Artisan Tran Van Thang, 66, is well settled in life, but he still works hard on making bronze censers, a vocation that has sustained several generations of his family
Over a century ago, while all his neighbors in what is now Ho Chi Minh City's Go Vap District were content being bonsai artisans, Tran Van Kinh chose to leave and learn bronze casting in the city's Chinese quarter.
After mastering the craft, he returned home to set up his own business and taught the skill to his relatives and, later, to all neighbors and friends who were interested.
Together, they founded the renowned An Hoi Bronze casting village, which at that time had hundreds of households specializing in making bronze artifacts, especially censers and candlesticks for worship. These were sold not only in the city and other provinces in the country but also to other countries including Cambodia, China and Myanmar.
Today, while most of local craftsmen have closed their furnaces due to low supply of material and high taxes, and shifted to other, more profitable businesses, and even sold the lands where their furnaces were located because of the increase in land prices as a result of rapid urbanization, Kinh's descendants are still striving to preserve his legacy.
Tran Van Thang (aka Hai Thang), Kinh's grandson, is the owner of one of five remaining workshops Hai Thang, Nam Toan, Sau Banh, Ba Co and Ut Kien in the district's Ward 12.
Thang, 66, did not sell his 400-square-meter land. It now has a three-story house and a workshop, and he built several rooms for rent to provide a decent income for himself and his own family.
"At my age, I no longer have to work for money," he told Vietweek, "I have many rooms for rent and all of my children have their own families and businesses, but still I cannot quit the job because it's an irreplaceable part of my life."
Best bronze censers
Unlike the golden age of the craft many decades ago, when the whole village had to work hard to meet the market's demand, Thang, who learnt the art from his grandfather Kinh when he was a teenager, produces only 100-120 sets of censers per month. Each item, priced from VND2 million (US$95) to VND10 million ($475), takes the artisans several days to finish, but cheaper, machine-made products have made it tough to compete.
Casting the An Hoi bronze censer requires several steps that give the products renown for quality, their deep, rich color and sophisticated decoration. They compare favorably with machine-made products that are made of several pieces joined with screws and see their color fade with time.
Clay moulds, metal-grinders, firewood and charcoal are the craft's main materials used in different processes: kneading clay, carving patterns on moulds with sharp knives and steel rods, casting, and hammering or carving tiny details on newly cast products.
Chau Thi Kia, Thang's wife, who met her husband during her first years of apprenticeship at a local furnace 50 years ago, said that only clay from Dong Nai Province and Thuan An District in southern province of Binh Duong are used to make molds.
The best clay is first allowed to dry and then ground and mixed with ground rice husk and ashes for making the mold, which includes three layers, the middle of which is a mixture of beeswax and candle wax. The wax is engraved in patterns and covered with two layers of clay.
It takes the mold seven to 10 days to dry in the sun before being burnt in a furnace until it turns red. Then molten copper is poured into the wax layer, effectively burning the wax, and left there for a few days until it cools down. The clay mold is broken to get the bronze censer on which patterns are carved and polished.
While many believe that casting is the hardest part of the crafts as it requires the artisan to estimate if the temperature of the baked mold and the molten metal before and after the casting is appropriate, Thang says he mainly pays attention to the carving stage.
It is here that skills and aesthetic sense come into play, he said.
There are two kinds of censers: the northern-style one which is round, and the southern one which is square and decorated with motifs of phoenixes, dragons, and flowers.
Pagodas and temples in neighboring provinces are the village's regular customers.
Pham Thi Lien, owner of the Ba Co workshop, said: "Due to high prices and low supply of copper, we make little profit from the business. Our concern, however, is how to keep the traditional craft alive."
The younger generation, despite knowing the craft, do not have evince much interest in pursuing it.
Among Thang's eight sons and daughters, his two sons and daughters-in-law are following their father's career, while others are engineer, teacher, or have their own businesses.
"I trained five, but only two remain. It's not easy to tell if the craft will survive," Thang said, worried about a vocation that has sustained four generations thus far.
In addition, the craftsmen are facing opposition from the rest of the village who argue the making process releases smoke that pollutes the environment. Requests have been made to have the craftsmen move to a non-resident area.
The village is located on Nguyen Sinh Cung Street, behind the Ward 12 People's Committee office in Go Vap District.
Recently, the city's Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism initiated a project to preserve guild villages in the city, and An Hoi is on the list.
Quoc Kien, who runs the Ut Kien workshop nearby, said despite the environmental challenges, all the craftsmen "hope that the local government will support us in preserving our trade."