The Return of Aw Pottery
If you are a child of the ‘70s, you will probably be familiar with Aw Pottery. This brand made such a strong impact in the 1970s that ceramic enthusiasts may never part with the Aw pieces they own because these are now valuable collectibles.
The signature strokes of founder and sculptor, the late Aw Eng Kwang, garnered a host of fans and his masterpieces are still on display at our National Museum and the Singapore National Museum.
Back when Uncle Steven and his family lived at the Institute Haiwan dairy farm near Kluang, our family often spent weekends with them and enroute to the farm, we made regular visits to the pottery showroom.
Before the age of modern highways, our journey was a leisurely drive on the scenic route from Johor Baru to Ayer Hitam with a stop at Aw Pottery in Macap and onward to Kluang. So my love affair with Aw Pottery started more than 40 years ago.
Over the years, I often brought visitors and fans of ceramic-ware here who could appreciate the rough and rustic beauty of handcrafted Aw Pottery.
I distinctly remember how its entrance off the main road, was marked by sculptures of a pair of traditional Malay dancers covered with a mosaic of ceramic chips.
With the opening of the North-South Expressway, cars and tour buses abandoned the scenic route and Aw Pottery gradually ceased to be a popular destination on the tourist map.
But die-hard fans in search of creative pottery designs and garden deco, still found their way to Macap.
When I shared my fond recollections of Aw Pottery in a news article six years ago, Pottery paradise off the main highway (NST, Johor Streets 15 Sept 2011), I was pleasantly surprised to receive feedback from readers and members of the Aw family, now based in the United States of America.
In mid-1940, Aw, an immigrant from Chaozhou (Teochew) province in China, brought his skills in pottery making to Johor and set up a kiln at Macap.
His humble beginning was in producing latex cups to supply the booming rubber industry here.
Besides opening a small pottery plant in Johor, he had the foresight to expand his market abroad to the USA and products from their China pottery plants in Ru Yang, Chaoan and Guandong were exported for distribution in Seattle, Atlanta and San Francisco.
In 1980 Aw and his wife retired in Berkeley, California, where they passed away in 1996 and 2012, respectively.
In 2011, the email I received from the youngest daughter of Aw, Lee Lang, who operates Aw Pottery Northwest Inc., Seattle read: “I’m so happy to find your article. My sister and I are planning to be back in Macap to renew Aw studio and maybe reopen the restaurant someday soon. I grew up there and have many sweet memories. Your article has given me “the calling” to go home much more urgently and sooner than my plan.”
True to her word, Lee Lang and her sister, Lee Hwa, returned to Macap in May 2012 and started work to restore Aw Pottery to its former glory from 2013.
Work began on two of their main attractions – the garden and their uniquely designed restrooms – while the entire property was tidied up with changing the roof and redecorating the showroom and the Aw Museum.
Lee Lang and I stayed in touch by email and in 2014, we finally met when she invited me over for a sneak peek of the refurbishing work at Aw Pottery – Johor’s pottery paradise in the 1970s.
She fondly recalled that she was about 13 years old when Aw Pottery was at its peak in 1973.
Aw’s talent was undiscovered until his and children’s ceramic art were showcased at the First Sculpture Exhibition in Singapore, in 1967, followed by a solo sculpture exhibition in Kuala Lumpur in 1968.
In a tour of the Aw Museum, Lee Lang showed me the art by Aw and his family, created with traditional methods from China combined with local and modern designs in a distinctive Malaysian style.
Exactly 10 years ago in 2004, I had my first walk-through within the 50-meter long wood-fire kiln that her father built to bake his ceramics. Dubbed, ‘the dragon kiln’ for its length and shape, the kiln breathed its last in 1982.
Left dormant since, its interior measuring 4 meters wide and 2 meters high, was then a dim and derelict, spider-infested cavern, littered with disused ‘saggars’ or containers made of high temperature refractory materials, used to protect the ‘green’ products from direct flames.
My second visit into the dormant dragon was with Lee Lang and it was a distinctly different experience. Lighted by the glow of coloured lamps, I saw disused ‘saggars’ neatly lined up against the walls and the entire length of the tunnel was clear of cobwebs!
It’s taking years of hard work for Lee Lang to upgrade the rambling property, applying new ideas to preserve the family’s legacy and a great deal was yet to be done so I waited with eager anticipation as everything was taking shape, slowly but surely.
Fast forward to today: The pair of graceful dancers are still standing guard at the entrance with a new signboard that reads, Aw Pottery Studio. My car tyres crunch to a halt in the parking area, grinding over a fresh layer of gravel laid on the packed-earth ground.
The same flight of steps leads up to the showroom with a front courtyard, landscaped with a variety of ceramic pots and jars in a creative cluster with a water feature.
I see staff inside the office and a few visitors browsing around but my eyes are riveted to the impressive changes in the extended showroom.
There’s something familiar, yet all new to me. Clever use of lighting, artistic displays and the ingenious ways water is featured, all work together to present a cool and calming ambience, one that visitors feel like taking home with them!
A glass wall separates the showroom from the newly set-up Aw Museum and I step inside, holding my breath in awe as I recognise some of Aw’s masterpieces, now displayed to its best advantage. It feels so good to see what Lee Lang has accomplished since we last met here.
Next to the bust of Tunku Abdul Rahman sculptured by Aw, I read its title, ‘Father of Malaysia’ and the small print which reminds me that this is only a replica of the masterpiece being exhibited in Muzium Negara, Kuala Lumpur.
Next to it, black-and-white photos show Aw with our nation’s first Prime Minister, shot at the unveiling of this sculpture.
I take my time to admire each piece of artwork and can’t help smiling at the sculpture of a voluptuous woman dressed in baju kebaya, entitled, ‘Let’s go to pasar malam.’ How women dressed to go out in the 1960s is beautifully preserved in this priceless piece of art by Aw.
Armed with my camera, I explore the garden – now looking lush and matured – as I head over to the restrooms, eager to see how these famous bathrooms have been restored.
They are just as I remember, its outer walls with outlines of male and female figures dressed in traditional Malay costumes to indicate the Gents and Ladies and decorated by a creatively arranged mosaic of little bowls, saucers and ash-trays in a colourful three-dimensional design.
The interesting mosaic designs outside continues into the restrooms, the wash basin area and around the mirrors, now brightly lit by natural light streaming through fiber-glass roofs.
I’m going into the showroom again through its side entrance when I suddenly see Lee Lang with her hands full of ceramic jars and we both stop in surprise. “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?” she cried! I just didn’t know she is back in Johor.
What follows is a happy reunion as Lee Lang shares with me, how she is developing handicraft activities and was inviting artists to inspire others and showcase their work here.
From a recent visit by a Japanese guest artist from Nagoya, Hiroshi Taruta, a range of handmade tableware was created.
As we go on a tour of the new showroom, I compliment Lee Lang for restoring Aw Pottery so beautifully and rebranding it as Aw Pottery Studio for ceramic enthusiasts to enjoy workshops in the art of pottery-making here. I'm sure her father approves of all that she has done.
Aw Pottery Studio at 13 Kampung Macap, Johor, is open from 8.30am to 5pm, Friday to Tuesday only. Advance arrangements advised for group tours and ceramic workshop activities, Tel: +607 – 7541476.