The only remaining dragon kiln in Hong Kong lies up a little hidden slope in Tuen Mun, near the beginning of a section of the MacLehose Trail, its entrance concealed behind a sudden burst of subtropical vegetation that interrupts the urban regularity of Tuen Mun’s high-rise estates. It is the last remnant of the pottery workshops that thrived in Hong Kong a century ago.
Tuen Mun is endowed with rich clay quarries, which made it a centre of ceramic production for domestic and construction use. In the 1950s, there was a short railway line that allowed clay to be transported from the mountain’s flank all the way to the factories. Nothing of that remains today but the Castle Peak Dragon Kiln, which is also the home of ceramicist and ceramic supplier Leung Pak-chuen. It’s the last material memory of this chapter of Hong Kong’s industrial history, and of the vital importance played by ceramics – both as an industry and as everyday functional objects.
Ceramics are so ubiquitous that we often lose sight of them; their history is often considered to be a rather specialised interest. But here on Castle Peak, and in the book Objects of the Dragon Kiln, curated by the Dragon Kiln Concern Group, this memory and knowledge live on in the form of very old pipes or temple decorations, small clay pots used to prepare winter meals or roof tiles, piggy banks or large jars for ritual re-burials, unveiling half forgotten histories and keeping alive the memory of how Hong Kong people used to live just a few decades ago.
The Castle Peak Dragon Kiln is a direct descendant of the dragon kilns that were invented by Chinese potters in the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC) and which have remained to this day one of the most interesting ways to fire pottery. The name comes from the fact that the singular tubular chamber, made of bricks, is built down a small slope, with a chimney at the rear end and a main opening in the front, which, to imaginative people, can give the impression of a dragon sliding down a slope. Once the wood in the chambers is lit up, the heat will move upwards and the smoke will be drawn out of the chimney, showing that ancient potters knew, through observation, about the laws of physics well before those were understood and described in scientific terms. The Japanese version of this type of kiln, called anagama, is still being built and used in Japan, where ceramics enjoy such a privileged space in material culture that many people today know of dragon kilns via their Japanese name.
That the Castle Peak Dragon Kiln could survive to this day is in itself an oddity, which has a lot to do with Leung Pak-chuen and his family. Sitting in a kitchen built just in front of the kiln, he explains that he was born in the kiln, and grew up right here. “I thought every family had a dragon kiln!” he exclaims. “I realised this wasn’t so only when I went to visit my school friends and saw that there were no dragon kilns in their homes.”
Leung was born in 1954, in what was, at the time, still known as the Kung Hop Pottery kiln (gung1 hap6 tou4 jiu4 工合陶窯). It was run by his father, Leung Sum, who had started to work when he was eight years old and had come to Hong Kong in the 1930s from Shiwan, a centre of ceramic production in Guangdong province. He looked for work in the same industry he knew once he arrived here. At the time, the kiln that was to become his home was being run by another industrialist who had decided to join the pottery frenzy of the time, but the business didn’t prove successful, so the owner decided to abandon it. It was Leung Sum who organised his fellow workers to take over the kiln and keep it active.
Kung Hop, formed by the characters for “worker” (gung1 工) and the one for “cooperation” or “unity” (hap6 合), can mean “cooperative” or “union.” In effect, this was the Workers Cooperative Pottery Kiln, established in 1951. It produced objects that speak of many Hong Kong traditions. There were large ceramic jars that every hiker has spotted up the trails, near burial grounds, where they are used to place the bones of a deceased person after they were exhumed, in observance of some southern Chinese reburial customs. There were penny banks in which children and adults could save their coins, and smash them to retrieve their savings once they were full – simple yet decorative objects, made using plaster moulds embossed with elegant phoenixes and thunderous clouds. They were also wine bottles used for tonic wines like Ng Ka Py. Green glazed temple finials and candleholders were also manufactured here, together with some religious figurines of the type that can be seen during any walk around town. Kung Hop was also producing strictly functional wares like drainage pipes, kiln bricks and saggars, ceramic containers used to fire other ceramics and protect them from the ashes flying around in the kiln.
“The last firing was done on June 18, 1982”, explains Leung Pak Chuen, repeating a date that is imprinted in his memory. “The government took over ownership of the kiln, and gave a small compensation to my father, as the development plan for Hong Kong had already established the construction of the Tuen Mun New Town.”
New restrictions on air pollution had come into effect in those years, meaning that firing a dragon kiln was no longer legal, but during one of the site visits conducted by civil servants, Solomon Bard, founder of the Hong Kong University Archaeology Team, became very interested in the kiln and wanted to protect it. Full protection has never happened, but somehow, even as construction was happening all around Tuen Mun, the kiln site was left undisturbed and the Leung family continued to live there.
Now, the Dragon Kiln Concern Group would like to revive an idea to bring the kiln back to life in all its uniqueness. It would be turned into a living ceramic museum that could again be fired and used as an educational tool, to remind ceramic enthusiasts and younger generations of the times when Hong Kong was a centre of pottery production, and Tuen Mun in particular an area of frenzied collection of clay that would be formed and fired to provide for the material needs of the community.
For now, this is still just a dream: new construction is happening just forty metres from the kiln, where a housing development is being built. And Leung is still living there, no longer firing the kiln, but keeping busy by supplying ceramic materials to many Hong Kong potters and making new experiments with ceramic glazes.