From collecting teas to making tea bowls

Ceramic artist Alvin Tan Teck Heng now exhibits all around the region and the world.

SINGAPORE - Collecting might just make you potty. Just look at Alvin Tan Teck Heng who started with collecting teas, and eventually got so steeped in its culture and history, that he is now fully dedicated to making tea bowls, besides other ceramic ware.

Collecting teas was the start of his journey, says the ceramic artist who now exhibits all around the region and the world. He started collecting teas in the early '80s, and as one type of tea led to another, he discovered tea bowls, or cups as we call them today.

"The turning point for the tea culture probably happened between the Sung and Ming dynasties," he explains.

The fact that the culture around tea evolved probably isn't foremost in the mind of the lay tea drinker, whose knowledge of tea cups could be only the differences between porcelain and clay pots and cups.

Inspired by his travels

"There were changes to the concept and culture of tea in every dynasty," shares Tan. The culture around tea was so rich that every dynasty would criticise or comment on the practices of the earlier dynasty. It's believed that the Chinese drank tea before the Han Dynasty of 206 BC.

"The period of most interest to me was the Sung, 906-1270 AD, which was considered the third Chinese golden age. I got intrigued by the shape of the Sung Dynasty tea bowls - their lines and colours were so simple - and they enjoyed a high status with emperors."

His tea collecting started by way of his travels into all parts of China, when he was working with a trading company. His job also led him to the Pacific and South America where he came into close contact with tribal people.

"I was intrigued with their respect for nature, and also creativity in their designs and art and how they interpreted nature and its energy," he recalls.

Inspired, he started taking ceramic classes in the 1980s, from Chua Soo Kim, the second generation Dragon Kiln owner. He focused on making tea bowls, and after about 1,000 pieces, starting exploring his own shapes and colours.

Explaining his inspiration from the Sung dynasty, Tan notes how a lot of monochromatic and solid colours were used. "It's because of how tea was drunk in those days," he says.

During the Sung dynasty, leaves were steamed and pressed into tea cakes and then dried. Chunks were broken off and crushed into very fine powder for drinking.

"The grinding process was very delicate - as the idea was to see a froth in the tea. That's where the term dian cha came from, describing the hot water poured on tea powder. If the powder was consistently fine, it would mix well and when whisked with bamboo brush, green air bubbles could be seen.

"Tea drinkers would challenge each other in the creation of this froth and how water splashed in the tea bowl. This practice accounted for the colours of the tea bowls, such as yellow, which was a beautiful setting for green tea," says Tan. Another favourite colour in the Sung Dynasty was the green speckled tea bowl.

By the time the Ming Dynasty rolled around, tea drinkers started using tea leaves, steeping them in purple clay teapots known as zhi sha. More of a Southern practice, the unglazed zhi sha can "breathe" so the tea was "alive" and evolving when in the pot, and then poured into glazed porcelain cups to retain their character. Besides perfecting the shapes, the next most important step is the firing of the ceramics.

Tan now fires his works in the Philippines, Thailand and China, besides Korea and Japan. Each kiln yields a different result, he points out. "In the Philippines where I use a wood kiln, the wood ash creates its own glaze in the bowl because it depends on where it lands and the chemical reaction."

Nothing is predictable with wood kilns, unlike electric kilns, and the uneven firing of wood can result in green or yellow or blue glazes. "But the colours are rich and intriguing, and the textures are rougher," he explains.

Firing could take up to a week. "One needs a lot of patience," he adds.

The inside shapes the outside

Making tea bowls has also shaped his philosophical outlook, admits Tan. The inside of the bowl is as important as the outside, "because like a human being, the inside is what shapes the outside," he notes.

That's the traditional view of the Chinese towards tea bowls and cups, a philosophy that guides Tan as he pinches and spins his bowls into shape.

Get The Business Times for more stories.