Pottery village fights for survival

10:22 | 17/02/2018
Married couple Dang Van Trinh and Pham Thi Cuc are the last potters still earning a living from pottery in My Thien Village in the central province of Quang Ngai.
pottery village fights for survival
Love of pottery: The entrance gate of a private terra-cotta museum is decorated with products of My Thien pottery. - VNS Photos Cong Thanh

They live well from the skills passed down from their ancestors over five generations, all of whom worked in the 400-year-old terracotta village, 20 kilometres from provincial capital city of Quang Ngai.

Most people in the township earn money from quick profitable businesses or services brought about by rapid urbanisation and industrialization.

Trinh, 56, and his wife have spent half of their lives working with pottery, and their products are still popular as containers for rice and wine or kitchenware among ethnic groups in the Central Highlands region.

“I was born at my grandfather’s pottery on the river bank, and my childhood was spent with clay, rollers and kilns. Potters in My Thien Village were major creators of household containers (big vases for water and rice) or indoor decoration in the central province and tribes living in the Central Highlands in 18th and 19th centuries,” Trinh said.

“Most people in coastal rural and mountainous areas stored rice and wine in terracotta jars or vases for long conservation, while fishermen also kept fermented fish sauces in clay pots for family use year-round,” he said, adding that ethnic groups in the Central Highlands prefer preserving dried food, wine and treasure in big jars.

The 56-year-old potter recalled that the trade was a major breadwinner for all villagers as rice farms were limited with low yields.

In recent years, My Thien, situated by the Tra Bong River, has turned into a busy trading and retail township, and many potters changed trades to make easier money from fashion shops or stalls at Chau O Market.

pottery village fights for survival
At work: Pham Thi Cuc forms clay jars and pots at her own pottery in Chau O Town.

“We are the last potters at the centuries-old craft village,” Trinh’s wife, Pham Thi Cuc, 52, said.

“My three children have not followed our trade as they could find jobs that offer better incomes. For us, the craft still holds beautiful memories that helped my family overcome difficult times,” Cuc said.

Over the centuries, My Thien pottery has faced many challenges to the preservation of their ancestor’s heritage, including lack of clay, space, manpower, marketing and design.

Cuc said her family could earn VND12 million (US$530) – a relatively high sum – each month from terracotta products, but clay and firewood accounts for 50 per cent of production costs.

“Clay must come from good quality rice farms, but the rapid development of buildings has narrowed the land area over past decades. Firewood has become rare as logging from the forest was banned, while plastic items (water tanks, pots and basins) have gradually dominated and replaced terracotta homeware,” she explained.

Cuc said her pottery is only produced for orders from ethnic groups (mostly E De and Ba Na) living in central highlands provinces of Gia Lai, Kon Tum and Dac Lak, and mountainous districts (Ba To, Son Tay) west of Quang Ngai.

Hard job

Cuc said pottery takes a lot of manual skill and most profit comes from labour-saving methods, so young people rarely choose to enter the labour-intensive pottery trade.

“It takes us at least two months of preparation to release a batch of ceramic products. The making of enamel is a crucial factor that creates the unique colour of the products from My Thien Village,” Cuc said.

She said a mixture of baked shells, clay, straw, rice husks and rock powder are ground by manual millstone into a liquid, which is then applied to the pottery products before they are heated in the kiln twice.

Trinh explained that the items are put in a big jar to protect the enamel from cracking in the high heat of the kiln.

“We complete the clay work with carved patterns and drying in the sunlight before heating again for a short time. These potteries will then be removed from the kiln for the enamel. The second burning will continue after the enamel soaking process is finished,” he explained.

He said heating the products twice helps them harden, and the enamel turns into a unique dark yellowish brown colour, characteristic of My Thien earthernware.

He said all clay products must be burnt in wood-fired kilns at an average temperature of around 1,000 degrees Celsius for perfect pottery.

Reviving traditions

Lam Zu Xenh, 60, a Chinese-Vietnamese herbalist, whose father is an emigrant Chinese and mother is Vietnamese, has collected and preserved more than 200 ancient terracotta products made by My Thien potters.

Xenh, who works in Chau O Town, said some items of My Thien-made pottery were 100 years old.

“Although I spend most of my time in the herbal medicine shop, I love collecting ancient pottery. I built a house to preserve the old pottery and introduce visitors and younger generation to the history of the terracotta trade in central Vietnam,” Xenh said.

