By: Katie Roberts
You’d be forgiven for thinking Singapore’s history is fast disappearing under an avalanche of seemingly endless construction. However, there are hidden treasures to be discovered in out-of-the-way pockets of the island which have escaped the bulldozers so far. An irreplaceable gem is the 70-year-old “dragon kiln” at Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle near Jurong. Katie Roberts spoke to two ceramic artists about the kiln’s unique charm and its power to bring people together.
Thow Kwang is one of two surviving dragons kilns in Singapore; both are in the same street, owing to their proximity to the white clay that was once used on site. Known colloquially as Jungle Pottery, Thow Kwang’s lush and spacious grounds have for many years been home to a one-stop shop for ceramic pots, lamps, tableware and more. What’s not so well known is the significance and provenance of the historic dragon kiln that was once part of a flourishing ceramics industry. It’s now at the centre of a revival in ceramic art on the island.
Last year, the leases of both Thow Kwang and neighbouring Guan Huat kiln were renewed for nine years after an active campaign to protect their heritage value from urban encroachment. The local and international artistic communities are now drawn to Thow Kwang’s curiously shaped wood-fired kiln, which takes a week to cool down after reaching a searing 1,300 degrees, and taking full advantage of the unique results obtained from firing ceramics in it.
Australian Merrie Tomkins was one of 141 ceramic artists from across the globe, including 37 from Singapore, who attended the international chawan (“tea bowl”) exposition held here last year. “Everyone at home is envious because I’m getting to do the firing of the kiln. It’s so much more than having my work in it; it’s about being part of the whole process. I feel really privileged to be able to have this experience,” she says.
“Firing a dragon kiln is totally different from firing the Japanese anagama kilns, or the kilns we’ve got at home. There’s just something about it – it’s part of history and, I find, it gets you in the heart.” This is her second visit to the island, having learnt about the kiln from Singaporean Steven Low, artist-in-residence at Thow Kwang.
They met years ago at a conference in Gulgong, a sleepy country town in New South Wales, and have since become friends – a bond no doubt sealed by round-the-clock stints stoking the kiln to keep the fire burning, an essential part of the experience. Merrie explains that teams work in three-hour shifts: “Because it’s so hot, especially along the top near the stoke holes, you can easily get dehydrated. It’s hard work, using a careful and deliberate method to add the wood, watch the smoke, let the kiln draw and then add more wood.”
Steven Low is one of only a few people who can “read” the kiln. He doesn’t need a pyrometer to assess the temperature accurately; instead, he watches the smoke rising from the chimney and listens to the roar of the dragon.
An established artist, Steven admits that following his passion to become a full-time potter was a hard road. “I pursued art at 24, first at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), then at Curtin University of Technology in Australia. I started out by teaching at NAFA, but after nine years decided to become a full-time ceramic artist.”
“Finding a suitable venue to set up a studio was challenging,” he continues. “Initially, I was based at Seletar Camp, but I moved on in 2008 because of the airbase development. I found Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle, and its very accommodating owners allowed me to build a wooden house there. But in 2011, after devoting two years of effort to building, I had to give it up because of the development nearby. It was devastating, but it didn’t get me down for long.
“I started travelling and visiting artists in other parts of the world, and I realised how similar we were. Challenges are part and parcel of the industry, and determination and perseverance are keys to success.
“Aside from commercial projects and my solo exhibition and shows, it’s important for me to organise international ceramic events to encourage culture exchange and sharing. Hopefully, if Singapore has an established ceramic community, the local potters will feel more grounded too,” he says.
But why go to all the trouble of using a wood-fired and seemingly antiquated firing method when there are other clean and simple options available now, such as gas and electric?
Steven explains: “As the ash accumulates and melts on the clay body, it gives a varying ash-glaze effect. It depends how long you fire it for and what glaze you use.”
“It’s time-consuming,” he adds, “but you don’t know how the piece is going to turn out; that is the magic. It is much more challenging to fire with wood, yet it is the only firing method that bring us closer to nature, gives more depth and is much more meaningful.”
History of the kiln
Built in 1940, Thow Kwang was based on a traditional Chinese design that dates back thousands of years. It was one of up to 20 kilns that produced the clay latex cups used in the rubber plantations that were dotted around the island. Local white clay was freely available in the area. As the plantations closed, demand for the cups waned, so the kilns turned to making ceramic pots. When demand for pots dropped, many of the kilns closed. But a revival in the community’s interest in potting in the early 2000s saw two kilns gasp back to life.
Yulianti Tan’s father-in-law bought the kiln in 1965, and she now operates it with her husband. She has been educating people about the kiln for 16 years and raising awareness, particularly among young people, about pottery-making, the kiln’s heritage and culture, and the unique effects that come from firing in the dragon kiln.
How it works
Inside, the Thow Kwang kiln reaches almost 2m in height and can hold thousands of pieces, packed on shelves in sections called chambers. It is built on a gentle slope with a gradient between 15 and 22 degrees. The mouth at the bottom is 2.5m wide and the structure is 27m long. The kiln at Guan Huat is 43m long.
Traditionally, a ceremony takes place before the kiln is lit, with music and food offerings of meat, plus wine or Chinese tea. Gold paper is burnt.
It takes 24 hours to pre-heat the fire box, or mouth. Slowly, the subsequent chambers are lit, with updrafts pulling the air and fire through. Wooden planks, salvaged from pallets, are poked through stoke holes along the spine, or body. Teams of people take shifts to “feed” the kiln at intervals, 24 hours a day. The tail and chimney at the top of the slope are where the air and smoke are drawn out. The shape of the fire-breathing mouth gives the kiln its evocative name, along with the roaring sound it makes when operational.
Find more information about workshops for adults and children and kiln-firing dates at the websites below.
Thow Kwang Jungle Pottery
85 Lorong Tawas
6265 5808 | potteryjungle.wordpress.com
Jalan Bahar Clay Studios
97 Lorong Tawas
6777 1812 | jbcssg.com