In search of Aw Pottery

Entrance into Aw Pottery in Macap, Johor
Pottery paradise off the main highway

I started visiting Aw Pottery in Macap almost 40 years ago, usually en route to spend the weekend with Uncle Steven and Auntie Polly who lived in a farm located between Air Hitam and Kluang at that time.  The journey was a leisurely drive on the scenic route from Johor Baru to Air Hitam, often with a stop in Macap to see what was new in the pottery showroom. 

It was easy to spot the entrance to the showroom because it was marked by two giant figures that resembled a couple performing a Malay cultural dance, designed with a glossy mosaic covering of ceramic chips.


A section of exhibits in the Aw Museum
The distinct rough and rustic beauty of handcrafted Aw pottery has a special appeal to fans of ceramic-ware.  The founder and sculptor, Aw Eng Kwang, an immigrant from Teochew province in China, had the foresight to expand his market abroad to the United States of America and products from their pottery plants in Ru Yang, Chaoan and Guandong in China were exported for distribution in warehouses in Seattle, Atlanta and San Francisco. 

The small plant and showroom in Johor was a local tourist attraction and I often brought visitors there not only to see Aw’s artistic creations displayed in the Aw Museum but also to experience their uniquely designed restrooms.


Restrooms with colourful ceramic designs
I remember being fascinated by the colours in the interesting restrooms where the walls were creatively decorated by ceramic-ware.  Small bowls and plates were cleverly arranged in interesting 3-D mosaic designs to create big and small flowers and there were also a figure of a man and a lady that each pointed to the Men’s and Ladies’ rooms. 

The colourful mosaic designs outside continued inside into the restrooms and I was so enthralled that I could not resist photographing them from all angles. 




The view inside the Ladies restroom

Ceramic-ware in the Macap plant was first produced using a traditional wood-fire kiln that was nicknamed, the “Dragon,” because of its structure.  Sprawled across a wide atrium in the rear, this brick-walled kiln measured 50 meters long, 4 meters wide and 2 meters high, and had two side entrances. 

When it was fired-up, Aw and his team of workers worked 24-hour shifts in a carefully timed week-long cycle to prepare the “green” products, stack them inside the kiln, smoke them and maintain the fire before allowing the kiln to cool down. 


Inside the disused 'Dragon' kiln

After more than 30 years of spewing smoke and fire, the Dragon retired in 1982 and its dormant frame became a museum showpiece.  In 2004, I had the privilege to go into the cavernous Dragon kiln for a glimpse of the interior that was still stacked with dusty disused “saggars” or containers made of high temperature refractory materials, used to protect the “green” products from direct flames. 

It felt cool then but I could imagine the intense heat inside when it was fired-up.  Having been dormant for more than 20 years, this derelict space was already home to spiders and other creepy-crawlies so I beat a hasty retreat from the insides of this old Dragon.



Huge jars are part of the garden landscape

Aw Pottery remained popular for creative landscaping designs and garden deco and die-hard fans still found their way to Macap for their regular ceramic fix.  When the Plus Highway was opened, fewer drivers used the scenic route to Johor Baru.  As North-South traffic gradually bypassed Air Hitam and Macap, Aw Pottery ceased to be a popular stopover on the tourist map. 

Recently when a friend asked me about Johor ceramic ware, my first thought was Aw Pottery!  I gave him the contact telephone numbers to call but was later told that no-one was picking up his calls.  Since it was just about an hour’s drive from Johor Baru to Macap, it didn’t take long for us to decide to go there to check them out. 


After the exit to Macap from the Plus Highway, I noticed that the old road looked different because new buildings seemed to over-shadow the older structures along that way.  I recognized the two figures at the entrance to Aw Pottery and as I drew closer, my elation turned to disappointment because the front gate was shut and fastened by a huge padlock. 

I’m sad that my search seemed to have ended in failure and I had yet to receive any reply to the emails I sent to their American sales offices, enquiring about their factory in Macap. 


Last Sunday I was overjoyed when I finally I received an email from Aw Pottery’s Atlanta outlet that read, “Hi Peggy, Macap factory is still in operations. We are open from Saturday to Wednesday, closed on Thursday and Friday.  Please call the factory number at 07 – 7541476 during our normal business hours.” 

Without hesitation, I called that telephone number and was delighted when Ms Lim answered.  I then learnt that while operations have been scaled down, the showroom and museum are still open from 8am to 5pm except on Thursday and Friday.  I remembered my recent visit was on a Thursday and now knowing that they are still in operations, I’m already planning my next visit – this time, on days when they are opened.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 15 September 2011

16 comments:

  1. John La Croix9/18/2011

    You are absolutely right. I used to live in Singapore and frequent Air Hitam, just to go shop and visit AW studio and eat at their restaurant.

    They have the most unique potteries. It does bring back the nostalgic feelings after reading your blog

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  2. Thanks for your comments, John. Glad it brought back fond memories of Aw and their awesome pottery!

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  3. Aw Lee Lang3/29/2012

    Hi Peggy, thank you for writting this artical. I am Aw Lee Lang, youngest dautghter of Aw Eng Kwang. I live in Seattle Washington now and runing the AW Pottery Northwest Inc.I am so happy to find your artical. My sister and me are planning to be back in Macap to renew Aw studio and may be reopen the restaurant someday soon.I grow up there and have many sweet memories. Your artical has given me 'the calling' to go home much more urgently and sooner that my plan.
    Many thanks again.
    Aw Lee Lang

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    Replies
    1. Hey Lee Lang, I'm so glad my article gave you the motivation to come back to Johor again soon. I look forward to the revival of Aw Studio and that restaurant someday soon. Just keep me posted as your plans materialise and it will be my pleasure to share the latest happenings about Aw Pottery in Johor with others! Yay!

