Sticky rice and the rooster

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Vietnam's famous potted plant allegedly alludes to ancestors' hopes for full meals


 
  Nguyen Trung Thanh, a gold trader from Phu Tho Province, with his "sticky rice tray and rooster" bonsai

As a gold trader, Nguyen Trung Thanh was well known in his neighborhood and locality, but in 2008 things changed.

That year he bought a bonsai that became his claim to real fame.

The bonsai, more than 150 years old, was first planted at the Huong (Perfume) Pagoda in Hanoi, then owned by a family in Sai Son Commune, Quoc Oai District, Hanoi.

The plant was named "Mam xoi con ga" (Sticky rice tray and the rooster), by the father of Pham Van Tinh, the head of the family in the early 1900s, as its root and stump embraced the stone support to form the shape of a sticky rice tray, while the top looked like a rooster stretching its neck forward to coo.

Tinh's father was also the one that gave the plant the shape it has today.

When Thanh bought it, the rumor mills went into overdrive.

There was a lot of criticism about Thanh being ostentatious in spending US$6 million on the plant, that he himself had claimed he had paid VND5.6 billion ($268,650) for, and that some Japanese billionaire had offered him $1.2 million to take off his hands.

But the businessman from Phu Tho Province, not far from Hanoi, shrugged the rumors off, not divulging any more information.

"I'm merely a plant lover, not a trader, so I won't discuss prices. I have no intention of selling this treasure."

What has been confirmed so far is that Thanh bought the plant in March 2008 from a businessman in Hanoi named Quy, who had bought it from Dang Xuan Cuong, a famous painter in Hanoi.

 
Parts of the bonsai show a rooster standing straight and stretching its head to crow, according to several bonsai collectors who consider the plant a piece of art
Cuong said the plant's name - sticky rice and rooster - reflects Vietnam's agricultural culture.

"At first, the name sounds quite mundane, and it makes many bonsai investors and collectors disappointed, but if we think deeper, that name speaks of the wishes of our ancestors - a house full of food and special meals during traditional festivals like Tet, the Lunar New Year.

"The sticky rice tray and the rooster are first offered to the departed, then shared in family gatherings."

The tree's fame shot up when it was exhibited at the Hanoi Museum during the capital's 1,000th anniversary celebrations in October 2010.

Thousands upon thousands of curious visitors jostled each other to get a good look at the tree. Those who could not were gifted with 15x20 centimeter photographs, which cost Thanh VND400 million ($19,194).

The event earned the plant big praise from collectors who compared its canopy to a cloud and said that the harmony of wood and rock it achieved "gathers nature into one piece."

Nguyen Khang of the Vietnam Association of Ornamental Plants said, "We rank the plant among the best bonsais. It is a work of art."

Thanh said when he brought the plant home, his house was crowded for several days with bonsai enthusiasts other northern provinces and even abroad - from Japan, China and South Korea.

He said he bought the plant not because it was expensive, but because it gathered all factors of a precious potted plant - it was old, strange, beautiful and meaningful.

"Our forefathers spoke of "˜planting trees to nurture the heart,' and this hobby is an antidote to my stressful and tiring business," Thanh said.

Thanh opens his doors to everyone who want to see or take photos of his plant, as well as ten others, including portable ones and those that weigh 20 tons each, some around 100 years old.

He said he wants his plants to be famous and attract opinions from experts.

Not everyone is enamored of the famous bonsai.

Nguyen Van K. of the Quang Ngai Ornamental Plants Association in central Vietnam, said he does not get the idea and does not understand how the plant is considered beautiful.

"I was curious when many people talked about it, so I came to see it, but I looked at it for a while and could not see the sticky rice tray or the rooster," K. told Vietnam Cable Television.

"So there's no art."

Some other under-impressed collectors have said the canopy looks like a flat basket, not a cloud.

Thanh is unfazed. He said he likes and welcomes all praise and criticism, because it is the way of art.

"That makes it fun."

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