A heritage in limbo

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Customers' motorbikes lined up outside Beo snail restaurant run inside late culturist Vuong Hong Sen's 100-year-old wooden house in Ho Chi Minh City, which has been declared a relic since 2003. His family runs the restaurant to make a living and is involved in a standoff with authorities over the house.

Lien and her eldest daughter Vuong Hong Lien Huong, 29, have seldom let people inside their 100-year-old wooden house in Ho Chi Minh City, acknowledged as a relic, since 2003.

"There is nothing to see for the house has now severely deteriorated," said Huong, who lives in the building on Nguyen Thien Thuat Street, Binh Thanh District, with her mother, two other siblings, and eight relatives.

They have all lived there since birth.

The house's wooden frame, including pillars, purlins, and beams, is termite eaten, the ridge-beam rotted long ago, and the situation worsens during rains due to a leaky roof.

It is hard to open and close the carved wooden doors which are now warped.

There is a moldy smell, especially from a dusty altar for the renowned culturist, scholar, antique collector Vuong Hong Sen (1902-1996) and his wife, hat boi artist Nam Sa Dec. The altar has no incense or flowers.

In the past the house was known for a unique orchard with various kinds of fruit trees and bonsais, especially mai (Ochna integerrima, popularly known as the Vietnamese Mickey Mouse plant) trees. The mai flower mostly has five petals, but Sen's mai, which are as old as the house, had seven petals and bloomed all year around. Sadly, the entire orchard is now gone.

According to one of the family members, who had helped his grandfather take care of the garden and the house when he was a child, the trees were uprooted and sold to a tourism park in HCMC's Binh Thanh District two years ago.

"My relatives, however, told me that they cut down the trees on instructions from the Binh Thanh District authority to keep off mosquitoes."

The house was originally built in a suburb of the city before being bought and moved to its present location by Huong's grandfather Sen in the 1940s. He had made some changes to it and created a living style that dovetailed with the house's spirit and design.

From afternoon to evening every day the family welcomes customers to a snail restaurant called Beo (Fat) located right inside the building. Snail shells are piled up on the ground, while the house's main compartment is used as a kitchen.

The backyard is filled with customers and tables and chairs in the afternoons.

"We don't have money to restore the house, and have to run this restaurant to make a living," Huong said.

Until Sen passed away in December 1996 at the age of 94, the place used to be a haunt for famous intellectuals during that time and housed his collection of 849 antiques and thousands of precious books.

Antique collector and scholar Tran Dinh Son, a disciple of Sen for more than 50 years, said: "After 1975, while many collectors lost part or all of their antiques, Vuong did not, thanks to his prestige and passion for antiques."

James D. Hollan, a professor of cognitive science and adjunct professor of computer science at the University of California, whose research explores the cognitive consequences of computationally-based media, visited the house in early 1970s. He then wrote an article published in Arts of Asia magazine in 1972 describing the building as a symbol of Vietnamese aestheticism in traditional architecture.

He also told his readers how Sen harmonized his collection with the house's architecture and made them into decorations so that visitors would not think he was flaunting his wealth.

But the house is now empty. All the books and antiques were taken away by the local government to display in the city's Museum of History (next to the zoo) and the General Library of Science (located on Ly Tu Trong Street.)

Sen had only one son, Vuong Hong Bao, who was found guilty by a court of fraud and owed debts of US$240 million (at current prices). He was sentenced to life in 1998, but died in prison the same year.

Sen did not have faith that his descendants would preserve his heritage and so willed all his property to the government. In return the government had to pay living expense to his three grandchildren until they reached the age of 18.

He wanted the house to become a museum named after him and exhibit all 849 antiques and the collection of books.

Pham Thanh Nam, head of the cultural heritage department of the city Department of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, said the local government continues to pay the allowances to Sen's three grandchildren that it began in 1997 though they are all past 18.

After the house is restored, the collections would be taken back to their original location for public exhibition, he said.

"We also offered an apartment for the children to live after moving out of the house, but they refused. Then we offered a large house on Van Kiep Street which was then priced nearly VND8 billion ($384,000), but they refused that too, and refuse to move out," he told Tuoi Tre last week.

"Vuong Hong Lien Huong asked us to give them three houses that each cost the same as the Van Kiep Street house, saying "˜Now we are three adults, we should have private places to live, and the three houses only partly make up the value of my grandfather's house. For the antiques, we want VND10 billion ($480,000) to start a business to make a living and repay our father's debts.'"

In October 2005 Huong took her demands to a city court, but her suit was dismissed. A final decision has not been made about the books and antiques.

In 2006 the department drew up plans for restoring the house, but they remain on paper.

"The more famous the house, the more suffering it has to bear," Sen's daughter-in-law said.

"If it is an ordinary building, we might live in peace."

Huong told Tien Phong newspaper last year: "We want to have a happy, easy life. We want to live here, we have no other place. My two siblings are grown up, so I want to run this snail restaurant to feed my family. The house has nothing left, what remains is its frame, yet we are not allowed to rebuild it or do anything else."

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