DETAILED PROCESS: Lộc restores an emperor’s hat from the Nguyễn Dynasty at the Việt Nam National Museum of History. Photo courtesy of Vũ Kim Lộc
By Lương Hương & Nhật Minh
Royal hats dating back to the Nguyễn Dynasty (1802-1945) that were ravaged by the passing of time have been restored to their original splendour thanks to artisan Vũ Kim Lộc in HCM City.
The 63-year-old has successfully restored four emperor hats from the Nguyễn Dynasty, in addition to contributing to the restoration of four mandarin hats.
He has also authored many books on Vietnamese history, such as Nghề Kim Hoàn Của Chămpa (Goldsmith of the Champa Kingdom), Cổ Vật Chămpa (Champa Artifacts), and Cổ Vật Huyền Bí (Mysterious Antiques).
Passion for restoration
Lộc left his hometown in the northern province of Hưng Yên more than 20 years ago to start a new life as a goldsmith, which exposed him to a great deal of ancient jewellery and inspired his passion for collecting antiques.
“I have long been interested in ancient statues, particularly the hat on top,” he recalled. “My travels took me to wherever there were ancient statues. I also read many history books, collected images, and gradually created an archive of materials to satisfy my passion.”
In 2006, one of his friends, who is also an antiques collector, asked him to restore an emperor hat from the Champa Kingdom dating back to the 7th century, or about 1,400 years ago.
“When I first looked at the hat, it was a mess of gold and silver pieces and other details, while its frame had already begun to rot away,” he remembered.
Accepting his friend’s request, he spent days researching and trying his hand at the task. After two months of struggle, the emperor hat was finally restored and was checked and evaluated by specialists, who found it to be more than 90 per cent restored to its original state - an achievement Lộc did not expect to obtain.
“This made me even more fascinated and interested in restoring ancient hats of emperors and mandarins,” he said.
AS IT WAS: An emperor’s hat from the Nguyễn Dynasty, restored by artisan Vũ Kim Lộc, is now on display at the Việt Nam National Museum of History. Photo courtesy of Vũ Kim Lộc
One day in mid-2008, Lộc received an offer from Dr Phạm Quốc Quân, former Director of the Vietnam National Museum of History, to participate in the restoration of four Nguyễn Dynasty emperor hats in quite poor condition.
Without even seeing the hats or forming an opinion as to whether restoration was even possible, his curiosity took him to Hà Nội to see the treasures with his own eyes.
Lộc recalled feeling numb and breaking out in sweat upon seeing the remains of the hats.
They were completely ravaged, and were accompanied by two bags full of gold and jewellery.
“There were about 2,000 discrete details to be restored,” he said. “I was greatly concerned and under pressure, not knowing how to even begin or what the result may be.”
The most crucial task but also the most difficult was finding documents and photos of the hats.
Looking at the specific details, he immediately recognised three of them, but what their shapes were and how to restore them were not at all clear and this occupied Lộc’s thoughts for days.
He decided to seek out the soul of the ancient treasures. He travelled to Huế, visiting mausoleums and shrines to take photos and scrutinise statues and paintings of the Nguyễn emperors.
He also visited museums and conservation centres seeking resources and a scientific basis before embarking on the restoration.
After collecting sufficient documents and determining what direction to take, Lộc undertook the task with support from many experts, including Quân.
“There were many conflicting opinions initially about how to proceed with the restoration,” he recalled. “I was under a great deal of pressure, but fortunately Quân was assertive. He gave me absolute authority to decide on a path forward. I would have lacked the patience to complete the project otherwise.”
The hats were finally finished after more than a year of tireless effort. The result astonished scientists and archaeologists both in Việt Nam and abroad, which was a great source of happiness and of pride for Lộc.
Few people know that he is also one of the last artisans capable of restoring Mã Vĩ hats, which have fallen into oblivion for nearly 100 years.
According to Lộc, 1930s Hà Nội had a Mã Vĩ Street that was renowned for making hats for emperors, mandarins, and the aristocracy. But the street disappeared after the last artisans passed away and the younger generation no longer wanted to continue the trade.
Documents on the profession are rare. The only information Lộc found simply states that the hats were famous and popular in the past and nothing more.
“It was probably predestined that I would find this field of endeavour,” he believes. “It has become my passion and drives me to explore, research, and learn more to satisfy my curiosity.”
Artisans of days long gone used horse hair as the main material for Mã Vĩ hats, and decorated them with patterns made from gold, silver, and jewellery.
Early on, Lộc had to study information and photos from ancient statues and paintings of emperors and mandarins for reference.
As soon as he heard about a family of a former mandarin who had retained an old hat, he would immediately come to ask about buying it to analyse each and every detail.
He has now accumulated enough to create a database of information on Vietnamese royal hats, particularly those belonging to the Nguyễn Dynasty.
Few artisans pursue this job nowadays, making it difficult to find proper materials. Horsehair, for example, has to be purchased in northern provinces near the Chinese border.
After securing all the necessary materials, he begins to create a framework to knit the hair around before embroidering and decorating it with patterns.
“It takes me about a year to complete a Mã Vĩ hat,” he revealed. “It demands diligence, meticulousness in every little detail, and, particularly, a spiritual respect for the remains of the item.”
In addition to making Mã Vĩ hats and restoring ancient treasures, he is also collecting documents to complete a book entitled Mũ Miện Của Triều Nguyễn (Nguyễn Dynasty Hats), which is expected to be published shortly.
“I’m also planning to publish videos on the internet about this interesting line of work, so that others with a similar passion may learn and perhaps come together,” Lộc said. VNS
RELIC: A hat belonging to Thoại Ngọc Hầu, a Vietnamese military administrator during the Nguyễn dynasty, was restored by artisan Vũ Kim Lộc. The hat is now preserved at the Thoại Ngọc Hầu Exhibition House in Châu Đốc Town, An Giang Province.