Artisan breathes new life into traditional handmade paper

September 24, 2023 - 09:14
Đỗ Thu Hương is making paper lanterns to bring traditional values back into contemporary society, and is constantly experimenting and developing more exquisite products made with artisanal paper.

By Trần Khánh An

Đỗ Thu Hương decorates a poonah paper lampshade with lotus flowers and leaves. Photo courtesy of Đoàn Thái Cúc Hương.

English teacher turned artisan Đỗ Thu Hương was born and raised in a family of woodcarvers, and she inherited her father's attention to detail and love for arts and crafts.

Once while learning how to make dried flowers at a workshop, Hương came across a piece of dướng paper (made from barks of a local plant of mulberry family). Durable and resilient with a subtly textured surface, it mesmerised her.

“I even exclaimed, ‘Oh, how can there be such beautiful paper like this?’” she says.

Since then, Hương has researched and acquired knowledge about Vietnamese handmade paper, such as (poonah) paper and dướng paper.

She even went to craft villages to obtain first-hand knowledge to better understand ancient paper-making techniques, because of the decline in demand, the craft has almost been forgotten.

“People often think that traditional handmade paper is only used in printing Đông Hồ folk paintings,” Hương says.

She says she believes making new craft items using traditional paper, and with contemporary designs, for daily life can be a creative and sustainable way to preserve and increase the value of Vietnamese handmade paper.

In 2022, she decided to preserve the art of handmade paper by opening a workshop to craft items utilising the ancient material. She chose "Đoàn Thái Cúc Hương", which combines the name of each member of her family together, as her shop’s brand name.

“I always want my family to be by my side, no matter where I go or what I do,” Hương says.

She not only re-makes craft items using handmade paper, but also actively experiments with new types of paper and makes use of natural materials. From simple products such as notebooks, bookmarks, and calendars, she has created a variety of exquisite craft items.

Mid-autumn lanterns

For the last three months, Hương has devoted most of her efforts to studying and remaking đèn kéo quân and đèn cù (lanterns with revolving figures) for children to celebrate mid-autumn festival.

Not only children but also adults enjoy revolving lanterns made with traditional paper. Photo courtesy of Đoàn Cúc Thái Hương.

“Not only utilising dướng paper to make traditional handicrafts, I also desire to integrate some cultural messages with them,” she says.

Regarding the figures inside the revolving lantern, Hương selects characters from Đông Hồ folk paintings such as Vinh quy bái tổ, which depicts a student returning home to pay tributes to ancestors after achieving academic honours.

Other Đông Hồ paintings such as Frogs going to school, Mice wedding, and Mice parade with lanterns are also chosen for educational purposes for children.

When the air inside the lantern is heated by a burning candle, the figures made of paper inside the lantern turn around, projecting their shadows onto the lantern' paper cover. The characters in the folk tales seem to be unfolded before viewers' eyes.

Realising that poonah paper and wood carving could be a perfect match, she also brought in her family's traditional craft into the lantern. She carved traditional cultural symbols into the wooden frame of the lantern.

For a simple design as a đèn , a type of lantern that can run on the ground with a wheel, Hương meticulously printed patterns on each wing. Each of the lantern’s paper wings is coloured using various natural dyes, including indigo and gardenia.

Each of the lantern’s paper wings is coloured using natural dyes, including indigo and gardenia. Photo courtesy of Đoàn Thái Cúc Hương.

Hương’s lanterns receive praise from both children and adults. They say the craft items recall traditional values and childhood memories.

One of Hương’s customers ordered a revolving lantern that is more than one metre tall for her grandfather. A couple also ordered her a pair of revolving lanterns, so they could carry them down the aisle together.

Revival of artisanal paper

Even though clients adore Hương’s lanterns, and sales continue to increase, the craftsperson has greater goals in mind – to constantly experiment and develop more exquisite products made with artisanal paper.

Paper lanterns are just one of her ideas to bring traditional values back into contemporary society.

Hương creates lampshades made of paper. Each lampshade in her collection is a one-of-a-kind creation.

Hương's lampshades are made of poonah paper. Photo courtesy of Đoàn Thái Cúc Hương.

A paper lampshade stands out because it is fully decorated with lotus flowers and leaves, making the lamp look like a little lotus pond.

Hương uses a paper carving technique to shape the entire lotus pond. Another lampshade in her collection carries a garden of flowers within it. She has to collect flowers herself, press them dry, and then attach them to the piece.

Beyond designing new items, Hương aims to organise workshops about traditional paper and crafts for both adults and children. She also intends to start an English-speaking workshop for visitors from abroad. VNS