Third-generation potter Stella Tan grew up in a house located just a few metres away from a dragon kiln and several potters’ wheels. Having always been surrounded by beautiful vases and other ceramic wares, she admits that it was only natural that she developed an interest in the craft.
Besides, she seemed to be meant for the potter’s wheel because despite only being properly initiated into pottery at the age of 17, she was deemed a quick learner by her aunt, who doubled as her mentor.
“They told me it was in my genes,” said Stella, with a laugh.
Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle has been managed by the Tan family since 1965 and Stella has been chipping in since young.
Initially only helping out the retail arm and at her aunt’s workshops to earn some extra allowance, she started creating her own pieces after her aunt noticed her kindling interest and groomed her. Since then, she’s always found respite in being behind the potter’s wheel and crafting intricate ceramic pieces.
Unlike her predecessors, whose works feature more traditional designs, Stella’s own creations veer towards the whimsical.
For instance, her adorable cat-face plates are always well-received at the various art markets she’s brought them to. “I like how people are happy when they see it,” explained Stella, adding that it’s this joy on people’s faces that spurs her on.
Despite her passion for pottery, Stella decided to pursue her other talents and for awhile, worked in the kitchen making pastries.
However, she grew weary of how the long hours at work kept her from spending time with her family. Moreover, that was the period when the Tan family was fighting to extend Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle’s lease.
Stella noticed that it was the public fighting for them, with some signing petitions and others sharing their own positive experiences at the space. Struck by how the third generation wasn’t really helping with the family business, she knew that she had to step up.
“I didn’t care if it was six months or how many years or how many months; I don’t want to regret [not helping],” Stella shared with conviction. “I don’t want this regret to be with me for life.”
Things worked out and four months after her return, the lease extension was approved, and they can continue operating on the premises until December 2023.
Besides trying to preserve the family business, Stella also hopes to promote the craft.
Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle has the only surviving dragon kiln left in Singapore as the firing cost is very high and thus most people don’t want to do it anymore. However, the family hopes to make this art form affordable to everyone.
For instance, they welcome the public to bring their own wares for firing for free. The only catch is that they have to help to tend to the fire.“We try not to mark up our craft. We want everyone to have a piece of art at home,” explained Stella.
As the only third-generation family member in the business currently, Stella increased Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle’s social media presence and is now the studio manager.
Her day begins with a family meeting in the morning before dealing with communications and social media until the afternoon. Sometimes she’ll have to slot in lessons in the day or polish up students’ works and plan how to help them improve. During her free time, she helps amp up marketing for the retail arm.
Now that she’s spending most of her waking hours with her family, she mused that sometimes it’s also “not so good”.
There are definite perks, like having a greater flexibility in working hours or being able to take a vacation of more than 22 days. However, working in a family business means that there’s often no distinction between weekdays and weekends. Don’t even think about taking a breather on public holidays because work often gets busier then.
As Stella succinctly puts it: “The kind of “chiong” when working for a family business is different.”
Besides, it’s a little hard for her to bring up her plans to travel to her uncle, aka her boss. For instance, that upcoming trip she’s planned for August… (We hope you’ve managed to tell him, Stella!)
Stella began her foray into the business with no clear idea of how she could help but it appears that her efforts have paid off as her aunt reported that the workshop response has almost doubled.
However, she admits that the demand for retail ceramics has changed in recent years, with many preferring more modern and artisanal pieces. Though Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle’s specialty lies in more traditional designs, she’s begun importing more modern pieces with plain and minimalistic designs to keep up with the demand.
In addition, they’ve partnered with several cafes to produce customised ceramics. “More people appreciate and have a better understanding towards handmade crafts [now],” said Stella, adding that cafes and restaurants prefer to give customers a more personal touch with customised wares.
Keep an eye out for their customised pieces at places like Tiong Hoe Specialist Coffee, Joo Bar, The Summerhouse and The Tuck Shop!
“Things are endless; there’s always a lot to do,” admitted Stella. But she’s not fazed as that’s just how she likes it. “As long as we’re occupied and we can’t breathe, that’s something good,” she added with a smile.
While not all of us can be as chiong as she is, we really admire her mindset! In fact, the team previously made a trip down to Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle to try out their pottery workshop and were so struck by Stella’s drive that we decided to drop by during this year’s Dragon Kiln Firing session to hear more about her story.
We made the right choice indeed. Not only was the slow firing of the kiln a marvel to look at, Stella’s story really inspired us too.
If you’re interested in trying your hand at pottery and to meet this inspiring lady, keep an eye out for their pottery workshops on the Facebook page. Alternatively, sign up for their workshops through Airbnb or Klook.