HANDY SKILL: Triệu Hồng Hồ Em in his workshop. Making bamboo products helps him share the financial burden with his mother. Photo courtesy of Triệu Hồng Hồ Em
By Lương Thu Hương
There is no limit on creativity and no disadvantage could ever prevent you from being creative, and you need to look no further than Triệu Hồng Hồ Em from Chợ Mới District in the Mekong Delta’s An Giang Province for an example of how true that is.
Looking at his sophisticated miniatures of traditional Vietnamese musical instruments, stilt houses, and flowers, all made of bamboo, it’s a little hard to believe they were created by a man suffering from a disability.
Em was struck by polio at the age of nine, which led to muscle atrophy, making it hard for him to walk or move his neck. An excellent student up to that point, his poor health forced him to end his studies in Grade 6.
As a child, he used pieces of bamboo left over from when his father’s made fishing traps as toys.
One day, while lying prone, his eyes focused on a piece of bamboo in the corner of his home, and the idea of creating something interesting from it flashed into his mind. He could never have imagined back then that one day his bamboo miniatures would help him earn a living.
His first creations were tiny houses, in particular traditional long houses of ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands, each of which took him just a day, whittling the bamboo and shaping it in a fairly simple process.
Those first products he gave to relatives and friends as gifts. It wasn’t until 2010, when he had become proficient, did he decide to craft bamboo products for sale as a means to make ends meet and support his mother.
FINE DESIGNS: One of Em’s miniature bamboo villas. Photo courtesy of Triệu Hồng Hồ Em
“My father became ill and passed away, and my elder brother was killed in an accident,” the 32-year-old recalled. “My health is poor and I can’t do any heavy work, so the burden of earning money for the family was on my mother.”
“She sold vegetables at the market every day. I became determined to overcome my handicap and earn money to share the burden. My first creation, a traditional long house, sold for VNĐ35,000 (US$1.5) and I was overjoyed.”
Making more complex products can involve many stages, such as drying the bamboo, sawing, whittling, shaping, and polishing, in addition to many trivial but key stages.
“Every stage is important,” he explained. “For example, if the bamboo pieces are not whittled smoothly, the creation won’t have a beautiful shape, while if the bamboo is not dried properly it might lose its shape or be susceptible to termites.”
“As long as the craftsman has passion, puts his mind to the task, and finishes every step carefully, a perfect product will result.”
BEST SELLER: Em’s collection of miniature traditional Vietnamese musical instruments is one of his most popular items. Photo courtesy of Triệu Hồng Hồ Em
He has now made hundreds of bamboo miniatures, the most sophisticated of which are those of villas or others with particular architectural features, as he has to calculate the correct scale.
Many times, when a product fails to meet his expectations, Em will work through the night until he feels satisfied. His hands are calloused and marked by knife and sharpened bamboo cuts, but he continues in the knowledge that he has found his life’s calling.
His disability, however, prevents him from promoting his products far and wide, so he gives some to relatives and acquaintances and asks them to help introduce them to buyers.
Able to access the internet and with his own Facebook page, he has begun to receive more orders, especially around special occasions like Tết (the Lunar New Year) or the International Women’s Day.
BAMBOO BLOOM: A bunch of flowers in a pot. Photo courtesy of Triệu Hồng Hồ Em
Nguyễn Hoàng Anh Thư from Bình Thạnh District in HCM City came to know about Em’s products via Facebook a few years ago and has since become a regular customer.
She uses his bamboo creations to decorate her café and also gives them to friends as gifts.
“They are so meticulously made and delicate that most people become quite interested in them,” she said.
Ten years after starting his own business, Em has a stable number of regular customers but his income fluctuates from month to month.
“This line of work depends on a range of factors, including the weather and my own health,” he explained. “When I feel well, I can earn a little more. When it rains a lot, the bamboo can’t be dried, so I earn less.”
“I also accept orders to make other things from bamboo, like mini equipment for my miniature houses.”
Em now intends to pass his skill on for free to other handicapped people or youngsters with an interest in the craft, in the hope of sharing his optimism with others.
“Everyone needs a profession that can bring them success with constant effort,” he said.
“Above all, having a career helps us lead a more positive life and dispel any notion of being a burden on the family and society.” - VNS