Artisan fights to keep handcrafting boats
Boat-builder Nguyen Van Luu, 71, laments the end of an era in the ancient city of Hue, where he once crafted boats according to the age-old technique. Le Duc Duc listens to his tales about the good old days.
Sixty years ago, poet To Huu wrote of the ancient boats and city of Hue,
Ven bo song phang con do mong
La luot di ve trong nang mai
(The dreaming boat on the peaceful river
Floating gracefully in the early sunshine)
These boats from yesteryear have long held a unique cultural value to the people of Huong River and Hue City.
A past still not forgotten
Seventy-one-year-old Nguyen Van Luu, from the Phu Binh Ward of Hue City, has over 60 years of experience as a shipping builder. At the tender age of 12 he scurried alongside his grandfather and father, carrying the tools they used to build their ships.
“At that time, the boats made in Hue had three hoods; the size and shape were dependent on the person who built it and the ferryboats were made from peck-wood,” he recalls.
He is proud of the age-old techniques, passed down from generation to generation that he uses to build a typical Hue boat. According to Luu, a good shipbuilder must be able to find exact spots on the body of the ship to drill holes in, which then have nails driven into them. Once the holes and nails are aligned the skeleton of the boat can be assembled.
If the shipbuilder is unable to locate the correct place to drill holes, he will warp the frame. If the frame is warped the vessel’s ability to sustain its strength and speed is lost. A boat built with a correct technique on the other hand, navigates effortlessly and slices through the water with ease.
Despite his obvious expertise, Luu’s boat building business began to slow during the 1960-1970s. Luu points to the importation of dural (aluminium alloy) to Viet Nam as the chief reason behind the slow down. American soldiers had introduced the new hulls for the war and soon locals also bought the aluminium alloys, separated them and began to use them to replace planks (peck-wood) in the building of their ships. Unlike peck wood, which is expensive and hard to source in comparison to the new alloys, the new aluminium hulls were cheaper as well as stronger and lighter than their wooden counterparts.
Due to this, Luu’s boat building skills were relegated to only providing for boats used for festivals and select boat racing competitions. Similarly, cabins were also being outfitted with new materials. The charming image of the traditional ferryboat was fading as aluminium alloys, inox, glasses and other composites gradually replaced the wood and bamboo used to make the vintage crafts.
Leaning into us Luu asks, “Have you seen the imperial boats (boats that capture the form of the dragon) carrying tourists who listen to songs of Hue?”. “I built them.” He goes on to inform us that a double boat will cost an owner VND300 million while the price of a single cabin boat is around half of that.
Later that night we sat on the boat under the moonlight on Huong River, and listened to the sweet voices of the Hue singers. However, sitting in the hold of the boat covered with glass and aluminium, we felt we were being deprived of the ancient impression of Hue that we had come to find.
Keeping his art intact
Although the boat that Luu excels in making is not so popular with the boat buying public anymore, people still come to him armed with questions on his work techniques. One such person was Le Thua Tien, the famous painter who also works as a professor at the Hue City Art University.
In Tien’s opinion, the Huong River, the boat and the traditional music are all natural cultural elements which contribute to create the identity of Hue cultural heritage. The absence of the old ferry boats on Huong River, and the new boats made with new materials, paint colours and electric generators, helped Tien with a new artistic idea.
His new project entitled Thuyen Bac (Silver boat) aims to preserve the image of the boat of Hue with an installation work that combines the landscape with Hue traditional music.
Le Thua Tien’s work will be a pair of Hue boats crafted the traditional way, having the size, structure and materials based on the archetype of some ancient Hue ferry boats which can still be seen on the river. The boats will be covered with silver as they were previously in the region’s traditional lacquer methods. According to Le Thua Tien, silver symbolises both movement and purity, while playing on optical effects as light is reflected from the boats.
Visitors on Trang Tien Bridge, on the street or boats moving on the river can all see the installation. By being functional and mobile the pair of silver boats can sail up the river and move into contact with the community with ease.
While installation works are often related to a specific space and are often fragile or set in precarious ways, his pair of silver boats are rugged and durable, an effective form of working art.
The installation is usually moored at the boat station beside the pedestrian street of Nguyen Dinh Chieu. Visitors can organise traditional music shows on the boat, sampling Hue’s unique folk singers while the installation shimmers under the moonlight. — VNS
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