Known for her marbled hand-thrown porcelain works, the 30-year-old ceramic artist had always been interested in Japanese arts and crafts. She had flown in from Hong Kong in early 2020 to visit fellow ceramicist and partner Jun Matsumura, testing the waters to see if she might enjoy working between Japan and her home city.
Neither of them had counted on the pandemic. When Japan and Hong Kong’s borders slammed shut, Tong found herself unexpectedly marooned in rural Saitama, far away from family, friends and her studio. She would have to start over.
Tong is no stranger to new beginnings. At 13, she moved to the United Kingdom for boarding school, and began her career in London after training in ceramics design at Central Saint Martins, then moved back to Hong Kong in 2017, grappling with all the complications that come with moving one’s career and ceramics practice.
Japan is the latest — if unforeseen — iteration in a series of uprootings. Nevertheless, she is sanguine about the situation: Ceramics has taught her to pick herself up over and over again.
This lesson is ever-present in the years-long process of developing and refining “The Perfect Imbalance,” an ongoing monochrome porcelain collection informed by an interest in traditional Chinese medicine. Each piece, Tong explains, is a material metaphor for our unique mix of yin and yang energy.
As any ceramics practitioner knows, seemingly trivial variables can have huge ramifications on the final product. Each change of location forced her process to evolve in order for the collection to survive.
She began with a mix of white porcelain and black stoneware clay when developing her graduation project, which initially proved disastrous: Both clay bodies shrank at different rates during firing, resulting in most of her pieces cracking. Persistent trial and error brought the proportion of cracked works down to 30%.
But moving back to Hong Kong and working with a different kiln forced her to rethink her entire process to achieve the same effect. Eventually, she switched to a mix of white and black-stained porcelain, which took away the issue of uneven shrinkage.
“I’m like, shouldn’t I have been doing this the whole time?” she says, laughing. “But it’s all about the process. It’s trying to teach me something.”
She tested out local clay — from Seto to Arita — before settling on Kutani-style porcelain from Kaga.
Ceramics can seem surprisingly technical to non-ceramicists — Tong’s endless experimenting is akin to lab testing — but balancing artistry with rigor, technique and consistency is key to success. This is especially true for those whose livelihood depends on their craft.
The question of how to balance creative expression with practical livelihood is one every artist will be familiar with. For example, personal projects often take a back seat to paid work.
“I feel like I have all these ideas, but I’m not making the time to execute them,” she says.
The same question has also informed Tong’s adjustments to her process over the years. Her initial attempt to combine black stoneware and porcelain embodied the yin-yang concept of harmonizing two different forces, but was eventually incompatible with the realities of selling ceramics.
“The consistency and stability has to be there,” she says. “I can’t just sell work that cracks.”
Tong’s signature swirling and marbling uses the neriage technique, which involves laminating different colored clays together and throwing them on a wheel. The nature of the technique, however, means being unable to determine precisely how the final piece will turn out, something she takes care to emphasize to her clients.
“I can try to control the proportion [of colors], but it’s not 100% guaranteed that it’ll be the same as what you see on the website,” Tong says. “That’s just the nature of the process.”
In this sense, making ceramics is similar to fermentation: You can try to control for all possible variables, but eventually, you must relinquish the final product to something greater than or beyond yourself, whether it’s the heat of the kiln or microbes in the air. In other words, leaving it to fate.
The idea of fate frequently crops up during our conversation at the studio she and Matsumura share in rural Saitama, in particular the pivotal moments that led Tong to her current life’s work.
For instance, the original plan was a degree in public relations, which her parents thought would suit her bubbly, outgoing nature. A chance conversation with an older high school classmate and mentor the day before the deadline led her to include a ceramics course in her university application.
“I didn’t know whether I could make a living out of ceramics, but he said not to worry about it,” she recalls. “If you love something this much, you’ll make it work. Don’t worry about not making money and all that stuff before it actually happens.”
Another fork in the road was meeting Matsumura in 2018 at a workshop in Hong Kong, which led to — among many things — working together on an exhibition exploring mahjong culture and the dying art of tile-carving.
“I’d always wanted to come to Japan, and meeting Jun was like a bonus,” she says, laughing. “The universe heard me.”
Being thrust without warning into a creative partnership during a pandemic has been challenging for Tong and Matsumura, both of whom work with porcelain.
There are the day-to-day conflicts and compromises of sharing studio space, like mixing up each other’s tools or potentially getting dust and stains on each other’s works. (Try getting black specks off pure white porcelain.) It’s tough to separate work from life, especially when producing large batches of work: “When you work with clay, it’s like a marathon.”
More fundamentally, a lack of social contact over the pandemic, exacerbated by a linguistic and cultural barrier, has been especially difficult for the naturally extroverted Tong.
“It’s just like, my only friend is Jun,” she says with a wry smile. “I try not to think that I’m stuck here, because I’m lucky to be here. I can explore all these things. But the reality is that I don’t know when I can go home.”
Like many others whose lives have been thrown into limbo by the pandemic, Tong is making the best of her situation. Her Japanese has improved. Without the constant external stimuli of urban life, she has been forced to slow down, with more time and space to reflect on her work.
Living in the Japanese countryside and being surrounded by nature has brought a new depth of understanding to the idea of balance in her ceramics. She has always had to adapt, and being here is a continuation of that journey. This place, she says, is teaching her a lesson.