Sunday, March 27, 2011

Genghis Khan: The enlightened leader and the brave warlord

I stepped into one of the upper galleries of the ArtScience Museum and found myself greeting an imposing statue of Genghis Khan sitting on his throne. My gut feel told me that I would be walking through an exhibition that will get me closer up with this great leader, Genghis Khan.

An excerpt from the introduction on the brochure of Genghis Khan - The Exhibition reads:

With the largest collection of Genghis Khan artifacts ever assembled from the conqueror's reign, it tells the story of the man whose innovation, technological mastery and cultural creativity gave him the reputation of one of the world's greatest yet most misunderstood leaders.

This excerpt suggested that the exhibition will help me better understand Genghis Khan, one of the world's greatest leaders of the massive Mongol Empire. According to wikipedia, the Mongol Empire "is commonly referred to as the largest contiguous empire in the history of the world. At its greatest extent it spanned 6,000 mi (9,700 km), covered an area of 34,000,000 km2 (13,127,000 sq mi), 22% of the Earth's total land area, and held sway over a population of 100 million." The Mongol Empire is huge!

What were the secrets to Genghis Khan's successes as one of the world's greatest leaders?

The Genghis Khan - The Exhibition, held at the ArtScience Museums, explores this question and many more through some of the following sections of the exhibitions:

Genghis Khan's Roots
In this section, visitors learn about Genghis Khan's birthplace and the nomadic lifestyle.

I learnt that Genghis Khan's birthname was "Borjigin Temüjin". He was born of a noble background and is therefore considered to have a high social standing in his community. He had a difficult childhood and that might have strengthened him to be a tenacious leader.

Speaking about his name, I learnt that Genghis Khan's name is spelled and said in more than one way. The Mongolians and Russians call him "Chinggis", whereas people in the West commonly use "Genghis".

At this section, my attention was briefly diverted to reading about his mother, Hoelun, who came across to me as a woman with resilence and wisdom. She raised her children almost single-handedly under harsh living conditions.

Rise of the Mongols
In this section, visitors could find out how Genghis Khan had built up and organised such a strong army. Apparently, the skills and the weapons employed by the Mongol warrior did matter a great deal.

My attention was drawn to the Mongol warriors' flexible recurved composite bow. One such bow can take as long as a year to make. The raw materials used were wood, iron, animal horn and bamboo. When a Mongol warrior's bow is pulled back with great strength, the bow can shot further than bows used by the Mongol warrior's opponents. The firing range is as far as 350 yards. Furthermore, Mongol warriors in Genghis Khan's armies have brilliant archery skills to make effective use of these wonderful bows.

One piece of information on the Mongol warriors and their bows surprised me. I learnt that in efforts to prevent the bows from getting stiff in the cold weather, the Mongol warriors would often sleep with their bows. These bows must have been very prized objects.

Building An Empire
If winning battles is about brutal strength and might, then building one of the largest empire in the history of the world was an achievement that could only be made with ingenious strategy and military tactics. I was pretty fascinated by some of the strategies used by Genghis Khan. However, I shall ask that if you are interested, please find these strategies out on your own at the exhibition.

Genghis Statesman
No one knows what had caused the death of Genghis Khan and the location of his grave. In this section which I could not quite comprehend, there is a mummy and tomb content of an aristocratic Mongolian woman. I was told that the mummy could shed some light of the type of burial that Genghis Khan might have had.

After Genghis Khan
This section discusses about the continuation of the Mongol Empire after Genghis Khan's death. The city of Karakorum left an impression on me. The reason was that it was my very first time hearing about this city.

This city was built by Ogodei Khan, the third son of Genghis Khan. It was used as an international centre of trade and diplomacy. Even though this city was quite a fair distance away from the Silk Road, many traders would still travel the extra miles to trade in the city of Karakorum. There was a map at the exhibition showing the approximate location of Karakorum and finding it appeared require some treasure-hunting skills.

