Pottery from the Imagination

Indonesian Ceramicist Tjung Seha

2020 / June

Sharleen Su /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Geof Aberhart

Tjung Seha originally hails from a Hakka village in Kalimantan, Indonesia. After marrying and moving to Taiwan, she began learning pottery from her father-in-law, master potter Hsieh Fa-chang. Through observation and her keen mind, Tjung learned to shape large urns. Optimistic and hardworking by nature, she single-handedly revived her in-laws’ pottery workshop, bringing new life to a family business that had been on the verge of closure.

In 1999, a young and eager Hsieh Chi-lung flew to Kalimantan, Indonesia to take a wife. “We actually met then, through a matchmaker.” First thing in the morning, Tjung Seha is busily shuttling in and out of the pottery workshop, while her husband Hsieh Chi-lung is in charge of kneading the clay. As the machinery inside moves at high speed, mixing and stirring the clay that is about to be thrown, husband and wife work together like a well-oiled machine themselves.

Twenty years ago, Tjung, a Chinese-Indonesian who couldn’t speak a word of Mandarin, married Hsieh Chi-lung, who is from Gongguan in Taiwan’s Miaoli County. Talking about how they met, Tjung can’t help but laugh as she recalls how Hsieh had already had matchmaking meetings with more than 20 women before her. Hearing her self-deprecating comment, Hsieh laughs too, adding, “It was her dimples that drew me in.”

Since marrying, the two have enjoyed a loving relationship, raising three children together. Tjung has thoroughly integrated into Taiwanese society, even mastering Mandarin in her first year here. After the birth of their first child, Tjung began to study pottery-­making, ultimately becoming the capable boss of the workshop Lo Ba Living Pottery. When she first arrived in Taiwan, Tjung hung around in the workshop every day and watched her father-in-law, Hsieh Fa-chang, at work. The elder Hsieh is a well-­established master potter and whenever he threw a pot, Tjung would help with keeping it wet. “It used to be that my father-in-law did it all by himself, everything from the glazing to stacking the kiln and firing it.” As she helped her father-in-law out, Tjung gradually gained an understanding of every step of his process.

“They say it’s the same as kneading dough. My mom made choi pan to sell, so we’d be kneading dough ­every day.” Tjung Seha was born into an under­privileged family and grew up helping her mother make choi pan (steamed vegetable dumplings) alongside her siblings. Kneading clay every day is much like those days for her, and now making pottery is how she helps support her family, just as her mother did by making choi pan. “When I first came over, I was there every day but I didn’t really know how to do anything. I wasn’t trying to learn, I just wanted to help.” As a child, Tjung was taught that “if you want to eat, you have to help,” and this was a big part of what drove her to do her part to help out her hardworking father-in-law.

Throwing pottery with imagination

During her postpartum rest month after the birth of her first child, Tjung spent every day throwing pots in her mind; “I used my imagination to practice shaping the clay on the potter’s wheel, no lie!” Once that time was up, the first thing she did was head straight into the studio and throw her first piece, a ceramic mortar.

At first the elder Hsieh wasn’t especially impressed by his daughter-in-law’s work, but he soon found that the more she did, the bigger her work got, and eventually a customer remarked to him, “Wow, your daughter-­in-law is really good at this!” It was then that he realized he had found a successor.

Miaoli has a wealth of clay and natural gas, which is what created the flourishing pottery industry there. During its heyday, Gongguan alone was home to some three or four hundred pottery factories. Tjung Seha’s father-in-law Hsieh Fa-chang is particularly talented at making large urns, and even before he would fire his kiln, customers would already be snapping up the finished products sight unseen.

By the time Tjung married into the family, though, Miaoli’s pottery industry was already on the other side of those prosperous days, with only five or six factories left. With prospects dim for the industry and Hsieh Fa-chang’s sizable urns requiring so much time and effort to make, even his own son wasn’t interested in taking over the reins.

A natural talent

When firing these large urns, one must be careful with moisture levels, which are affected by the weather—if the clay is too dry, it will be more susceptible to cracking, but if it’s too moist, it will be prone to collapsing. Finding that balance requires experience. Neither Hsieh could have expected that a young woman from Indonesia would have a natural talent for making pottery like this. Hsieh Chi-lung is effusive in his praise for his wife, saying, “It’s like she was born for this work.” Once she joined in, the workshop’s production grew almost immediately. She could work faster on her own than two ordinary workers together, so customers could feel assured that their orders would be ready in time. As a result, business began to stabilize. “If it hadn’t been for my wife taking this up, this place might have closed long ago,” says Hsieh Chi-lung.

Succeeding through hard work

Tjung has a naturally pleasant personality, and when customers call, they’ll often ask for her by name, even asking Hsieh Chi-lung to put her on the phone if he answers. Some customers also come in to buy pre-made product, and Tjung is just as good as a sales­person as she is as a potter. She is deeply familiar with all the studio’s products and eagerly uses this knowledge to sell customers on them: “We don’t make urns with a pattern like this often—I can’t guarantee we’ll have any next time!”

The whole family is involved in pottery-making, and when she goes out, Tjung will take some modeling clay with her and take impressions of any beautiful patterns she encounters. “For example, I like to go out to the markets and check out some cheap shoes. Other people try them on, but I flip them over and check out the patterns on the soles, and if they look good, I’ll pay the NT$100 and take them home with me.” The impressions she takes can then be made into tools that are used to make one-of-a-kind patterns on the pottery. This has become a secret weapon in Tjung’s family ­arsenal.

Significant karma

The capable Tjung Seha not only is a pillar of the family business, but also runs the household too. Making pottery, raising kids, running the workshop, taking orders, doing the bookkeeping, going to the bank... there’s almost nothing she can’t do. “I’m a jack of all trades here,” she jokes. To get a wife who is such a great mother and keeps the family going with her pottery, Hsieh Chi-lung must have accrued some pretty significant karma.

Having achieved some prosperity for her family through her pottery work, Tjung now also wants to pass her skills on to another generation, and as an immigrant from Southeast Asia, she says, “I particularly want to teach the kids of my fellow Southeast-Asian immigrants.” It seems like the century-old fires of Miaoli’s pottery industry are in good hands with Tjung Seha.

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