In this file photo, Soichiro Wada (L) works with a Vietnamese expert on Southeast Asian history to organize his collection of artifacts / PHOTO COURTESY OF NGUYEN VIET
It is a building located on a 4,000-square-meter plot in Binh Tan District, southwest of Ho Chi Minh City’s center. It has no signboards and is often closed.
Not many know that it is actually an art museum where thousands of objects, including many from ancient Vietnamese culture, are housed.
In fact, no one except for a few local historians and archeologists are aware that the museum was founded by a Japanese man who had a great passion for Asian history and culture, and a deep love for Vietnam. But he died last year before it ever opened its doors to the public, and it's been closed ever since.
Shoichiro Wada, an engineer who had worked in Vietnam for many years since 1975, died from cancer last July, when the museum’s construction was nearly completed.
The project has since been halted, because not all of his family members have agreed to continue supporting it in fear that they could not afford it, Pham Thi Ngoc Thao, a lecturer with the HCMC University of Social Sciences and Humanities’ history department, said.
Thao, who helped Wada complete paperwork for the museum’s establishment while he was alive, has been entrusted by his family with looking after his collection.
After Wada died, some of his Vietnamese friends planned to finish the rest of the formalities so that the museum could be opened and his lifetime dream would be completed. But, in the end they gave up because they could not find enough funding.
Associate Professor Pham Duc Manh, head of the Archeology Department of the Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City, said that originally Wada had wanted to organize a public display to raise funds to support Vietnamese lecturers and students of “rare” fields like archeology.
However, it was impossible to hold a massive display in a public place because his collection was not diverse enough, consisting mainly of artifacts from Indian myths and civilizations, as well as relics of the Cham culture that thrived in Vietnam from the 7th century to 1832, Manh said.
So, Wada bought the land in Binh Tan, and applied for a license to establish a museum with the Ministry of Culture and Information (now the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism).
In his petition, the Japanese collector wrote that he did not want to bring his collection home to Japan. He wanted to leave it here so it could serve the Vietnamese public.
A council which was tasked with evaluating Wada’s collection and then concluded that his objects were valueless, meaning that his application was rejected and that he should move the artifacts out of Vietnam.
However, he did not bring his collection to Japan, and kept it here, instead.
According to Manh, Wada collected “everything” from different sources over many years, and at the time he rented storehouses in the city and Dong Nai Province to keep them.
Manh, who got to know Wada through scholarships he granted to the students of Manh’s archeology department, suggested that he apply for another evaluation.
The Vietnamese scholar said he suggested the re-evaluation after being invited to visit one of Wada’s warehouses and seeing how “beautiful” the objects were.
After that, Prof. Ngo Van Le, former president of the university, chaired a new council with the participation of experts on the Cham culture and Southeast Asian culture, and archeological students to evaluate the huge collection over the period of a month.
All the expenses were paid for by Wada.
Manh said that of all Wada’s objects, a set of 602 Hindu cooper idols were “the most unique.” Although they were dated to the beginning the 20th century, they were presented in various positions, many of which were unknown to the experts that evaluated them.
Besides the idols, Wada also owned hundreds of cartons of ceramics, glassware, and metal objects, as well as gongs and wine jars traditionally used by Vietnamese people in the Central Highlands, said Nguyen Viet, director of the Center for the Southeast Asian Prehistory.
“Wada’s collection truly attracted and convinced us of its value,” Viet once wrote in his tribute to the Japanese man after his death.
“Working on the collection, I always felt as if I were dreaming. Because it was unimaginable that a Japanese old man could all by himself collect and preserve such a huge amount of objects.”
“The Japanese old man,” according to Viet, “was simple, industrious and careful.” And during the time they worked together, he rarely talked about how he collected the objects, but only about how he wanted to build the museum.
“He dreamed that the museum would be a fairy-tale-like castle where people could be absorbed in the myths of the Cham Kingdom,” Viet said.
“He seemed to be a lot more passionate about history and the museum than his well-paid job.”
In the end, the panel of experts concluded that although Wada’s collection was not old enough to be called "antique", it carried high artistic values.
The conclusion prompted cultural authorities to organize several councils for further evaluations and finally grant Wada a museum license in 2012.
According to Manh, his Japanese friend planned to invite the experts to work as consultants on writing pamphlets and catalogues when the museum went into operation.
But, “it was a pity that he could never open the museum and see how visitors would be moved by the magnificent objects and recognize his great efforts in collecting and preserving them,” Viet said.
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