07 May Into the belly of the dragon

by Bridgette

When I was studying in NTU (a lifetime ago), I used to see a small “Thow Kwang Pottery” signboard as Bus 199 trundled past Jalan Bahar. The place – nestled within a forest and possibly abuzz with mossies – seemed unappealing and never piqued my interest.

But last year, after learning about the Awaken The Dragon Festival (a community art project), it finally dawned upon me that the icky forest held Singapore’s last two treasured dragon kilns. One is at Thow Kwang while the other is next door at Focus Ceramics.The fate of the two kilns had been uncertain when the NTU CleanTech Park next door was being developed. Thankfully after some lobbying by heritage enthusiasts, the lease for both dragon kilns was extended for 9 years in August 2013. Yay!

Still,who knows how much longer the place will be there right? In pragmatic, land-starved Singapore. So when the 2014 edition of Awaken The Dragon Festival came around, I quickly rounded up Tuber and friends for a workshop and tour at Focus Ceramics last Sunday.

One of the festival organisers, Michelle Lim, a ceramic artist, gave us a great tour of the place. According to Michelle, a dragon kiln (龙窑) was originally built to fire up pottery for the Emperor, hence the name “dragon”. Commoners would use a normal kiln (民窑) instead. The one at Focus Ceramics – called Guan Huat Dragon Kiln – is the longest at 42 metres. It had been lost amidst the overgrown forest (like Angkor Wat!) until it was discovered and eventually restored with support from several government agencies in 2001.

The dragon kiln is built such that its “head” is at the bottom of a slope while its “tail” is at the top. The slope allows the smoke to escape at the highest point during the intense pottery firing. Michelle pointed out that when the door at the “head” is opened for wood to be fed, tongues of flames would rush out for oxygen, mimicking a fire-breathing dragon.

Did you know that your pottery would be coloured differently depending on the wood you feed the dragon? Ignorant me never knew that. So feeding the dragon pine or angsana wood would give your pots and bowls different glazes. The highlight for many was the opportunity to walk inside the belly of the dragon. At rest, the kiln is cool and dark while its walls are glazed and shiny – a result of the clay bricks reacting to the wood burnt for heat.

Ideally, a dragon kiln should be fired up in its entirety – firing it partially can and has led to parts of the dragon head collapsing. In fact, Michelle had to ask an OZ expert to fix the kiln as no one in Singapore possesses the knowledge anymore.

Last year, at the Awaken The Dragon Festival, the entire length of the Guan Huat Dragon Kiln was fired up for the first time since the ’70s. It was quite a sight to peep through the side holes to see the inside stacked with 3,000 pieces of artwork made by the public. This year, they’re aiming for the same number of artwork, but instead of firing up Guan Huat, they might use Thow Kwang instead. So those who come for the firing ceremony at Thow Kwang can walk over and explore the insides of Guan Huat.

When the tour ended, we sat down to make our own pottery. Thoughtful Michelle had prepared small balls of clay from an Ang Mo Kio construction site (“so your art work has some part of Singapore in it”) that we merged with larger balls of generic clay. The most morbid award, as usual, goes to Mushroomhead’s creation (see picture). Can’t wait to see our artwork when the kiln is fired up at the end of the year!

If you’re keen to visit the kiln and make a piece of pottery, go to the Awaken The Dragon Festival Facebook page. Just remember to bring along insect repellent to ward off the bloodsuckers!