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Boom, bust and blooming again

Update: December, 08/2014 - 15:34
Picture perfect: A little girl lends a hand as artist Than Van Huy arranges a vase of paper lotus flowers in the backyard of his house. — VNS Photo Le Huy Hoang Hai

Thanh Tien Village switched from growing real flowers to making artificial ones three centuries ago, but the craft disappeared for almost 50 years. Phuoc Buu tells the story of a remarkable revival of the art and in the fortunes of those who revived it.

Elders in Thanh Tien usually shake their heads in some puzzlement as they tell the story of how their village became famous for making paper flowers.

For them, it is a tale with surprising twists and turns, but they are more confident now that an art they acquired over hundreds of years can have a stable future.

The story begins in the 16th century with the founding of the village on a stretch of land along the Huong (Perfume) river in the lower part of Hue.

Along with the neighbouring villages of Tien Non and Bao Vinh, Thanh Tien received rich alluvial deposits every year, and villagers found growing flowers for Tet (Lunar New Year) and other festivals would help them earn a living.

Different hues: Paper lotuses are made in many colours.

As time passed and life became more complicated, villagers discovered that the weather in Hue was also a bit too complicated for earning a stable income from growing flowers. So, sometime in the 18th century, Thanh Tien turned to producing paper flowers. Again, the focus was on meeting the demand for flowers for home decoration during the Tet festival season.

It proved to be a smart move, and the village became the sole supplier for Hue.

Explaining the large demand for flowers in the central city, researcher Tran Duc Anh Son said that the earliest migrants from the North had to confront a tough life, fearful of both natural and supernatural dangers. Thus, they relied a lot on worshipping gods and built many temples for the purpose.

The demand for paper flowers boomed in such a setting, and the village prospered.

Every year, just before the grand royal ceremony at the Nam Giao Pavilion, villagers received orders for thousands of flowers for the rituals.

During Tet, a holiday for both the living and the dead, paper flowers came in very handy as decorations for altars dedicated to ancestors, the Buddha, the Kitchen God, the Mau (mother) Goddess and other deities.

War and aftermath

Understandably, the tough living conditions brought about by the wars forced on the country by colonialists and imperialists in the 20th century made it difficult for most village crafts to survive, and the art of making paper flowers was all but forgotten.

When peace returned after the nation's reunification in 1975, freer trade allowed fresh flowers to come in Hue from Da Lat and Ha Noi, and there was no real incentive to revive the forgotten trade.

So, for about half a century, the art of making paper flowers in Thanh Tien Village became a mere memory in the minds of its elderly residents.

 

Floral offerings: A family altar decorated with paper lotus flowers.

Comeback trail

In 2006, Than Van Huy, a local artist who specialised in painting lotuses, decided he would try and revive the craft.

"I had a strong desire to bring the craft back. What we inherited from our ancestors should not be forgotten easily," he said.

Huy was well aware that the revival would not be an easy task because so much had changed in the last fifty years, especially since the country embarked on its economic renovation policy in the late eighties.

"I was afraid that the traditional paper flowers that the villagers used to produce would not be able to stand firm in the market. So I decided to focus on the lotus, a favourite flower for many Vietnamese."

Huy and his younger brother Than Dinh Hoai spent a year with the elderly residents of the village, trying to jog their memory of techniques used in making the famous Thanh Tien paper flowers.

This led to the revival of a technique that villagers used to make creases on a paper sheet to make the lotus petals firm.

"That was the key to our design and we are happy we have been able to preserve the technique," said Huy. "Traditional flowers in our memories had a round shape and some layers of petals, but now we needed to make lotus buds as well."

After months of designing and testing lotus flower samples, the siblings launched their paper lotuses in 2007. The lotuses were of different colours including pure pink, the colour of the original flowers in Hue. What he had learnt many years earlier at the university helped Huy come up with a viable dyeing method.

Making the cut: An artisan demonstrates the art to an interested visitor. — VNS Photos Le Huy Hoang Hai

In 2008, their flowers were exhibited for the first time at the Hue Festival, which attracts people from around the country and abroad.

This kicked off a spate of fresh orders for the paper lotuses, and they made their market presence later that year.

"It's a paper lotus but it looks like the real flower. My friends in Da Nang love it and often ask me to bring some home," said Le Thi Thuy An, a Da Nang native working in Hue.

The flowers now can be seen in hotel lobbies, living rooms of luxurious houses and spaces for cultural performance sites.

For some, the paper lotuses are more than a decoration.

Nguyen Khoa Lan Anh said the flowers provide some relief from homesickness for her father, a Hue native living in HCM City.

"It 'blooms' all year round and recalls the countryside of my father's home village," she said.

Huy and Hoai have since created various kinds of lotuses, including lotus buds and lotus lanterns. They also have flowers in different sizes for different decoration purposes.

"The diversity of products will help attract customers and boost demand," Huy said.

Last year, he opened a training class for 30 young trainees in the village, resulting in about 10 households adopting the craft as their livelihood.

For Huy, a special delight is when Hue natives around the country seek out the traditional Thanh Tien flowers for altar decoration during Tet.

From 2009 onwards, the art of making paper flowers for rituals has made a strong comeback, and the village bustles during the Tet season.

Thanh Tien's flowers have now found firm markets in Ha Noi, Hue and HCM City.

Huy said: "I am happy because this gives us the base to expand the business throughout the village. The revival is for the whole village." — VNS

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