by Thanh Nga
|Heavy metal: Phuoc Kieu's products are used throughout the Central Highlands region as well as Laos and Cambodia. VNS File Photos|
|Grinnin': An employee smiles while working hard.|
Just 15km from the ancient town of Hoi An is the Phuoc Kieu bronze casting village, with its long history and wonderful crafts, located in Dien Phuong Commune, Dien Ban District in Quang Nam province.
Hundreds of years ago, a bronze caster named Duong Khong Lo travelled from Lang Son in northern Viet Nam to settle in Quang Nam. Word of his fine products soon spread throughout the Central Highlands region. Today, descendants of Khong Lo are famous artisans in the village.
The popular bronze castings of Phuoc Kieu include bells, gongs, gong-like musical instruments, incense burners, lamp holders, ancient vases and other bronze instruments normally used in festivals, ceremonies and in daily life.
In the period of the Nguyen kings, who reigned from 1802 to 1945, Phuoc Kieu artisans were invited to the imperial capital of Hue to cast coins, interior decorations and household appliances.
Phuoc Kieu artisans were the pride of the village when they cast the massive Gia Tri bell, which weighs 432kg and has a diameter of 1.12m and a height of 90cm, in 2004. They also cast an enormous bell that weighs 1.8 tonnes and has a diameter of 1.3m.
For centuries, gongs made in Dien Ban have been prized by highland ethnic minority peoples like the Xe Dang, Cotu and Gia Rai. Bells cast in Phuoc Kieu's furnaces can also be found in pagodas throughout Viet Nam.
Furthermore, thanks to the villagers' sophisticated bronze casting skills, the sounds of gongs from Phuoc Kieu are heard at many cultural festivals throughout the nation.
Duong Quoc Thuan, who inherited skills and experiences from his father, is now one of the village's best gong craftsmen. Thuan shared the three steps to casting bronze: making a mold, boiling the copper and casting it into the molds.
First, artisans make the insides and outsides of the molds. The outside mold, which can be used some 40 times, is made from clay and rice husks. The inside cast, which can be used only once, is made from heavy soil and rice husks, and is engraved with patterns and letters.
The next two steps, boiling and casting, are the most crucial, because they decide the quality of the sounds the finished instruments will give off.
"I make gongs from my heart. I dare not say that I am a good artisan, but making a set of gongs that ethnic minority people will accept is a success in itself," said Thuan.
"To make a gong, your soul must be free," he added.
According to Thuan, to make a set of gongs is not difficult. The most difficult thing is correcting the gong's sounds so that they are suitable for the specific ethnic group they are made for, i.e. the effervescent sounds of the Ede gongs, the profound and lyrical sounds of the Bahnar and Gia Rai gongs and the unhurried and composed sounds of the Koho.
"To cast a gong successfully, you must have an innate musical aptitude and you must take many fact-finding trips," Thuan confided.
Thuan, who has travelled all over the Central Highlands to learn dances and play the gongs of the Ede, Bahnar and Cotu peoples, made two sets of gongs (each set includes 18 gongs) under the piano's musical notes for a French national.
With a passion for his ancestors' craft, Thuan passed on his knowledge and passion to his sons Duong Ngoc Chi and Duong Quoc Tu.
"The impressive sounds of the mountains and forests are absorbed into the blood of the people in the Central Highlands, and the flames of passion for our ancestors' craft runs deep in the blood of Phuoc Kieu descendants," Thuan said.
According to craftsman Duong Ngoc San, mixing metals to make bronze products was also a key experience of the village. This process was very important because it affected the sound quality of the gongs and bells. Therefore, Phuoc Kieu's products made sounds like no where else.
"To develop this craft village, we are ready to hand down our trade secrets to our offspring," San said.
During the economic crisis, the trade village was seriously threatened, but thanks to the craftsmen's hearts and the help of local officials, with a policy to develop the craft village and closely connect it to tourism in Quang Nam Province, Phuoc Kieu is now recovering.
Duong Van Ca, deputy chairman of the Dien Phuong Commune People's Committee, said, "At present, there are 23 households casting bronze products, of which three specialise in gongs. Phuoc Kieu's products have been sold on the domestic market and abroad, in Quang Tri, Thua Thien Hue and Ninh Thuan, as well as in Laos and Cambodia".
The local officials also built temples for the forefathers of Phuoc Kieu villagers and popularised Phuoc Kieu gongs through cultural and tourism festivals.
Tran Uc, manager of Dien Ban District's Department of Industry and Trade, said that a plan to exploit tourism by the river road through Phuoc Kieu village had been put in motion so that tourists could see craftsmen cast traditional bronze products and buy them.
The Gong Culture of the Central Highlands has been recognised by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. This opened up the prospects of developing bronze casting villages to preserve gong cultures across the nation.
"This is a chance and an encouragement to attract craftsmen to make gongs. Besides, I hope that when usage demand increases, craft villages will train more young artisans. In my opinion, conserving and developing gong casting villages will pave the way in preserving and developing gong culture," said Thuan. VNS