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Unique Thai pottery tradition under threat

Rustic style introduced by Chinese migrants endangered as skills die out

A migrant worker from Myanmar cleans an earthen water-jar with a dragon motif at a factory in Ratchaburi. (Photo by Marwaan Macan-Markar)

BAN KHU BUA , Thailand -- As the monsoon sweeps across Thailand's flat, central plains, rivers and canals are filling up with the seasonal rain. In Ratchaburi Province, about 100km west of Bangkok, traditional earthenware water jars tucked along the sides of small Thai-style wooden homes are also getting their fill.

In Ban Khu Bua, in eastern Ratchaburi, the jars sit like knee-high garden ornaments, their distinctive brown color and yellow Chinese dragon motifs visible outside most of the village's 140 houses. Some have two, to catch as much rainfall as possible. Others stand solo, like squat earthen tubs on the sides of paddy fields.

Useful as their water-gathering function is, the jars are not just utilitarian. They represent a cultural legacy of Chinese migration that has left its mark across large swathes of rural Thailand, where the "dragon water jar," as some call it, is a familiar sight. The ubiquitous presence of such Chinese craftsmanship has earned this small province the name "City of Water Jars." The jars also appear, complete with the dragon motif, as a symbol of the province on official buildings.

Local officials like Tawee Aobchee swell with pride when they talk about how this Chinese legacy has made its mark on Thai decorative arts. "These water jars are part of Ratchaburi's identity and lifestyle, because everyone in Thailand knows where these jars come from when they see one," said Tawee, village chief of Ban Khu Bua.

Prachuap Preeprem, one of the last remaining master potters in Ratchaburi, producing an earthen water-jar. (Photo by Marwaan Macan-Markar)

But Ratchaburi is running out of skilled potters, all of whom are drawn from Chinese-Thai families who migrated from China to this corner of Thailand in the first half of 20th century. Provincial officials say there are now only 20 specialist dragon pot makers, working in fewer than 20 factories. A decade ago, there were 40 factories.

The despondent nature of a dying craft is not lost on Prachuap Preeprem, who at 41 is one of the youngest of Ratchaburi's last generation of water-jar potters. "It is a pity, because in the future potters like us will not exist in the province," he lamented, his long, slender fingers delicately shaping the lip of a jar on a potter's wheel in his bamboo-walled room. "I tried to train two people, but they gave up because the concentration and control [required] for this craft was too much."

In an attempt to preserve this Chinese cultural heritage, the provincial government is encouraging young people to join programs that promote "local wisdom" and artisan skills. "We are working with some water-jar factories to provide training," said Ladcha Pichitwattana, an official at the province's commerce department.

A factory worker gives the final touches to a water-jar with an embossed dragon motif. (Photo by Marwaan Macan-Markar)

But the lack of skilled fingers is not the only threat. Modern lifestyles are also undermining the province's earthenware craft. The owners of some water-jar factories have noted a drop in demand as Thai tastes shift from earthenware to plastic tubs. "Many factories had to close as the demand for plastic jars to collect water grew, and people started to live in apartments," said Dechpun Prathompat, production manager of the Rattanakosin Water Jar Factory, which has been run by his Chinese-Thai family for three generations.

Traditional producers like Dechpun are hoping that Thais across the country can be persuaded to place greater stock in the aesthetic quality of the earthenware jars and their function -- ensuring water stays cool -- to stem the plastic tide.

The jars are made from the province's distinct yellow-brown clay, which sparked interest in hand-made pot manufacturing when the Chinese migrants arrived, mostly in the 1930s. It was the ideal ingredient for local potters, who started turning out large pots embellished with culturally-symbolic designs. "The soil here is thick and sticky. so you need hands to make jars; it is not ideal for machines," said Chanyanud Chinpanuwat, general manager of Ruang Kong Ong, a water-jar factory run by her Chinese-Thai family for four generations.

A water-jar with an embossed Chinese dragon motif in a museum of a Ratchaburi water-jar factory (Photo by Marwaan Macan-Markar)

In the company compound, a museum traces the story of the earthen jars. Early versions sported Chinese characters that suggested prosperity, followed by jars adorned with signs from the Chinese zodiac. Then came the dragon motifs, which began to appear in the 1950s. "My ancestors escaped from China and brought with them their value for these jars," Chanyanud said of her forefathers. "We had 10 families who were making these jars after first arriving, but now only four (families) continue this craft."

According to historians, the potters were peasants from southern China who fled their homes because of political upheavals in pre-communist China. They were "not part of the 19th century wave (of Chinese immigrants) that came with the coolie trade to help Thailand modernize by building railroads," said Wasana Wongsurawat, a historian at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "They set up factories and produced jars with Chinese motifs in Ratchaburi because there were insufficient jars from China."

Even after they were adopted as earthen sentinels outside Thai homes, the jars remained on the margins of the country's decorative arts scene, failing to become as desirable, or as valuable, as their more culturally-refined cousins -- dainty porcelains and ceramics introduced by Chinese artisans in the late 19th century after they caught the eye of King Chulalongkorn.

Thanks to the royal blessing, pottery of this type now fills the shelves of high-end tourist shops under the name Benjarong, a delicate Thai ceramic product known for distinct floral patterns with a mix of three to five colors. "These became known as high-class pottery and [were] supported by the state and the ruling class," said Wasana.

This is a distinction that does not concern the remaining water-jar potters of Ratchaburi. "We need successors to continue our style," said Prachuap, who learnt his craft from his uncle when he was 14. "If not, we will be the last ones."

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