|Fading craft: Dang Van Trinh helps his wife Pham Thu Cuc smooth a product. His household is the last in the village to produce pottery.
by Huynh Van My
Wearing a T-shirt and shorts, sweating like a farmer in the field, artisan Dang Van Trinh digs clay to make pottery at the only remaining ceramics workshop in My Thien Village, in the central province of Quang Ngai.
He is helped by his wife and son.
"I would feel sad if I couldn't raise a fire in my kiln. To see the warm glow makes me forget all the hardships," said Trinh, 50, who has nearly 35 years of experience. He is still doing the job while hundreds of households at the 200-year-old village in Chau O Town have abandoned the craft.
"The ceramics job is so hard," Trinh said. "We have to be skilled to shape the pots and know exactly how to mix the clay, fire the furnace and decorate the products.
"The most difficult thing is to know how to make the glaze and apply it to the products. Our local My Thien ceramics are famous and preferred by people thanks to their quality."
But the ceramics craft in My Thien Village is threatened and Trinh's household is its last bastion.
Trinh has persevered at the arduous and strenuous job, thanks to his determination to keep the tradition alive, while other villagers have become richer in other jobs.
"Every time I think about it, I encourage myself that I must try to live with the craft left by our forefathers," he said.
Many traders buy his wares to sell in other places, like Binh Dinh, the Central Highlands, Hoi An, Da Nang, Hue and Quang Tri.
He knows the craft won't make him rich, but Trinh is still determined not to abdicate what he sees as his responsibility.
"I feel proud that in the last 22 years only I have kept going. Everyone calls the products I make and sell My Thien ceramics. Although I still suffer the hardship, the name of my handicraft village has been maintained, so I feel very happy."
Fascinated by the beauty of ceramics and porcelain at an early age, Trinh quit school when he was just 17 to give his whole heart to the career.
"My brothers and sisters work in other jobs and they are much richer and have a much more leisurely life than I do. But I feel satisfied."
It was his grandfather, a talented potter and also a local teacher, who taught Trinh the complicated skills and tricks that carried him through.
|Glazed over: Dang Van Trinh displays one of his ceramic products. — VNS Photos Huynh Van My
Now Trinh has an envelope containing many photos that an American couple sent him from Washington in 2007.
One is of an old glazed terra-cotta jar: "It was a jar at a museum in the US that the American couple took a picture of. Because of this jar, they decided to come to Viet Nam, travelling from Ha Noi to HCM City to try to find out what pottery village made it. They eventually came to our village and stopped at my house. After consideration, they hugged me happily and said the jar at the museum in the US must have been made by our village in the past."
The American couple, Louis Cost and Leedom Lefferts, experts from the museum Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, told Trinh they were proud to own a pottery piece of this village because My Thien products were durable and polished, had bright colours and elegant patterns and designs.
Though no one can live on praise alone, the American experts' praise of his handicraft village and Trinh's pride in his forefather's profession empowered him to keep going.
Then a storm in 2009 knocked down his kiln. Out of funds and fatigued, he wanted to lay down. But pride in his legacy drove him to borrow capital and seek help from his neighbour Lam Du Xenh, an antique collector.
And one day Cost and Lefferts phoned him to give their regards and help him with some capital.
"The money they provided was welcome, but more precious was the love they gave us. Just because they know I am trying to keep the tradition alive."
He still does the job alone, keeps the pride and his products sell well, but he is anxious about the future of the craft.
"Many people call me the last potter in My Thien. Some people think the title promotes me but, in fact, I feel so sad when I hear it. No one here wants to do ceramics again.
"The craft's demise began when My Thien pottery co-operative was disbanded. Then there were five private ceramics workshops. But in 1991, I was the only ceramics maker left in the village.
"No one thinks about reopening kilns because the job requires a lot of capital and there is little interest anyway. Also it is very difficult to buy clay because land is allocated to each household."
But Trinh still hopes. The memories of the craft's heyday still linger. An exhibition of My Thien-Chau O pottery which was recently held at the Quang Ngai General Museum rekindled the flame.
"Seeing people enjoy seeing My Thien ceramics on display, I felt so glad. The chairman of the provincial People's Council met me there and promised he would work with local authorities to provide clay for me.
But what I wish for is that the authorities will help us to maintain the craft. I have suffered a lot of hardship to keep it alive and I wish I could hand down the job to the next generation."
Museum director Phan Dinh Do said My Thien-Chau O pottery village was one of the most famous in Central Viet Nam and Trinh had done a marvelous job keeping the home fire burning.
"This resource should be respected and promoted," Do said.
"Our museum has proposed to the authorities that they restore this craft village to a certain extent because it is a precious heritage of our locality." — VNS