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Three Singaporean Men Who Refuse To Give Up On Traditional Crafts

By Kames Narayanan

The 39-year-old Singaporean Kim Whye Kee, founder of Qi Pottery, photographed with his collection of teaware.
 
Tung Pham
The 39-year-old Singaporean Kim Whye Kee, founder of Qi Pottery, photographed with his collection of teaware.

At a cultural moment when the world is moving at a breakneck pace fuelled by the monumental advancements in technology, the idea of making a living from an old world craft seems like a novelty. Here, we profile three individuals — a potter, plant enthusiast and jeweller — who literally, craft a living by hand.

Qi Pottery

“Pottery is very related to my life. If you leave the clay unattended, it is just a pile of mud but when you put good intention and effort into it and follow through with the process, it becomes a beautiful piece of art. Just like life,” says 39-year-old potter, Kim Whye Kee as he meticulously applies glaze on a ceramic piece for firing.

Tung Pham39-year-old potter, Kim Whye Kee, photographed in his studio.
39-year-old potter, Kim Whye Kee, photographed in his studio.

Observing Kim at work is a therapeutic experience that draws in the onlooker: His fingers, dotted with tattoos, knead the clay back and forth repeatedly, working out air bubbles before setting it on a potter’s wheel parked in the corner of his work room. As the steady hum of the mechanic potter’s wheel rings in the background, Kim’s hands and eye co-ordinate in a trained rhythm, smoothing out the block of clay as it rises to take form. Around the room, teaware in various stages of finish sit lined along the wall, awaiting completion.

These four walls are the birthplace of Kim’s inventory of handmade teaware for Qi Pottery, a retail business he conceived with his now-wife, three years ago. Kim’s journey into and with pottery, like the craft itself, has been one demanding of patience, perseverance and commitment. His initial introduction to pottery is a traverse back in time to more than a decade ago.

Life back then was an entirely different regime for Kim. Recalling a troubled youth and a subsequent crime-riddled progression into adulthood, he was sentenced to prison on three separate accounts, during the last of which, a five-year sentence, Kim first took up pottery.

Tung PhamFrom left: a piece of unfinished clay sitting on Kim's wheel; a shelf dedicated to the works of Kim's hands.
From left: a piece of unfinished clay sitting on Kim's wheel; a shelf dedicated to the works of Kim's hands.

“When I was serving my last three months in prison, I had nothing to do and around that time, my father passed away from cancer. I took up pottery to pass time and keep my mind occupied,” says Kim. It was there that he made his first vase — onto which he had painted a brightly coloured mountainous terrain overlooking the sea. His raw talent for pottery was apparent, even in the novice creation.

During an exhibition within the prison compound, Kim was singled out as a standout by renowned Singaporean painter Henri Chen KeZhan, who was in attendance. Seeing promise in Kim’s future, Chen funded Kim’s four-year degree of Fine Arts programme at LASALLE College of Arts, majoring in sculpture.

Yet, post-graduation, Kim hesitated to take up pottery as a career. Instead, he focused his time on community projects, during which he co-founded Beacon of Life and Beacon of Life Academy — as their names suggest, both initiatives are tailored to provide alternative avenues to youths at risk of illegal involvements.

“Everyone knows that artists have no future in Singapore,” he says in between laughter. The impetus to start Qi Pottery, however, eventually hit Kim, when he recognised the inescapable need to build a career that generates income. “I needed to work,” he says as a matter of fact.

The foundations of Qi Pottery were laid when his wife purchased the necessary equipment for making pottery. “I had no confidence, I didn’t know if my work was good enough and if people would buy them,” says Kim. Pushing through the inhibitive self-doubt, he dived into pottery full-time, under the guidance of local master potter Chua Soo Kim.

“I enrolled under him and learnt the basic techniques. From there, he told me to figure things out myself. If not, it wouldn’t be my work,” says Kim. Having an acute understanding of the necessary techniques, Kim then set out to experiment on the shapes of teaware. “When I first made teapots, I gathered feedback from tea drinkers, that it was too big. From there, it has been a process of changing the way I shape my teaware to create something optimal for tea drinking,” says Kim.

Tung PhamA wall of Kim's creations in his home.
A wall of Kim's creations in his home.

There are no specificities to how he conceives the form of his creations. Like the poeticism of artists go: “Everyday, I am influenced by different things and I pick up shapes from the things that I see. The form just appears,” he says.

These days Kim works tirelessly at honing his craft all while balancing the pressures of making a living through the art that he has been so deeply intertwined with. “In a month, I make S$4,000 worth of teaware and hopefully, there is sufficient demand for them,” says Kim.

Through delving into creating teaware, Kim has incidentally found himself as a part of a local community of tea enthusiasts. “It is always about giving back to the community for me. I come from an underprivileged background, so that is very important to me,” says Kim.

In the last few years, Kim has built a sanctuary around pottery, not only for himself but an entire community that he shares it with. To say the least, the risk has reaped its benefits but as a man who has weathered the toughest uncertainties, Kim has his reservations. “Hopefully, people will buy,” he shrugs.

Ivy Masterpiece

As a young boy, despite the many afternoons spent at his mother Ivy Choa’s jewellery store, Ronald Low grew up largely oblivious to the exquisite beauty of the jewels that he was fervently told to keep clear of.

Tung PhamRonald Low in Ivy Masterpiece's office space.
Ronald Low in Ivy Masterpiece's office space.

Since the days of adolescence, much has changed for both Low and the retail business his mother started some 40 years ago.

The physical retail store has since been uprooted and evolved into a bespoke jewellery showroom where Low — who was once indifferent to the craft — has been heading operations for the last two years and is currently midway through a 10-year succession plan to take over the business.

