Alden Boon

Ceramication Founder Rayn Leow Talks the Art and Science of Pottery Making, Coming Out and Privilege



What to you is the significance of pottery? Is it fundamentally not just an ostentatious object, pretty to look at, but ultimately has no real value?

Porcelain, if you do not break it, lasts almost forever. It has undergone similar heat processes that natural rocks have gone through. The oldest pottery fragments that have been excavated — found in Xianrendong Cave, Jiangxi, China — are over twenty thousand years old. They were made during the Ice Age. The analysis of these archaeology finds provides a link to our ancestors. We can infer their technological, economical and societal states by looking at the materials, aesthetic presentation, and processes they had available. More important, we see how the modern world is built upon incremental developments of previous civilisations. Pottery, as such, is a form of record keeping of the human culture and human story. It is more than just making something nice and putting it on the table.

Likewise, our actions or inactions today, will be our legacy. If we cannot overcome the current climate crisis, then our future generations will suffer, because their living environment has been destroyed by us. Conversely, they may survive and leave earth to become a spacefaring race. I imagine this: twenty thousand years into the future, an archaeologist born on SpaceX Europa colony returns to Earth on a mission and finds a Ceramication product labelled “Made in Singapore”. From this product, researchers of this time can deduce that Singapore, now a barren tract of land, once teemed with homo sapiens who were advanced and affluent enough to expend enormous amounts of energy to create objects for enjoyment.

Very interesting. And what of the genesis of Ceramication? What would others discover when they stumble upon its annals?

That for all the beautiful things it made, its beginnings were rough and ugly. I had a huge fallout with my father, after I broke the news to him that I was going to set up my own business, and that I wouldn’t be able to work for him anymore. He became really upset and accused me of being ungrateful and that my decision was unfair to him. A point he would reiterate was that the biggest mistake he’d ever made was sending me to a western country for my education. He thought I had fallen prey to the encroachment of western culture. As a traditional man who built his business from scratch, he thought it was the highest honour to have a successor carry on his legacy. And as his son, I was to be that successor, willing or not.

I think, typical of men his background and generation, and having received little education, he has very limited vocabulary to express himself. He is more comfortable with expressing anger than with using words to communicate. There was a period of frequent outbursts from him. Some pretty nasty things were said. I really thought I was going to be disowned. I told my father once that I was already very worried about my future, and that I didn’t need him to make matters worse. That was one of the last things I said to him; after that we went into a cold war. It lasted over a year — even now, when we do speak, it’s only just one-word acknowledgements.

Rayn Leow Ceramication Singapore Entrepreneurship Coming Out Gay Singapore Pottery Porcelain

In the face of such resistance and agony arising from your refusal to assume his mantle, what made you take the plunge and set up Ceramication anyway?

I knew that if I didn’t leave my father’s company, I would be imprisoned by obligations that would eventually eat me from inside out. So, I took a calculated risk. I had a chat with my mother, and asked if she would still be able to handle the business without my help. She said ‘yes’ and that was when I was ready to leap. This is where my privilege comes in. If my parents didn’t have a business to support themselves, I’d not be able to pursue what I want to do in life as I’d have to be the breadwinner.

On privilege — because you come from a well-to-do family, others may be quick to belittle your eventual success.

My parents did not give me the money to pursue my dreams — my kiln, materials and equipment are bought with my own savings — but my privilege comes in the form of the space that they make available to me. Sometimes, I do feel ashamed that I didn’t have to work to get the space. I live in my parents’ house, where my home-based studio is. I would never be able to afford a spare room to work in. If not for my father’s business, I won’t have my current workshop to test my glazes and create my pottery.

It’s impossible to deny the advantages of having these privileges. So, the question now is what do I do with that privilege? My work has to help others, if not there is no point in doing it. My partner, who is a teacher, works with students with high needs, so I am privy to the kind of support that they need. In my head, I envision building a small space for disadvantaged youth, where they can experience the joy of working with clay.

On that note, your father allowing you to use his space, maybe he is showing tacit approval of your flying solo.

 Maybe so. He’s getting on in years, so I’m not leaving things to chance. This year, I will repair our relationship.

One of Ceramication’s values is ‘safety is the most basic form of human rights’. What is that about?

I worked in the construction industry for four years, and accidents were and are still prevalent according to the news, despite the government’s effort to clamp down on unsafe work practices and conduct routine inspections. Some accidents are fatal and all of them can be prevented. Every time a worker dies or becomes injured, I feel very sad for him. His family may lose their only source of income; in turn their future generations sink into poverty. I aim to create a safe environment for my future workers.

Safety for consumers of my products is also top priority. The reason why the development of my own glazes took four years is because I needed absolute control over what materials I used. As a rule of thumb, no lead, cadmium, selenium or transition metals should be used on surfaces that will come into contact with food. Of particular concern is lead, a bio-accumulative toxic compound used in pottery, paints, petrol and many other products. Although lead has been outlawed in most developed countries, mass-produced pottery that leaches lead into food is still ubiquitous and being made. It’s not just the consumers who are at risk — workers in these factories and their families are slowly being poisoned.

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Alden Boon
Alden Boon is a Quarter-finalist in PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. When he's not busy writing, he pretends he is Gandalf.