Nearby this section, there is a performing space for visitors to be treated to performances by the Khan Bogd Ensemble. The Khan Bogd Ensemble will be performing daily from 12 Mar through 10 Apr 2011 (except on Tuesdays) at 3 p.m., 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. I was very delighted by their Mongolian Throat singing techniques and musical performances. I was also intrigued by musical instruments such as the Morin Khuur (horse-head fiddle).

Please click on the photo right above to be linked to a YouTube video of
a performance by Khan Bogd Ensemble.

Following the musical performances by Khan Bogd Ensemble, the audience were treated to a dance performance. I vaguely remember that it was a ritual dance. The musical performance and the dance were wonderful. I think the entire set of performances would have been perfect if a staff from the ArtScience Museum who could converse well enough in English could play a good host to be their emcee throughout the performance.

There were a few other sections in this exhibition but I was not as interested in them. Perhaps I was overwhelmed by the many treats that the ArtScience Museum had to offer?

Despite being rather overwhelmed by the many exhibits, a piece of white cotton cloth had somehow caught my eyes. Guess what it is?

If you have guessed that it is genealogy of Genghis Khan, you are right. The Mongolians are very serious about tracing their ancestry. "Recent genetic studies have indicated that at least 16 million men living today are descendants of a Mongolian male who had lived 1000 years ago!"

Yet we are aware that the plain-looking piece of cloth would not entice the attention of the young visitors. To meet the interests of the young visitors, there is a colourful yurt at the exhibition. I wonder how many young visitors ended up playing hide-and-seek in this colourful yurt?

The best reward about visiting a museum is that of learning something new. I learnt that it was Genghi Khan who had introduced the following everyday-life features to the West. These features were: chopped meat, paper money, fork, passport, eye-glass, pants and National Parks.

Concluding, what exactly are the secrets to Genghis Khan's successes as one of the world's greatest leaders? Rather than being issued answers directly, visitors to "Genghis Khan - The exhibition" are invited to participate in a discussion and exploration of Genghis Khan as a leader.

In my humble opinion, Genghis Khan's successes as one of the world's greatest leaders were contributed by the following factors:

1) Family background - His noble background makes it easier for him to garner the support of his fellow Mongolians from the various tribes.
2) Personality traits - His tenacious and resilient personality.
3) Good strategies - He was good in employing battle tactics and brilliant war strategies.
4) Skills - He was a brave and skilled warrior himself.
5) Leadership qualities - He had pretty effective people management skills to facilitate the people in his army to be disciplined, skilled and loyal.
6) Resources - He made sure that the warriors in his army has proper resources and tools to increase their chances of successes in conquering new lands.

I suppose there were more factors that had contributed to his success and I shall leave things open for your further discussion. Please feel free to comment and discuss.

This exhibition is held at the ArtScience Museum, Singapore from 19 Feb - 10 Apr 2011. That means that there is only two weeks left to catch this in Singapore!

A special note of thanks to the ArtScience Museum, the National Heritage Board and Mr Shaun Wong for the invitation to a complimentary visit to and a guided tour of the ArtScience Museum on 20 Mar 2011.

Related posts by other authors:
The Silk, Sunken and Spears - Chapter One by Urban Explorers of Singapore.
Sponsored Event: Trip to ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands on Sunday, 20 March 2011 by Jade Isabelle.
A day at the ArtScience Museum by Nur Shakylla Nadhra.

Genghis Khan - The Exhibition
19 Feb - 10 Apr 2011

Art Science Museum, Singapore
10 Bayfront Avenue
Singapore 018956
Tel: 6688 8868

Operating hours: 10 a.m. - 10 p.m. with the last admission at 9 p.m.

Admission Charges
(Includes GST and SISTIC booking fee)
Adult - $30.00
Senior (65 years +) - $27.00
Child (2 - 12 years) - $17.00
School Group - $10.00
Group Sales* - $24.50
* Minimum purchase of 25 tickets

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

One of the most treasured networks: The Silk Road

 After a visit to the Traveling the Silk Road: Ancient Pathway to the Modern World exhibition at the ArtScience Museum, I am in the humble opinion that the Silk Road is perhaps one of the most treasured networks in history. Perhaps like today's Facebook, the Silk Road has in many ways facilitated people of various cultures and religions to interact and connect with one another. The sharing of technologies and knowledge amongst the various cultures was also facilitated through the Silk Road.

