by Low Sze Wee, CEO Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre and SEACS Life Member
When I was in my teens, I bought this vase from Aw Pottery in Malaysia. In the 1970s and 1980s, my family liked to travel by car or coach from Singapore to visit places like Malacca, Port Dickson, Genting, Cameron Highlands or Kuala Lumpur. During such trips, we used to stop along the way to stretch our legs, have a toilet break, and buy some local snacks and produce. Aw Pottery, located near Ayer Hitam, was just such a convenient rest stop. In addition to selling pottery produced in an onsite kiln, the shop also had a restaurant and unusual restrooms! I was awestruck by how the owners had covered practically all the surfaces of their toilets with colourful ceramic fragments, sometimes even using actual plates and saucers to form exuberant designs.
I cannot recall why I decided to buy this particular vase then. I was likely drawn to its simple cream-coloured form, accented by splashes of dark brown glaze trickling down its gently curving body. Its warm colour scheme and dynamic streaks recall those of Tang Dynasty sancai (tri-coloured) wares, qualities which I much admire today.
Another possible reason why I chose the vase was because it was easy to carry (being only 17 cm tall) and relatively affordable – key attributes for souvenirs aimed at the tourist market.
Aw Pottery was started by the late Mr Aw Eng Kwang in the late 1940s. Born in Chaozhou province in China, he brought his skills in pottery-making to Johor and set up a kiln at Macap where local clay was plentiful. The business started by producing latex cups for the then-booming rubber industry.. In its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, it supplied functional wares for restaurants and hotels. Mr Aw eventually retired in 1980, and the popularity of Aw Pottery as a tourist stop gradually declined when fewer motorists travelled through Machap after the North-South Expressway was completed in the 1990s.
This led me to wonder about Singapore. Today, whilst there are active pottery clubs and ceramic artists, there are no commercial kilns in Singapore. This was not the case in the past. Archaeological excavations have revealed many fragments of earthernware storage and cooking pots, which were very likely made in 14th century Singapore. We also know that Bukit Pasoh got its name in the 19th century because there were many kilns in the vicinity that produced bricks, tiles and pots (pasoh/pasu being the Malay word for pot or vase). Good clay was available locally especially in the southern and western parts of the island. The 20th century saw the growth of many kilns to meet local demand. In the early 1960s, there were about 10 kilns in Jurong which had white sedimentary clay suitable for producing earthenwares.
The ceramic industry went through several ups and downs. Initially, it produced pots, bowls and jars for local use. After the Second World War, as the rubber industry boomed, there was a demand for latex cups. Bricks were also made for local construction needs. With the growth of the orchid export trade in the 1979s, production switched to flower pots. Later, falling demand due to rising production costs forced many kilns to close in the 1980s and 1990s. Of these, only the Thow Kwang and Guan Huat dragon kilns in Jalan Bahar have survived, but their business models have changed to focus on providing workshops and facilities for ceramic artists and enthusiasts rather than producing commercial products. Last, but not least, mention should be made of Ming Village. This was a private enterprise set up in the early 1980s. It established a factory and showroom in Pandan Road, to produce hand painted Ming dynasty style porcelain replicas for sale. Experts were recruited from Taiwan to teach local trainees on porcelain production, and visitors to the factory could see the entire process from moulding to glazing. The business model was reliant on purchases by tourists, but unfortunately, due to various factors, the business went through several changes of ownership, and has remained dormant for some time now.
Despite the dismal state of commercial production today, the local studio pottery scene is fairly vibrant. This year in 2020, there are at least 10 places in Singapore that offer pottery classes for the public. There is also a lively community of ceramic artists, some of whom have attained high standards of practice as exemplified by the Cultural Medallion recipient Mr Iskandar Jalil who has long used local clay found in places like Alexandra, Seletar and Tampines. So, talent and raw materials are not lacking here. Can Singapore one day boast of having its own version of Jingdezhen?
‘Blue Vessel’ by Iskandar Jalil. Collection of Natonal Gallery Singapore. From the collection of Mr. & Mrs. Rajaratnam. Donation from Datuk Dr. S. Vijayaratnam and S. Jothiratnam.