From its peak of 78 pottery manufacturers in Ipoh to less than 15 now, the industry has definitely seen better days. Still, there is no denying that pottery products from Ipoh are one of the best in the world, with a reputation to withstand extreme sub-zero temperatures. This distinction is attributed to the quality of clay found in Ipoh, which is believed to be unavailable anywhere else, without treating the clay.
Chin Kam Peng, a first generation potter in Ipoh who began his long career in the business in the late 1960s, remembers the time when wholesalers, distributors and pottery agents from Western countries waited at his doorstep and clamoured for his products as soon as they were unloaded from the kiln.
Chin, a partner at Xin Fa Pottery, said, “My first export shipment was to England in 1971. It was a chance we took upon being approached by our neighbour’s son-in-law, a British. Surprisingly, our products were so well-received by the English that soon, we were exporting multiple 40-foot containers every month, not only to England but also to Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy, United States of America and Japan. My kilns were working around the clock. I have six kilns; the longest is 85 feet in length.”
In the early days, production was slow. Workers had to spade out the clay from the river bank of the Pari River nearby, mixed it with water, and used buffaloes to step on the dough, before passing the task to human labour. The clay was then ready to be shaped by hand and left to dry for a week. Once completely dried, artisans would decorate or carve the pots, before they were placed inside the kiln, and fired. The fire had to be kept alive for 30 hours straight at an average temperature of 1250ºC.
Production increased significantly when a motorised potter’s wheel was used to mould the clay, instead of manually. The process known as throwing on the potter’s wheel further improved due to mechanisation of the factory.
Chin recalled, “Although business began picking up shortly after our first shipment, Malaysia’s pottery products only became popular in the 1980s. Demand was so high that everyone who ventured into the industry made money. Nonetheless, it was competitive and we had to compete for orders against pottery producers from other countries in terms of design, pattern and glaze, and release eye-catching products every season. It was not easy getting orders and once we did, it was a race against time to deliver our consignments according to schedule. As you can see, although business was good, it was pure hard work.
“Shortly after that, we also managed to capture the market with our range of feng shui flower pots and soy sauce urns.
“Unfortunately, the industry experienced a major slowdown from 1998 onwards due to market saturation and economic slump in the West. No doubt, demand is still here but with the scarcity of clay and increase in prices for labour, wood, and other resources, it is no longer viable to meet those demands especially at the depressed prices that the buyers are only wiling to pay. Currently, this demand is met instead by the Vietnamese where pottery is a cottage industry and production is limited in both quantity and design.
“This isn’t to say that the Vietnamese have overtaken us in the pottery business because their products are not the same as ours. For example, we carve out our designs while theirs are painted on.
“Nevertheless, these days, due to lacklustre demand, we only fire our kiln four times a month at most. Indeed, the good ol’ days are over.”
Being a veteran in the industry, Chin has evolved his business, besides supplying to the local market, to support hobbyists and artisans in their bid to preserve the legacy of wood-fired ceramic art. He even designed and constructed a cave kiln, smaller in size compared to a commercial kiln, at his premises reusing material from an abandoned kiln, for this purpose.
The cave kiln, named Ipohgama, where gama means kiln in Japanese, took eight months to complete. Its first duty was to fire two hundred pieces of ceramic creations, part of which were later exhibited in Ipoh.
Because of that, Xin Fa Pottery is now known as a tourist destination for those who want hands-on experience in making their own pottery or ceramic art. They come by the bus loads not only from other states in Malaysia but also Singapore and even China. Besides offering the use of facilities and providing resources to these artists, Chin readily shares his knowledge in pottery, which he garnered over the years through trial and error as a potter.
Note: An edited version of this article [Ipoh’s Clay Haven] was published on 19th March, 2015, in the now-defunct The Malay Mail.
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