Exhibition offers hope for dying art of making Vietnamese do paper

By Ngoc An, Thanh Nien News

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People visit Soul of Do exhibition in Hanoi. Photos: Ngoc Thang

Do, Vietnamese handmade paper that originated in the 18th century and has sadly gone out of fashion, is being featured in an exhibition in Hanoi.
"Soul of Do" showcases the history and making of the paper, which is now mostly known for being the main material in the popular folk painting art of Dong Ho, though in the past it was used even for writing historic records and royal certificates.
It also features 71 artworks -- calligraphy using Chinese ink by Xuan Nhu, and modern paintings using water colors by Bui Vu Phong, also known as Yo Yo.
The event at the Korean Culture Center is organized by Hanoi-based social business Zó Project.
Since it was established two years ago, the company has organized events like talks and paper-making classes to arouse public interest in the paper.
Founder Tran Hong Nhung and her co-workers also work with paper-making artisans, artists, designers and other handicraft artisans to modernize the paper's uses by making do products like calendars, greeting cards, notebooks, and lamps.
The beautifully handmade things have aroused the interest of not only Vietnamese but also foreigners.
National asset
Nhung said she "discovered" do paper "accidentally".
In 2009, when she was doing an undergraduate program on business administration in France, she and some of her friends planned to promote Vietnamese calligraphy to the world.
However, as she was studying the art, she realized that its essence lied in the paper and found herself being attracted to its "amazing qualities".
"Do paper has wondrous values in terms of history and culture," Nhung said. "It has rare qualities that remain unchanged even after hundreds of years -- softness, toughness, and a high ability to absorb moisture."

Tran Hong Nhung, founder of Zó Project, talks to a foreign visitor about do paper. Photo credit: Zó Project
She later visited paper-making villages in Hanoi and the northern province of Bac Ninh. But to her dismay there were almost no artisans left except for a few families in Bac Ninh's Dong Cao village.
"When I went to see them, local artisans were agonizing about who would continue their job in future," Nhung said.
At the time Pham Van Tam's family was almost the only one to make the paper regularly, she said. But only Tam could do all the "complicated" processes, and the youngest member of his group was aged 40.
Besides, most of paper-makers had to rely on themselves to keep the traditional vocation alive since there were almost no support policies.
They faced the same problems that many other traditional artisans did: a lack of demand and markets.
There were also issues related to the preservation of the paper's cultural values and raw material, namely the bark of do trees (Rhamnoneuron balansae), Nhung said.
So, she founded the Zó Project in collaboration with her friends, and convinced artisans to work with them.
Nhung said it had not been easy to make paper-makers join the project, but she and her friends managed to do it, making them realize that "the craft of making do paper is not the asset just of artisans or a village, but also the country."
Thanks to Zó Project's initiatives, do paper is now no longer an ancient thing found only in some documents or articles on history and culture; instead, people now can touch and even smell it, and see how amazing it is with their own eyes.

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