Meet the Second-Generation Potters Spreading Joy Bowl by Bowl
TEXT / AMI BARNES
PHOTOS / CHEN CHENG-KUO
For decades, the town of Yingge – 30 minutes southwest of Taipei by train – has been synonymous with Taiwan’s ceramics industry. It boasts a museum dedicated to ceramic art, two separate ceramics parks, and shop after shop selling everything pottery, from mass-produced chopstick holders to one-of-a-kind masterpieces. Now, a new generation of craftspeople is breathing fresh life into this heritage industry.
Sisters Hsuan and Hsuan-Yuan – co-operators of Mao’s Studio – lived an Yingge childhood immersed in the world of ceramic fine art. Free time was spent playing hide-and-seek among sun-drying vases and forming a sense of artistic appreciation with visits to Taipei’s National Palace Museum. Despite this upbringing, they never planned to take over the family company. In fact, it wasn’t even what their parents wanted. “They knew how much hard work it involved,” explains Hsuan. But each time she returned home from studies, she found the workforce dwindling and felt compelled to pitch in. Hsuan-Yuan had less of a say in things. “I’d just graduated from university and found work somewhere else, but before I could start, I got asked to come home.”
When it was founded over 40 years ago, the company produced small hand-painted figurines and trinkets, but the family patriarch had a keen interest in art and wanted to create elaborately decorated ceramic artifacts infused with the spirit of fine-art oil paintings. To that end, he began crafting huge hand-thrown vases, seeking out talented art graduates to adorn them with intricate scenes and calligraphy of the finest brushmanship.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given their father’s clear artistic vision, the handover from first to second generation was not without challenges. “Dad felt he’d already paved the way, so we could just follow in his footsteps,” the sisters say. But what worked four decades ago was no longer a sure-fire success – the market for high-value one-off commissions simply doesn’t exist anymore.
It was younger sister Hsuan-Yuan whose creativity helped set the company on a new course. One day, taking a plain bowl, she wrote the Chinese character for “full” (bao; 飽) on the inner surface using the carefully considered calligraphy strokes that she’d learned as a child. At the time, it was nothing more than a lighthearted moment of self-expression, but something about it struck a chord. “When I finished my food and saw the character, I just felt a kind of simple, satisfied happiness,” she explains, “like I really did eat my fill.”
Although her dad was tickled by her “full” bowl, he didn’t take it seriously. When she made a second, then a third, and a fourth, he accused her of wasting company time – even going so far as to remove her creations unfired from the kiln. Undeterred, Hsuan-Yuan posted some photos of her creations on social media. Before long, people began inquiring about the products, orders came in, and media started reporting about her whimsical designs, which helped to eventually win her dad over.
It wasn’t just the need for a creative change of artistic direction that caused consternation – they also had to grapple with preconceptions about how the business should operate. For their father, focusing on tableware rather than higher-value fine art vases sounded like a step backwards – a return to the slog of mass-producing many small items just like he had when he first started. The sisters, too, had apprehensions and debate among them. Having internalized their dad’s reverence for the art of hand painting, the shift to incorporate the use of machine-printed, transferrable images caused ructions between the pair at first. They decided to give it a go anyway, and haven’t looked back.
These days, the studio’s output has a cohesive style that is both very contemporary and very Taiwanese. While there are a few more colorful designs (such as the current season’s rainbow mix-and-match xingfu [“happiness”] plates), the palette is generally minimal. Black, gold, and red accents are used to add line drawings and elegantly executed calligraphy to a plain canvas of white or red. And fittingly for a family business, much of the company’s tableware is sold in sets to be used when eating with loved ones. At the center of their product line are the blessing sets – pairs of bowls each bearing half of a Chinese phrase like “happiness” or “contentment.” There are also husband and wife bowls, and even husband and husband plus wife and wife bowls – each set intended as a physical expression of the quiet joy of sharing mealtimes with that special someone.
The sisters say their father still enjoys sharing his opinions on their newest designs. “When he saw this” – one of the sisters points at a plate with clean and modern-looking characters – “he asked if we’d gotten a child to write it.” (In truth, it was the work of Ho Ching Chwang, a celebrated contemporary calligraphy artist.) Despite his directness, the advice is appreciated. “Actually, we still have plenty of customers from his generation – he helped us realize we needed something for them too.”
Although stylistically their output is oceans apart, in some aspects the sisters’ approach mirrors their father’s. Much in the same way as he sought out artists to decorate his vases, the daughters cooperate with illustrators and calligraphists. Under their stewardship, the company has also joined government-backed initiatives aimed at promoting the efforts of Taiwanese craftspeople and embraced brand collaborations spanning a range diverse enough to include Dajia Jenn Lann Temple (of Mazu Pilgrimage fame), Sanrio (home of Hello Kitty), and Hoshing 1947 (a traditional pastry and cake shop in Taipei’s trendy Dadaocheng neighborhood).
As if this isn’t enough to keep them busy, the sisters are huge animal lovers, and Mao’s Studio has produced one new pet-themed set each year since 2021, the proceeds of which are shared with different animal charities. Passionate adoption advocates, the family also plays an active role in rehoming animals, and when I visit their factory I meet Pudding (an elderly street-mutt-turned-office-dog who strongly dislikes thunder) and three tiny kittens awaiting their future forever homes.
Speaking of the future, Yingge is on the cusp of reinventing itself. There’s a brand-new gigantic 8-floor art museum, the railway station is getting a facelift, and metro links to both Taoyuan and Taipei cities are under construction. But despite the big changes afoot, the sisters seem unruffled. “We just hope to keep spreading happiness with our bowls.”