Pottery in Penang: A Folk Art with a Future

By Lim Sok Swan

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TO MAKE POTTERY, one must understand the nature of Earth, of clay, more fundamentally. It starts with sourcing the right body from five main clay types: earthenware, stoneware, ball, fire and kaolin. Several criteria guide this selection; these include the making process, the size and form of work, and the kiln type and its temperature limits.1

The clay body you find locally is relatively rough and cracks easily; it has to be combined with other clay types for the shape to hold, explains master potter Ooi Woi Leng.

Once the clay body is prepared, it is thrown on the potter's wheel for artistic shaping. This is followed by the drying process which can take up to a week; once the clay object has hardened into "leather"2, it is trimmed to remove excess clay, and reshaped if desired.

Ooi’s love for pottery is only rivalled by his passion for tea.

Next comes the firing processes. Bisque firing occurs first; this happens at a lower temperature range of 800°C which in an electric kiln takes a lengthy 10 hours. The clay object hardens but is still porous enough for glazing. After that, it goes back into the kiln for a second firing, this time with glaze. In a gas kiln, this process lasts 11 hours.

Pottery-making requires plenty of manual labour to yield results that will only be apparent once all the steps have been completed; it will show accidental slipups as well, says Ooi.

Born in 1970, Ooi's love for pottery is only rivalled by his passion for tea. He founded Lao Sher Tea House along Jalan Burma before Covid-19 financially claimed it a victim in 2020. Soon after, Ooi moved his tea business online and this freed him to hone his skills in making ceramic teacups.

He also manages the PPC Pottery Center. It was there that he serendipitously met his mentor Yasuo Okamoto in 2007. Okamoto had been invited by the ceramic manufacturing plant Asia Pottery, to give pottery lessons. There were about 30 participants but only a handful were locals; the rest were Japanese staying in Penang under the Malaysia My Second Home programme.

It takes at least 48 hours to imprint designs on ceramic in a wood-fired kiln.

"Not many locals are interested in pottery-making. It requires physical vigour, maybe that's why as an art form, pottery is not popular here," he muses.

Before Okamoto left to return to Japan in 2014, he took his students on a field trip to visit pottery studios around and beyond Malaysia. The expedition was revelatory and among these potters, Ooi found a community of support.

He was especially impressed with the late Lim Hua Choon, an established Singaporean potter, who taught him the theories and science behind pottery-making. They even participated together in the construction of a small wood-fired kiln, the Ipohgama, in Ipoh, Perak.

Breaking with Tradition

PPC Pottery Center organises pottery-making workshops for interested locals.

Most kilns today are powered by gas or electricity, and in the business of mass ceramic production, this saves both time and energy. But Ooi seeks to establish a distinctive style of pottery that is unique to Penang, and he believes he has found it in the wood-fired kiln at Artopia, Balik Pulau.

"I've used it four times since it was built in 2019. Sadly, the firing activities had to stop during MCO 1.0," he says. Still, the experiments taught him enough to know, for example, that it takes at least 48 hours to imprint designs on ceramic, and for a smooth firing process, supervision of the kiln's temperature must be regularly done.

"I always consider trips to the kiln as a sort of group excursion; they provide an opportunity to introduce more locals to the beauty of pottery-making. Who knows, it can be part of Penang's popular tourism attractions in the future."

Since Ooi took over operations at the PPC Pottery Center in 2017, he has been attempting to revive pottery exhibitions, such as those held in the early 2010s. But for reasons beyond his control, Ooi's plans have not been successful. "Maybe one day soon, it'll happen again and this time, pottery-making will be affirmed and appreciated."

Lim Sok Swan

is currently focusing on heritage studies. She believes that more understanding among different groups and cultures can make Malaysia a better home for all.