My first encounter with Singaporean potter Kim Whye Kee was when I was helping an ex senior writer from The New York Times Style Magazine transcribe her conversation with him. In that conversation, the then 39-year-old made a poetic comparison between his life’s journey and the process of making pottery. “Pottery is very related to my life,” he had said. “If you leave the clay unattended, it is just a pile of mud but when you put good intention and effort into it and follow through with the process, it becomes a beautiful piece of art. Just like life.”
When I finally met him this year, in his abode in north-eastern Singapore, for an interview for this column, Whye Kee remains steadfast in those statements. “Pottery is one of the best lessons I took away from in prison,” he says. No stranger to gang fights and drug-related offences in his youth, Whye Kee has been in and out of prison for nearly a decade. But it was during his last (and third) stint that he picked up pottery in earnest. “I took up (pottery) to take my mind off issues,” he said. His father, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer, had passed away six months before he completed serving his sentence in 2017. “I didn’t expect (making tea and coffee wares) to be my source of income and business today.”
In his humble home pottery studio, tea and coffee wares of various stages of finish are perched on the shelves in his living room. It was here where the interview took place and where he prepared tea for us. Watching Whye Kee prepares tea is an inviting experience. He first ‘cleanses’ the tiny clay teapot by dousing it with boiling water, which glistens under the light. He then places a scoop of dried tea leaves, measured with a trained eye, into the vessel, before adding boiling water into and over the teapot again. This hot water is subsequently poured off—a ritual synonymous with ‘waking’ the tea leaves within the pot—and more boiling water is added. The tea leaves are steeped for under a minute before being served in teacups.
The conversation continues.
After serving his sentence, Whye Kee went on to pursue his undergraduate studies at LASALLE College of the Arts, where he majored in Sculpting—thanks to his benefactor Mr Henri Chen Kezhan, a renowned local artist, who met Whye Kee in an exhibition within the prison compound and recognised his raw talent in his craft. It was Mr Chen who subsequently urged Whye Kee to amass his portfolio before sponsoring his school fees for the first semester. For the ex-gangster, entering college and interacting with classmates, who are younger and speak almost perfect English, was a culture shock. “Can you imagine someone like me there?” Whye Kee, who was not as proficient in the English language then, shares.
Even so, that did not put him off. “I had difficulties expressing my thinking as eloquently as my classmates. I had to relearn everything,” he adds. Still, Whye Kee remains humbled at the opportunities to meet and interact with his younger classmates. “There are people who have more tattoos than me,” he laughs. “It’s always a good learning experience with them.”
The Singaporean potter is still actively contributing his time for society. Recalling a time to when he was still living in the west, he would volunteer with grassroot organisations in Taman Jurong. The then-Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Tharman Shanmugaratnam, also a Member of Parliament for the district there, was Whye Kee’s other benefactor. Not only did DPM Tharman edit the reports Whye Kee wrote, rectifying his errors and teaching him how to write better, he also roped in a kind donor to procure a laptop for his use in college.
Whye Kee still makes it a point to volunteer today, both at Cheng San neighbourhood, where he and several others would visit the elderly in the estate every Thursday evening, and with the Industrial & Services Co-Operative Society Ltd (ISCOS), where he is part of the co-operative’s ISCOS Titans programme. In the latter, he, alongside other formerly incarcerated, would give talks to inmates in prison. These talks would run the gamut from his sharing on what life is like outside of prison to his personal recount of the struggles he faced when he was newly released. Whye Kee explains: “These sharings are usually secular too. I get to share about how I overcame my setbacks as an ex-gangster.”
The local co-operative also collaborated with the Singapore National Co-operative Federation to bring these sharings to at-risks youths and schools too. Many of these sessions happened in the pre-pandemic era, with the reformed ex-offenders sharing about their addictions with drugs and incarceration and motivation to overcome challenges.
“ISCOS allowed us to conduct the sharing in a truthful and authentic manner,” Whye Kee added.
Much of the 42-year-old’s inspiration is derived from nature, or life. His latest projects have been inspired from his observation of crashing waves—he would cycle and see them near jetties on the island. He emulates these multiform observations in subtle forms on clay, in the ridges of a tasting cup (where the mouth touches) or grooves of a lidded tea bowl (where the fingers clasp). Each of these features is made with intention, which he gleaned from experience or from the countless social conversations he had with tea masters and expert coffee brewers, who taught him the nuances that constitute a good pour and quality brew.
