A dragon draws breath

3 12 2012

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.

A look into the belly of the dragon - the firing box aglow during a firing of the kiln.

A look into the belly of the dragon – the firing box aglow during a firing of the kiln.

Thow Kwang dragon kiln during the MMarch 2012 firing.

Thow Kwang dragon kiln during the March 2012 firing.

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.

Feeding the fire - firing is now done twice a year on the average where in its heyday, the kiln would have been fired up to four times a month and work in and around it went on very much around the clock.

Feeding the fire – firing is now done twice a year on the average where in its heyday, the kiln would have been fired up to four times a month and work in and around it went on very much around the clock.

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).

The kiln now supports a community of clay potters. Clay pieces are seen stacked on a kiln shelf prior to firing. Pyrometric cones used to determine temperature from previous firings are shown - the temperature at which the cones are rated at is reached when the cone bends fully.

The kiln now supports a community of clay potters. Clay pieces are seen stacked on a kiln shelf prior to firing. Pyrometric cones used to determine temperature from previous firings are shown – the temperature at which the cones are rated at is reached when the cone bends fully.

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.

The firing session provides an opportunity to observe the preparations in the lead up to the firing as well as the firing itself. Firing commences after prayers to the kiln god are offered. Offerings are placed on an altar on top of the firing box.

The firing session provides an opportunity to observe the preparations in the lead up to the firing as well as the firing itself. Firing commences after prayers to the kiln god are offered. Offerings are placed on an altar on top of the firing box.

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.

A kiln shelf stacked prior to firing.

A kiln shelf stacked prior to firing.

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.

A pyrometric cone seen through a stoke hole bends in the heat.

A pyrometric cone seen through a stoke hole bends in the heat.

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.

Feeding the fire through a stoke hole.

Feeding the fire through a stoke hole.

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.

Flames seen passing through an opening hole (for inserting a temperature sensor) on a covered stoke hole.

Flames seen passing through an opening hole (for inserting a temperature sensor) on a covered stoke hole.

Pieces from a collapsed shelf seen through the firing box.

Pieces from a collapsed shelf seen through the firing box.

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.

An unevenly glazed clay piece from the March firing.

An unevenly glazed clay piece from the March firing.

A piece that was supported by a cockle shell bearing the mark of the support.

A piece that was supported by a cockle shell bearing the mark of the support.





An escape from Singapore in Singapore

23 08 2011

Despite the beginnings of the encroachment of the urban world that the Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle has for long been spared from, the previously tranquil spot set in the woods that are fast disappearing still offers a quiet escape far from the madding crowds that descend on much of the public areas in Singapore over the weekend (and the weekdays for that matter). The so-called pottery jungle is set around the oldest surviving dragon kiln in Singapore, the Thow Kwang kiln, built in 1940, and has become a haven for potters seeking to do their creative work in an environment that they can draw upon for inspiration.

Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle is set in what was for a long time a tranquil spot in Jurong.

Besides the sale of imported pottery pieces, the potters’ activities have  become a main focus of the kiln which was last used commercially in the late 1990s. For the potters, working at the kiln offers not just an escape from the confines of walled air-conditioned studios, but also a chance to fire their works in a one of two surviving wood fired kilns in Singapore, a process that adds an element of randomness in the way pottery pieces are finished – a natural glaze is obtained on the otherwise unglazed pieces from ash and salt (which is thrown into the kiln) that is deposited on the windward side of the pottery pieces. Since a pottery workshop started on the premises in 2001, the size of the pottery community working at the pottery jungle has steadily grown and at least ten potters spend most of their weekends there.

One is never far from nature at Thow Kwang.

The chamber of the dragon kiln. Wood fired kilns add an element of randomness in the manner pottery pieces fired in them are finished.

