The dragons live on

4 08 2013

It is indeed wonderful news that the last of the two dragon kilns in Singapore will see an extension to their tenure which should add at least nine more years to their lives. The future of the kilns, the Thow Kwang kiln and the Guan Huat kiln, beyond when their current leases run out (at end of 2014 and in early 2015 respectively), had very much been in doubt – the area is currently being developed into a CleanTech Park by the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) (see also a previous post: A dragon draws breath).

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.

What is perhaps more significant about the news is that the National Heritage Board (NHB) is behind the extension of the tenure, which will be for an initial term of three years and renewable for two further terms of three years each, giving due recognition to the heritage value of the kilns.

The Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln.

The Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln.

That the kilns are of heritage value, there certainly isn’t any doubt. They were once a feature of the area, as well as several other rural areas in Singapore, providing not only clay latex cups essential to the rubber plantations found across much of the rural landscape, but also employment opportunities which together with the estates, drew communities to the areas close to where they were set up.

The Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle is built around the Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln which the Tan family has operated since 1965.

The kilns were established to satisfy demand for clay latex cups. Once demand fell as rubber plantations were cleared out for industrialisation, the kilns turned to making flower and orchid pots.

As many as nine such kilns were thought to have been established in the area, off a stretch of Jurong Road from the 13th to the 17th milestones. What did draw so many to the area was as much the demand for latex cups as it was the white Jurong clay which made a perfect raw material. The area where the two remaining kilns are found, do in fact have a pottery making history that goes beyond what essentially are kilns brought to Singapore by the Teochew community.  During a refurbishment of the Thow Kwang kiln a few years back, evidence was uncovered of what is thought was a Hokkien 3-chamber kiln next to the current kiln (see also: Into the belly of the dragon).

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

Stoke holes found of an earlier Hokkien kiln on the site of the Thow Kwang kiln.

Both the existence of kilns in the area and the evidence of the previous kiln does provide an important link to the rich heritage of the Jurong area, as well as to the area’s early development history, much of which has already been lost to the industrialisation of the area. For the owners of Thow Kwang kiln, Mr Tan Teck Yoke and his wife Mrs Yulianti Tan, the motivation is as much their interest in maintaining this link, as it is a desire to maintain a tradition passed down from Mr Tan’s father who bought the kiln in 1965.

Evidence of what is thought to be a Hokkien kiln.

Evidence of the stepped chamber of what is thought to be a Hokkien kiln.

The kiln is no longer commercially viable as it was when the elder Mr Tan purchased it – demand for latex cups vanished when the area’s rubber plantations did, and the Tan’s maintain it out of pure passion and it was with much happiness and relief with which they received the news which came at a press conferenced called by NHB at the kiln yesterday morning.

Fishing by a potter's hut.

A potter’s hut at Thow Kwang which was already demolished as it was on part of the land that was taken back by the Jurong Town Corporation.

At the press conference, which unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend as I was due to speak at a Queenstown Symposium, Mr Alvin Tan, Group Director (Policy) of the NHB, spoke of both the heritage and artistic value – the two remianing kilns being “a unique part of Singapore’s pottery history” as well as that the traditional wood-firing kilns are now used by clay artists to achieve a unique glaze on their work.

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.

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.

The kilns are indeed a unique part of our history and it is my hope that they will remain a part of a Singapore in which we have already lost too much of.

Further information on Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln





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.





Another bit of paradise soon to be lost

26 07 2011

Having been caught up in the frenzy of what has been a frenetic two months, I am grateful for the doses of peace and calm that does come my way every now and again. I did finally manage to have a large dose of that on Sunday when I got up bright and early, meaning to catch the first rays of the sun streaming through woods that will in the very near future disappear as much of the Singapore we have once known has. While the low clouds in the east had conspired to deprive me of what must surely be a gorgeous view of the rays of the sun streaming through the trees, I was able to better become acquainted with the area around which I had only a month or so earlier visited, spending the entire morning at one of two of the last dragon kilns in Singapore, the Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln.

Water Lilies in a pond at Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln.

The Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle is built around the Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln which the Tan family has operated since 1965.

It was mostly around a pond, that I spent most of my morning, first indulging in a leisurely breakfast and being entertained by the excited songs of the early morning that the winged creatures that were perched on the branches of the trees that surrounded the pond were adding to the otherwise calm surroundings. It seemed for a while that I was in a little bit paradise, one that is certainly hard to find in the cold grey world that dominates our daily lives in Singapore. The pond is a magnet for creatures of all kinds, butterflies and dragonflies could be seen, colouring the otherwise single coloured surface of a body of water that was carved out of the remnants of the gaps in the earth left behind from the harvest of white Jurong clay that attracted as many as nine similiar kilns to the area. Fishermen of both the winged variety, resplendent in the bright colours of the feathered suits they adorn, and of the human kind, are also regular visitors to the pond, in search of a meal harvested from its depths.

The land on which the pond is will be returned to the JTC.

An incense burner by the pond.

A close-up of the potter's hut.

Fishing by a potter's hut.

Even with my brief encounter with the so-called Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle which surrounds the kiln, I find it sad thinking about the encroachment of the grey world on the area that was happening right at that moment I was there – the earth just beyond the gates of the pottery jungle had already scarred by the bulldozers that were seen up the road. Much of the land that surrounds the pottery jungle is being stripped bare of the trees that not only provide shade to the pottery jungle, but also insulate the area from the urban world that lies just beyond the soon to be lost woods. The area is being cleared by the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) to make way for the development of a CleanTech Park. It is not only the woods that would be lost (at least to the pottery jungle), but also the pond at which I spent the morning – the pickets of intended green fences that many detest are already up to remind us that the land on which the pond sits, is being returned to the JTC (the land on which the kiln and the potery jungle is on is leased on an annual basis).

Bulldozers have moved into the area and are clearing the woods that surround the area for a CleanTech Park development.

While the sleeping dragon will continue to sleep, rising occasionally, it is its companions which it will find that are no longer there who will probably feel the loss of the woods in the area most. And as the woods of grey replace the woods of green in the area, those of us who have sought to deprive the dragon’s of its companions may have also deprived ourselves and our future generations of the joy that could be found in that little bit of paradise that once existed in the woods.

A pathway not into the woods anymore, but to what will be the CleanTech Park.

A dragonfly frolicking over the pond.

A Common Flameback Woodpecker seen on the trunk of a tree near the pond.

A skink scampers across a footpath ...

A centipede.








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