Just across the river from Hoi An, a pair of dedicated carpenters are revitalising their traditional trade.
Kim Bong carpenters are renowned for their wood carving and sculpture.
According to traditional stories, Kim Bong in Cam Kim Commune was first settled in the 15th century by four soldiers of King Le Loi’s army. The soldiers fell in love with the area and, thanks to their wood working skills, their descendants became Kim Bong’s four most notable craft families: Huynh, Nguyen, Phan, and Truong. Artisans by these names can still be found in the village today.
In the 17th century, Kim Bong carpenters proved their talent when they built a warship for the Spanish navy. Since then Kim Bong carpentry has developed.
The village craftsmen were also responsible for most of the architectural details of the former Imperial capital, Hue, and Ho Chi Minh’s imperial tomb.
Since 1999, when Hoi An was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kim Bong artisans have made a vital contribution to the restoration of historic buildings.
Village craftsmen also recently helped restore the Ngoc Gian pagoda in Da Nang and Tuan Chau tourist area in Quang Ninh.
Huynh Ri is a 12th generation carpenter in Kim Bong and the last carpenter left to uphold the tradition after the war. Ri is now over 70 years old but he still devotes his life to carpentry and has passed on his knowledge to his son Suong, 40, who is now one of the village’s best carpenters.
Since Suong was a child, he has studied the decorative patterns used for each piece of work. He has also helped his father restore ancient houses in Hoi An and famous temples and pagodas in Da Nang.
“The things that I learnt from skilful craftsmen were not only technical skills, but also about the soul of the patterns on each piece. Each wooden sculpture that our forefathers created and passed on to their descendants encompasses the soul of the countryside,” said Suong.
Certain special characteristics typical Kim Bong carpentry, such as stylised carvings of flowers, grass, trees and leaves using the cai trang (a tool to carve wood). This thin, straight tool is used to carve the delicate veins in a leaf or the eyelid of a dragon. Most other carpenters use a heavier, V-shaped tool.
According to Suong, artisans from other locations often depict dragons as ferocious and imposing, an influence of ancient feudal rights. In contrast, dragon carvings from Kim Bong are often cheerful. Clouds carved in other village are often heavy cubes, while Kim Bong carpenters make them light and fluffy, he said.
“Carpentry is a job like others. It is about indulging the imagination and then hard work, patience and natural talent,” Suong said.
“Kim Bong carpentry has had its ups and downs. Carpentry will not make anyone rich. It is hard work, but we can’t change the job because we want to restore carpentry.”
At the National Fine Arts and Handicrafts event organised by the Ministry of Agricultural and Rural Development last year, Suong won third prize for his Mam Go Chan Que (Countryside Wooden Tray). Suong carved a bamboo tree that was so realistic people thought it was an actual piece of bamboo.
He also won a place on the Tinh Hoa Viet Nam (Viet Nam Quintessence, an annual list of notable works of art) at the Hue Festival in 2004.
The wide world
The war claimed many craftsmen and the trade village threatened to sink into oblivion, but with the help of local officials, father and son started a training course for 20 young carpenters in 1996.
Phan Trong Nhan, deputy chairman of the Cam Kim Commune People’s Committee said that “at present, there are 20 carpentry households in Kim Bong village. However, young men here don’t like this job because it doesn’t offer a high income. Their average income is VND1.5 million (US$85) per month.”
The commune created a detailed plan to restore and develop the village: young men will be trained in carpentry for free and receive a monthly stipend of VND 150,000 ($8) along with tools of the trade.
So far, Ri and Suong have led four courses and trained a total of 80 carpenters.
“Each trade village has its own specific characteristics so its products are distinctive enough to be recognisable to customers. In the training sessions, I often show students how to express Viet Nam’s cultural values through the skilful carving of designs and patterns. I must transfer my love and enthusiasm of carpentry to my students so they will love their job as well and help maintain and develop Kim Bong traditional carpentry,” Suong said.
Kim Bong’s products have been sold on the domestic market and abroad and the village’s carpenters have been recognised by UNESCO for their efforts to preserve the traditional craft.
In early 2005, the People’s Committee of Quang Nam Province awarded Huynh Ri as people’s artisan and Huynh Suong as meritorious artisan. In 2006, the Hoi An People’s Committee registered the village’s trade name as “Kim Bong Carpentry-Hoi An”. The Committee also joined with travel agencies to offer tours to Cam Kim commune. Now, the commune accounts for 7-8 per cent of tourists visiting Hoi An.