Low’s eventual involvement in the business is no romanticised narrative: his passion did not stem from years of watching his mother hone the craft, but instead, Low’s decision to get involved in the business was a pragmatic approach to a family business.

The business had to continue and Low was the only candidate for the job. “I knew I was going into the family business at some point but I just wasn’t sure when,” says Low. In the line to the succession of Ivy Masterpiece, Low channelled his time into growing into an adept jeweller. Following formal education under the gemologist programme in Hong Kong (set by the Gemological Institute of America), he underwent hands-on training in Israel where he also dipped his toes into diamond trading.

It was only then that Low developed an affinity for jewellery-making. “It was never really a passion of mine until I tried it out,” says Low. “I fell in love with the whole process of the cutting of the stones to the creating of the mounts and now, bringing it to consumers as bespoke creations,” says Low.

Tung Pham“There’s just something so romantic about handmade jewellery, don’t you think?” says Ronald Low.
“There’s just something so romantic about handmade jewellery, don’t you think?” says Ronald Low.

Working from an office space located in the heart of Singapore, it is there that Low holds private consultations with clients before sending out the bespoke orders to their private production facility — a workshop helmed by five master craftsmen from across the globe, tucked away in the eastern end of the city.

“Everything is hand selected and handmade in-house to the finest standards of jewellery. Jewellery is something that is so personal it has to be something that not only looks right but feels right as well,” says Low.

A devout believer in bespoke craftsmanship, Low sees the made-to-order model viable both in terms of the business sense and safeguarding the old worldly romance of jewellery-making.

“I think retail does not work all that much anymore. The operation costs itself is higher and with our inventory cost as well, that does not help either. Shifting to a bespoke paradigm also allows us more [freedom] to create things that particularly appeal to us and our customers,” says Low.

Tung PhamA behind-the- scenes look at a consultation session with Ronald Low.
A behind-the- scenes look at a consultation session with Ronald Low.

There is an upward turn in demand, too, for novelty acquisitions as more consumers seek out individuality in their purchases. Contrary to preconceived notions of exorbitant price and an extended turn around time, pieces at Ivy Masterpiece are tailored to budgets and timelines based on consumer’s needs.

“The fastest turnaround for a ring was within the same day. We had a couple from overseas and he wanted to propose on the same day itself so we made that happen for him,” says Low.

The bespoke jewellery business, what some may consider a dying flame, is progressively fanned by local jewellers like Ivy Masterpiece, who has found a way to move ahead in time with jewellery-making while keeping to the integrity of the craft.

“There’s just something so romantic about handmade jewellery, don’t you think?” asks Low, though it is meant more of a proclamation than it is a question.

The 3 Keys

“People need to talk to their plants in order for beautiful leaves to flourish. Just like in life, you need to shower humans with compliments to nurture them,” says Leo Tay as he gentle strokes the leaf of one of the many plants that he grooms in his nursery.

Tung PhamLeo Tay seated in his nursery where he retails and grooms rare breeds of plants.
Leo Tay seated in his nursery where he retails and grooms rare breeds of plants.

At the core of the sanctuary that Tay has painstakingly worked towards in the past three years, sits a dining area set up. A vintage table flanked by wooden chairs seemingly from another era stands in the middle of the space and in its periphery, cabinets of curiosities fill the space. The abundance of furniture — all sourced from local secondhand furniture store Hock Siong — are an odd placement within a nursery, if you will.

But in hindsight, it is an ingenious arrangement: showcasing plants within what is built to look like a living space — a valuable visual for novice plant enthusiasts building their repertoire of plants. Despite only being in the plant retail business for three short years, Tay exhibits a wealth of information as he rattles of the names of the plant families even zooming into specific breeds.

Tung PhamWhile Leo Tay specialises in miniature bonsais (pictured left), his nursery, The 3 Keys, stocks an array of rare and unique plants.
While Leo Tay specialises in miniature bonsais (pictured left), his nursery, The 3 Keys, stocks an array of rare and unique plants.

“The Caudex plant from the Stephania family and mini bonsais are the bestsellers. I also carry rare species like the Philodendron family,” he proudly names a few of the plants he retails under the moniker “The 3 Keys”.

“I was in the engineering field for more than 10 years but I couldn’t perform in the field. So, I eventually decided to quit and start a plant business,” says Tay. The leap of faith was a long time coming for the 38-year-old. Growing up in Malaysia with a father who made a living from farming and a mother who was a gardening aficionado, Tay was naturally a green thumb.

Yet, getting the business off the ground for the self-taught plant enthusiast was not without its own set of challenges.

“When I started out, I ventured into terrarium-making only to later realise that it was a saturated market,” he continues.

Tung PhamA collection of miniature bonsais sit proudly in Leo Tay's nursery.
A collection of miniature bonsais sit proudly in Leo Tay's nursery.

Tay continued to test the market, eventually hitting the sweet spot — miniature bonsais, the object of desire of a burgeoning group of indoor gardening enthusiasts. Meticulously scoured from across Southeast Asia and repotted in contemporary vases, Tay is steadily rising to acclaim as the go-to man for a generation actively seeking out all things Instagram-worthy.

“In recent years, I am amongst the first to bring mini bonsais into the Singaporean market [on] a big scale,” he says.

Since then, Tay’s inventory has grown in line with a better understanding of market trends and the resultant demands from consumers. “Just like the fashion industry, the plant industry also undergoes seasons. Two years ago, people were big on cactus and succulents. Today, people have [taken] an interest in foliage,” he says.

With groundwork laid to further expand the business, Tay is currently in the midst of planning a monthly roster of kokedama making, terrarium building and floral and arrangement workshops.