Singapore - A group of 29 potters from art group Thow Kwang Clay Artists (TKCA) have come together to showcase their best works in celebration of the 80th anniversary of the Thow Kwang dragon kiln.
The exhibition, Re-Imagining Memorabilia: Past To Present, features 300 pieces of clayware produced in Singapore's oldest surviving dragon kiln. It is being held from Jan 15 to 22, 11am to 7pm, at Creative Box, on Level 6 of the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre. Admission is free.
TKCA is a community of about 50 pottery enthusiasts formed in 2008. Members, aged from their 20s to 60s used to gather at the Thow Kwang dragon kiln in Lorong Tawas on weekends to share their interest in pottery and wood-firing. This was disrupted when the Covid-19 pandemic began, though they still maintain the wood-firing process twice a year.
Mrs Yulianti Tan, 63, is one of the clay artists taking part in the inaugural exhibition. She and her husband, Mr Tan Teck Yoke, 66, operate the kiln, which the Tan family bought and has owned since 1965. The kiln was built in 1940 by a group of Hokkien and Teochew immigrants. It turned 80 in 2020, but the exhibition to celebrate the occasion was delayed due to the pandemic.
"We opened the kiln to clay artists to preserve the heritage and tradition of wood-firing," says Mrs Tan. "They, in turn, have sustained the life and vibrancy of the kiln."
Their family business, Thow Kwang Industry, which sells clayware fired in the kiln, was a recipient of the Intangible Cultural Heritage Award in 2020 by the National Heritage Board. Since the 1980s, the couple and their niece Stella Tan have developed outreach programmes, educating the public on the wood-firing process through regular classes and guided tours.
There is one other remaining kiln in Singapore - Guan Huat dragon kiln in Jalan Bahar - which is not active today. Singapore had about 20 kilns built by Chinese immigrants in the last century to mass produce necessary wares for household and industrial use. These included cups for latex used in rubber plantations, crockery and plant pots. Decreasing demand for such wares forced many to close down over the years.
With its long and semi-circular tunnel made of bricks, the dragon kiln resembles the mythical creature. The Thow Kwang dragon kiln is 27m long, less than 1m wide in the front chambers, and about 2m wide at the back. There is a chimney for flow of draft and 17 pairs of stoke holes where wood is added to "feed" the dragon. When fully fired, the kiln roars and hisses like a beast.
To wake the dragon up, the potters pray to the "kiln god" with incense and food offerings for a smooth procedure. Wood-firing is a long and tedious process, lasting about three days, with potters taking turns to manage and monitor the temperature, which can go up to 1,300 deg C.
For these pottery artists, modern gas and electric kilns cannot replace traditional wood-firing.
Ms Tia Boon Sim, 66, a founding member of TKCA and a heritage and culture polytechnic teacher, says: "A serious potter must go through this wood-fire ritual. The ash from the firewood gives each piece a distinct look. It teaches you to have an open mind because you will never quite know what will emerge from the fire."
Ms Ng Siew Kuan, another pioneer member, says: "The serendipitous nature of wood-fired works means that every piece of work is a once-in-a-lifetime product and can never be reproduced again. There is a lot of science behind the art, such as temperature control and blending of different substances like salt and ash to achieve different effects."
Ms Ng, a 64-year-old retired art and design teacher, was one of five potters who received a research and development grant from the National Arts Council in 2001 to revive wood-fired salt glaze ceramics in Singapore.
TKCA is optimistic that the dragon will continue breathing fire for some time.
Research and development engineer Chua Hee Lai, 53, says: "It takes a whole village to perfect the firing, and you don't get much of this kampung spirit in modern society these days."