The dragon is awakened – a pottery experience, a bid for our heritage

awaken the dragon 01By Howard Lee

Dragon kilns are massive “ovens” for heat-hardening pottery items, and originated in China. Measuring up to 60m in length and built into the ground, they can be found in places around the world where the pottery trade is plied.

The long earthen chambers would hiss and seep smoke during the kilning process, hence their name. Fuelled by a massive amount of wood in a process that can take as long as three days, such kilns hearken back to a very different culture and economy that we have today.

It would then surprise some that we actually have not one, but two such dragon kilns in Singapore, and thanks to efforts to conserve then, they are seeing good use despite technological advances in pottery today.

The Thow Kwang dragon kiln (image - untouristsingapore.com)
The Thow Kwang dragon kiln (image – untouristsingapore.com)

We have the Thow Kwang dragon kiln, also known as the Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle, and the Guan Huat dragon kiln, now better known as the Jalan Bahar Clay Studios. Thow Kwang’s kiln which is 27m long was built in 1944, while Guan Huat’s is 43m long and was built in 1958.

They are located at Lorong Tawas and for the last 20 years, their fates were unclear as there were planned development in the area.

However, the National Heritage Board (NHB) assessed the heritage value of the two dragon kilns in 2013 and moved to extend the tenure extension for their owners until December 2017 (Thow Kwang) and January 2018 (Guan Huat).

Both the studios operate as commercial entities offering pottery lessons, studio rental and ceramic items for sale. The dragon kilns are fired up about twice a year, and even then only a section of the kiln would be used. Given the fuel need and the taxing process of keeping it burning for three day, that is hardly surprising.

And that is where attempts were made to “Awaken the Dragon”. A collaborative effort by ceramic artist Michelle Lim and local NGO Post-Museum, “Awaken the Dragon” was meant to be a community art project surrounding the last two remaining dragon kilns in Singapore.

awaken the dragon 02The project aimed to invite 3,000 members of the public to participate in making a collection of clay works to be fired in one of the dragon kilns. It was an attempt to keep the flame of the dragon kilns alive, figuratively and literally.

The project offered the public the unique opportunity to use and experience an important part of our heritage, and was executed in three phases.

The first was sculpture and educational workshops held in various venues around Singapore. About 3,000 members of the public were invited to make 3,000 small clay works during these workshops.

Part two was a three-day festival where the 3,000 clay pieces will be fired in the dragon kiln. The festival was meant to be a public event to show master artists engaging in a 72-hour process of firing the dragon kiln while supported by performances, talks, workshops and food. It also included a National Ceramics Forum featuring international and local ceramic artists as speakers.

awaken the dragon 03The third phase of the project will be Awaken the Dragon exhibition at various venues in Singapore. It will feature the completed sculpture which is made up of 3,000 pieces of clay works and documentation of the project.

The team is now in the satisfactory last leg, and is currently presenting the fired works in an exhibition together with some information on the project and its process.

It has been a long journey keeping the flame of the kilns burning, and now you too can be part of that experience.

“Awaken the Dragon” is now exhibiting at The Agora, Blk 28 Sin Ming Lane, Midview City, #03-142. The exhibition will be open from 18 to 26 April, 1pm to 8pm daily.

If you wish to visit at another time slot or in a group of more than 10, do make an appointment with the organisers at [email protected].

The artworks on display are from the second edition of the festival in 2014/2015, when the Thow Kwang kiln was fired. The first edition of the festival in 2012/2013 saw the firing of the Guan Huat kiln.

Do come early, as artists would be coming in to collect their pieces, so the collection would dwindle as the days go by!

Sample of artworks: