Lacquer village preserves piece of the old country
by Bach Lien
Creative: Artisans from Ha Thai village at work in their studio. — Photo www.vietnamdiscovery.com
Helene Tran is pleased to find a lacquer painting featuring a young girl sitting on a hammock. It's for sale at the Anh Thai shop in Ha Thai Village of Duyen Thai Commune, Thuong Tin District of Ha Noi. The image of rural Viet Nam in the old days touches Tran, 23, who is of mixed Vietnamese and French blood.
Before she came to Viet Nam on a short internship, Tran's French grandmother had asked for such a painting.
So Tran had made a point of visiting this famous village in Ha Noi where the inhabitants have been doing lacquer paintings for 250 years.
"My father is Vietnamese and he brought home many fine examples," she says. "I have loved lacquer paintings since I was a child."
|Polished: Ha Thai village has gained a worldwide reputation for its lacquered products.
Ha Thai village is located beside National Highway 1A, about 30km south of Ha Noi. After passing through the old village gate, a peaceful rural life exists there, like any northern village, with lush green rice fields dotted with buffaloes quietly grazing. But what makes this place even more special is its ancient craft.
The village has nearly 700 families totalling more than 3500 people, 90 per cent of whom still follow the traditional profession in some way. Each family has a workshop to produce lacquerware and a shop to sell their products. The village has a worldwide reputation to protect.
These days, artisans are busy preparing for the Handicraft Products Fair to be held in Ha Noi in October. So it's an ideal time to learn about the craft and the families, to wander around and watch families crafting bowls, plates, trays and vases made of bamboo, wood and pottery. You can also find decorative pictures, boxes and chopsticks.
|A touch of class: Helene Tran admires a lacquer painting she wants to take home to her grandmother. — VNS Photos Bach Lien
Lacquerwork was introduced from China centuries ago. Later, the French introduced Western paintings and techniques, particularly after the establishment of the Indochina Fine Arts Art College, in Ha Noi, in 1925. The lacquer technique was then applied to paintings, creating a new art form. The first examples were traditional in that they expressed scenes of natural beauty, and to some extent this has prevailed. However, nowadays artists also explore more contemporary themes.
Vu Huy Men, a veteran artisan for more than 40 years, says: "At the beginning (in the 17th century), people used to decorate worship objects which were red-lacquered and trimmed with gold. From the 1930s, Indochina Fine Arts College graduates began to discover other materials like egg shells, sea shells and bamboo. And they introduced a polishing technique which helps enhance the beauty."
During this period, villager Dinh Van Thanh, who was then a teacher at the fine arts school, introduced the new techniques to local people.
Traditionally, lacquerwares were painted in black, brown and red. Today, new colours include white, blue, green and yellow to create a modern look. The main materials are wood, bamboo, rattan and, more recently, composite and ceramics.
The paint, which is the resin of the cay son (lacquer tree), is collected in northern Phu Tho Province. Men explains that to create lacquered products, artisans have to go through phases. They cover the objects that need to be lacquered with pure cotton cloth and coat them with paint, to make sure they are protected from shrinkage, and warping. Then they decorate the products by hand and polish them.
"Each object must have at least 12 layers of lacquer," says Men.
"A well lacquered product can keep its colour for 400 years."
The job is meticulous and requires a lot of skill. Lacquer craft has a strange characteristic: if the paint is to dry quickly, the object has to be kept in cupboard out of wind and with high humidity. Spring and the rainy days of early summer are ideal.
The village may have a worldwide reputation, says Anh Thai shopowner Thai, but in the 1990s, lacquer painting exports faced a downturn due to fluctuations in East European markets.
"Luckily, thanks to State policies the village's industry is improving." — VNS