Wednesday, 29 February 2012

I bet grandma said, 'Don't throw it out'

Today we're at Wun Yiu.

Wun Yiu looks no different from any other suburb of Hong Kong - thanks to those charmless concrete houses nestled in the much more romantic arms of the woolly green mountains - but this location is extraordinary, mostly for what you can't see.

At Wun Yiu, now on the outskirts of Tai Po new town, ceramic bowls were made, some say as far back as 1200, maybe even earlier.

I know it looks unlikely. You have to see beyond the modern shopping plaza, soaring apartment blocks, four-lane highway, and sewage works. Ask yourself, where would you choose to work if you were a potter? Here you have streams for washing the earth, timber for the kilns, and a deep, thick wodge of fine, malleable clay. Perfect for bowl making.

Ceramics have been made from this site, probably for hundreds of years, but certainly since the 1670s.

In passing, maybe while house clearing, turning out the old cupboards, wondering about the car boot, you could have handled your grandma's serving bowls, perhaps the ones inherited from her mother, the most ordinary and useful of household crockery, maybe made from earth scooped out and shaped by hand at Wun Yiu.

It wouldn't surprise me. People were mining earth, pounding clay, shaping bowls, painting, glazing, and firing bowls in dragon kilns on the mountains here in a scale that the English pioneers of the nineteenth century Industrial Revolution would have envied. I'm told even the old name of the place - wun yiu - says bowl kilns in Cantonese.

Your grandma's ceramic bowl, the old one with the chip and the crack, perhaps you saved it as a keepsake, still useful for something, is like hundreds of thousands, turned out of each kiln from Wun Yiu for years, and years. One excavated kiln is said to have been 30 metres long with seven stacking chambers, capable of producing over 320,000 bowls in each operation. The china pots produced here were sent around the world from the ports in and around Hong Kong throughout all the trading times of the British Empire, till every home could have one.

I hope you saved the bowls she used, and the ladle that poured, pan to pot.

Because they're irreplaceable. You can't buy any more bowls from here, at Wun Yiu. The kilns, making everyday serviceable pots that your grandma, and hers before her, filled to the brim with the family recipe for winter lamb stew, stopped work in 1932. Wun Yui kilns closed down, the pottery huts collapsed and, unavoidably, the spoil heaps of rejected bowls were cleared for housing and a four-lane highway.

Every trace might have gone from here. It was as recent as the 1970s that an archaeologist studied the area and began to connect this ceramic-making site with others along the south China coastline, to realise that here is China's place in the history of your cupboard filled with handed down crockery.

But I get the impression it's not that exciting a site. I mean, the only visitors here today are the old pot lovers, and us odd-balls, teaching our children about another country's industrial heritage.

I'm happy. The kids can be archaeologists for the day. They visit the museum, kick around the tracks on the hills, poke at the soil, unearth pottery fragments, find misshapen discarded pots, and fill their pockets with the broken bowls that never made it on board ship and to your grandma's table.

1 comment:

Irene said...

I would have been excited about that as a kid so no doubt yours had a blast. Too bad you now have to drag those broken pots to England with you.