|Going for bronze: Workers make bronze casting products in Ngu Xa. — VNA/VNS Photo Huy Hung
The capital has outlined a plan to restore traditional craft villages, which are rapidly disappearing. Hong Thuy reports
Nguyen Van Ung doesn't believe in swaying out of the way when faced with challenges posed by the dying bronze casting craft.
Motivated by a desire to not only live by his craft and find satisfaction and success, Ung also wants to fulfill the dying request of his father who was a bronze casting worker. That was to maintain the traditional craft of his predecessors, even if others turned their backs on it.
Firm on his commitment and motivation, Ung and his sister-in-law, Ngo Thi Dan, are two families unique in Ngu Xa Street still holding on to the traditional craft.
Renowned as one of four most prestigious craft villages of ancient capital city Thang Long (now Ha Noi), Ngu Xa was well-known for its original, unique bronze statues and bells.
There is a saying that proves how good the village is in making craft items: "Glossy silk from Yen Thai, pottery from Bat Trang, goldsmith from Dinh Cong and bronze casting from Ngu Xa".
Legend has it that during the Le dynasty (1428-1527), bronze casting workers from the villages of Dong Mai, Chau My, Lang Thuong, Dien Tien and Dao Nien in Hung Yen and Bac Ninh provinces gathered in the capital to set up a bronze casting workshop.
They built a new village on the outskirts of the capital and named it Ngu Xa to commemorate their five original villages.
|Do-it-yourself art: Visitors to Bat Trang pottery village can make their own ceramics. — VNS Photo Doan Tung
Ngu Xa bronze casting products like pans, pots, trays and basins have been known to the capital residents since then. Later, the village-turned-street shifted to making Buddha statues, incense burners, bells and other worshipping objects.
While it was not uncommon to see bronze casting workers working around heating furnaces to pour liquid bronze into molds to make statues, such an image is now just a dwindling memory.
As visitors walk around the street, they can only see rows of concrete houses, hotels and pavement eateries in proximity of one another.
No trace of the once famous craft can be found here, except for the two stores of Ung and Dan where bronze products are on sale.
In a move to restore and develop the Ngu Xa bronze casting craft, the Ha Noi municipal People's Committee has presented a showroom to Ung's family to exhibit Ngu Xa bronze products.
For those visitors who want to learn how unique the craft is, a visit to the showroom at No 178 in Tran Vu Street is an enriching experience.
Finding a way out
Known as the land of hundreds of crafts, Ha Noi has attracted many skillful workers who were involved in manufacturing a wide variety of goods, ranging from food and domestic utensils to skillfully designed silk and religious articles.
Statistics released by the Viet Nam Association of Crafts Villages show that there are 1,350 craft villages in the enlarged capital city. Of which, 244 are labelled traditional craft villages because they have been practicing their art for more than a hundred years.
|Fans of quality: Paper fans from Chang Son Commune in Thach That district are famous throughout the country. — VNS Photo Doan Tung
No doubt, the existence of craft villages is closely linked to generating jobs to a large number of labourers and raising the income of city dwellers, but it also contributes to the preservation of traditional culture and ethics of the villages.
Despite their significance, many craft villages are in distress as production has come to a standstill and/or are being run in a perfunctory way, threatening their very existence and forcing villagers to shift to new professions to make a living.
Aggravating the situation is the fact that the younger generation is not well-trained, leading to low quality of products. In addition, there are fewer people who want to learn and spend a lifetime making traditional crafts.
With the prevailing trend, Ha Noi is struggling to restore its craft villages whose names are now only etched in memory.
Ha Noi municipal Department for Industry and Trade revealed that there are currently 25 traditional craft villages which are threatened with extinction and need to be revived.
Those villages are Ha Thai lacquer village (Thuong Tin District), Nghia Do royal paper village in Cau Giay District (a special kind of paper formerly used for writing royal decrees) and Dao Xa folk musical instrument village (Ung Hoa District) along with La Khe silk weaving village (Ha Dong District), and Ngu Xa bronze casting village (Ba Dinh District) among others.
Aware of the importance of the existence of craft villages to socio-economic development, last year the Ha Noi municipal People's Committee approved the development plan of craft villages in the city by 2020 with a vision for 2030.
