Remembrance of violence past

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Army officer stationed in Ho Chi Minh City has a priceless collection of ancient cannons

Major Ung Thanh Dung poses with his collection of cannons dating back from the Tay Son Uprising to the Nguyen Dynasty

Major Ung Thanh Dung laughs out loud when people ask how much they have to pay in order to own his ugly 40-centimeter long hand-held cannon from the Tay Son Era (1778-1802).

"I will never sell it so there's no price," Dung says firmly.

The 25-kilogram black-and-brown gun made of red bronze and tin has a gaping crack in its barrel and looks like scrap, yet Dung says it is the most valuable artifact in his collection of weapons dating back from the Dong Son Culture (2000BC-200AD) to the Tay Son Uprising.

Indeed, there is a rumor that it's worth up to one million US dollars.

"But everything has a price," entreats a visitor.

"Then, it is one million US dollars." Dung's reply leaves the visitor in shock for he cannot believe that the derelict device could have such a high price.

"An artifact's value varies from person to person. Some might consider it just a piece of metal, but to me it is a treasure," says Dung, a member of the Ho Chi Minh City Antiquities Association.

The 51-year-old military officer of the High Command of Information in the southern metro doesn't know where the million-dollar figure came from, but the gun is obviously worth a lot. "Many people approach me and offer enormous sums for it, but I turn them down," he says.

Thao, who owns an antique shop on Le Cong Kieu Street in District 1, says he was amazed when he visited the antiquarian's house recently in District 12 where the latter keeps his entire collection.

"Dung is quite famous among antique collectors," says Thao. "I've also heard the rumor of that gun being worth a million dollars. I tell you, it's not only the cracked cannon that Dung treasures. Everything in his collection is precious to him."

Dung found the gun in another antique shop on Le Cong Kieu Street some years ago.

Previously, the ugly, cracked cannon lay on the ground for eons. Even after it was rescued and displayed in the antique shop, the gun was about to meet an ignominious end by being sold to a scrap-iron dealer since nobody wanted it.

Fortunately, the major was there at the time and offered a higher price than the scrap dealer was prepared to pay. The delighted shop owner told him that he had bought it in Quy Nhon, the capital town of Binh Dinh Province on the central coast.

It's not surprising that he considers it his luckiest purchase. "It was like winning the lottery," says Dung, who inadvertently bought quite a few fakes in the early days of collecting because of his inexperience. "It's the crack in the barrel that makes it special."

He assumes that the cannon, because of its weight, was probably used by a general of tall, big stature who, in the heat of combat, packed the gunpowder incorrectly, causing it to ignite inside and blow out the barrel wall.

Remnants of history
The cannon is one of nearly 50 hand-held cannons collected since 1980 by Major Dung, whose late father was a soldier of the Vietnamese People's Army in the wars of resistance against the French and Americans.

The cannons vary in size, weight, design and decoration. The biggest are a pair of hefty cannons weighing hundreds of kilograms standing near the front gate of his house, which he calls Cổ xưa (ancient), while the smaller ones lie on on a large ironwood table in the middle of the house.

In 2007, he transformed the house on a thousand-square-meter block of land in District 12 into a private museum to showcase the collection, including more than 1,000 swords, spears and stone axes, Khmer jewelry, Cham artifacts, and a dozen bronze drums dating back since the Dong Son Culture a Bronze age culture which includes all of Southeast Asia and into the Indo-Malaya Archipelago from about 1000 to 1 BC.

The house-cum-museum and the contents are protected with security cameras.

Near the entrance hang 300 bronze pots that, according to the owner, who runs a mechanics workshop in the city, were supposedly used for cooking rice when the Emperor Quang Trung (1753-1792) of the Tay Son Dynasty prepared for his surprise attack against the Qing Dynasty troops of China at the lunar new year of 1789.

Quang Trung's victory in the five-day battle of Ngoc Hoi Dong Da (which is now Hanoi) strengthened his throne and the country's independence from China.

