Old books and magazines owned by some collectors in Hue. Old magazines are being hunted down by overseas collectors willing to pay up to VND1 million an issue and many times more for literary books. Photo courtesy of Tuoi Tre
T.N. pointed to his house roof. It had stopped leaking after more than VND15 million (US$711) was spent on repairing it. But N. looked none too happy about his improved living conditions.
"I had to sell my books," he said, sadness writ large on his face.
Similar stories are being narrated by many collectors in the former feudal capital of Hue. They have been selling off many old, original books, as poverty forced them to part with their most valuable asset, a Tuoi Tre report said.
N. did not want to be named, saying he felt bad about selling what he treasured.
Among the items he sold were hundreds of issues of newspapers published in South Vietnam, the US-backed regime before the Vietnam War ended in 1975, as well as newspapers published in Hue before 1945 and several books from the early 1900s.
He is still keeping some 400 music sheets by Hue publisher Tinh Hoa, and An Phu and Dien Dong publishers then based in Saigon, which were the first to print pieces of Vietnamese modern music from the 1940s and popularize it across Indochina.
The sheet collection has been offered VND30,000 apiece and N. said he would sell them for VND50,000.
"I'm really sad doing this, but I'm forced to as there's no other way to make money," he said.
Researcher P.T., who is keeping one of the biggest private book collections in Hue, also wished to stay anonymous as he had just sold a number of old books for more than VND30 million to fix his house, which like many in the storm-prone central region gets flooded at least once a year.
He sold the print debuts of 20th century authors like Nguyen Tuan, who is introduced in textbooks as one of the most prominent authors of Vietnamese literature, celebrated author Nguyen Cong Hoan who is known for his harsh satire against the authorities, and Vu Trong Phung, an influential writer and journalist sometimes referred to as Balzac of Vietnam for his style of sarcastic humor.
T. said that most of all, he regretted selling several issues of Nam Phong, a monthly magazine published in Hanoi between 1917 and 1934, one of the first standard magazines in Vietnam in terms of format and content.
"The (magazine) collection was my life time project, and I may not be able to buy it back ever. But I've been racking my brain and decided I had to sell them as I don't have money.
"Also, the precious books are falling apart, some losing their covers while others have worn out pages"¦ I could not afford to preserve them," T. said.
Back in the days of being the capital under the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945), Hue was known as the city of books thanks to large libraries at Catholic and Buddhist monasteries, or private ones of famous scholars, including Pham Quynh, a cultural expert, writer, journalist and monarchist for the royal family and an advocate of using Vietnamese for academic pieces, instead of the languages of foreign aggressors like the Chinese or French.
Experts from the French School of the Far East (Ã‰cole franÃ§aise d'Extrême-Orient), a French institute founded in 1900 and based in Hanoi to study Asian societies, visited such libraries in Hue regularly.
Local researchers believe that its books placed Hue on par with other large cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in terms of cultural value.
But such book value has been shrinking through the years of historic turbulence including wars, natural disasters, and now, the collectors' poverty.
Nguyen Huu Chau Phan, who owns a collection of more than 10,000 old books in Hue, is trying to hold on it, and has rejected all offers so far. He said he's determined to keep his collection intact and open it to any interested readers.
"If this trend persists, I'm afraid Hue will be empty sometime soon.
"Other places still have other things to develop from if they lose their (book) culture, but a city like Hue will have nothing left when that culture is gone."
That culture has been fading at a fast pace anyway, with researchers and collectors swooping down on the former capital from Hanoi, HCMC and other places, mostly overseas.
Magazines of South Vietnam can fetch VND100,000 an issue, and that of Nam Phong, up to VND1 million apiece. Literary books dating back to before 1945 are sold for VND1.5-2 million while those written by kings cost around ten times more.
Sets of historical books are also worth hundreds of dollars.
An unidentified doctor from the US last year visited Hue and left with "Kham dinh Viet su Thong giam cuong muc" which is the Chinese-language history book of Vietnam commissioned by the Nguyen emperor Tu Duc in 1871. The doctor also took dozens of literary pieces penned by Nguyen kings, many old magazines and old foreign books about Vietnam published in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
In many cases, it is not just Hue collectors losing their asset, the loss is of national treasures.
T., a book collector in HCMC, has sold to a Viet Kieu book trader the lithography version of the hand-written book "Cours de caractères Chinois à l'usage des FranÃ§ais" by Truong Vinh Ky, a prominent culture and language expert in the late 19th century. The book was aimed at helping French officials learn Chinese.
T. announced he was clearing his collection due to financial reasons late last year and many Vietnamese researchers were interested in Ky's book, but the price of VND20 million was too steep for them.
It has been the book trade that everyone is still talking about. Researchers estimate that there are fewer than ten copies of the version, for one thing, and the loss was not limited to one book.
The US-based trader actually paid more than VND200 million for T's entire bookstore, which included many books authored by Vietnam's first anti-French writers club "Tu Luc Van Doan," formed in 1932 as pioneers of new developments in Vietnamese writing, including journalism. The club also introduced realism in Vietnamese novels.
Several years ago, a man named C. in Hanoi sold to an American researcher around 300 documents including news pieces he collected himself about the controversial land reform program in northern Vietnam between 1953 to 1956 that aimed to break the power of the traditional village elite and redistribute the wealth, particularly land, a common asset, into equal parts, but had somehow earned allegations of brutal violence used in implementing it.
Many culture experts have said that a group of people like C., who collect documents as well as old paintings based on orders from foreigners with deep pockets, put local researchers at an even bigger disadvantage.
"˜They have to live'
Hue-born cultural researcher Buu Y said the collectors who are selling their books should receive empathy than blame.
"They have to live."
Y said besides the poverty that is holding them back, there is little to motivate them to hold on to their passion.
The 76-year-old said many of the old books have been translated and/or uploaded on the Internet, and thus only maintain value as antiques.
The collectors themselves are old and few young people in Vietnam have enough interest for them to pass the treasure down to, Y told Tuoi Tre.
He said government agencies like the academic archives of Hue University, Hue Culture Museum or Thua Thien-Hue's provincial library need to think about "enriching" themselves by buying the old collections.
"The research spirit at universities has plunged. If we can boost that up, there will be a need to visiting those collections."
But the implications of losing books and historical documents go far beyond what is realized now, some experts say.
Archaeologist Nguyen Thi Hau said Vietnam will never be able to write its full history correctly, now that many original documents are gone.
Worse still, fake documents could end up filling the gap, she warned.
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