Extinction looms large in erstwhile silk village

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Dong Yen as the land of silkworms and mulberries is becoming a bedtime story

A woman makes silk from cocoons at a factory of Doan Luong, the only family preserving silk making craft in Dong Yen Village of Quang Nam Province. Photo by Hoang Son

Doan Thi Ngoc was the youngest daughter of a mandarin under the Nguyen Dynasty during the 17th century.

One full moon night, she walked out to pick mulberry leaves for silkworms along the river that flowed by the village. She sang, "Dear Lord, where is your dragon boat/ I feel pity for myself picking mulberries alone."

The lord's boat was passing by at the time. He was touched by the song and fell in love with Ngoc. He took her to his citadel and made her the queen.

Ngoc's ascension to royalty (she became known as Doan Quy Phi - Queen Regnant) made Dong Yen, her native village, famous.

She also made the village's silk making well-known via the Silk Road.

Unfortunately, Dong Yen as the land of silkworms and mulberries is also becoming a bedtime story just like Ngoc being crowned the queen.

No family in the village plants mulberries or raises silkworms now, as over the years, the climate has become hotter and the generous use of pesticides have failed to keep the worms alive.

Competition from cheap Chinese cloth also rendered efforts by the locals worthless.

The mulberry gardens in the village have been replaced by corn and peanut fields, and what used to be a cooperative in the middle of the village where cocoons were processed into yarn and fabric is a vacant ground.

From a production of 400 families with over 160 hectares of mulberry fields, it has come down to one sixty-year-old man, Doan Luong, a 12th generation descendent of the person who developed the craft in the village, who keeps the centuries-old tradition alive.

Luong's is the only family that still processes cocoons into silk, but he has to buy worms from elsewhere around the province or surrounding provinces.

He hires eight workers, but they only work around one week a month due to the shortage of both material and customers.

Luong tells the story of his family's craft with more nostalgia than pride.

He said the first Doan family came from the north of the country late in the 15th century and settled down in what is now the central province of Quang Nam. They started planting mulberries and raising silkworms to make a living.

The craft blossomed four generations later thanks to Doan Thi Ngoc, who, after becoming a queen, promoted it and encouraged families to take it up.

"My entire village was planting mulberries, raising silkworms and making silk," Luong said.

Silk yarn from Dong Yen was made into cloth by people at Ma Chau Village in the same Duy Xuyen District. Soon, silk from the province enjoyed peak popularity, known through various lines of products, and it was shipped overseas through the famous Hoi An Port.

Historical records show that the cloth was a rival of long-established products from China.

"That's why she (Ngoc) was coined the Queen of the silk land," Luong said.

Doan Giap, 56, another descendent, said silk making was once the locals' pride.

"They have tried to hold on to it despite a lot of turbulence (of wars)."

Giap said until late 1990s, around 200 families in the village were still making silk from worms, and green mulberries still covered hundreds of hectares around the village.

But soon after that, climate problems plus the harshness of the market conquered their will, he said.

Their products cannot compete with Chinese cloth as manual process means lower productivity and higher prices.

Dealers decide the prices, and they do not care about quality.

Most families in Ma Chau weaving village have switched from manual process on silk into running machines to make cloth from Chinese industrial yarn.

In 2005, the government recognized Dong Yen and Ma Chau as traditional craft villages and granted nearly US$60,000 for them to develop traditional craft tourism, raising hopes that the craft could be revived, according to a Van Hoa Online report.

But the plan had a counter-effect when travelers got involved in the production process. Locals say the smell of strangers did not suit the silkworms and they died in large numbers. Worse, cloth had to be thrown away when a visitor erred in using the loom.

When the last hope was gone, people sold their looms and cleared their mulberry fields for other plants, Giap said.

"I sold everything just recently, as I was fed up with it," said the man who was the last person to stay with the craft other than Luong.

Luong himself said he is staying with the craft mostly because of his family name.

"I have thought about quitting several times because it hardly makes me a living.

"But then I carry the Doan name, I am a descendent of Doan Quy Phi, I have to try to keep the craft left by my ancestors for as long as I can."

He did not bother to hide his pessimism about his one-man crusade, saying that it wouldn't last long as he could not live forever and none of his children would pick up the game.

"Dong Yen as a silk village of 400 years will come down to just a name."

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