Many thanks to the ArtScience Museum, the National Heritage Board and Mr Shaun Wong, I was invited to a special guided tour and a complimentary visit to the ArtScience Museum on 20 Mar 2011. Other than the special guided tour by one of the museum's personnel, I have had the privilege to participate in the "Discovery Tour by Curator – Silk Road" by Professor Morris Rossabi, historian of China and Central Asia at Columbia University.

The Silk Road is "an extensive interconnected network of trade routes across the Asian continent connecting East, South, and Western Asia with the Mediterranean world, as well as North and Northeast Africa and Europe" (source: wikipedia). Although, silk was one of the more lucractive commodities that was traded along the Silk Road, items such as fabrics, medicines, perfume and spices were exchanged along this extensive network as well.  I was curious to learn about this network such that when I was at the Traveling the Silk Road, I could not help but to spend my time looking at maps and more maps. I wished I could have a bit more time to scrutinise the maps, however.

For this exhibition, the American Museum of Natural History which has organised the exhibition has selected four cities to focus attention on. These four cities are: Xi-an, Turfan, Baghdad and Samarkand. I learnt that Turfan is such a hot place that most people there prefer to trade at night when the sun was down. It was interesting to learn that Baghdad was founded in AD 762. Baghdad was the capital of the Islamic world. Many people travelled to Baghdad for the purpose of commerce and of acquiring knowledge. I wonder what it would be like if I were to visit it one day?

The technologies of making Chinese silk and paper, the Turfan's artifical underground river system known as the "karez" and the astrolabe also captured a good fraction of my attention. The explanatory notes on these technologies were rather simple for a lay-person to understand.

I learnt that the Chinese had closely guarded the secrets behind the technologies of making silk and paper. However, since one of mankind's motivations is to learn, specifically to learn the best available ways to meet some of mankind's needs, it was just a matter of time before other cultures learnt about the Chinese secrets of making silk and paper.

Visitors to this exhibition will find many of the exhibits very interactive. Children visiting this exhibition are unlikely to be disappointed either. There is an interactive Silk Road map whereby visitors can learn about the links among cultures and technology along the Silk Road.

There is a working model of an Islamic astrolabe whereby one could attempt to determine the time with the help of the position of the embedded "stars". I had tried my hands on using the astrolabe and I think it worked like a super-computer of the ancient world. It was quite a challenge for me to use it with precision.

For visitors with keen sense of smell, they could have the chance to sniff the fragrance of various essential oils that were commonly traded along the Silk Road. My favourite was the rose oil. I wonder what your favourite would be?

I was also intrigued by the interactive section on Chinese music instruments where I could recreate the sounds of some traditional instruments. With a press of one of the buttons, I could listen to the electronically pre-recorded sound of a specified instrument. If a visitor were to press on all the buttons, Voila! he would hear an ensemble playing away.

The last section of the exhibition discusses about the maritime Silk Road routes. Visitors could even catch a glimpse of a full-sized model of a 71-foot long Arab sailing ship called the dhow. I have learnt that a "dhow" is a light-weight boat.

One particular statement that was made by Professor Rossabi during the tour by the curator that had remained in my mind was that the cultural significance of the Silk Road far exceeds its economic significance. The Silk Road provided the network and the environment for people of various cultures to share and exchange culturally.

Interestingly, many of the people travelled along the Silk Road not to promote their culture. It appears that one of the main motivations for people to travel the long and gruelling distances of the Silk Road was to earn more money. To gain an appreciation, please imagine how people would so willingly pay for exotic goods from far-away lands at a high premium. Of course, there were others who had travelled in search of knowledge. There were also pilgrims, for example the Buddhist monk Xuanzang, who had travelled long distances along the Silk Road to acquire deeper religious understanding.

