by An Vu
|Pride of place: Twenty three-year-old Dinh Tuan Anh from HCM City, holds the most expensive cage of his collection, a 40-year-old Chinese-style example (below), with its inlaid characters and parts made from carved elephant ivory. The cage costs VND50 million (US$2,411).
To many people, starting the day to the sound of birdsong is the perfect way to welcome a new morning, but to 23-year-old Dinh Tuan Anh from Ho Chi Minh City, the greatest way for him to start the day is contemplating his collection of bird cages.
Anh's home is down a small alley in District 4, and is indeed a bird cage extravaganza, with more than 30 cages of various shapes and colours.
Anh used to collect rare birds, but his interests changed after he discovered a collection of antique cages belonging to an older enthusiast, who explained their origins and history. "Each cage has a story behind it. For instance, one of my cages is engraved with some scenes from the Chinese novel, Romance of Three Kingdoms. Others are carved with images of animals and flowers. The more I learnt, the more infatuated I became with antique bird cages. Each of them alone is a masterpiece and crafted by hand," says Anh.
Among his valuable collection, a Chinese-style bird cage stands out from the rest. "This cage is 40 years old, and characters from Romance of Three Kingdoms are inlaid into it. This is the most valuable piece in my collection, priced at VND50 million (US$2,400). When you look at the cage, you will see its spatial depth as it looks like a real picture, and many of the parts are made of elephant ivory. Normally, the bars are made from bamboo, so you can guess their age by looking at the coats of paint on the bars. The older the bamboo, the more beautiful the colour becomes," he adds.
Anh explains that most ornate bird cages are produced to order, and cages sold on the market are usually of poor quality. On the contrary, those made by craftsmen are meticulously constructed, and normally take four to five months to complete. The parts chosen by the artisans dictate the longevity of the cage, and if they're well maintained, may last for more than a hundred years.
"It is not difficult to preserve a bird cage. I usually clean them everyday, and apply engine oil to the wood to deter woodworm and rats. You must not expose a cage to water or humidity. Even a single broken bar can lower the value of a cage," says the young collector, while polishing one of his cherished collection.
Hand-crafted cages from Hue usually have arched roofs and date back 20 years, easily recognised by old stories of Bat Tien Quan Thu (Eight Fairies Fight Eight Beasts). "I have to use a magnifying glass to look at the tiny, intricate carvings," he explains.
Anh remembers a craftsman who lived in HCM City's District 4. He used to make cages with carvings of animals, birds and fruits that could last up to 50 years, but his cages are difficult to find in the domestic market.
For Anh, his biggest challenge is finding cages that appeal to his tastes, but a lot of the time, the owners are unwilling to sell them. Sometimes, it takes him three to four months to negotiate a purchase to add to his collection. Costs are another obstacle, with prices outside of his budget stretching to VND30 million ($1,450).
Anh reveals that there no longer remains any true craftsman in HCM City, but Hue is home to Doan Minh Can who has earned the moniker, "The King of Hue bird cages".
Can says, "Although many craftsman have retired, the craft will never be lost, as many young workers are being trained in my workshop. I was also surprised to discover a youngster like Anh would pursue this elegant hobby."
Anh considers his collection a healthy way of relaxing. "My passion is collecting bird cages, not to show them off to anyone, but because it is one of my hobbies and I want to pursue it because it helps me to chill out after a stressful day at work. As I observe each little detail, my admiration for the talented craftsmen grows. I'd like to expand my collection if circumstances allow," Anh says, adding that he will not stop until he owns more than 100. — VNS