Doan Minh Can carves intricate bamboo cages for birds in his workshop in Thua Thien–Hue Province
Can poses with his most famous bamboo bird cage Thap nhi hoa giap quan tien
Doan Minh Can’s 20 red-whiskered bulbuls and laughing thrushes live in ornately carved bamboo cages built by the owner himself.
Everyday his three-story home in Duong No Village in the central province of Thua Thien–Hue reverberates with the singing of the birds as they entertain their master who works on cages with various motifs and of various sizes to meet the increasing demand from customers.
His cages cost VND10-50 million (US$480-2,400), meaning they are several times more expensive than the ones made of iron and ordinary wood, but Can gets orders from all over the country. He also exports them to China, Malaysia, Laos, and Thailand. Truly is it said that as long as there are bird lovers, bird-cage builders are never jobless.
A cage takes the 47-year-old two to three months to make and he gives it a name based on its carved motif – Cuu long an van (nine dragons soaring in the clouds), Bat tien (eight demigods), and Long lan quy phung (four creatures: dragon, qilin, tortoise, and phoenix).
He works with his two sons and 20 other young men, producing around 200 cages a year.
He has trained around 100 locals who hope to become skilled carpenters.
His village is well-known for carpentry and sculpture and Can learnt the art at an early age. After completing high school he left home to study sculpture and fine arts in Hue.
He spent another five years apprenticing in his hometown to perfect his skills before opening a workshop in 1990.
Initially he made and sold wooden handicrafts.
But his interest turned towards bamboo, which is “cheap and available in my hometown.”
But there was a problem – unlike other kinds of wood, bamboo is not an ideal material for engraving. After several experiments Can discovered that mature, old bamboo from forests can be used to make handicrafts.
He started by making small items like plates and ashtrays before venturing to create bigger ones, and, finally, bird cages.
Several years ago he was invited to a rich man’s house where he saw an expensive bird being kept in an ordinary looking cage.
“Why isn’t such a precious bird kept in a more beautiful, comfortable cage?” wondered Can.
It started him on a quest to design beautiful houses for various kinds of birds.
Nguyen Huu Minh Hien, a member of the Bird Club in Hue, who recently bought two Bat tien quan thu (eight demigods and creatures) cages from Can for VND16 million, said he and other members prefer Can’s works for their quality and the fact they can be used for three years.
“The most important thing is that we often win prizes in bird competitions with Can’s cages. The beautiful cages draw curiosity from public.”
The bird lover explains that a good, comfortable cage can keep a bird in good health. “A bamboo bird cage is definitely better than ones made of iron, which are liable to rust,” he added.
Can is overjoyed that his two elder sons want to follow in his footsteps.
Doan Ngoc Hung, 23, Can’s elder son, said: “I have been helping my father make cages since my childhood. Whenever I finish a work, I feel it is mine. My father often teaches us not to sculpt like a robot, but put in all our spirit to make the work beautiful.”
Thap nhi hoa giap quan tien (12 Chinese zodiac signs and the eight demigods) is the most exquisite of Can’s works, and has won the “king of bird cages” several prizes, including first prize at the 6th Handicraft Products Contest held in 2009 by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.
The cage has a hook on top shaped like a phoenix wing that can flap, and beneath the mythical bird are intricately carved images of demigods riding tigers and dragons.
Inside the cage, the main bird perch’s two ends have engraved dragon heads, while a smaller round perch is held up by three demigods.
The three food and water containers are in the shape of the mythical peaches described in 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West. The bottom of the cage has more intricate carvings including the 12 Chinese zodiac signs and demigods set against a background of mountains, houses, and forests.
Clearly the artist has paid minute paid attention to even each strand of the demigods’ beards. The 12 creatures of the zodiac are grouped in fours that make the best matches – Monkey, Rat, and Dragon; Ox, Snake, and Rooster; Tiger, Horse, and Dog; and Cat, Goat and Pig.
“It took me two months to make the cage, which is my most beautiful work so far,” Can, who was recognized as an artisan by the province in 2007, said.
By Tuyet Khoa (The story can be found in the January 11th issue of our print edition, Vietweek)