Under the plan, the city is striving to restore 21 craft villages, developing 17 others in association with tourism and helping 80 craft villages deal with environmental pollution. The city is also supporting 70 villages to improve roads and bridges and create jobs for nearly one million workers with an average annual income of VND25-30 million (US$1,100 - 1,400) per person by 2015 and VND35-40 million ($1,600 - 1,900) by 2020.
It will cost more than VND8,500 billion ($405 million) to get the work done.
As per plans, this sum of money will be mobilised from the state budget in addition to contributions from economic and social organisations, associations and rural industrial businesses along with traders, said Ha Noi municipal Department for Industry and Trade deputy director Dao Thu Vinh.
Foreign investors and non-governmental organisations are also encouraged to invest in craft villages.
In order to untie all knotty issues with regard to these craft villages, the city has outlined a series of measures, including training labourers, supporting the application of science and technology in production and organising fairs to advertise products. The other measures include searching for markets, promoting designs for products and giving incentives in land policy to shift craft villages to industrial zones, among others.
Though Ha Noi has made the restoration and development of craft villages a policy, funding constraints and difficulties in land clearance and resettlement are deterring the city from providing help.
As her department is in charge of compiling the development plan of craft villages, Vinh said the project has not yet received any money from the state budget.
Thus, the city has to call on district authorities, organisations, businesses and trading households to invest in the plan.
Additionally, the department has proposed to the municipal People's Committee to consider and approve a financing mechanism to support craft villages.
Yet, the economic downturn has forced everyone to tighten their belts and these entities are no exception.
"Due to this economic situation, we can't invest much in the project," Vinh said.
Sharing similar concerns, Chairman of the Viet Nam Association of Crafts Villages Luu Duy Dan, said the reality is that craft villages are not relocating to industrial zones as many people disagree with the current compensation rates.
Compounding the situation is the rapid urbanisation, poor infrastructure and environmental pollution in craft villages that also pose a big challenge to the city.
Dan said homes of urban residents and high-rise buildings have mushroomed to a level that they have encroached on the land meant for many craft villages and destroyed the landscape, leaving no room for production expansion.
When visiting craft villages, many visitors are keen on seeing their natural landscape and architecture, gaining insights into their culture, in addition to actually experiencing hands-on what it is like to create and produce such items. They observe the craftsmen and women indulge in their magical work of making handicraft products, said Deputy Director of Culture, Sports and Tourism Department Mai Tien Dung.
"What a pity that very few craft villages can satisfy visitors with such a combination of services," Dung said.
|Fading art: Very few people in La Khe Village in Ha Dong District still pursue the traditional craft of silk weaving. — VNA/VNS Photo Hong Hoa
Apart from Bat Trang ceramic village and Van Phuc silk village, the other craft villages in the city are yet to find the appropriate conditions to perform their skills. Services for visitors are still poor, community participation in tourism development is not high and people are not even aware of the value of tourism, Dan said.
Dung also said that roads to craft villages are in poor condition, the environment is not clean and the qualification of tour guides leaves a lot to be desired. Besides this, the shortage of funds and land for production, have hampered the development of craft villages.
Visitors are already left with very few choices to see tourist attractions, and now it is even harder to buy souvenirs made by local artisans, he said.
"They can't find the appropriate souvenirs to buy, not to mention seeking out those items which are imprinted on their mind and bear the stamp of Viet Nam," said Deputy Chairman of Ha Noi Handicraft and Trade Villages Association Nguyen Hoang Luu.
"Even in some craft villages with tourism development orientation, the products designed are too monotonous to satisfy customers' demands," he said.
Regarding the issue, Dung said some villages sell products of other countries in addition to home-made articles. This could create a misunderstanding among visitors about trade fraud if sellers did not clarify the origin of products.
To increase the number of craft villages like Bat Trang and Vinh Phuc, Dung said it would take time and money to examine the potential of other such villages before investment capital can be poured in to restore and develop them.
The simple fact is that even villages capable of making unique products are not able to attract visitors.
To solve the problem, Dung said, a joint effort between departments of industry and trade, agriculture and rural development, culture, sports and tourism is essential.
Dan also asked for the enhancement in the roles of craftsmen so that they can be made responsible for training workers in their villages and promoting product designs.
Though there are miles to go before Ha Noi is able to achieve its goals, one thing is certain that efforts are being made to restore and develop craft villages.
Such an effort comes from the grassroots level as people like Ung and Dan are trying hard to pass on the secrets of bronze casting to their employees.
"I do not regret anything. Instead, I am happy that the craft is being restored," Ung said. — VNS