For others, Thow Kwang offers more than an escape. What is left of the woods and greenery around it is rich in birds and other creatures that we have gotten used to not seeing in the urban world most of us live and work in. Sitting by the pond besides the dance of the butterflies and dragonflies that often greets the eye, one can see and hear kingfishers as well as woodpeckers in the trees around and a sudden burst of blue darting against the backdrop of green isn’t hard to spot. It is for this that I find myself drawn to the pottery jungle, spending more time than I normally would in the company of some in the community of potters that have become friends. It is a world that is there to enjoy, and one that offers the visitor a world that is hard to find in the world we have found ourselves in.

Common flameback woodpeckers colour the rural landscape that is fast vanishing.

Koi in a pond. The pond and the land around the pond is being returned to the SLA.

The pottery jungle has imported pieces for sale.

Another piece on display.

A thickness scale on a clay slab roller.

A water lily in bloom at Thow Kwang.





Into the belly of the Dragon

29 06 2011

I took a peek into the belly of the Dragon that at the height of its fury, burns a white hot 1260 degrees Celcius. It is one that lies somewhat forgotten and hidden in the woods, and is roused from its deep slumber every six months to a year, when it is able to vent its full fury. The dragon is not of course that mythical beast that we would have heard about in our childhoods, by one that lays firmly on the ground – a kiln, referred to as a dragon kiln for the shape it takes, that rises up a slope with a firing box at one end, and to a chimney at the end of what is a single chamber kiln.

The Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln.

The belly of the sleeping dragon.

The dragon kiln I visited, the Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln at Jalan Tawas off Jalan Bahar, is one of two still left in what was an area known for its white clay which made ideal material for the pottery that the kilns fired. Mrs Yulianti Tan, whose father-in-law bought the kiln in 1965, was kind enough to show me and my companions around the kiln and around an exhibition of clay pottery that was from a recent firing of the kiln.

The firing box at the end of the kiln. Wood is used to fire the kiln and the ash actually provides unglazed pottery with a natural glazing.

I was to learn that the kiln and another neighbouring one was one of nine similar pottery kilns that were built from the 13th to the 17th milestone of Jurong Road to exploit the availability of white clay which could be used for then popular pottery items such as latex cups. The historical Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln dates back to 1940, and was apparently built on a site of what is thought to be a Hokkien 3 chamber kiln – evidence of which was only recently found after work to refurbish the kiln uncovered the stepped part of one of the chambers of the original kiln next to the Dragon Kiln and the stoke holes of the chamber. Not much is known about the the older kiln as no records exist. The newer kiln was owned by a certain Goh family from whom Mrs Tan’s father-in-law purchased it from.

Evidence of what is thought to be a Hokkien kiln.

Stoke holes found of the earlier Hokkien kiln on the site of the dragon kiln.

It has to be passion that drives Mrs Tan and he family to maintain the kiln – a handful of very dedicated clay artists exercise their creativity there and alway wait in anticipation for a firing to be able to see the fruits of their labour finished up. Clay pottery classes are also run at the kiln to extend the knowledge of clay pottery to the general public. The land on which the kiln is built on and its surroundings is on a lease which is renewed every year … and with development in what is still a fairly wooded area already making inroads into the areas that surround the kiln and its neighbouring kiln, it may not be long before we see another reminder of our past and a reminder of what the area around was once like, pass into history to be forgotten by a Singapore that seems to have no desire or no need to remember its past.

The entrance to the belly of the dragon.

Into the belly of the dragon.

Evidence of the long slumber ... cobwebs on a stoke hole of the kiln.

A view inside the belly of the dragon into the firing box end of the kiln.

Bricks bearing the names of long lost brick kilns in which they were fired in.

A kick wheel used by clay potters.

A model of the kiln by a display of pottery made at the kiln.

The kiln is also a peaceful retreat from urban life.

On display at the kiln is clay work fired at the kiln made by a group of dedicated clay artists.

Unglazed pottery is glazed by ash from the wood fire mixed with salt thrown in.

The natural beauty of wood fire kiln fired pottery - the windward side is glazed by the ash and salt while the other side is left unglazed.








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