At one time Singapore had 30 dragon kilns, today only 2 remain. These are long, wood fired kilns which were used widely across China in the 1900s to fire ceramics. At one end there is the dragon head, where the fire is started. The body of the dragon then flows up a gentle hill so that the heat will rise through the kiln. Wood is fed in through the stoke holes (the dragon eyes) along the side. At the end is a chimney representing the dragon tail which is also the highest point.
This seated Buddha is considered one of the Asian Civilisation Museums star pieces. To explain why let me first tell you that Buddhism has been around for about 2,500 years. For the first 500 years representing the Buddha in the human form was discouraged,so instead they used symbols to represent the Buddha and his teachings. From the inscription along the base we know that this Buddha is about 2000 years old.
This makes this sculpture one of the earliest representations of Buddha in the human form. He is quite different from any other we have in the museum. Firstly he is a little but curvy, he really looks strong and larger than life. He wears a very sheer robe over one shoulder. The sculpture is made from red sandstone, the smooth form of the hair is quite unique to the kushana period and he has this content smile on his face.
He is sitting in the lotus posture and if you look closely you can see the wheel of the Buddhist laws depicted on his feet. This is actually one of those symbols that was used for the first 500 years. So you can see when they started creating the human form Buddha they just incorporated those symbols into the human sculptures. Another of those symbols can been seen around the back of the sculpture. It was under the Bodhi tree that the Buddha reached the point of enlightenment. This means he was able to escape the cycle of birth, death and rebirth and reach a place free from suffering. The Bodhi tree is an important symbol of this transformation.
There are only about 5 other Kushana Buddha statues like this in the world, making it very special.
The semi circular roof ensures that the heat circulates. Apparently an experienced potter could work out the temperature just by looking at the colour of the flames through the stoke holes.
To give some idea of size, you can see you could easily stand up inside and the length is 36 meters. Apparently in China they would build kilns of up to 100m in length. The kiln is fired for 30 hours and then left for a week or more to cool.
The spots are reflections from the flash catching shinny spots on the kiln walls.
We even got to make our own pots, my first ever attempt, I don’t think I should give up the day job! We will get these back later once they have been fired.
The Singapore kilns are now only fired once a year and a whole celebration is carried out when and after it is lit. This is very much about harnessing the power of the fire and respecting it and in Singapore many school and community projects are involved in making items to fill the kiln.
Really enjoyed seeing this unusually piece of Singapore history and getting my hands dirty on the clay.
Nowadays Tiong Bahru is known for its Café culture and quirky shops but this is a part of Singapore with a very interesting past. Tiong Bahru estate, as well as the grounds of the Singapore General Hospital was once part of a sprawling Chinese cemetery. So next time you are in the area sipping your fairtade coffee or enjoying a refreshing craft beer keep your eyes peeled for those National Heritage Board markers and think about how life here has changed over the years.
· Public Housing – The Art Deco buildings we see today were built when Tiong Bahru was being developed as one of the first public housing programmes and where meant to house residents from the overcrowded parts of Chinatown. The horse shoe shaped streets and five storey residential properties create a very different feel from the usual high rise HDBs around Singapore. Block 78 on Moh Guan Terrace, built in 1939, still has a 1,500 square meter bomb shelter which could hold 1600 people, the only public housing to have been so equipped.
· Grave of Tan Tock Seng – Perhaps it’s not surprising as this area used to be a cemetery that the grave of one of Singapore’s early pioneers can be found here, on a hill facing Outram road. Amongst other philanthropist works Tan Tock Seng donated $7000 towards the construction of a Chinese Paupers hospital in 1844. This hospital is still in operation today, known as Tan Tock Seng Hospital, near Novena.
· Dancing Girl – Created by the same sculptor who created the Merlion, this Dancing Girl was unveiled on 1st August 1970. It was erected by the national day celebration committee of Tiong Bahru in the Seng Poh Garden.
· Community Centre – In 1948 plans were announced to build a community centre which included an open air cinema. In 1951 a stand-alone air raid shelter was converted into Singapores very fist Community centre and it is still there today. It was very active with films, dancing and entertainment and even successfully got permission to run a $10,000 lottery for its members.
· Bird Corner – The funny metal structure on the corner of Tiong Bahru Rd and Seng Poh Road has a very interesting past. There was a pet bird shop near here in the 1980s and the noise of the singing birds used to draw the attention of passers-by. An astute businessman, Wah Heng, who owned the coffee shop opposite, saw how the bird song drew people’s attention. He erected this metal structure so that bird owners could show off their feathered friends and listen to them singing whilst sipping coffee at his café, hence why this became known as Bird Corner.
· Tiong Bahru Market – Many of the stalls and vendors here have been in business for over 30 years. The original market called Seng Poh Road Market used to draw in people from all round Singapore for its variety and quality of goods and quite possibly still does. This is also probably one of the first food centres of its kind that was paid for by the Hawkers themselves.
Tiong means ‘to die’ in the Hokkien dialect and Bahru means ‘new’. So the name translates to ‘new cemetery’.