The Many Lifetimes of the Tao Hong Tai Ceramics Factory
Over 90 years ago, nearly every household across Thailand used traditional urns to catch rainwater, and Ratchaburi (or #Mudburi) was known as the province of the dragon urn. The dragons that adorned the urns symbolized strength and prosperity.
While Ratchaburi was once a thriving hub for ceramics manufacturing, the expansion of waterworks infrastructure and the advent of cheap, lightweight plastics forced many of these factories out of business. Only a few remain.
The Tao Hong Tai Ceramics Factory is a third-generation family business that’s brilliantly adapted to the changing times and become a popular destination for artists, tourists, and art aficionados alike.
How were they able to do this? And what does this picture of me getting hit in the face with recycled clay water have to do with it?
Thai clay, Chinese ceramics (first generation)
Many Chinese immigrated to Thailand following the “tutelage” period in China in 1930. Though Thai culture had already been influenced by China, these immigrants brought a new wave of Chinese cuisine, art, culture, and craftsmanship—including the art of producing ceramic dragon urns.
Chinese potters used red clay to make dragon urns. After sculpting, the clay urns are fired (baked) in the kiln (furnace) once for strength. The dragon embellishments are added in white clay and fired a second time.
In 1933, Tia Song Hong and his friend Er Jer Ming established the Tao Seng Lee (“Successful and Wealthy”) Ceramic Factory in Ratchaburi province to take advantage of the local clay, which had the same properties as the clay they used in China. Together, they produced the first dragon urns made in Thailand, putting Ratchaburi on the map for ceramics.
In 1954, Tia Song Hong opened his own factory, Tao Hong Tai. In addition to the traditional dragon urns, the factory would also produce various planters as well as ceramic jars for fermenting fish sauce.
The dragon kiln
The first Tao Hong Tai kiln was called a dragon kiln, a popular kind used in China that resembles the mythical creature. With flames emerging from the “head,” the dragon kiln could fire hundreds of urns at a time in stages that could reach temperatures in excess of 1,300 degrees Celsius. The temperatures are so high that the inside of the brick kiln resembles black glass.
As time went on, new, more modern kilns allowed the factory to make a variety of different pieces with more control. However, the original dragon kiln is still in use today whenever there are large orders of the hand-made urns.
Rise of the machines (second generation)
As plastics became more popular in the 1960s and ‘70s, economies of scale reduced the cost of plastics production. Combined with their light weight and durability, plastics became strong substitutes for ceramics. This had a drastic effect on the ceramics businesses in Ratchaburi, and many struggled to handle the plummeting demand.
By this point, Tia Song Hong’s sons, Chairat and Chanchai Supanichvorapharch, were now running the factory. They developed new techniques and acquired modern kilns that offered more control to expand their product line to include a wide range of decorative items—things that plastics could not easily replace.
As the world began to open up, the brothers also seized the opportunity to sell their products in the international market. Tao Hong Tai products were exported to Europe, the Americas, and Australia.
While many other ceramics factories crumbled, Tao Hong Tai still managed to stay one step ahead.
Art power (third generation)
With a well-established family business, Pongsak and Wasinburee, the sons of Chairat and Chanchai, respectively, had the freedom to study abroad in the United States and Germany. When they returned, they brought back knowledge on marketing, inventory management, sales, customer relations, and various business strategies.
The ceramics scions invited artists from around the world to come to the factory to collaborate and experiment, resulting in new exciting pieces and increased attention. They began building a bigger name for themselves through magazine and television appearances.
The cousins marketed their products extensively and advertised their ability to craft custom pieces. With a wealth of experience under their belt and access to many types of equipment, the artisans working at the factory could handle nearly any type of request that came their way.
The factory also became a tourist destination in and of itself, with a huge art collection, picturesque landscapes, walkways paved with a rainbow of ceramic pieces, and a small cafe. Watching the artists crafting pieces by hand is a truly mesmerizing experience, and many visitors come to the factory every day to take photos and enjoy some coffee. Artists interested in collaborations can contact the factory and receive an invitation to use the facilities to realize their vision.
Today, Wasinburee is building a social media presence through his artistic endeavors. Recently, he began the rad din (#ราดดิน) project to raise awareness around the Bio-Circular-Green (BCG) Economy by capturing jaw-dropping photos of celebrities splashed with recycled clay water.
I was fortunate enough to be invited to take part in the project, and I put my phone in jeopardy “for the ‘gram.” I never thought I’d spend an afternoon getting clay water thrown into my eyes and ears or that I would find it so enjoyable.
How to visit the factory
Longevity is adaptation
Keeping tradition alive can be extremely difficult. As the world changes, demand and technologies change with it. I believe that in Tao Hong Tai’s case, the key to longevity has been the adaptations brought by each generation. That—combined with high quality products and customer service—is what has really allowed the Tao Hong Tai Ceramics Factory to flourish all these years.
For my part, I enjoyed my visit to the factory very much. The owners were an inspiration and extremely accommodating, giving me a wonderful tour (when they weren’t throwing clay water at me).
For anyone looking to buy ceramic art or explore a unique place with a rich backstory, Tao Hong Tai has a lot to offer.