Entranced by old village gates

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Artist Quach Dong Phuong (R) at his latest exhibition titled "˜Cong xua' (Old gates) with nearly 700 photos at Kim Ngan Temple on Hang Bac Street, Hanoi. The exhibition will run until mid-December, one of the events held to celebrate Vietnam Heritage Day, November 23.

When Quach Dong Phuong went on a picnic to a village in 1997 he saw its old ceremonial gate. "[It] really impressed me. I thought I must record it immediately since I might no longer see it on my next visit."

The Hanoi artist says he took photographs of the gate also as material for his paintings. He did not realize then that it was love at first sight, love for the old gates that dot almost every village and town in the country.

Phuong, a graduate of the Hanoi University of Industrial Fine Arts, who was known for painting Vietnam's traditional conical hats, has since been a passionate photographer of the gates, holding his first exhibition of black-and-white photos in 2000.

He spends a lot of time in villages in the northern and central regions looking for ancient gates. This has helped him discover the tradition, culture, customs, and diverse lifestyles of the villages situated behind them.

"By studying these gates, we can know about people's jobs, their living standards, their beliefs."

"For example, a prosperous trading village like Cu Da in Hanoi's Thanh Oai District would have a big gate while a more scholarly village like Chem in Tu Liem District would have its gate decorated with a pen."

"The gate to Cu Da Village was also inscribed with the words "˜Ha ma' exhorting visitors to dismount from their horses before entering and villagers to be aware of their social position to behave appropriately after passing through the gate."

Old village gates are also treasure troves of sculpture, architecture, and painting, he has discovered.

"[They] were designed and built in harmony with the size of the village and landscapes.

The Han scripts, the architect style, and even the aging walls are all evidence of the past and should be preserved carefully."

Four years after his first exhibition Phuong held a larger, more ambitious one called "Gates" featuring more than 500 black-and-white photos in Hanoi in 2004. They were selected from more than 1,000 photos he had shot by then.

Modern, ugly

But by early 2005 he was somewhat disillusioned by what was happening to his beloved artifacts, and expressed his concern by holding an exhibition called "Mauvais gout" meaning bad aesthetics.

"On my trips looking for the gates I was shocked many times to see an elegant old gate disappear or replaced by a badly-designed new one.

"My collection has two or three pictures of many gates including after they were restored or rebuilt.

Thus was born "Mauvais gout," French for poor aesthetics.

He blames urbanization of villages and smaller towns for shrinking people's living space and threatening the gates in many places.

"With time gates leading to villages, lanes, and houses have lost their harmonious architectural style.

"Many of them have been pulled down and restored or rebuilt in a haphazard way, bringing into existence some weird-looking new gates."

He blames this on people losing their sense of community and the growing gap between the rich and poor. Wealthy families tend to make their houses and gates bigger and use strange, foreign designs to stand out, he explains.

Phuong points to two newly-built ones in the capital's To and Trieu Khuc villages for their egregious excesses, lamenting that their modern French architecture forms a weird combination with their traditional style, and they are decorated with motley colors and patterns. "Weird" is clearly his favorite description for what is happening to his beloved gates.

"My collection indicates one thing: Despite living in difficult conditions, our ancestors had a very rich culture and tradition which are reflected in these old constructions; we should continue to preserve them."

Latest exhibition

Phuong is holding an exhibition titled "Cong xua" (Old gates) with nearly 700 photos at Kim Ngan Temple on Hang Bac Street. To run until mid-December, it was one of the events held to celebrate Vietnam Heritage Day, November 23.

As always he has been careful about the arrangement of his works, this time covering wooden planks and square boxes with black-and-white photos to simulate actual gates.

He plans to print a book containing photos of his favorite subject.

"Many people come to me to ask for a photo of their old village gates that had been pulled down so that they can rebuild them.

"I am always happy to help them. It is one way in which I can contribute to preserving our cultural heritage in this fast-changing world."

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