by Ha Nguyen - Tam Vuong
|Thousand years of skill: Village festival, a stunning mother-of-pearl inlaid painting by artisans from Chuon Ngo Village. — VNS Photo Doan Tung
Deep in Ha Noi's suburban district of Phu Xuyen, Chuon Ngo has gained renown as a craft village. Those seeking mother-of-pearl-inlay know to visit the village, where artisans carefully trim oyster shells to turn them into works of art.
Tran Ba Dinh, 70, has devoted himself to creating mother-of-pearl inlaid portraits of President Ho Chi Minh.
Dinh started the job more than 50 years ago. By the age of 20 he had already won three awards for his "Golden Hands".
In 1968 he completed a work called "President Ho's Portrait" after years of effort and presented it to the President's Office.
He said, "I was very proud and happy when the office reported that President Ho said he liked the portrait and asked the office to commission me to make a similar portrait of Cuban President Fidel Castro as a gift for his upcoming visit.
"I will never forget that while working on the portrait, I suffered from a serious illness, and Uncle Ho took care of me during that time. He sent me several presents. His concern for me encouraged me very much," said Dinh.
Dinh's work has become the village's pride, said artisan Nguyen Xuan Dung, who is also famous in the village for his work Buc Tranh Cho Que (Painting of a Rural Market ).
Since then Dinh has not only produced hundreds of President Ho's portraits, but also inlaid mother-of-pearl into portraits of other leaders such as Prime Minister Pham Van Dong, Party General Secretary Nguyen Van Linh and General Vo Nguyen Giap.
To prepare for the thousandth anniversary of Ha Noi's founding in 2010, Dinh spent two years crafting an embossed image of King Ly Thai To that he inlaid on a Dong Son-era kettle drum accompanied by nine dragons.
"I had to work many days and nights to finish the colourful work. Many of the materials were imported from foreign countries. The work has been evaluated at VND300 million, my most expensive so far," he said.
His work of inlaying leaders' portraits and images of national heroes has brought him significant fame.
He has been awarded many titles such as Viet Nam's Quintessence and Folk Artisan and received a medal for the Cause of Vietnamese Folk Arts. Dinh also devotes himself to training young workers, teaching them how to create inlaid portraits.
Nguyen Van Lang is one of Dinh's most prolific successors. Now 32, Lang was named an artisan of Viet Nam Craft Village at the age of 30. He was also dubbed the Quintessence of Vietnamese Craft Village for his work Bac Ho Ngoi Lam Viec (President Ho at Work).
|Jig-saw puzzle: A Chuon Ngo artisan trims and places oyster shell to turn them into a piece of art. — VNS Photo Doan Tung
He is the youngest artisan in the village, said Dinh, but thanks to his hard studying, Lang is very skilled at creating detailed works.
"The most difficult process of inlaying is figuring out how to express the president's sentiment through his eyes and his smile," said Lang.
After six months he finished the 1.42m by 1.20m work Chan Dung Bac Ho (Portrait of President Ho).
Professional artisans in the village commend Lang for this endeavor, saying he is really brave to make such a big portrait because the larger an inlaid portrait is, the more difficult it is to make it look realistic. "The six months I spent painting, inlaying and grafting pieces of shells of oysters and snails to create the portrait have paid off! The portrait is said to have the same depth as a real portrait taken and enlarged by a cameraman. The eyes even glisten realistically," Lang said.
The large work, which was displayed at the centre for the Viet Nam Guinness Book of Records, has brought the young artist acclaim across the country. He was chosen recently to attend the young Asian Artisan Festival early this year in Thailand. But most importantly for him, many organisations have commissioned him to inlay President Ho's portraits.
Another student of artisan Dinh is Nguyen Dinh Vinh, who studied the craft for seven years.
"Vinh is a clever student. He knows very well how to use fine lines and details to create a realistic portrait," said Dinh.
As a result, Vinh has inlaid 100 Uncle Ho portraits for customers across the country.
"My distinctive ability is making the president's eyes look alive," said Dinh, adding that this is a big challenge for any portrait painter, particularly one who works with mother-of-pear inlay.
In 1998, he won first prize in the Young Talent's Creativeness contest for this work.
A mother-of-pear inlayer in HCM City bought a portrait from Vinh and displayed it in his office, saying he uses it as a model for his students.
Vinh plans to inlay a work called Uncle Ho Reads the Declaration of Indepen-dence that will measure 1.93m by 1.28m.
He expects to finish it by this year's National Day, September 2, Vinh said.
Vinh said he wished to set a new record to "create a challenge for our young artisans".
"My new record is a call for creativeness for artisans in my village and other places in the country. We aim to keep our hundreds-of-years-old traditional craft alive," he said.
In the handicraft village of Chuon Ngo, the delicate craft runs in the veins of residents who have passed the skills down for generations.
Truong Cong Thanh is believed to be the founder of the craft.
He was a master of both literary arts and martial arts during the Ly dynasty nearly 1000 years ago.
Thanh joined national hero Ly Thuong Kiet to repel Chinese invaders in 1077 and was decorated.
He then dedicated his life to travelling and learning about his passion - mother-of-pearl inlay.
Thanh's legacy is still alive and well in Chuon Ngo. Three artisans from the village have received the Golden Hands medal: Dinh, Nguyen Thuyet Trinh and Nguyen Van To.
Trinh said in the past, the village mostly produced mother-of-pearl inlaid tea trays for use in royal courts. These trays graced the banquet tables of kings, lords and queens.
"A mother-of-pearl inlaid tray placed on a carved bed was a symbol of nobility and dignity. Only rich people and Confucian scholars could afford to have them. These sorts of products go with old-styled houses: They match curved roofs covered in royal blue tiles.
"They do not look so fine in a modern house," he said.
Nguyen Thi Vui, chairwoman of the Ngo Ha Co-operative, said her co-operative produced goods for both domestic and export usage.
"Many customers from other parts of the country as well as those from mainland China, South Korea and Taiwan want to buy our products," said Vui.
While domestic buyers seek out utilitarian objects such as mother-of-pearl inlaid beds, tables and cupboards (which range in price from VND20-100 million), foreign buyers are interested in more decorative goods: paintings, tea trays, boxes, vases, and screens, Vui said.
She said her co-operative earns VND2 billion a year.
"This year we plan to invest billions of dong to buy modern machines for our production, so we can meet increasing demand," Vui said. — VNS