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              ENDANGERED TRADES: THE POTTER’S HAND

1 trade; 2 families; 3 generations

Clinging to both sides of the Penrissen road, around 5th mile, there is a cluster of low-slung, non-descript buildings.

From two, riotous bursts of colour from flower and foliage declare themselves showily to passing motorists, urging them to come in to buy plants and, more importantly for our purposes, the pots to contain them.  But from a third, there is a flash of colour of another kind in the form of a garish sign, baldly stating ‘stock clearance’ in fluorescent red and yellow.  Garden centres are commonplace the world over, but Sarawak potteries are special – longstanding, homegrown traditions with most into their third generation of a trade which has travelled from China to the shores of Borneo. But this trade may be under threat in our changing times and tastes.

For this is a tale of two families – through the best of times and perhaps the worst of times – who have both been instrumental in building this great Sarawak tradition. The Angs and the Ngs have been doing business in this spot, side by side, for several decades.  Each family is into its third generation in the pottery business, overseeing its genesis and growth through changes cultural and social.  But those changes have seen one family decide to close its doors at the end of June after 52 years, while the other is working to redefine itself in a changing economy.

China is synonymous with, well, china. The ware was named after the country by the struggling tongues of the ‘middle-aged’ English speakers of the world in clumsy recognition of the central role that China had to play in the refinement of ceramic production worldwide, most famously in the Han dynasty with the emergence of porcelain.  China has been at the zenith of ceramics production for centuries – just recently, a visually uninspiring ‘washer bowl’, recorded at the venerable old age of 900, went under the hammer at Sotheby’s for a staggering $27 million.

 

Traditional Sarawak scenes and Dayak motifs on Chinese-made pots make this a uniquely Sarawak trade

Here in Borneo, it seems unlikely that such a valuable treasure will ever emerge for sale, but Chinese ceramics have been migrating to this island for at least a millennia, initially in the form of the finished product and finally in the skill behind it. Shards of ancient Chinese pottery have been dug from the ground in the Santubong peninsula, generally interpreted as evidence of trade and settlement by the travelling Chinese in that area at least 1,000 years ago.  But the real Sarawak statement came later when the Dayak discovered the delights of ceramics.  Chinese pottery became Dayak treasures as they began collecting jars, made with this alien and incredible technique, putting them to purposes new.  Dayak longhouses became repositories of traded dragon jars and ceramic plates, to be used in rituals and burials, and  for more mundane storage, but only for prized possessions of course. This blending of cultures is inherent in the local craft today.  These Chinese-owned businesses, started on imported skills, have incorporated Dayak design and Sarawak motifs to create products that are uniquely Sarawak.

Charming they may be, but this is not fine porcelain ware, instead functional and sturdy. In the words of Gill, a PhD researcher for Columbia University back in the late 60s: ‘There is little art for art’s sake in Sarawak.  Sarawak art is working art, forms which satisfy the requirements demanded by the cultural environment,’ and this is no exception.  The potteries sell serviceable vases, rugged plant pots, lamps, burners, ashtrays – some intricately carved, but all to be put to working use.  They speak of Sarawak and so have become favourites as souvenirs for tourists.

At Wong Sian Hup pottery, on the left-hand side on the way to Serian, they are celebrating their 30th year on this site.  The business was started by ‘Grandfather Ng’ who brought the skills with him from China, initially establishing a pottery in Sibu.  One generation later, ‘Father Ng’, one of 9 brothers, moved to Kuching to establish another branch of the family business.  The original has closed but the Kuching branch survives, staffed by 5 Ng sons and 1 Ng daughter. Everyday, they still fire up the kiln for one blast, giving it time to cool for the next day.