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  4. Anonymous3/29/2012

    Dear Peggy,

    I live in Seattle and am the husband of Lee Lang Aw, the youngest of the Aw children.
    I last visited and lived at the Aw property about 20 years ago. Before that too I spent many weeks/months there. It was fun to be in the middle of this big rambling property. I was allowed to do whatever I felt like - make sculpture, build ponds, even paint the house just for fun, and explore the huge property. It was idylic.

    The aw family is unique. A big family, the Aws were three generations living together in one huge house. Somehow everyone got along and each took upon themselves whatever job was necessary. Getting together for meals (many meals, I seem to remember) seemed to be the main duty of everyone in the family. Lots of talk at the table and since I did not speak Teochew I could only listen. Sometimes I thought the family was fighting but it turned out they were just chatting.

    The restaurant there was fantastic. I loved the wild-boar stew and even their sandwiches were delectable. Food, of course, was everywhere, and on the Machap road you could stroll out for breakfast for some delicious Roti Parata and Kopi Ow.

    Lee Lang dreams of going back to her home one day and reviving Aw Pottery. Most tour buses use the main freeway to KL now so they do not pass through Machap, but there is so much history adn atmosphere at Aw Pottery, and it has the poteential to be , once again, a jewel in Johor.


    Chris - Seattle washington.
    Also, I love your blog. So varied, so much personality, so well written.

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    Replies
    1. Hey Chris & Lee Lang,

      Thanks for your kind compliments! I look forward to the revival and a new chapter of Aw Pottery in Johor. Meanwhile, happy reading!

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    2. Aw Lee Lang3/18/2014

      Hi Peggy, I have been back to Machap since last May and started the reviving work. Part of the garden has a new look and the toilet had all new sanitary wares ,new glass roofs. I went back to US in Nov.to take care of business there. Now I am back again to continue part 2; renew the studio, showroom and the aw museum. I hope by end of this year I could accomplish most of the rebuilding. Labor shortage is the biggest challenge when I started last year. Please come by and give us/me a visit. We need you to start to hit the drum and start the buzzzz

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  5. Anonymous3/30/2012

    Hi

    I have many happy memories and pieces from AW pottery when i lived in Johore. I used to live in Kulai after my marriage and later in Kluang, so our journey home to jb always meant a stop at AW. AW was Awesome.

    The highway has its downside - we no longer have the time to take leisurely drives along unique picturesque roads and pass through towns and each one is unique.

    i have started writing down what i remember of growing up in jb but my writing is so different from Peggy's, which i enjoy reading.

    siva prasann krishnan

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  6. Peggy...I am Elaine's bro...I heard your name mentioned through her recently...stay tuned 'cos AWsome is gonna make a come back...we're going into planning mode as we speak...
    Jeffrey Lim
    www.jlimdesigns.com

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  7. hi, i will like to arrange a day trip to JB and am proposing a trip to Aw Pottery. please advise if there are any entrance fees and/or any other information i can have on the place itself i.e. any workshops available or some idea of how a tour of the place will be like.

    wendy

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    Replies
    1. Hey Wendy, It's been a while since I visited Aw Pottery in Macap, so please contact them on Tel: 07 - 7541476 from Saturday to Wednesday during business hours to find out more. They are closed on Thursday and Friday. Have a lovely trip!

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  8. Anonymous9/19/2013

    Is Johore Aw Pottery now collectable (and if so, where - Malaysia or the US?!)? I have a nice 1970s coffee pot (that typical tall 1970s coffee pot shape) - I'm not sure I'd sell it because I like it too much but it would be interesting to know if it has a collectable value these days.

    Chris

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    Replies
    1. Aw Lee Lang3/18/2014

      Chris, Yes, definitely a collectable item. If you love it you should keep it for a long as you can then pass it on to other family member. I am an aw family member has recently returned from US to rebuild aw pottery studio. Please come by and give us a visit. Products made today is very different of course. I am designing some new products for the coming years.

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  9. Hi Lee Lang,
    I am so glad to have found this blog. We went in search of Aw Pottery once about a year ago but just couldnt find it, even with GPS. I would like to make a day trip there. Are you open everyday, now that you have opened the studio?
    Susan

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  10. Hi Aw Pottery Team!
    Your factory used to be a must-visit for me and my family when we made our Hari Raya trips down to Bati Pahat during my childhood.
    My uncles and Aunties used to buy their wedding egg containers from you by the thousands, and I remember tagging along, admiring your ornaments, and choosing one for my own...a coin bank , or a vase.
    Time whizzed by and here I am with 5 kids of my own.
    I am here today because I am looking for the familiar ceramic egg containers from Aw pottery for my first daughter's wedding next year!
    When I googled Aw Pottery, ! was so surprised it brought me to USA!
    Well done!
    Anyway,
    I plan to make my way to Aw pottery soon , but have forgotten the way.
    Never mind, we have 'WAYS" , dont we!
    I hope Aw Pottery still makes ceramic bekas telur, becoz Im going to be ordering by the bulk!!
    Thank you for this blog, it has given me much info.

    See you soon!

    Puan A

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  11. Hi, I am from Kluang. My dad was a mechanic and he is the man that keep the generator in the Aw property, a Lister 61/6 running to keep the electricity supply going.

    My dad just had his 85th Bday celebrated just a few weeks ago and as an engine man, he talk more about the 61/6 more than the pottery.

    as for me, i will drop by soon as i am base in Simpang Renggam.

    i am looking forward to see the Awesome Aw returns to her former glory.

    many thanks for Peggy in writing this unique Johore heritage

    kind regards

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