Remember those giant jars to hold water for bathing? Firm that made them shares old photos with NHB

Workers from Sam Mui Kuang Pottery handmade and fired up 25kg stoneware jars at its 50m-long dragon kiln nefore water pipes started snaking through homes in Singapore.
Workers from Sam Mui Kuang Pottery handmade and fired up 25kg stoneware jars at its 50m-long dragon kiln nefore water pipes started snaking through homes in Singapore.PHOTO: SAM MUI KUANG POTTERY
Workers from Sam Mui Kuang Pottery handmade and fired up 25kg stoneware jars at its 50m-long dragon kiln nefore water pipes started snaking through homes in Singapore.
Workers from Sam Mui Kuang Pottery handmade and fired up 25kg stoneware jars at its 50m-long dragon kiln nefore water pipes started snaking through homes in Singapore.PHOTO: SAM MUI KUANG POTTERY
Workers from Sam Mui Kuang Pottery handmade and fired up 25kg stoneware jars at its 50m-long dragon kiln nefore water pipes started snaking through homes in Singapore.
Workers from Sam Mui Kuang Pottery handmade and fired up 25kg stoneware jars at its 50m-long dragon kiln nefore water pipes started snaking through homes in Singapore.PHOTO: SAM MUI KUANG POTTERY
Workers from Sam Mui Kuang Pottery handmade and fired up 25kg stoneware jars at its 50m-long dragon kiln nefore water pipes started snaking through homes in Singapore.
Workers from Sam Mui Kuang Pottery handmade and fired up 25kg stoneware jars at its 50m-long dragon kiln nefore water pipes started snaking through homes in Singapore.PHOTO: SAM MUI KUANG POTTERY

SINGAPORE - Before water pipes started snaking through homes in Singapore, households here used to depend on large 25kg stoneware jars - the weight of a 10-year-old child - to store water for bathing.

Workers from Sam Mui Kuang Pottery handmade and fired up such vats at its 50m-long dragon kiln. Each firing could produce 2,500 pots of various sizes.

Mr Chua Soo Kim, 60, the managing partner of the family-run company, said: "It wasn't easy to get water in the past due to things like water rationing. It was unlike today where we can simply turn on the tap."

Last week, his family loaned three photo albums of the company's now defunct kiln and pottery workshop to the National Heritage Board (NHB) to help strengthen its file on the practice.

Wood-fired pottery is one of the elements listed in Singapore's first Intangible Cultural Heritage inventory, which was released earlier this month.

The Chuas estimate that there used to be 16 dragon kilns in 1950s and 1960s Singapore – 14 on the mainland and two on Pulau Tekong.

Just two dragon kilns remain today and both are located in Jurong. One is run by Thow Kwang Industry and the other by Jalan Bahar Clay Studios.

Dragon kilns originated in China more than 3,000 years ago. Built with bricks and earth, the kilns resemble the long sinewy body of the mythical beast.

They usually come with a firebox at the lower front end and a flue vent at the higher tail end where smoke is emitted. To fire up the kiln, timber pieces are slotted into the sides of the body.


To fire up the kiln, timber pieces are slotted into the sides of the body.  PHOTO: SAM MUI KUANG POTTERY

Sam Mui Kuang Pottery, believed to have run one of the first dragon kilns here when it opened in 1938, had to make way in 1994 for a flatted factory.

Mr Chua learnt the craft from his father Chua Eng Cheow. The Teochew from Fengxi in Guangdong province brought with him from China his knowledge of porcelain-making and set up his own dragon kiln in Jalan Hwi Yoh - which means "pottery kiln" in Chinese - in Serangoon North.

According to the book Singapore Street Names: A Study Of Toponymics, the road was named after the family's famous kiln.

"In Singapore, he worked with the locally available material from vacant land nearby - earthen stoneware and terracotta clay," said Mr Chua Soo Kim of his father, who died in 2013 at the age of 95.

During the war, the family was forced to make bottles to hold sakae for Japanese soldiers. "Then, you had to do whatever they told you to do but because the Japanese respected artists, my father and the rest of the family weren't badly hammered," said Mr Chua, who is also a potter.

The kiln was even used as an air raid shelter.


Sam Mui Kuang Pottery is believed to have run one of the first dragon kilns here when it opened in 1938. PHOTO: SAM MUI KUANG POTTERY

During the 1970s, the business churned out flower pots, urns and containers for soya sauce. In its heyday in the 1980s, it produced pots and assorted ceramics for export to countries such as Holland. In the 1990s, the company was said to have produced 5,000 glazed and unglazed flower pots a month.

After Sam Mui Kuang Pottery was evicted, it moved to Jalan Kelulut, off Yio Chu Kang Road, where it has been using electric kilns since.

The company has also evolved to conduct pottery classes, and is a supplier of pottery-related materials and equipment.

Mr Alvin Tan, NHB's assistant chief executive of community and policy, said information from the family helps to "fill a gap on what we know about the dragon kilns in Singapore".

Mr Chua said the family shared their story with NHB because he considers the trade intertwined with the everyday lives of Singaporeans.

"We were very sad and devastated when we were asked to move out. Now, with greater awareness about the importance of culture and heritage, we are sharing our story to tell the public what life used to be like - earthenware was needed to survive."