Few millennial Singaporeans have had the chance to experience the crafts and trades of the eras before us due to modernisation and a diminishing demand.
Even though pottery has been growing in popularity, Singapore only has one dragon kiln remaining on the outskirts of the island.
Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle was founded in 1965 by Tan Kim Seh, a third-generation potter, who brought the craft over with him when he arrived in Singapore from China.
For 55 years, Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle has been run by the Tan family.
The pottery jungle recently received National Heritage Board’s ‘The Stewards of Singapore’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Award‘.
The award recognises practitioners of intangible cultural heritage who have made outstanding contributions in their field and are dedicated to the promotion and transmission of their practices.
Today, fifth-generation potter Stella Tan has stepped up to help the family business keep the fire alive.
A Family Business Through And Through
The 29-year-old grew up in her family-owned pottery business, literally living next to the pottery jungle in Jalan Bahar.
According to Stella, the pottery jungle was her “childhood playground” and even till today, clay is still her “toy”.
Since her primary school days, she spent her holidays working part-time at the pottery jungle. She went on to study baking after graduating from Republic Polytechnic and worked in a cafe and hotel kitchen.
However, back in 2013, the lease of Thow Kwang was due to expire, and she ended up quitting her job to join the family business.
I never thought I would be part of this family business – never. Seven years ago, I quit my job and joined the family business as I knew there was just a year left for the lease, so all I thought about was coming back to help.Stella Tan, fifth-generation Potter at Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle
Stella strongly believes in the saying: “never live with regrets”, and she shared with Vulcan Post that she returned to the family business as she refused to let the “legacy” passed down from her grandfather fade away so easily.
Thow Kwang’s lease was extended in 2013 — first for two years until 2015, then for a three-year term that can be renewed twice.
Modernising A Dying Trade
As the only fifth-generation family member in the business, Stella has revitalised the business, creating a strong online presence for it.
She is currently managing Thow Kwang’s educational workshops, its online store, social media, customised pieces for businesses, and creating local handmade crafts for retail.
“It wasn’t easy at first as the pottery market is pretty small – not many know about the dragon kiln and us,” said Stella.
To allow the public to have a better appreciation and understanding for pottery and the dragon kiln, she joined many art markets and exhibitions in the recent years to promote the business.
After years of manual registration for workshops, Stella digitised the process and created a website for efficient registration. The pottery jungle also collaborates with travel platform Klook to promote its workshops.
An Uncertain Future
Despite the Covid-19 pandemic and circuit breaker, Thow Kwang launched new products and had online sales every week, which kept customers coming back for more.
As most customers were confined to their homes, Thow Kwang’s products were able to “enrich their lifestyles”. Some products like their ‘Mini Potter Wheels’ were even able to provide entertainment to those at home.
However, according to Stella, Thow Kwang’s plans have always been uncertain due to the possibility of the lease expiring any time.
“We hope we could keep the dragon kiln fire alive for as long as possible, and continue to pass on our legacy to more generations,” said Stella.
Featured Image Credit: Hype & Stuff and Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle via Facebook