                      

Gone are the days of hand throwing, the potter’s wheel and the charcoal-fired kiln, but the whole process is still largely by hand (or more specifically by several hands), giving each piece its individual variations. Most of the staff have seen long service here, honing their craft through decades of repetition.  First is Mr Tien, who hand carves the mould out of plaster. Many of the new moulds nowadays are for special orders – wedding door gifts can be carved with intertwined initials, corporate gifts with the company logo – but their stock of classics keeps them in business day to day.  The moulds are filled with liquid clay, and left to dry.  Then, the decoration begins. Designs are hand-carved into the hardened clay – longhouses and hornbills in verdant jungle scenes or swirling Dayak spirals. Mr Yong, one of the resident carvers, does not describe himself as an artist but the artistry is evident.  He is largely self-taught, experimenting with different designs taken from books or his own invention.  He can complete 5 large pots in one day, more of the smaller, but despite his practiced movements, this is not a production-line, high-output, rush job.  Finally, to Mr Ng, one of the family members who personally gets in on the process, airbrushing colour onto each piece before sending it to the kiln for firing.

Wong Sian Hup is still doing a brisk trade, but many of the customers are outside in the nursery.  In most cases, the pots came first and the plants came later, but now it is the latter that sustains the former. Many of their pots are made for the plants, sold as an all-in-one. Those inside are largely tourists from West Malaysia looking for mementoes of their trip, brought so far out of town by their tour guides. Some of the products are on sale in Main Bazaar, but diversification has been the key to survival. Their pottery stands on shelves side by side with tacky mass-produced products, ostensibly from China – cute cats and other animals from far away – along with Sarawak souvenir staples such as pepper.  A section of their property is sub-let to a furniture outlet, selling sturdy wooden furniture.

                    

The range of pots await firing – large to small, simple to ornate, for a range of customers both tourist and local

For the pottery business alone, the future looks bleak.  At the pottery on the other side of the road, the kiln lies on its side, laid to rest after production ceased last October.  It is due to be shipped to Sabah with all the moulds, resurrected into service in another state once again. Ironically, it is China and Taiwan, the motherlands of the trade, which are killing it now. Imports are flooding into Sarawak, either cheaper or, at the other end of the spectrum, more refined. Exports are out of the question – the capacity is too small. As Mr Ng succinctly puts it: ‘Mana dapat lawan China.’ In addition, as imports go up, tourist numbers go inexorably down. Madam Ang supports this: ‘There was a time when we wouldn’t be able to sit down all day. But now, expenses are going up for the tourists and there are not so many.’  In this modern travel economy where every kilo of extra luggage counts, Sarawak pottery is simply being left behind.

However, it is social changes too which have seen the Angs take their tough decision. In a family that boasts an architect and a pharmacist, youngest son John is the only one of his generation on site and he has his own dream – the thoroughly modern dream of a life as a trainer and bodybuilder. He admits to mixed feelings as he watches the stock from his family’s proud tradition sold off piece by piece at cut price. Sad, of course, to see it go, he also remembers his younger days when other family members would head off on holiday, leaving his parents endlessly manning the business. Now the older generation is looking towards retirement and there is no one to pass this particular mantle to.  But the family business has done them proud in a thoroughly modern sense.  They may not pass it down physically, in traditional Chinese style, but it has provided a future for all of them – professional, educated and capable.  Perhaps this change will give John too what he needs to embark on his new life. Even Madam Ng across the road may not see her life for her children: ‘I think this is very hard work.  Of course, the older generation has built this for them and it is already done.  But, if they are good in their studies, they probably will not work here.’

But what is the lesson for us locals?  If we want to see this trade survive, a living tradition in Sarawak’s heritage, then we must support it.  In the first place, if you want to get a piece of Sarawak history, take yourself up to Penrissen road. As one pottery closes, you can take home a remembrance of the end of an era. But as the others live on, pay them a visit for your plants and pots. Bring along your friends!  Bring along your visitors! Bring in more tourists!  Buy local!

Karen Shepherd has always been fascinated with the feel of clay, even taking a pottery class in Sabah where she grew up.  Her house is full of Sarawak-fired ceramics, both old and new.

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