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Saving bronze censers a burning issue in An Hoi

Update: January, 12/2015 - 16:07
This is the real one: Artisan Tran Minh Toan shows his bronzer censer with two handles featuring the S-shape of Viet Nam's map. — VNS Photos Tran Nguyen Anh

The art of casting bronze censers is in danger as cheaper, machine-made products provide tough competition and very few households are sticking to the traditional craft, Tran Nguyen Anh reports.

An Hoi Village, located in Ward 12 of Go Vap District, specialises in casting bronze censers.

It is the only surviving bronze-censer-casting village on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City.

There are many bronze casting villages in Viet Nam, but each village only specialises in casting a product, such as bell or statue. An Hoi is famous for its hand-made bronze censers.

The village craftsmen have made efforts to preserve the traditional craft, which in turn has helped conserve Vietnamese national culture and a spiritual belief in worship.

Artisans at the An Hoi Village cast bronze artefacts for worship as a routine, including censers, candlesticks, cups and flower vases.

Before 1975, there were 40 furnace workshops operating in the village, but now only five remain. Most local craftsmen have closed their furnaces due to diminishing demand for the bronze artefacts and higher bronze prices, and some have even sold the land on which their furnaces were located due to rising land prices, a result of rapid urbanization.

Meanwhile, many craftsmen, such as artisan Tran Minh Toan, are still striving to preserve their great-grandfather's legacy.

Several generations

Tran Minh Toan, 55, a furnace owner of An Hoi Village, says his great-grandfather had learnt the art and later taught his relatives how to cast bronze sculptures to preserve the craft.

Toan says he becomes very upset when he reads any article stating that bronze casting in An Hoi Village was taught by Chinese craftsmen in HCM City's District 5.

"The Chinese bought our bronze censers for sale, instead of casting the censers themselves, for many years. We inherited the skills for bronze casting from our fathers and grandfathers and are making efforts to keep their heritage alive," he says.

"The Chinese use bronze censers to enjoy burning aloe wood. Meanwhile, our bronze censers are formally put on the altars at home or in pagodas and temples because many residents cannot afford the aloe wood," Toan says.

"Therefore, the pattern and size of Vietnamese censers totally differs from the Chinese ones."

He adds that An Hoi bronze censers are sold in the domestic market, mainly in the southern provinces, as well as in the United States and other international markets to serve the Vietnamese worshipping tradition.

Old hand: Nguyen Thi Nhi, an artisan with more than 40 years of experience, checks a clay mould at a workshop in HCM City's An Hoi Village.

Tough competition

Artisan Toan shows me a bronze censer, which was made following a 200-year-old traditional model. The bronze pattern was crafted by hand and the censer's two handles featured the S-shape reflected in Viet Nam's map.

Toan points out that An Hoi bronze censers are renowned for their high quality, given their deep and rich colour and sophisticated decoration.

His workshop employs 10 regular workers, whose monthly wages are VND5 million (US$$230). Each censer is priced at VND2 million ($90) to VND10 million ($460) and takes several days to finish, but cheaper, machine-made products have made it tough to compete in the market.

The artisan says machine-made censers are made from several bronze pieces that are joined with screws and their colour fades with time.

Female artisan Nguyen Thi Nhi, 79, who has more than 40 years of experience in the business, says casting the An Hoi bronze censer requires a process that involves 28 steps, mainly done by hand.

"Our loyal customers prefer our hand-made censers because the machine-made ones do not have the spirit," Nhi says.

"An Hoi bronze censers are made by the hands of skilful craftsmen, that is why their prices remainhigh," Nhi adds.

Toan says the high price of the censers has made it difficult to sell them. "There are months when not a single censer is purchased at my workshop," he revealed.

Meanwhile, the economic downturn has also forced many residents to buy porcelain censers instead of the bronze ones.

Artisan Toan says he is afraid that his children and grandchildren will not follow in his footsteps as having a career as a bronze craftsman is very hard.

"Each craftsman must be very hardworking, while the demand for our bronze censers is not as high as it was. I am afraid they will someday sell the workshop's land or shift it to a more profitable business," he says.

Nhi sought a job in a workshop 40 years ago to make ends meet. She says bronze casting requires patience and skill.

"I have to work diligently and look carefully to see if there is any crack in the clay mould to ensure that the molten copper does not leak after being poured into the mould," she says.

"I do not work as fast as I did years ago, but will continue to work until I am not healthy enough to do it," she reveals.

"My sons and daughters do not want me to do the job any more, but I still find the work so fascinating," she says, adding that bronze censers have been made in An Hoi Village for more than two centuries and that the village's craftsmen are making strong efforts to preserve the art of traditional bronze casting. — VNS

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