Written by Diyana Jailani / 10th September 2021
(As seen above Urban Salvation Founder Ahmad Habshee & Ceramic House Master Potter Lim Kim Hui)
Pottery is one of mankind’s oldest artforms; its origin traces back to the Neolithic Period all over the globe from Ancient Japan to the Middle East. I had the chance to get to know one of the few well-known local pottery masters; Master Potter Lim Kim Hui & Shee Bee Heo of Ceramic House, who have chosen to put down their roots in small, sunny Singapore. I traded Uncle Lim a black coffee for an hour of his time and needless to say, the conversation was plentiful of insight. The romantic, working relationship between Uncle Lim and his wife was also equal amounts inspiring and adorable.
Diyana: I’m interested to know what made you choose pottery and how Ceramic House got its head start. Could you tell me more about your journey from the beginning?
Uncle Lim: Since I was a primary school kid, I always knew I had an artistic talent. From a young age, I’d join school art competitions and won first place most of the time so I made up my mind that I would build a career related to the arts. I wanted to be able to use my hands to create an art piece.
Uncle Lim shows me his PSLE certificate, carefully framed and put up in his workspace. The certificate itself is extremely yellowed and faded, with his Arts&Crafts graded an A+. Around it, there are multiple news articles and informative guides on pottery- a sort of album frozen in time that I believe he chose to frame up, to inspire his students and encourage them to continuously work on their craft.
Uncle Lim: To be honest, the reason why I chose pottery is very funny. I was serving my National Service at that time. I was a soldier. They brought us to Taiwan and the whole battalion of four hundred went to a porcelain factory together. They told us we had two hours to look around and browse through. In the end, I actually got lost. The factory was huge. I was looking around at every piece on display and got so engrossed, I lost track of time. I made all three hundred and ninety-nine of my battalion mates wait for me. And I had no idea. Uncle Lim laughs, shaking his head.
So, because of that event, I chose to work in a porcelain factory in Singapore. They did a lot of antique art work; replicas of blue and white porcelain vases you’d see from Ancient China. It wasn’t as interesting to me but that was where I really spent a lot of my effort and time practicing and refining my skills for the first ten years or so. After a while, the porcelain factory recognized my efforts and promoted me to a higher level, where I had more responsibilities and more projects to complete. But I wouldn’t call it artwork…
Diyana: And why is that?
Uncle Lim: There wasn’t much artistic control or room for creative work. When an order comes in, they expect you to refine the details as much as possible and there was absolutely no room for error. Now with Ceramic House, I have full control to do what I want and make what’s interesting to me. I view myself as an artist among other things; after all these years of sacrifice, creative control is important to me because now I can choose how I want my artwork to be showcased as. It’s very different from the work I did at the porcelain factory when I was younger.
Diyana: Is this where you met Mdm Shee?
Uncle Lim: (laughs and nods) Yes, I met her while working there. The bus ride from my neighbourhood to the factory was 2 hours from Bedok to West Coast, back and forth, so I always sat beside her and spent time talking to her and getting to know her. But I was in a separate department. She did the fine detailing; painting and glazing. My work was more towards the sculpting process.
Diyana: Then you chose to start Ceramic House together, right?
Uncle Lim: Yes, we did. After awhile we realized that there wouldn’t be any further promotion at the porcelain factory. Our salary was only about $1000 each. We realized that in order to survive, we had to set up a business. So, my wife and I decided to start Ceramic House with the savings we had. It was very difficult from the start; there were a lot of rental fees to pay and I actually split the space and rented out half of it to another party, just so that I could afford to pay the rental in the early years. In the end, it was a good decision. The porcelain factory I worked at closed down a few years later.
I consider myself a very lucky person. Since business wasn’t going well, we almost closed down. But out of nowhere a Japanese reporter came down and interviewed me. He took some pictures and we talked about my work then suddenly, a lot of Japanese expats started coming down to take classes. I started learning about traditional Japanese pottery from my students; the style that they liked and the colours they prefer. The Japanese prefer to have imperfections on their pottery pieces and obvious marks like the potter’s thumbprints added on an artistic value. I really liked this idea, so I started learning the Japanese language and traditional Japanese pottery.
Uncle Lim stands up to open a hidden cabinet, showing me his collection of pottery magazines and books – most of them in the Japanese language. It’s filled up to the brim with old books with fraying pages, and newer ones that look equally as used and browsed through.
Uncle Lim: One of my students recommended me to teach at the Singapore Japanese Association- the one at Tampines. I taught there for another ten years. At first, because of the language barrier I had a difficult time to communicate but after awhile I picked up words here and there. I owe a lot to the Japanese people and their culture- without their interest in the arts and pottery, my business would’ve closed down. At the time, there was no such thing as the internet or Instagram or Facebook. Everything was by word of mouth- my students began talking to their friends about Ceramic House and then slowly, they started coming in one by one asking to take classes, and using the kiln to fire their pottery pieces etc.
Every year or so, I always arrange a company trip together with my students to Japan. The area we go to is a rural village, for a month, just to take in the scenery and be inspired. We spend majority of the time learning from the Japanese potters there and refining our craft. My wife also likes the slow pace of the rural village life; it’s very calming and serene. But because of the pandemic, I had to cancel the trip. I really hope I can bring my students there again.
Diyana: Do you have any advice for people who want to learn pottery-making?
Uncle Lim: If you want to learn from me or Mdm Shee at Ceramic House, you need to commit. I will be very straightforward, and show you the techniques I’ve learnt and the materials I use. I don’t do pottery classes that are popular nowadays for people who ‘just want to try’ once or twice. I hope that there will be more people who come in with a very strong mindset, and dedicate their time and effort towards pottery as a craft. I want to pass on my knowledge to the younger generation and inspire them to invest in pottery and the arts.
If you’re interested in learning more about Ceramic House, drop by the Urban Salvation gallery to view some of their artwork! You can also visit their webpage www.ceramichousesg.com or contact +65 6784 0024 for more details.
Photographed by : Irfan Rosli (@_roniin)
Location: Ceramic House Studio