The last dragons in Singapore

The story of the dragon kilns at Jalan Bahar. First published on publichouse.sg, 16 Dec 2012.

The jungle at Jalan Bahar is disappearing fast, careening towards a future of CleanTech industrial parks and other developments — but if you pause, look beyond the construction, and follow the winding paths deeper into the forest, there you will still find the hidden treasures of the last two dragons in Singapore, and the ceramists who are stoking the flames, keeping the stories alive.

Dragon kilns (龙窑) originated in China about 2,000 years ago, and were named for their elongated shape (sometimes up to 100m long) with ‘scales’ of bricks, a fire-breathing ‘mouth’ fed with wood chunks and air, and smoke emitted at the other end. In the belly of the dragon, the clay pieces would be fired, finally emerging as glazed ceramic objects.

In the early 1900s, the Chinese diaspora brought this ceramics technology to Singapore and established more than 20 wood-fired dragon kilns, which produced bowls, latex cups for rubber tapping, roof tiles, flower pots, crockery and other items. There were at least nine kilns in the Jurong region, which was known for its good quality white clay.

The early days

The early 20th century was a prolific time for Singapore’s dragon kilns. At its peak, Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln at Jalan Bahar was fired once every two weeks, with a few thousand pieces each time, to produce latex cups, pipes and other household items.

But the dragon kiln was back-breaking business. In an interview with Lianhe Zaobao in 1989, Mr Chua Soo Kim, one of the Chua brothers who owned Sam Mui Kwang Pottery Works at Jalan Hwi Yoh, described the traditional process of collecting local clay, kneading, stirring and watering the clay to make it pliable for use.

All this was done by hand (approximately two days for 60 tons of clay) but after the 1970s, machines were used for this task. Workers were also needed to mould the clay and pack the objects into the kiln, before firing it non-stop over three to seven days, unpacking and then checking the items for sale.

Earlier accounts conjure a similar picture of this laborious process. On 24 September 1949, the Singapore Free Press featured a report by Marian Wells, on her visit to a modest-sized brick kiln of “sixty feet long” (approximately 18m) which “on the far end, at the downward slope” had “a fireplace strewn with ashes” from the previous day’s firing.

Wells describes the clay excavation — “men and women were unearthing lumps from ten to fifteen-feet deep holes and carrying their loads to long atap sheds” — and how the workers removed stones and foreign particles, and used their feet to pound the clay, before drying, moulding, carrying, packing and firing the objects.

New technology

But the industry was not to last. Even with the availability of local clay and good water conditions at Yio Chu Kang, Jurong and Jalan Bahar, the traditional dragon kilns were no match for new brick-making techniques.

In February 1965, the Ceramics (Malaysia) Ltd factory was built in the Jurong Industrial Estate in Singapore. No longer done by hand, each brick was now cut from an extruded section of clay with wires. The new factory’s kiln was fired with Sabo-burners (using oil), and could be mechanically loaded with 44,000 bricks. On 12 February 1965, in a three-page spread, the Straits Times proclaimed to the newly independent Federation of Malaysia that this new Ceramics plant could produce 8,000 bricks per hour, 2 million bricks monthly, and 24 million bricks annually.

This increased production of bricks (and by association, public housing) was touted as playing “a vital role in city building”, and part of Singapore’s drive towards more high-tech industries and more cost-efficient use of land.

But these new techniques, along with competition from the region and decreased demand for latex cups, signalled the end of the thriving dragon kilns in Singapore.

The last dragons

By the 1980s, only three dragon kilns remained: Sam Mui Kwang (三美光), Guan Huat (源发) and Thow Kwang (陶光).

But only Sam Mui Kwang Pottery Works was fully-functioning. Built in 1938, it remained owned and operated by the Chua family — and even till 1989, it was fired three times a month, producing around 5,000 glazed and unglazed flower pots each month.

It had been paying a monthly rental of $55 to its previous landlord, and when the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) acquired the land in 1986, it charged Sam Mui Kwang $50 rental per month. However, in 1990, the rental was increased to the market rate of $12,000 a month — and the family could no longer afford to pay. Served with a gradual phasing-out eviction notice, the Chua family finally dismantled the kiln and moved out on 1 December 1994.

Today, only two kilns remain. The older one is Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln at Jalan Bahar, which was built in 1944 and bought over by Mr Tan Kin Seh in 1965. Today, Thow Kwang does not operate commercially but the owner Mr Tan Teck Yoke maintains the kiln his father bought, allowing clay artists to use it and keep the heritage alive.

Also at Jalan Bahar is Guan Huat Dragon Kiln. It was built in 1958 by Mr. Lee Yong Lee and his friends, and used to be fired twice a month for the production of latex cups, water containers, pipes, flower pots and crockery. However, it fell into dis-use (probably by the 1980s and the 1990s), and was over-run by the surrounding vegetation.

But in 2001, the kiln was jointly restored by the Singapore Tourism Board, the then Ministry of Information & the Arts, the Urban Redevelopment Authority and other supporting participants National Heritage Board (NHB), the then Land Office, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and other individual artists. In 2004, Focus Ceramic Services won the tender to run Guat Huat Dragon Kiln as the Jalan Bahar Clay Studio for potters and other artists.

Heritage, art and market forces

Still, the kilns’ existence is precarious. In 1989, with the impending demise of Sam Mui Kwang Pottery Works, there were various forum letters calling for the preservation of the kiln and recognition of its heritage value, both for locals and tourists — but market forces prevailed, and forced the kiln to close. 23 years later, will the same fate befall the last two kilns?

Compared to JTC’s proposed CleanTech industrial park, the ceramics painstakingly produced from the dragon kilns are clearly not as commercially viable. Also, although the two dragon kilns have received the NHB heritage plaque, the Straits Times reported in 2011 that such heritage plaques do not ensure the sites’ preservation. Only those gazetted as national monuments or UNESCO World Heritage Sites are protected from eventual redevelopment.

In light of this, a group of artists have banded together to organise the Awaken the Dragon community art project in the months leading up to January 2013. Supported by volunteers and facilitators, the artists have been busy conducting clay workshops for people of all ages, and in various languages (including dialects and sign language!) in community centres, schools, offices, museums, old folks’ homes and even private homes.

Very pleased with my brick that I made for the 2013 Awaken The Dragon project.

“The workshops have been going very well. Participants, many who are playing with clay for the first time, enjoy the opportunity and are making wonderful artworks,” said Woon Tien Wei, 37, on behalf of co-organisers Post-Museum. “They are also very excited about the festival and can’t wait to see the firing of the dragon.”

Through this participatory process, the organisers hope to increase people’s appreciation for ceramics, the unique glazing of wood-fired clay, and the rich history of Singapore’s dragon kilns — while they still exist.

“We want to tell the story of the dragon kilns — and we also want people to make something while the story is being told,” said co-organiser and ceramist Michelle Lim, 29. “When you do that, the tactile quality of clay goes into your memories. We want people to be able to tell their children, and their children’s children about this.” 
 
 “The only thing that lasts longer than ceramics — is a story.”

The Guan Huat Dragon Kiln was fired for the first time in 30 years in 2013, as part of the Awaken the Dragon community art project. The kilns at Thow Kwang Industry and Focus Ceramic Services which were to operate till December 2014 and January 2015 respectively, will have new tenancies for an initial term of three years. This will be renewable for another two terms of three years each.

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