Prelude to a Potter’s Kiln

Architect Imu Chan’s humanistic approach focuses on light and nature, two elements he feels are essential to human well-being. He will build a teahouse specifically for a tea ceremony to be held at the Luxury Home & Design Show.

Chan shares with us his diary, providing a rare glimpse into the story and heart behind such a creation. It all started when he met a famed, yet reclusive pottery master in the mountains of Taiwan. 

Prelude to a Potter’s Kiln

My first encounter with wood-fired pottery master Tian Chengtai

To appreciate the art is to know the artist, the individual, behind it. It is a human-to-human relationship. My fellowship with Master Tian Chengtai 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 Chengtai was sitting next to me at the round table as lunch was served. To his left was Mrs. Tian. Around the table were also Wendy Guo and Lauren Morency DePhillips from Taste of Life Magazine — who had come with me from Vancouver, Canada — and Eddie, our local guide and photographer.



Wendy had warmly struck up a conversation with Mrs. Tian 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 diverted 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 Attentive yet withdrawn, he lowered his head and cupped his hands on his lap, as if he was holding the conversation in an imaginary tea bowl.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 to 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 the traditional hermetic clothing called bu-yi, 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.

Oftentimes, I instinctively sit next to a person I want to get to know better. It sounds counterintuitive and impractical, but I naturally shy away from eye contact, and would instead rely on peripheral observation and listening to connect with another soul. Now one of the world’s most renowned wood-fired pottery masters was sitting two feet to my side, and between his short responses to our questions and his long pauses, I wondered what was occupying his mind.

There was a magical moment when the Apostle Peter sat in the same boat with the Messiah for the very first time and watched Him preach to a crowd on the shore. In that moment, Peter came to realizations that would forever change his life. Though Master Tian delivered his sermon with few words, I felt profoundly changed.

Restrained by my broken Mandarin and the 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 Mei Cai Kou Rou,” 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 12 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 Mei Cai Kou Rou 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 Camellia sinensis. It is from these shrubs 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 events were still ahead of me as I sat in the restaurant at the end of our lunch. While we were 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!”

Imu Chan is the founder and principal architect of FSOARK, a Vancouver-based architecture practice. Through projects spanning a broad range of scales and mediums, his practice explores the essential, humanistic, and emotional qualities of space, which often demand cross-disciplinary examination. A licensed architect, certified passive house professional, public artist and product designer, Imu believes design has an obligation to the people and places it intends to serve, a capacity to influence life in profound ways. Imu holds a master’s degree in architecture from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was a visiting scholar in Japan and China, and has practiced in the United States and Canada.