Travel Features > Arts & Crafts

Visiting The Potteries Of Kuching

by Wayne Tarman

Historic Background

Orang Utan Mother and Baby
© 1998 Wayne Tarman
Kuching's pottery industry can be traced back to the mid-19th Century when immigrant Chinese artisans arrived in Sarawak and set up commercial operations to cater for the local market. Prior to this, local Sarawakians produced a limited volume of pots using clay from Tanah Puteh, a clay bed located next to the Sarawak River that flows through Kuching. The tiny cottage industry produced a limited volume of pit-fired pots for domestic use.

The skilled potters that came to Borneo were almost exclusively Teochew, from Fukkien province in China. Having acquired the skills of their craft in the kilns of their home province they set sail for the 'south seas' to seek employment and perhaps make their fortune. Some of these settlers did indeed make their fortunes and returned to China to retire. Others stayed on in Sarawak, establishing family-run pottery businesses and passing on their skills to their sons or nephews, who in turn passed on the skills to the next generation. Even today, Sarawak's potters are nearly all Teochew, descendants of these early pioneers.

The first Teochew potters in Sarawak initially focused their energy on supplying large jars which the native population used for domestic storage and brewing. Previously these jars were imported from China, Vietnam and Thailand and were highly valued by the natives all over Borneo. Although these locally-produced jars were not as highly regarded as old imported jars, the newly established potteries were able to carve out a market by offering jars at lower prices.

Over the years the potteries added new items. Although the emphasis was still on items for domestic use, the product range widened to include flower pots, smaller water jars, cooking pots, casserole dishes, holders for incense burners, children's money boxes, mosquito coil holders, water-filled ant traps, etc. For many years the potteries prospered by focusing on traditional household items but by the 1950's demand was drying up. Unbreakable aluminium pots and pans were becoming popular, plastic containers were cheap and practical and water jars were no longer required thanks to piped water supplies.

Sarawak's Chinese pottery industry has always adapted with the times. Economic development may have reduced demand for traditional products but it also created opportunities and the potters started to innovate and adapt to a changing market. Traditionally pots were either left unglazed or glazed a light brown colour with burnt padi husk. In the late 1960's, potters started to experiment by painting the pots white and then adding a few brush strokes of colour and Chinese-inspired designs. Painted flower pots proved a hit with local gardeners which encouraged potters to further experiment. The nascent tourism industry was also creating another market of potential buyers and showrooms were quickly set up next to the potteries to tap this new and expanding market.

Today Kuching's potteries produce a dazzling array of ceramic products. Both Chinese and Dayak design themes are used creating a unique and colourful Sarawak style of pottery. Traditional Iban or Orang Ulu designs are very popular and these designs are cut out of the pot when it still damp and then painted in various colours.

Bed-side lamps, decorative jars and flower vases, candle holders, coffee mugs, ashtrays, drinking water vases and money boxes are just some of the items now produced by Kuching's potteries. The presentation of souvenir Sarawak pottery is also very popular at official functions, company dinners, conferences, anniversaries. Potteries now do a roaring trade in special orders for corporate clients and government departments. Of the traditional products, only flower pots are produced in large volumes to sell locally or export overseas.

The gift and souvenir trade is now the mainstay of the potteries business. Although foreign tourists initially provided the catalyst to switch to gift and souvenir-type products, the bulk of business is now derived from the local market. The foreign tourist market is significant but nowadays Sarawakians are keener than ever to buy Sarawak pottery.

Visiting a Pottery

Kuching's potteries are grouped together at 8th Mile on the Penrissen Road, just outside Kuching. A number of buses (e.g. STC Nos 3, 3A, 9A & 9B) ply the Penrissen Road so access by public transport is quite good. The potteries are conveniently positioned mid-way between Kuching and the Semengoh Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre and many people decide to hop off the bus on the way back from Semengoh and take a quick look round before returning to Kuching.

The potteries can essentially be divided into two areas - the roadside showroom and the factory area at the back. The showrooms are packed full of a wide range of ceramic wares ranging from huge pots and jars to smaller souvenir items such as coffee mugs and flower vases. Visitors are welcome to stroll around the factory area at the back; just ask the sales assistants and they will point you in the right direction. At the back of the showroom you'll find the artisans at work - the potters sitting on low stools by their wheels and artists decorating the pots with colourful Sarawak-inspired designs.


Orang Utan Mother and Baby
© 1998 Wayne Tarman
Its a joy to watch a skilled potter at work and see him transform a rather ordinary lump of clay into a beautiful cylindrical vase in just a few minutes. The potter sits at a low stool and places a lump of clay on the wheel. By touching a pedal the potter sets the motorised wheel in motion and then presses his thumbs into the clay to create a hollow opening. He then works his way upwards and outwards to form the desired shape of pot. During this process, the potter frequently dips his hands into a nearby bowl of water to keep them lubricated for the task at hand.

When the pot is finished, the potter or his assistant removes it by tilting it off the wheel or cutting it off with a thin piece of wire. The assistant then places the pot on a plank of wood and the potter starts the process again. When the plank of wood is full of pots it is carried away and the pots are left to dry. If a design is to be cut into the surface it will be done when the pot is still damp. When the pots are dry they can be painted with their chosen designs. After all cutting and painting is complete the pots are glazed, either with a brush or with a fine spray. Only when the pots are absolutely bone dry can they be fired. Even the smallest patch of dampness can cause the pot to crack.

Until very recently, Sarawak's potters used the traditional wood-fired tunnel kilns built by their forefathers when they first arrived in Sarawak. These "dragon kilns" were approximately 25 metres long and could accommodate up to a 1,000 pots of various sizes. Packing the long sloping kilns was no easy task. The kilns did not produce a uniform heat so small pieces were placed where the temperature was lower whilst the larger pieces were positioned in the hottest parts of the kiln. The kilns had two openings which were bricked up before the kiln was fired. Firing took 36-48 hours, and after that the kiln was left to cool for a full day before being opened and unloaded.

The potteries have now stopping using the old kilns and most of them use gas-fired kilns. There were two main reasons for the switch. Firstly, the modern gas-fired kilns now in use offer exact temperature control, and secondly government policy was to encourage traditional industries to reduce smoke emissions where possible. Visitors can still see the dragon kilns at the various potteries but now they are little more than historical reminders of the state's pottery history.

Although the Penrissen Road potteries are all quite similar, one factory that is well worth a visit is the Ngee Tai Pottery Factory. This pottery is located on the right hand side of the road if you are travelling from Kuching. This makes its a convenient stopping place if you are on your way back from Semengoh to Kuching.

© 1998 Wayne Tarman
Like the other potteries Ngee Tai Pottery is a long established, family-run business. Three generations of potters have worked the potter's wheel here. The master potter, Ng Hua Ann, is still around and keeps a watchful eye on things. His grandson, Ang Yong Sheng, may be found in his office but you are more likely to find him out the back on his potter's wheel. A short distance away groups of girls decorate the various pots with the characteristic colours and designs of Sarawak. Ngee Tai Pottery now uses a gas fired kiln but the old tunnel-shaped dragon kiln is still located at the back of the showroom. The factory stopped using the traditional kiln about three years ago but visitors are welcome to take a look at as they wander around.

A stroll through the factory area will give you an idea of the potter's skills and provides a glimpse of a traditional craft that has survived the test of time by adapting to change and creating a very unique style of colourful pottery and a thriving cottage industry.

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