ANCIENT POTTERY IN VIGAN, ILOCOS SUR
(all photos in this page are property of J.R.Perdigon)
 
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Our family spent the '97 Christmas holidays roaming through Abra and the Ilocos Provinces in Northern Philippines. While there, we visited Vigan, a very interesting city in the Province of Ilocos Sur facing the South China Sea. We found in Vigan a Chinese pottery shop with such an interesting story that I decided to publish it here for the enjoyment of all fellow cybernauts. Some of the photos we took during the trip serve to illustrate my recollections. I wish the story gives you as much pleasure as I had visiting the site and writing about it.

I revisited Vigan in the company of my wife in March of 2007, this time with a digital SLR camera that allowed me to take new vistas of a better quality and to replace old ones having poor resolution as they  were taken on film and scanned with rather primitive equipment. I only kept two pictures from the old collection, those of the kiln, I missed taking good ones of this part of the pottery. The page has now more pictures than the old one as I have a much larger collection to select from, 83 pictures of the city and 88 of the pottery to be exact.

More photos (JR Perdigon) of Vigan here

The city
Vigan is one of the oldest cities in the Philippines. The old Spanish settlement in Vigan was called Ciudad Fernandina. The name became Nueva Segovia when the see of the diocese of the same name was transferred from Lal-Lo in Cagayan Valley to Ciudad Fernandina in the XVIII century. Vigan became an important political, military, cultural, and religious center. It still preserves pavements of cobbled stones in streets between some two dozen blocks of colonial homes typical of the place.

These two-story old homes follow a common architectural plan with ground floors built of stone or bricks, a backyard with abundant vegetation and an occasional water well, and an interior hardwood grand staircase leading to the upper floor done also in hardwood, if not stone. The ground floor has a large wooden gate and is used as storage and shed, it has no windows. The second floor opens on the four sides with sliding windows made of wooden frames that hold flat, semi-transparent "capiz" (a tropical scallop) shells. In old times, roofs were thatched with 'cogon', a tough tall grass whose only use seems to be roofing. Today most roofs, even on the colonial homes, are of tin like in most of the rest of the country. Many of the old homes are still lived in, others are used as curio shops or offices. A few owned by old prominet families have been converted to museums of local interest.

The only vehicles allowed on the cobbled streets are 'carretelas': one-pony, two-seat cabrioles on spoked wooden wheels with steel ties. The old homes, the unhurried pedestrians, and the horse-drawn traffic make for a very pleasant old-world ambiance not very common in other Philippine towns today.

For a sort description-cum-history of Vigan click
Vigan: the city

The shop
Vigan has an ancient pottery shop established by a family of Chinese immigrants about two centuries ago. It is known today by its commercial name RJ Jars. Practically nothing has changed ever since in the establishment: ownership was kept in the same family for generations until today, and the shop still produces the same every-day utilitarian pieces with a technology that stayed the same since it was imported from China. We learned all the details and history of the shop operations from the present owner, a very pleasant middle-aged ethnic Chinese lady, and very patient too, for we really fielded a lot of questions. I was under the mistaken notion that her name was Patricia Amistad, a name given to me by an anonimous email correspondent shortly after I published the web page. I learned now, and stand corrected, from the same lady that she is really Teresita Alcid, proprietess of RJ Jars in Vigan.

The clay vessel whose manufacture is shown in the accompanying pictures was made outside of the shop's normal production schedule. The day we visited the shop, the workers were removing finished products from the kiln and nobody was working on clay. Then we started asking questions from Mam Teresita on the manufacturing process. She saw so much curiosity in our questions and was so accommodating that she called one of her potters and asked him to do a sample so we could appreciate the details of the craft. This allowed us to take pictures, some of which illustrate the story on this page.

The shop, with its tools and fixtures, is a rather rural and primitive affair. One finds in it none of the amenities of a modern shop except for the presence of a few electric bulbs. It is a large rectangular structure with low brick walls that do not reach the tin roof on timbers. The floor is earth hardened by two centuries of treading on it. The craftsman in the picture is at work near one end of the shop which is open to the outside. The brick wall in front of him does not reach the roof and against the low wall is his work bench: a wooden board resting on a stone and mortar foot. The kiln is built across the other end of the shop, far to the left of the potter. The kiln is a 30-meter long clay-and-brick structure semicircular in section resting on a natural incline of the terrain with a tall entrance at one end and a fire-feeding opening at the other. The kiln floor is also earthen. The potter works seated on a rough bench.

Working with clay
From beginning to end, all the steps in the process of pottery production are done according to skills passed from parents to children and perfected through long years of practice without benefit of written manuals, time-and-motion studies or established quality control procedures.

Making a clay vessel begins with kneading the wet clay with the hands to attain the proper humidity and consistency. Wet clay for the day's work is kept in mounds in the shade covered by sack cloth to keep dampness. The clay for the shop is procured in the vicinity and is of a quality that pieces produced from it have a deep dark brown, almost burnt sheen.

The potter's wheel
Next comes the modeling process. The potter carefully positions the clay lump he just worked on the center of the potter's wheel and starts turning it.

The wheel is rather large and very heavy as can be seen in the pictures.