In today’s modernised society that seems to only rely on technology to make ends meet, old world crafts, like sculpting or pottery, that require physical touch and great finesse is a novelty of sorts. For Whye Kee who has made peace with his past, priming his attention to make practical and artful tea and coffee wares is not just a way to make ends meet. He explains it best in a single sentence: “To craft a living by hand is meaningful work.”
Here, read our in-depth interview with the Singaporean potter Whye Kee, an ISCOS Titan.
Ler Jun: Tell me more about yourself.
Kim Whye Kee: I am Whye Kee, a full-time potter and ceramist at Qi Pottery. I specialise in making tea and coffee wares. I am also a regular volunteer around Cheng San district. More importantly, I am an ISCOS Titan.
LJ: What is your role as an ISCOS Titan?
WK: I am part of a team of Titans under the co-operative called ISCOS. Under the ISCOS Titans programme, some of the formerly incarcerated would occasionally be invited back to give sharing sessions with inmates in prison. I have had experience in gang and drug use so I would share about my experiences—on taking recreational drugs or joining gangs.
LJ: What’s one thing you have noticed after getting released from incarceration?
WK: Society never really abandoned us. A lot of employers and companies don’t really care about our past offences. From a practical and profitability standpoint, employers hire based on merit and whether he or she can do the job well.
In fact, the term ‘ex-offenders’ does more harm than good. Think about it, we don’t introduce our exes to the people we meet, right? To me, the label can be offensive. When inmates complete their sentence, they come out feeling disadvantageous. They may have this mentality that ‘I am not strong enough’, which puts them in a negative downwards spiral. They may end up thinking that they are not ready for a fresh start. The label does little to empower them.
LJ: How are these sharings conducted? What sets ISCOS Titans Programme apart from the rest?
WK: These sharings are often done in a group.
They are usually secular too. I get to share about how I overcame my setbacks as an ex-gangster. ISCOS allowed us to conduct the sharing in a truthful and authentic manner. The team at ISCOS never once look down on us. In fact, they work closely with us with our sharings. The co-operative made me feel at ease and honestly, I felt as though I was doing my part to contributing back to my country.
LJ: You were mingling about with stakeholders and members of the public at the launch of NeuGen (ISCOS’ charity arm) at Vivocity a few months ago, right?
WK: Yes, I was. You wouldn’t normally see people inked with tattoos running such events in a public mall, but ISCOS didn’t care about that. They had us over to help at the event regardless. We also had the opportunity to share our experiences with curious passers-by.
LJ: Tell me about how you get acquainted with making pottery.
WK: Pottery is one of the best lessons I took away from in prison. I took up pottery course three months before I completed serving my sentence in 2007. I recall taking it up to pass time and to take my mind off issues—my father had passed away recently then.
I took up a pottery throwing course from a master potter, Chua Soon Khim from Sam Mui Kuang in 2016 before I started Qi Pottery. I didn’t expect it to be my source of income and business today.
Pottery to me is a game of patience. To make a good product, a lot of thinking is required, and you’ll need plenty of patience to do a good job!
LJ: How was it like making pottery in prison?
WK: It’s a simple process: you make the pottery, and the prison sells them. You get a small sum at the end of the week—I recall getting somewhere over $3 for what I did. That’s enough to buy one bottle of peanut butter and soy sauce. To me, it’s never really about the pay, it’s about what I gleaned from the process that mattered more: I learned how to work better with people and make situations work in my favour. That’s way more important.
LJ: What’s it like to craft a living by hand?
WK: To craft a living by hand is meaningful work. There’re so much to learn along the way. Pottery works differently from many crafts because the final products don’t always turn out the way you conceptualised them to be; so in order to make what I want, I have to work my way around certain loopholes or hurdles to achieve it.
LJ: Take me through the process of the craft. What goes behind the making of a teacup?
WK: I’d always say functionality comes first. The aesthetical appeal comes later. I learned a lot by interacting with the tea masters or coffee connoisseurs in Singapore. Understanding how and when people use teacups or coffeewares from these masters has helped me a lot in my journey as a potter. It can be the little groves along the ridges that can change things up. That’s the thing about talking with others, you’d always learn something new. It goes to show that you are never alone and that’s a beautiful thing.
LJ: What empowers you at work?
WK: Expanding Qi Pottery. To have a better life, I hope to sell more. And by earning more, I can help others to lead better lives. So, right now, I am empowered by my crafts.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
By Sng Ler Jun
Photographs by Sng Ler Jun