxi on a large field of randomly arranged pots in all imaginable sizes. The ramshackle sheds that house the huge kiln and the dusty, sprawling shop used to be surrounded by a lush jungle area complete with a potter's hut and a pond, but were now hemmed in by tall green plastic fences, with bulldozers behind razing their way through the vegetation making way for still another business development. Oh, to have a magic wand that stops this kind of madness from happening - when do  decision makers learn the value of our heritage?

The entrance - complete with a couple of Shishis - to the shop and pottery making area, giving a taste for things to come.

Now, this is my kind of a display shelf - just look at the urns and bowls bedecked with gourds, flowers and leaves. Amazing. I especially loved the urn with a lid in the lower right corner, such a soft form and color, even if it doesn't show properly in the picture.

The present owners hold pottery courses and other events in this lovely room facing the soon extinct jungle. 

An inspiring environment for making ceramics - I immediately felt like throwing a pot even if I don't know how.  

On arrival, I was greeted by the actual dragon with its mouth formed by a huge firing box facing towards the entrance. The kiln reaches a monumental 37 meters up a hill and the 'tail' of the dragon finishes off the structure towards what just recently used to be a jungle. When fired, smoke rises from the mouth and 17 stoke holes along the hill, making the kiln resemble a furious, fire-spitting dragon.

Inside the huge, sprawling shop - even chairman Mao rises his hand for a greeting in front of the variety of ceramics on offer.

A selection of gods and holy men - in all imaginable styles and colors. Just pick your favorite!

Ginger jars, garden stools and everything between... Those large blue and white, handpainted ceramic tiles hanging from the roof are in huge risk of decorating my bathroom, sometime & somewhere.

Dragon kilns originated in Chine some three millenniums ago and the technique of building and using them was bought to Singapore by Chinese immigrants in the early 1900s. There used to be ten of them on the island, all producing pots and other household items. Another important product was latex collecting cups for the rubber industry that was economically very important for the area. Demand for these items dried up in the 1970s and 80s when rubber was replaced by plastic and cheaper household imports from China flooded the market, so most of the kilns closed down. Only two remain, Thow Kwang and Guat Huan, and both are now used by local clay artists, but even they get fired quite seldom as the firing process is very long and labor intensive. Also, it takes time to accumulate enough works to make it worth the process - over 5 000 items can be fitted in the dragons belly at one single firing.

A quiet altar behind the shop, facing the jungle...

... with a jovial Buddha and a fellow wise man, both seemingly unaware of their uncertain future.

Pots and more pots, decomposing behind the shop and kiln; I forgot to ask what these vessels were, maybe latex cups from the past?

Today, Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle is still owned by the Tan family who originally built the kiln in the 1940s. Pottery and ceramics sold in the shop comes mainly from China - some new, some machine made, some hand painted, some antique - in a great variety of styles. I had planned to spend only an hour here, but ended up strolling the shady, labyrinthine pathways of the shop for almost three, finding new things to attract my attention behind every turn. This is definitely no place for strictly minimalistic types, but certainly a feast for those who enjoy the diversity of the Chinese aesthetics - a lush, visual jungle indeed. My only wish is that the local authorities wake up before it is too late, and that the dragon will be left alive together with its sibling nearby.

A plate from the selection of antiques - with a wonderfully whimsical pattern of ruffled little birds sitting by a cherry tree.


Ruben said...

Wow, vilken resa!! Jag menar mental resa in i en förtrollad värld! Intressant läsning, och vilken tur, att du gjorde ett besök, så vi andra kan glädjas åt ditt fina inlägg. Fantastisk fina bilder dessutom!!

Ha det gott!

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

Visst är det underbart, och återigen, precis som med Kalms Sipsalo, otroligt att inte beslutsfattarna förstår bättre. Hur blir man "Världspresident i bevarande av det gamla och värdefulla"? Det skulle jag vilja bli, och då skulle bevaras så in i... :-) Många hälsningar från tropiken, Liisa.

Ruben said...

Om det låg i ett annat land, så politikerna kunde ta privatflyget dit, och sedan skryta lite om strapatsen, då skulle de nog jobba för ett bevarande, tror jag.


Ruben said...

Á propos måbärsklot; när grannen klippte sin måbärshäck, tog jag reda på en knippe "sticklingar". Nu verkar de ha rotat sig fint och spirar både här och där efter stjälkarna. Det skall bli ett klot så småningom. Jag kanske kan ge dig tips när det blir dags för din odling!

Ha det gott!

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

Perfekt! Jag tycker när måbär grönskar så tidigt, jag blir så glad tidigt på våren av de små musöron när de sticker ut. Så det blir nog måbär, och kanske liguster också, och kanske något lite ljusare grönt... må se! Ha det bra, Liisa.

Delphine said...

Wow, i just LOVE this post !!! it is splendid. Merci.

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

Thanks, Delphine! And what a place this was - I hope it will stay there forever.

Juliana Lim said...

Me too! Unlike the Sam Mui Kwang dragon kiln
which was razed to the ground in early 198Os. You can read the story on my blog JulianaLim.wordpress.com.