What can our modern society learn from this century-old special network called the Silk Road? I suppose some of the most important values that we can learn from Silk Road are tolerance, respect and open-mindedness. Tolerance and respect could make room for different cultural beliefs and practices to co-exist in harmony with one another. On the other hand, open-mindedness allow one to be open to learn from another culture that could be different from one's own.

The Traveling the Silk Road: Ancient Pathway to the Modern World exhibition at the ArtScience Museum, Singapore will end this coming weekend, on 27 Mar 2011. 

Tickets are priced at $30 per adult and $17 per child (2 - 12 years old). The ArtScience Museum's operating hours are from 10 a.m. - 10 p.m. with the last admission at 9 p.m.

I have learnt from a few fellow visitors that reentry to the museum (even on the same day) would require a purchase of a new ticket! Please trust that many visitors have given feedback to the museum to request for same-day reentry to be allowed. As for the ticket price, I would suggest a concessionary rate for all students  who can produce the necessary proof of identity, even if they visit the museum as an individual (and not part of a school group). Afterall, I see museums as institutions that encourage learning, and it will make good sense that museums perform their social mission well by making it affordable for students to visit and to learn at the museums.

On the whole, The Traveling the Silk Road: Ancient Pathway to the Modern World is an exhibition with many interactive and interesting exhibits. While I acknowledge that the admission price could be made less exclusive, I would still recommend this exhibition for anyone who would like to learn more about the Silk Road but for some reasons may not be able to visit the cities along Silk Road in the immediate future. Each ticket to the ArtScience Museum still works out to be considerably less than the cost of a plane ticket to most places.

ArtScience Museum
Marina Bay Sands, Singapore
10 Bayfront Avenue, Singapore 018956

Related posts by other authors:
The Silk, Sunken and Spears - Chapter One by Urban Explorers of Singapore.
Sponsored Event: Trip to ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands on Sunday, 20 March 2011 by Jade Isabelle.
A day at the ArtScience Museum by Nur Shakylla Nadhra.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

A visit to the Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln Firing event 2011

Image credit: Carolyn Lim

Did you know that somewhere in this urban island, lie one of the last two surviving dragon kilns in Singapore? Would this rare surviving dragon kiln survive in a rapidly changing world where at times heritage from the past disappear in the name of progress?

I learnt that it was a rare occasion that the Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln would fire the entire kiln from 25 - 27 Feb 2011. This was possibly the first time since the 1980s that the entire kiln was fired. In conjunction with the firing event, Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle organised a guided tour for visitors who are keen to learn a bit more about the dragon kiln.

Image credit: Carolyn Lim

The dragon kiln was located at Thow Kwang Industry Pte Ltd, 85 Lorong Tawas (off Jalan Bahar). I did not drive and had to rely on public transport to get to the dragon kiln for the first time in my life. The nearest MRT station, I have concluded, was Boon Lay MRT station. I decided to take a taxi from Boon Lay MRT station as I wanted to be punctual for the guided tour that would start at 8 p.m. The driver of the first taxi that I had flagged declined to take me there on the grounds that he did not know where it is. Thankfully, the driver of the second taxi was willing to find out how to get to the Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln. After figuring his way there, he shared with me that I could, in future, tell taxi driver that I want to go to the part off Jalan Bahar where there is a giant-sized vase. That would be approximately near the mouth of Lorong Tawas.

When I reached the Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle, I was welcome by a source of bright light and warm heat from the mouth of dragon kiln. It was a source of light that one could simply not miss. I saw a lady who diligently placed wood pieces into the mouth of the dragon kiln. I felt a sense of respect for the people behind the Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle who have taken the time and effort to keep the dragon kiln and the traditional art of wood firing alive.

At 8 p.m., one of the Thow Kwang Clay Artists, Carolyn, gave visitors an educational presentation about the dragon firing and the process of wood firing. I learnt that many decades ago, there were several other dragon kilns in the nearby vicinity. This was because white clay, one of the raw materials for the pottery/ ceramic industry, was easily available in the vicinity.