In olden times, the wheel was wooden, today it is made of concrete. The wheel should be heavy enough to develop sufficient momentum to turn unaided for six or seven minutes. 
To achieve this, the potter pushes with his foot, steadily increasing the wheel speed for one or two minutes. He keeps balance by holding on to something, sometimes a loop of rope above his head.
 When enough speed is reached, the potter works the clay lump shaping it with his hands, aided by the rotation of the wheel to achieve symmetry. He uses one hand to mold the exterior while the other works the vessel interior, both hands working in coordination with smooth movements.
 

It took him some six minutes to mold the vessel in the picture, about a foot tall. He had to finish it before the wheel stopped or the vase would have a poor consistency and would break or misshape while firing in the kiln.


 

Remarkable craftsmanship, and a good measure of concentration, muscular strength and accuracy, are needed to attain a quick finish with the quality and evident elegant proportions seen in the vessel fashioned in front of our eyes.

More pottery photos (JR Perdigon)  here
  Watch video:

The kiln
Kiln baking comes next. There is a partial description of the kiln at the beginning of this web page. Horno/Kiln 1One of the pictures accompanying this paragraph shows the main kiln door behind the group of (from right) Patricia, my yougest daughter, Mam Teresita, my wife Jeanette, and eldest daughter Arjay. Horno/Kiln 2The day we visited the pottery shop the kiln was thoroughly cooled and the door was open so we could peep and walk inside. The door is sealed with bricks during cooking. The kiln slopes down from the door getting narrower until it ends in an opening scarcely two feet in diameter through which fire is started and tended.

Next picture shows the insides of the kiln as seen from the entrance. Several large vessels just fired can be seen as well as some of the artisans that were removing the kiln-finished pottery pieces. Two light points on the right wall are removable electric bulbs whose glow impedes seeing an opening on the right side, some ten meters down the incline, to facilitate removing the smaller pieces from the kiln. A kiln load could fill two medium size trucks with pottery.

The kiln fire is fed with "cacawate" firewood. Cacawate is a small tree grown for natural fencing and to provide shade in cocoa plantations. There is no temperature control. Firing the pottery takes about three days, the time to stop feeding firewood and later to open the kiln being a matter of instinctive know-how born of experience. Determining the time is a very critical decision: too early and the pieces, not sufficiently fired, will crumble; too late and they will be overcooked and get brittle or even broken.
 

It takes almost a week to cool the kiln enough to remove the pieces. Since there is no way the firing time can be established with any accuracy, a good deal of the pieces, maybe a fifth of the load, come out broken, cracked, and/or misshapen. Not all of it is a loss, though. Misshapen pieces in particular pose no problem, especially with vessels as large as those seen in the picture above: all these pieces are originals and no two freaks turn out the same, which is fine for garden ornaments and other similar uses.

My theory on how and why this kiln works.
The flash fire in an escalator of the London's
Charing Cross subway station (1987)
helps to understand it

The RG Jars' kiln is of a rare type that originated in Asia and got a Japanese name: Anagama. It is an inclined tunnel approximately 30 meters  long with a slope of some 25-30 degrees. It has two openings, the lower some two feet in diameter serves as the firebox, and the upper some  six feet wide, near the flue, is used to bring into and clear pieces from the kiln. Pots and jars are arranged inside with fire wood all the way in between them. In this peculiar technology, only the firewood at the lower opening is fired. The rest fires very quickly so that the temperature inside from the beginning is kept uniform through the kiln. According to Doña Teresita, heat reaches some 2,000 degrees F.

How does the fiery accident in Charing Cross relate to this ancient pottery in Vigan?

The cause of the fire was quickly found: a live cigarette but fell through the gaps between the escalator’s wooden steps onto a mixture of grease, dust and other debris accumulated on the rails below, initiating a small slow fire. What baffled the investigators at the time was how a small fire turned suddenly into a huge catastrophic conflagration and what fueled it.

It took months after the disaster and many false starts before the cause of the flash fire was found. With the aid of computer models, it was found that a confluence of  two known effects happen in fires inside inclined shafts. They are called the Coanda effect (on fluids) and the "flashover" effect (on fires.) Simply  explained, flames in an inclined shaft have the tendency to bend towards the shatf surface nearer the source. If there are materials in the surface  that release flammable gasses when heated, like the escalator's wooden steps in Charing Cross, the fire heats very rapidly the area ahead releasing hot flammable gasses that when  ignited in turn create a self-fed jet of flame. This flame jet surges forward at great speed (the "flashover") engulfing the shaft once the  temperature of the released gasses reach a certain degree. The fire is extinguished when all flammable materials are spent. The theory was tested and confirmed in a model constructed in an open field to replicate the conflagration.

The RG Jars' kiln is an inclined shaft. Fire is started at the lower end that begins bending towards the floor, heating the firewood spread ahead  of it through the kiln. The heat of the lit firewood releases gasses ahead that eventually reach flaming temperatures and a jet of flame fills quickly  the kiln surrounding the pieces therein and cooking the clay in the pots with uniform heat.

This is computer-aided knowledge developed in the 1980's. Two hundred years ago a group of Chinese migrants in the Philippines developed  in Vigan a pottery model that instinctively applied that knowledge, fruit of their ancestors' centuries-long experience with baking clay in kilns back  home.
 

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Web Page by Jose R. Perdigon
Last Updated March 28, 2007
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