PRELUDE TO A POTTER’S KILN
Text and Photo by: Imu Chan
May 2019 (1st edition published in Taste of Life Magazine, February 2018)
When I was approached by Wendy Guo from the Luxury Home & Design Show to design a tea pavilion for wood-fired pottery master Chengtai Tian, I agreed on the condition that I could meet the master in person and see his studio. She flew me to Taiwan without further ado, just one week before Christmas. The following article records my first (and lasting) impression of Master Tian over lunch prior to visiting his studio.
To appreciate the art is to know the artist, the individual, behind it. It is a human-to-human relationship.
My fellowship with Master Chengtai Tian was kindled amid the December rains in the mountains of Miaoli, Taiwan. The first time we met, it was at a village hall. Master Tian was sitting next to me at the round table as lunch was served. To his left was his wife. Around the table were also Wendy Guo and Lauren Morency DePhillips, organizers of the Luxury Home & Design Show 2018. I was invited to join the trip because they asked me to design the tea pavilion for Master Tian in the upcoming event.
Wendy had warmly struck up a conversation regarding our visit to Taiwan and laid out our days ahead. Interspersing the exchange were words of admiration for Master Tian’s potteryware, which we were to witness after lunch in his studio up the hill.
While Wendy was busy praising and translating, and Mrs. Tian diverting the compliments with down-to-earth modesty, I noticed Master Tian rarely talked. Attentive yet withdrawn, he lowered his head and cupped his hands on his lap, as if he was holding the conversation in an imaginary tea bowl.
That day, Master Tian wore a plaid flannel shirt, jeans and working boots, his sleeves rolled up just below the elbows. His unruly grey hair was combed into a small ponytail. This would be his attire throughout our two-day visit, during which the cold rain of Taiwan’s December fell unceasingly. In summertime, he could be seen wandering in the woods wearing traditional hermitic clothing called bu-yi, a type of casual, loose-fitting outerwear made of linen, searching for withered branches and muddy clay for his next instalment. I solemnly reminded myself that in the future I would leave my dress shoes behind. There is no need for pompousness in the village.
From his modesty and quietness, it is hard to imagine Master Tian being one of the world’s most renowned wood-fired pottery masters. His short responses and long pauses contrasted with our loquaciousness, and I wondered what was occupying him mind. Restrained by my broken mandarin and somewhat contrived temperament of a city dweller, I fumbled for the right words to bridge the gap, to no avail.
A dish warmed the air. It was a plate of fatty pork belly slices with pickled mustard greens in thick, dark soy sauce. The dish looked vaguely familiar from childhood memory.
“It is called ‘Mui Choy Kau Yuk,’” Master Tian said, sensing my curiosity. I asked if it is not also a Hakka dish, judging from the restaurants we drove past upon entering Miaoli. He nodded. Hakka, translated as “guests” or “wandering people,” refers to migrants from northern China, displaced throughout the ages by upheavals and invasions. Travelling long journeys, the Hakka relied on various skills of fermentation to preserve foods. The belly fat in this particular dish was an important source of energy.
Whether intentional on the part of our hosts or not, I reckoned this as a heart-warming gesture to the three of us, who flew twelve hours across the Pacific Ocean, and drove another three from Taipei to arrive here, battling caffeine rush and an uncooperative GPS. A feeling welled in my heart that the two elders must have waited well past their usual lunch hour to accommodate our late arrival.
“Eat. It is delicious.” With a few words, Master Tian urged us on.
He supplemented his coaxing with an anecdote pertaining to a visiting German friend, who finished three plates of Mui Choy Kau Yuk all by himself. By then we were so convinced that all chopsticks went knee-deep in the gravy, sharing family-style.
As it turns out, Miaoli has one of the largest Hakka populations in Taiwan. Master Tian is also of Hakka ancestry, and Miaoli is his ancestral land.
After living in Taipei for many years, Master Tian moved back to Miaoli in 2007 so that he might build a wood-fired kiln, an essential infrastructure for his particular pottery technique. In the wood-fired kiln, the clay does not only harden, but also registers the paths of the flame and ash deposit, developing a unique luster and texture on the surface of the potteryware that are unachievable by those relying on artificial glaze application.
“He must have been doing pottery for at least some decades,” I ruminated as I observed his body gestures. Master Tian likes to cup his hands in front of himself when he is not speaking. When he eventually speaks, he sweeps his forearms swiftly, in short strokes, as if he is conducting his sentences, all the while keeping his elbows steady and close to his side. His arms are short but strong, his fingers stout.
I contemplated if this were not the consequence of years of pottery making, that the potter went through great pain to learn how to steady his arms at the pottery wheel, while his fingers, after rounds and rounds of moulding the clay at the spinning machine, have grown to be as tough as tree roots.
That afternoon and throughout the next day, we sponged in the wisdom of pottery making and tea drinking from Master Tian. All the while, I rigorously noted the various requirements for the design of the tea pavilion, gearing up for the upcoming Luxury Home and Design Show 2018 in Vancouver.
We learned the various types of tea and their pairing with potteryware, as well as the concepts of “mouth-feel” and “hand-feel” in tea bowl design. Master Tian showed us a tea bowl with a small protrusion on the side, created by a bee nesting in the soft clay while the bowl was still being air-dried. He would tell us that the same bees could be found pollinating at the foothill, where his ancestors had long ago planted some camellia sinensis. It is from this tree that the oolong named “Oriental Beauty” we were drinking was harvested. By the time he let us smell the beeswax fragrance at the bottom of the serving bowl, my mind had already drifted off into the woods.
All those lessons were still ahead of me as I sat in the restaurant at the end of our lunch. While we are getting ready to leave, Mrs. Tian had already settled the bill, and Master Tian was nowhere to be found. “Already gone to fetch his car,” Mrs. Tian said with a smile. “Come. He is eager to show you his kiln!”