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Hue artist adds value to Vietnam's rural life with new bamboo paper

     An employee at XQ Da Lat embroiders a piece of Truc Chi bamboo paper

Artist Phan Hai Bang did not set out to make a new kind of paper from bamboo so he and others could paint on it.

He sees the paper itself as a work of art which celebrates the nation's rural roots as a wellspring of creativity.

Bang says the making of the paper is a call back to Vietnam's villages "where bamboo makes your father's hoe, your mother's basket, your sister's toys, and the cane at the corner of the house."

"Truc Chi" (bamboo threads), as the paper has been called by Buu Y, a translator and researcher of Hue, has since been used to make lanterns, folding screens, postcards, gift boxes, fans and kites.

But Bang reiterates, the paper was not meant to be a material in the first place, but is itself already a piece of art.

When placed under light, the natural patterns of fibers are highlighted and there is no need for further decorations, he says.

"The patterns make me think of the sky and the forest. They look abstract but close to me."

Bamboo fiber has been used to make paper in China since early times. Bamboo pulp is mainly produced in China, Myanmar, Thailand and India, and used to make paper for printing as well as writing.

Bang started his own paper-making effort in 2000. The initial results were not good. The paper looked "rough and clumsy."

Artist Phan Hai Bang talks about his Truc Chi paper creations (Top) and lanterns made with bamboo paper (Bottom)

But the 41-year-old artist did not give up.

He spent years researching the subject of making paper from bamboo, including nearly five years when he was studying in Thailand with a grant from the Asian Scholarship Foundation. The research took him to villages in Thailand, Laos and across Vietnam, as he searched for vestiges of handmade paper to have "some ideas as well as the feeling for it."

Now, he feels, Truc Chi is "somewhat perfect."

He based his efforts on the making of do, a Vietnamese traditional paper named after the flowering plant Thymelaeaceae.

Truc Chi is made by peeling the bamboo first, cutting it into small pieces, soaking them in water over night, then cooking them in limestone solution for around 12 hours, washing them with water, and later, smashing them into powder. The powder is then mixed with water and the mixture is poured into thin frames and the water removed by pressing and drying, using machines or blotter sheets.

Water can be sprayed on the paper when it's still wet to create the patterns wanted.

Bang says products from the paper so far have been unique as he is ruled by different emotions at different times, and he does not mass produce the paper.

But the fact that he sees the paper itself as a work of art has not prevented Bang from trying to popularize it through various applications.

The aim, he says, is not only to add another product to many bamboo products that have been part of Vietnamese rural life for thousands of years, but also to continue adding value to Vietnam's rural life.

Some artists in Hue have successfully made print-paintings on the paper.

Bang and his students at the Hue University of Fine Arts, which he graduated from in 1995, and where he has been teaching since 1997, have tried other procedures on the paper such as etching, lithograph and digital printing, and they all show good results, he says.

Most researchers in Hue are highly appreciative of Bang's work.

Nguyen Dac Xuan said it has "brought the spirit of the country into modern life."

Xuan says making a piece of bamboo paper might be even more complicated than lacquering.

Bang's work has not stopped at Hue, but has reached out to the Central Highlands resort town of Da Lat, to the famous XQ embroidery firm.

People at XQ Da Lat are putting embroidery works, including portraits and other paintings, on Truc Chi paper.

Vo Van Quan, general director of XQ, says the paper has added to the diversity of XQ products and his embroiderers have found no problems working on it.

Quan says XQ has a branch in Hue, and during a visit to the central town, he saw Bang's work and wanted to try embroideries on it.

The successful combination has been shown at a couple of events, including Festival Hue 2012 in April and an exhibition at XQ Da Lat in September. It has drawn the interest of many Vietnamese and foreigners, Quan says.

He has asked Bang to cooperate in making paper from the Da Lat's iconic pine trees and exhibit the products in 2013 at events held to celebrate 120 years of the town's history.

The products, made from the pine leaves, roots, wood and resin, will be the first ever in Vietnam and will be as unique as Truc Chi, Quan says.

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