“My Thien emerged as a busy pottery village – providing almost all ceramic household items in central Vietnam – in the late 18th century with at least 60 workshops. I was so sad to see local potters and their kilns disappear over the last decade when terracotta products could not compete against cheaper and mass produced plastic equivalents,” he said.

He said he persuaded Trinh to preserve his pottery with a promise of support in marketing and sales.

“If Trinh dismantles his pottery, the trademark of My Thien terracotta will only survive on paper, and the province will lose an ancient trade treasure,” Xenh added.

He said terracotta products need more designs and diversity to maintain a presence in modern life.

The ceramic collector said Trinh’s pottery could be used as a site for tourists or cultural studies among school students.

He said terracotta could be used for the production of interior decorative items.

Dinh Ba Hoa, a cultural researcher, said My Thien hand-made potteries emerged between the 18th and 19th century – the same time as potteries in Binh Dinh Province, under the reign of King Gia Long (1762-1820).

“A series of potteries were built in central Vietnam, including Nhan Thap, My Yen, Phu My in Binh Dinh. The existence of potteries in the region witnessed cultural exchanges among Cham people (who ruled the central region between the 3rd and 13th century) and Dai Viet craftsmen (Great Viet, now Vietnam),” Hoa said.

“Most terracotta goods (jars, pots, vases...) made by My Thien craftsmen were used daily among the middle class and rural communities in central Vietnam. Terracotta products were also very popular among ethnic groups living in the Central Highlands region,” Hoa explained.

“It’s not a luxury product, and decorations on the pottery were simple. Most carvings were of dragons (with protruding eyes), flowers and wild plants. Potters also formed mice, squirrels or toads to stick on the outside to decorate big jars,” he added.

Hoa said the founders of pottery in My Thien were believed to come from the central province of Thanh Hoa in mass emigration from northern Vietnam to the south.

“Migrant potters would combine their traditional trade from northern Vietnam with Cham people’s skills and pottery techniques to create the unique My Thien pottery,” he explained, adding that jars were regularly used as containers of fish sauce among coastal fishermen.

Hoa said the colour of My Thien pottery could be recognised through decorative patterns at Cham towers in central Vietnam.

Future

Craftmen in My Thien still preserve the primary tradition of pottery as it appeared centuries ago, and all work is still done by hand, according to Hoa.

Hoa suggested that most potteries in Vietnam survived by making souvenirs for tourists and statues for home and garden decoration.

Dang Thi Ngu, 45, a trader in Gia Lai said My Thien pots and big jars were major orders among E De ethnic groups.

She said products from Trinh’s pottery sold well among E De, Ba Na and Co Tu communities in Gia Lai and Kon Tum. “They (ethnic people) prefer preserving rice, wine, jewellery or costumes in big jars,” Ngu said.

pottery village fights for survival
New skill: Ngo Dao Giang shows off his first piece of terra-cotta that he learned from a potter in My Thien craft village.

Ngo Dao Giang, 39, also started his love of clay when he learnt skills from Trinh’s pottery.

He seeks new decorative patterns and designs for his own jars and pots to decorate gardens and homes.

“I noticed the poor designs of My Thien pottery products. All jars and pots were produced repeatedly. Not many design changes were made, while the village has only one pottery still working,” Giang said.

“I made some designs myself and put some vases at my café garden. The outdoor installation of jars and façade decoration would attract visitors to explore the pottery trade,” he said.

Giang said the craft struggled to attract young people because of its low income and hard work, while the rapid urbanisation in Chau O Town left no space for pottery production.

He said the risk of pollution caused by wood burning kilns also posed challenges for the trade making a comeback.

"There needs to be changes in technology and revival planning for the old trade by offering gas or power-burned kilns for better control over the fumes," Giang said.

Meanwhile, eco-tour services should be planned in the village to save hand-made pottery, he suggested.

The central provincial department for culture and tourism has planned Trinh’s pottery and Xenh’s museum as two destinations in an eco-tour journey in the summer of 2018.

Vice director of the department Huynh Thi Phuong Hoa said tourists would have the chance to explore the trade at Trinh’s pottery and museum of terra-cotta antiquities.

She said the pottery and museum would connect with other sites in the province in a chain of destinations.

The province also plans the sea area of Binh Chau Commune – 10km from My Thien craft village – and Ly Son Islands to form part of a Global Geo-park.

Artisan Trinh said he hoped that his pottery would lure more people to visit and he would offer young people free training as young potters in the future.

VNS

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