Unless you are a ceramics buff, you may not know what a dragon kiln is – but this is one of the best, and oldest, technologies for firing ceramics at high-temperatures. Invented in China probably during the Han dynasty, they are still in use in many countries where ceramics are highly valued. Hong Kong is home to a rare example, but it is under threat.

Dragon kilns consist of one long brick chamber, where the wares to be fired are positioned, before undergoing a wood firing – a type of ceramic production that creates beautiful, natural glazes. These kilns are built on a slope: as the heat moves upwards, temperatures in the sealed chamber  can reach up to 1300 degrees Celsius.

In China, the most famous dragon kilns are located in Jingdezhen, but they are also scattered around famous ceramics hubs, like Yixing, where the famous red earth teapots come from. Not even the most modern and expensive electric or gas kiln can reproduce the same effects on ceramic wares as a traditional wood fire kiln.

hong kong dragon kiln
Photo: Tsang Yat Ho.

Hong Kong’s little known dragon kiln is no longer in use, but it is in near-perfect condition, and serves as living proof of Hong Kong’s fascinating industrial history. Located in Tuen Mun, and built in the 40s, the Castle Peak Pottery Kiln is quite unique.

The city was long a thriving stepping-stone in the international ceramics trade: mainland-made wares would be transported to Hong Kong and – from here – shipped worldwide, at a time when the pottery trade was among the most lucrative businesses. The kiln in Tuen Mun, though, is the only remaining historical examples of the role played by Hong Kong as a ceramic production centre in its own right.

This kiln used to produce wine bottles for the Wing Lee Wai wine factory, but it also produced lots of functional wares for everyday use – like cooking utensils and folk ceramics. It also has an interesting place in Hong Kong’s labour history, as it was initially used by the Castle Peak Pottery Company, which produced ceramic tiles and bricks and other building wares, and, when the kiln changed ownership, it was run by its workers.

It started to produce under the name Tao Sing, and Kung Hop Pottery Kiln, or, in English, Workers Co-op Pottery Kiln. The kiln ceased industrial operations in the late 70s, but already in 1982 – when Edward Youde was Governor – it was earmarked as a potential Working Museum when Dr. Solomon Bard, the first Executive Secretary of the Antiquities and Monuments Office, was struck by the kiln’s uniqueness and rarity. Initial plans to turn it into a Working Museum were dropped, but the site was designated as one of archaeological interest in 2012, and then again in 2014 when it was granted Category III Grading.

hong kong dragon kiln
Photo: Tsang Yat Ho.

Now, however, the Hong Kong Dragon Kiln Concern Group has learned of a government proposal to use the lands surrounding the kiln for housing development, building so close to the former Kung Hop Pottery Kiln as to put it under direct threat. The Concern Group has drafted a letter detailing the threat to the kiln, and there is time until today, March 6, to sign it and make your concerns known. A rough translation of the main points can be found here.

If the kiln were to be ruined, and the area around it made unavailable for a museum and educational site, it would be yet another irreparable loss for the cultural landscape of Hong Kong, and for the preservation of its material history and identity. Faced with an inexplicable indifference to our local traditions, it is time to rally some support.

Ilaria Maria Sala is an award winning writer and ceramic artist based in Hong Kong. She has been living in Asia since 1988 - first in Beijing, then Tokyo and Hong Kong, with long detours in Shanghai and Kathmandu. Her byline has appeared in Le Monde, the New York Times, the Guardian, ArtNews, El Periódico and La Stampa, among others. Her latest book is Pechino 1989, published by Una Città in 2019. Follow her on Twitter.