According to Tran M., an antique trader from Le Cong Kieu Street, many rich people are willing to pay a very high price to own Dung's entire collection of pots, but the major won't sell no matter what they offer.

Another special hand cannon Dung possesses is called Hỏa hổ Thần Công (flaming tiger cannon). It weighs more than ten kilograms and stands out among its peers as its bronze body has slightly corroded to a yellowish green over the years. The barrel is inscribed with the year of manufacture as well as the name of a general, indicating that the gun was cast in the reign of the King Tu Duc (1829-1883) and used solely by the general, whose name cannot be read clearly due to blurred engraving.

"This hỏa hổ was very powerful, especially in close combat, but since it belonged to the general, I assume it was used mostly in the troop departure ceremony," says Dung, who was born in the northern province of Bac Ninh after his father, a native of Soc Trang in the south, had moved to the north following the Geneva Accords of 1954. The son in turn left Bac Ninh at the age of 16 to serve in the army on the southern battleground.

According to the collector, not all the old weapons were used in battle. Many of them, such as the swords, reflect the owners' status and wealth and were intended for ceremonial use.

"The heavily decorated artifacts mostly belonged to the rich aristocracy, the emperor's swords and such are adorned with mythical creatures like the dragon, whereas the weapons used by foot soldiers are plain and nameless," Dung says.

"A weapon is a remnant of history and culture as well as evidence of our ancestors' ingenuity," says the collector, who considers himself more a scholar than an antiquarian.
Ancestors' heritage
Dung says he becomes an antique collector to, in his words, "show his respect and patriotism as a soldier."

His hobby, his passion, has earned him a special position among collectors, at least at the Ho Chi Minh City Antiquities Association. At an exhibition by association members in the city early this year, Dung's collection was the only display of military ordnance and paraphernalia.

To pursue his hobby, Dung, for whom history has been a favorite subject since childhood, studies not only the history and culture of Vietnam but also the Cham and Khmer people since the Dong Son period, and has even sold much property and real estate so that he can travel around the country and enlarge his collection.

"Some think me insane since it's spiritually not good to keep such antipersonnel devices, but I don't mind at all because these are the country's heritage left by our ancestors."

What a senior antiquarian says about the one-million-US-dollar cannon rumor 

Nguyen Van Quynh, president of the Ho Chi Minh City Antiquities Association, where Ung Thanh Dung is a member, told Vietweek that he had not heard the rumor of the one-million-US-dollar cannon.

"I'm not sure if there is such rumor," says Quynh. "Dung is known as the owner of the biggest collection of old cannons, but he is not the only weapon collector in the association."

According to Quynh, an old weapon's identity and origin can be traced thanks to the numbers and words engraved on its barrel.

"Besides, only the city's council of antique experts has the right and the knowledge to verify an artifact's authenticity. The association's function is just to support and gather collectors in one place where they can exchange experience and show each other their collections."

Quynh suggests that every collector should have their pieces verified rather than claim their origins on their own.

"From my experience, most every collector exaggerates the value of his collection and consider it the best, and unique," says the head of the association, which was set up in 2009.

Father of Vietnam's hand cannons and other weapons

Ho Nguyen Trung (1374? - 1446?), the eldest son of Ho Quy Ly (1336-1407), who founded the Ho Dynasty in 1400, was a Vietnamese scholar, statesman and engineer in exile in China.

Thanks to his talent for producing and inventing new types of weapons, including firearms and warships, after the fall of the Ho Dynasty in 1407, Trung, instead of being thrown in prison like his father and brothers, was given a position in Ming Dynasty of China under the Ministry of Works to teach his skills to the Chinese.

Though Trung is considered to be the father of the cannon, according to Sun Laichen of the Asia Research Institute under the National University of Singapore in a working paper series titled Military Technology and Dai Viet (1390-1497) published in 2003, the Vietnamese royal prince introduced the Vietnamese-style firelance and improved handgun ignition, as well as established the Firearms Battalion.


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