Meet Stella, Singapore's last 'dragon' descendant

As the wheel turns, she moves her fingers deftly, shaping and gently smoothing out a lump of clay mould into what looks like a small vase. Expressionless, she exudes a sense of calmness and relaxation, focusing on her nimble fingers and the hypnotic turning of the wheel.

The attention she pays to that lump of clay, shaping it delicately, seems almost like a testament to the dedication she has to her family's pottery business.

To Stella Tan, using the throw wheel to create pottery objects is almost like a walk in the park.

"Perhaps it's in my genes," said the 26-year-old when AsiaOne visited her at Jalan Bahar. And it definitely seems so.

For 52 years, her family has been plying ceramic wares at Lorong Tawas near Jurong West. Today, Stella is the only third generation member of the Tan family to be involved in the operations of Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle, a large outdoor warehouse area that sells any form of pottery you can imagine - from display wares to functional wares, ranging from modern designs to traditional blue and white pieces, and Peranakan Chinese porcelain.

Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle has a few open-air warehouses that sell plenty of pottery and ceramic ware.Photo: AsiaOne

Ceramics has been central to Stella's life. The bubbly girl from Jurong Secondary School lived, breathed and even played among pottery since she was a child. In fact, she lives with her mum and elder brother at one of the last few remaining kampung houses in Singapore, built right next to the pottery jungle.

Stella's kampung house, which is situated at Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle itself.Photo: AsiaOne

Stella is also the fifth generation of potters. Her grandfather, a third generation potter, came to Singapore from China's Fujian province and eventually established a trade in making and selling ceramics here in the 1960s.

Today, her uncle Tan Teck Yoke manages Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle, which is also home to Singapore's last functioning dragon kiln.

GUARDIANS OF THE LAST DRAGON

Nestled among a constantly developing area with new office buildings popping up nearby is Singapore's oldest and last functioning dragon kiln.

Built 77 years ago, the traditional wood-fired kiln follows a traditional structure developed by the Chinese over a thousand years ago. Measuring 27 metres, the brick kiln fires up to 1,260 degrees Celsius, creating thousands of ceramic ware each time.

The dragon kiln at Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle is the last functioning dragon kiln in Singapore.Photo: AsiaOne
Inside the belly of the 'dragon'.Photo: AsiaOne

"My grandfather inherited the dragon kiln when he came over to Singapore," said Stella, who may very well be the last and youngest family member to look after it.

To her, the art of wood-firing is dear to her heart.

"I can't bear to see the art of wood-firing dying.

"It's heartbreaking to see everyone growing older and no one taking after [the business]. At least I have the skills [in wood-firing], so I can help out with the family business," said the business communications student.

Upon graduating from Republic Polytechnic, Stella tried her hand at baking and pastry-making, and even took on a 9-to-5 job as an administration staff. However, her heart was always at Thow Kwang.

"I couldn't adapt to the work environment. The natural surroundings and everything here makes me very happy," said Stella.

Today, she manages the workshops, retail, social media and also works on her own craft for hotels, cafes, and restaurants.

Some of Stella's wares are sold at cafes here in Singapore.Photo: AsiaOne

"Although it's a dying art, you need the courage to come back to modernise the whole business and attract youngsters," said Stella, who acknowledged that getting people to help run the place is hard.

A DRAGON THAT RARELY BREATHES FIRE

Decades ago, the 'dragon' breathed fire from its belly every month, firing up ceramic cups used for rubber plantations. Today, the dragon kiln is fired up only two to three times a year, and visitors are invited to participate in a barbecue or potluck while witnessing the event.

This is a stark contrast to the last century when there used to be over 20 such kilns in Singapore, mostly built by immigrants from Southern China.

Today, only two remain.

How a dragon kiln works.Photo: AsiaOne

Singapore's other dragon kiln, also located at Jalan Bahar, is called Guan Huat Dragon Kiln. However, it has since ceased operations, leaving Thow Kwang as the final breathing dragon on the island.

These days, most ceramics are fired in electric kilns, which are cleaner than traditional kilns and give a desired effect that the potter wants. But it is the traditional kiln that creates unpredictable and special effects on pottery that cannot be attained using modern electric kilns.

"Not a lot of people are buying [ceramic pieces] anymore and they'd usually just buy them for friends for Christmas," said Stella, who sells her craft between $3 and $200 per piece at Public Garden, Artbox, Kranji Farmer's Market, and on Naiise's website.

HOLDING ON TO HER ROOTS

Having grown up at the pottery jungle, and seeing her uncle, aunt, and grandma working hard to maintain the business and to preserve the kiln, holding on to her roots is important for Stella.

"I see all the effort that they had put in and it made me think that maybe I can do something for this business.

"I don't want this tradition to go away. If I see something that's not right and if I don't come back [to help out], I might end up regretting," said Stella, who is one of the personalities featured in The Best of You, a social movement that celebrates the accomplishments and life experiences of people in Singapore.

I don't want this tradition to go away. If I see something that's not right and if I don't come back (to help out), I might end up regretting.

- Stella Tan, third-generation family business member at Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle

For land scarce Singapore, chances of the dragon kiln surviving for another decade is hanging in the balance. Encroaching into the pottery jungle nearby are multi-storey office buildings and factories that have appeared over the years.

The possibility of the dragon kiln being closed down forever weighs on the minds of Stella and her family.

When asked what plans she has should the day arrive, Stella replied confidently: "I'll definitely be sad. But what is meant to be will be. I believe that even if I can't do my pottery here, I can do it elsewhere."

Stella using the throw wheel to mould a bowl.Photo: AsiaOne

To her family, losing the dragon kiln is akin to losing their roots and traditions. But to Singapore, it will be losing a large part of a heritage that has endured many decades and generations, amid relentless transformation.

"I hope to spread happiness to others when others use my cup or something," said the dragon kiln descendant, as she hangs on to the last few strands of family tradition.

on SPH Brightcove

klim@sph.com.sg

 

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