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Time of the essence to clock collector

Update: April, 17/2012 - 16:58

 

Surrounded by friends: Trinh Thuy poses beside one of his prize items, a 2.5m clock with a delicately engraved gold pendulum, with fruit and flowers and black Roman numerals on its white face. — FilePhotos
by An Vu and Son Nam Thuong

Much like French writer Marcel Proust, author of what many consider one of the greatest novels ever written, A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), one man in Viet Nam has become obsessed with time late in his life; but in quite a different way.

Trinh Thuy has found his own way to come to grips with the age-old mystery of time. He has a collection of over one hundred old clocks that ring in unison every 15 minutes of every hour.

Standing in front of a newly fixed clock, Thuy proudly said that, despite its large size, the small details were quite astonishing, some of which was even difficult to detect with the naked eye. "Everything in this clock was made by hand, from the wooden gears inside to the intricate carvings outside. Among all the inner components, there is one original gear, made from wood. But this piece was crafted so well that it has needed absolutely no repair. This kind of workmanship inspires me."

Thuy's passion for old clocks began almost by accident. Because of an occupational disease, he was sent abroad to study mechanics. By the age of 40, he was a respected mechanic in the Ministry of Light Industry.

His habit of taking things apart to figure out how they work served him well at his new trade.

One day he happened to break a clock and had to put it back together. He was fascinated by the inner workings of the machine.

When he returned to his parents' home he began to dismantle all of the clocks in the house just to put them back together. He said, "I was amazed. Even though the components were all made by hand, mechanically, they were very sophisticated."

Thuy eventually made his obsession into an occupation. He said that he came to love what many people have come to hate about clocks. "Many old clocks are not very accurate. In the rushed modern world, most people turn to their phones or digital devices to see what time it is. A lot of people have even come to fear their ringtones, which can keep them up at night," he said.

"After retirement I travelled around looking for old clocks. Many were easy to buy, but for certain ones, I really had to beg the owners. For me it's worth it to be able to study how each one works," he said.

 

Intricate workings: Inside the clock is a sophisticated system of astonishingly small detail, some of which is difficult to detect with the naked eye.
Many variations: Many clocks in Thuy's collection have strange numbers, but they still have all the needed functions.
 
Thuy refered to the sound his collection makes four times every hour as a sort of symphony of different tones. Some, he said, echo like church bells, some are deeper, like the bells of a pagoda, while others play melodies.

One of the prizes of his collection is a 2.5m clock with a gold pendulum, delicately engraved with fruits and flowers and black Roman numerals on its white face. It came from a Catholic church in the northern province of Bac Ninh. "I bought it from another clock collector. When I brought it home, it no longer worked properly due to a broken cable. Maybe he didn't want to tell me about the damage, or was ashamed he couldn't fix it himself. But after I took it apart and cleaned it up, the problem was very clear. I just reconnected the cable and it worked perfectly."

Thuy suspects that the clock could be more than 300 years old, perhaps belonging to a French rubber plantation, to let the workers know what time it was. The bell was loud enough to be heard from long distances.

At one time this hobby posed a financial difficulty for his family. He got a reputation among his neighbours in Kim Dong District, in the neighbouring province of Hung Yen, for borrowing money beyond his means to buy Western-style clocks. Still, Thuy insisted on the value of his craft.

"I hope to keep my collection, but I am not a rich man. At some point I guess you have to balance your passion with practical concerns. But more and more people have come with offers to buy my clocks. Sometimes I will sell one to invest in another purchase. However, there was one time that I made a sale for VND5 million (US$240), but regretted having had to part with it so much that I couldn't eat or sleep for days. I returned to the buyers and asked to buy it back, but he refused."

"I've also made a number of trips to Nam Dinh to make repairs. There was one older man who was so distraught that his clock was broken that he broke into tears. It was almost as if it were a member of his family. Maybe I will never fully understand this strange attachment," said Thuy.

Thuy is now known for his ability to fix broken clocks from other countries, such as France, German, Russia, and China. Some customers from Taiwan and Singapore have purchased his clocks for as much as US$70,000. Of course, he uses the money to re-invest in his passion. "It's funny, the more you have, the more you want. Now all these clocks remind me of the importance of time," he said.

Having no intention of giving up his hobby, Thuy is planning on building a clock tower on his roof, so that, whenever the bell rings, people who hear it will remember him, no matter how far away he is. — VNS

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