This Chinese year of the dragon is one which has seen a dragon awakened from its slumber. The dragon, the Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln, is one of two surviving wood-fired Teochew kilns in Singapore, referred to as dragon kilns as its long semi-circular cross-sectioned chamber resembles the body of the mythical beast, more commonly referred to as ‘snake kilns’ where they originated from in Chaozhou in Guangdong Province in China. One of nine similar kilns found off a stretch of Jurong Road from the 13th to the 17th milestones attracted to the area by the demand for clay latex cups from the area’s rubber plantations, the kiln today is no longer operating commercially – demand for the wares was lost with the disappearance of the rubber plantations, and is kept running by the owner Mr Tan Teck Yoke and his wife Mrs Yulianti Tan purely for their desire to maintain the tradition.
At the height of the demand for latex cups, the dragon would have found it had to keep its breath. Fired four times a month, work in and around the kiln would have gone on continuously – the actual firing done over a 24 hour period, after which the kilns would be left for up to a week to cool, unpacked and repacked for the next cycle. As demand fell in the 1980s, the surviving kilns turned to the production of flower pots but unfortunately demand for that also fell off and by the 1990s, most of the dragons seemed to have drawn a last breath with most disappearing with the wave of urbanisation that had swept across the area at the end of the 1980s and during the early 1990s.
One of two kilns still left at the end of the 1990s – the other being the former Guan Huat kiln next door, it wasn’t until the mid 2000s approached that interest in the kiln was revived – firings to support a local community of clay potters restarted in 2003. In the case of the former Guan Huat kiln, it became part of the Singapore Tourism Board funded Jalan Bahar Clay Studios at which firings recommenced in 2004. Firings now take place on the average of twice a year, when sufficient quantities of clay pieces do accumulate and are now occasions for the artists’ communities to celebrate as well as providing the artists and the kiln operators with an opportunity to further their understanding and to document the process and results (not much has previously been documented on the kiln firing process).
I was presented with an opportunity to observe the preparations and as the firing at Thow Kwang in March 2012 (the kiln has subsequent to the March firing, been fired twice, the latest being on 30 November). The kiln, built in the 1940s, was bought over by Mr Tan’s father in 1965. The kiln has seventeen stoke holes, used to feed the fire through each intermediate area of the chamber. In the past, all seventeen would have been used. During the firing in March only six were used during the March firing.
Preparations start with the rush by the potters to complete their clay pieces. It is in the week before the firing that a frenzy starts at the kiln site with work to set up and pack the kiln shelves in the chamber of the kiln. The shelves need to be carefully arranged in the chamber. Placed in the areas between the stoke holes, wadding or balls of clay used to support clay pieces on the shelves, are dropped from the stoke holes to help in determining if the correct placement. Clay pieces are then stacked on the shelves, with each piece is supported on cockle shells or wadding to prevent them from fusing to the shelves. Once stacking is completed, the access openings to the chamber are sealed with bricks and clay.
Each firing session starts with prayers to the kiln god during which offerings are placed on an altar above the firing box. Wood is fed over a better part of the day into the firing box, located at the bottom end of the kiln, to bring the temperature up to the desired temperature of 1260 degrees Celcius. Where the temperature had traditionally been determined through observation of the colour of the flames in the chamber, temperature sensors and pyrometric cones now help in doing this.
The feeding of wood into the fire is very much a manual task – the artists to take turns at it. The effort is one that the artists feel is rewarded by the finishing that only a wood firing is able to give to a clay piece. The resulting uneven (and unpredictable) glaze, achieved by a mix of salt (thrown into the stoke holes) and wood ash only on the windward side of the pieces, does give the wood-fired clay pieces each a unique appearance.
When the temperature at the firing box does reach the 1260 degrees, its openings are closed. The feeding of wood is then transferred to the first stoke hole and moved to the next to bring the fire up the chamber – the process repeated until the required section of the chamber has been fired. The length of the firing session does depend very much on the effects that are desired, now that it is carried out for artistic pieces. The session in March went on for some 36 hours before the kiln was left to cool for about a week. The unpredictable nature of wood firing does carry risks of damage to the artwork and during the March firing, the first shelf collapsed with several large clay pots falling and breaking.
While the motivation to keep the kiln going is one of a desire to preserve history and tradition, it is a tradition that is under threat. The future for the kiln looks rather bleak – its current lease expires in 2014 and with developments in the area – a CleanTech Park built by the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) in the area is fast taking shape, it may be that this old dragon of Jalan Bahar, may well have drawn the last of its breaths.