I learnt about some of the products that used to be produced using the dragon kiln of the Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle. One of which was the latex cup that you would see right below that was used to contain latex from rubber trees of the rubber plantations.

Victor Koo, fellow heritage-bloggers of, had written a good post entitled A Visit to the Firing Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln in 2008 that outlines the history of the Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln. From this post, I learnt that the Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln was built in 1940 and was brought over by Mr Tan Kin Seh in 1965. By 1985, there were developments of residential and industrial facilities in the Jurong area. Many of the family-owned ceramic businesses were forced to shut down. I learnt that there are only two surviving dragon kilns in Singapore, Thow Kwang and Guan Huat Porcelain Factory. It seemed that Guan Huat's dragon kiln has ceased operations as it has moved away from ceramic production. If this is the case, Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln is possibly the only dragon kiln in Singapore which firing still take place.

During the guided tour, our dedicated tour guide pointed me to a kicking wheel. This kicking wheel works like a throwing wheel except that one has to kick it to spin it. This requires skill. The kicking wheel was of a considerably large dimension. I was told that it was used to make large ceramics.

During the tour, I was also introduced to the Pyrometric Cones. These were used to gauge the temperature during the firing of the kiln. "The cones, often used in sets of three, are positioned in a kiln with the wares to be fired. These cones provide a visual indication of when the wares have reached a required state of maturity, a combination of time and temperature."

During my visit to the Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln firing event, I also learnt that during the woodfiring, salt are thrown into the kiln through the "stoke-holes". As best as I understand, the stock-holes are openings that the kiln operator could use during firing for observation and for the feeding of wood fuel. When salt is thrown into the stoke-holes, the high temperature of the kiln causes some form of chemical changes in the salt and the constituents of the salt could eventually coat themselves as a form of glaze onto some of the ceramics.

I had the privilege to see members who have organised the firing event wrap sea-salt using newspapers. I was told that when the salt is wrapped into newspapers, it makes it easier for a considerable quantity of salt to be thrown into the kiln at any one time.

One question that has bugged me since the day that I visited the dragon kiln was: Decades later, would people in Singapore still be able to have the privilege to see a dragon kiln in action?

I learnt that the very piece of land on which Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln sits is on lease from the government. No one exactly knows what its fate would be in decades to come. Like some of the gun positions that used to sit in Labrador Park, would the dragon kiln face destruction and removal because the key decision-makers in the authorities fail to recognise its significance? Already, there seem to be plans by the authorities to recall the parts of the area where the beautiful banyan trees sit.

Then again, I am reminded of the heart-warming story of how The Rocks in historic Sydney was preserved for generations to come, thanks to a proactive community who had rallied against the demolition of the original structures at The Rocks. Perhaps the dragon kiln could survive, if there is enough people to support it to continue to exist. A good local example was Chek Jawa which was facing reclamation in 2001 but thanks to petitions from volunteers, the authorities agreed to leave the Chek Jawa area untouched for the subsequent ten years.

While I cannot consider myself a ceramics enthuasiast nor an active user of any kiln (except that I had used an electronic kiln to fire some ceramics when I was a teenager learning art), I hope that the traditional art of woodfiring and the only operating dragon kiln in Singapore would continue to thrive for generations to come. Perhaps somewhere down in history, someone may benefit from this very art that could survive against all the odds.

As such, I shall end this post with a photograph of a Banyan tree that sits just at the entrance to Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle. I hope that I could still see this very tree standing tall and strong many years later.

Thow Kwang Industry Pte Ltd
85 Lorong Tawas (off Jalan Bahar)
Singapore 639823
(Please click here for the map.)

How to get there by public transport:
Take MRT to Boon Lay Station. Take bus service 199 at the bus interchange. Alight the bus stop after the PIE flyover along Jalan Bahar, just before the turn to Nanyang Avenue (NTU). You can see a road on the left side with huge pots at the corner before the bus stop. Walk towards that road.It will be a 10 minute walk into Thow Kwang.

Check the bus route here:


Please also see these other related sites written by other contributors: