Following in the collector footsteps of his father and grandfather, Ho Anh Tuan has collected over 2,000 Cham antiques, some dating back to the first century. Tuan discusses his hobbies with Luong Thu Huong.
Inner Sanctum: Your father and grandfather collected Chinese antiques as a hobby, why did you decide to focus on Cham antiques?
My grandfather and my father were born in Hoi An town in the central province of Quang Nam, where many Chinese have been residing. They came there to exchange goods, including invaluable antiques from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in China. At that time, my grandfather and my dad bought many of those antiques from Chinese shops located along Quang Dong Street, which is now Nguyen Thai Hoc Street.
Since I was young, I have been keen on the poems displayed on Chinese antiques that my father brought home. One day, while I was playing around in the field, I came across some graves with weird shapes, like a whale, and the stone was covered with the blackness of time. People who lived nearby told me that the graves belonged to the ethnic Cham people.
After that discovery, I brought home the stone head of a Cham statue that I found by one of the graves. I was so busy at that time that I put the head under my bed and forgot about it. The very next day I got a fever that lasted for two days. In my unconsciousness, I saw many strange things. Later on, some elderly people told me that I had those nightmares because I had brought these Cham antiques home.
I was not satisfied with that explanation, and decided to research the Cham culture and folk legends that are connected to the antiques. Since then I have become more passionate about collecting Cham antiques: "China is a vast country, so there are plenty of antiques. But why should we Vietnamese collect Chinese antiques, why don't we collect Vietnamese culture to understand and preserve it?"
Many Vietnamese collectors are interested in Chinese antiques, learn about these objects and how they were made, and that's it. After this they put these objects away in the cabinets for preservation.
However, each Cham antique, on the other hand, contains many mysteries that need decoding, from issues related to religion and production techniques to medicinal uses and customs.
Inner Sanctum: How did you get your first antique?
My first antique was a Kendi vase (a kind of water vase used for offerings made by Cham people).
I decided to purchase this item because after seeing the vase, I could tell that its body represents the yoni, while its spout represents the linga - the yoni and linga are symbols of female and male reproductive organs. In general, the vase bears the profound imprints of Cham culture.
Inner Sanctum: What is your favourite item in your collection?
At present, my collection is big enough to open a personal showroom.
My favourite antique is a Cham bronze pen. It is really difficult to find such a genuine Cham antique.
Inner Sanctum: How do you select the antiques for your collection?
I have always prioritised items that reveal a lot about the culture and the life of a people. To acquire those precious antiques in the context of a difficult economy, I have always implemented this strategy: If I have two similar objects, I will exchange one for another that I don't have. Secondly, I will exchange the items that are less valuable for ones that are more precious
Inner Sanctum: Your collection includes many items that are very precious, such as the water vase used by Cham fishermen or the bunch of areca nuts cast in gold. How do you preserve these antiques to ensure they stay in a good conditions?
While waiting for proper conditions to open my own showroom, I try to preserve my antiques in the best conditions, this means storing them in a cool, dry place that is secure.
Inner Sanctum: Is there any item that you regret passing by?
What a pity that I have not been able to add a golden head of God Siva (a Cham god) to my collection, because in 1997, all of these golden heads discovered in central Viet Nam were sold at about VND1 billion (US$50,000), which exceeded my financial capacity. Fortunately, Quang Nam's provincial museum is still home to one of these heads.
Inner Sanctum: Which antiques are on the top of your acquisition list this year?
I think that fate leads me to these antiques, so at times we cannot always acquire the items we want. Of course, all collectors expect the number of new objects in their collection to increase over time.
Inner Sanctum: You have collected more than 2,000 items. Have you ever thought of stopping?
Collecting Cham antiques is not only my passion but also work in that I research these items, so I have never thought of stopping.
I have published one book up to now, titled Bi An Nhung Chiec Guong Co Trung Hoa Trong Cac Di Chi Champa (The Mystery of the Ancient Chinese Mirrors in Cham Relics).
Two more books will come out soon: Tu Tap Quan Den Nhung Chiec Tau Thuoc Trong Nen Van Minh Champa (From Customs to the Pipes in Cham Civilisation), Van Hoa Champa - Bi An Va Kham Pha (Cham Culture - Mysteries and Discoveries).
Inner Sanctum: What are some of your future plans?
I want my collection to be exhibited in a more professional way so that everyone can contemplate and even contribute to preserving these invaluable relics. — VNS