THE MAN WHO IS KEEPING “SOUL OF DÓ” ALIVE
Morose and worried when seeing paper craft tradition on the verge of disappearance, Mr. Nguyễn Thế Đoán has spent years searching for essential materials to prepare for the return of the traditional paper despite great hardship.
Anxious about the traditional career
Mr. Đoán’s family house is located in a long alleyway in Đông Xã village (or Đông Village), Bưởi Ward, Tây Hồ District, Hanoi. This place was originally a hamlet belonging to Yên Thái Village, once famous for its dó paper craft tradition. In the past, the whole village specialized in making dó paper for Lê Dynasty’s emperors. Perhaps that is the reason why when Mr. Đoán was a little boy, he soon got used to the traditional paper craft process.
The scene of the paper guild back then remains etched in his memory though he is turning 75 this year. At that time, all families in the village followed the tradition, getting the area cramped with people, even in the very early morning. When he was 10, he started helping his father to make paper and mastering every stage of the process little by little, from preparing the barks to washing, pounding, boiling, filtering, making sheets and peeling. The sound of pestles resonated throughout the prosperous village. Villagers used to make other kinds of paper besides dó paper, such as “royal decree paper”, “tissue paper” or “fan paper”. Nonetheless, Mr. Đoán’s family only specialized in the particular dó paper, which was exclusively made by the leaders of the Nguyễn Family. “For this is the tradition passed down by ancestors, only silky dó paper produced by Nguyễn Thế family had the required durability and shininess to offer to the kings. Therefore, trade secrets were always well-kept.”, he said.
That also led to the importance of choosing a wife for theNguyễn Family’s sons: the women needed to be excellent at making sheets of paper, which means they had to know how to spread the paper pulp evenly, how to have a necessary amount of wind and making sure the final product would turn out thin, durable, smooth and shiny as desired. He also revealed that it usually took up to half a month of preparation to make a standard sheet of dó paper. The process included selecting the barks, choosing techniques or mixing processes, each of which required preciseness and caution to avoid even minor mistakes. The bark of cãnh tree was the best ingredient to produce silky dó paper owing to its thin, soft and elastic fibre. In the words of older generations, it was also the most subtle kind of tree. Craftsmen only added the barks of dó tree as the last resort and it must be the third layer which was closest to the trunk to make sure the paper turned out durable and protected against termite and rotten condition.
Despite having followed the tradition since his childhood, Mr. Đoán had to put his career on hiatus due to him joining the army during wartime. After 1966, he’d had more than 10 years of experience working at the printing house at Hà Nội Mới Newspaper. He was directly in charge of the cutting machine and then appointed for further study at Hoàng Văn Thụ paper factory. Thanks to his long-amassed experience and the new techniques in modern paper making that he got a chance to learn, he became very strongly motivated to get back into his traditional career. Such willpower and desire still haunted him even after he retired. “Complicated and standardized as it is, dó paper craft is always what I wish to bring back, even at this stage of my life. I cannot let such a noble tradition vanish for good”, he expressed.
The return of dó paper
Being a man of his word, in the last 2 years, regardless of his arduous work as a temple janitor and as the deputy of Bưởi Village Relics Management Board, he has hastily prepared for the return of the first batch of dó paper for the next year. His modest little house in the narrow alleyway, which is also a shelter for 11 people, now seems smaller with piles of pestles, mortars, sickles, frames and baskets covering half of the yard. The tiny kitchen is also cramped with bundles of dried cãnh barks. To obtain those materials, he has spent the past years asking each of the villagers to purchase every single item. He has put way more effort in searching for cãnh tree outside the village. He cheerfully said: “My age is not a problem because I’m blessed to have good health, not to mention my great passion for the career, which seems to make me become even younger and stronger. I can easily go a long walk without feeling any tired.”
With the burning spirit of a 75-year-old, he traveled to the faraway Bắc Ninh Province all by himself to learn the new method of making paper; to Phú Thọ to purchase barks of cãnh tree after failing in finding them in Cầu Thiều, Quán Dắt in Triệu Sơn, Thanh Hoá Province. Then he traveled all the way to Thạch Thất for some kinds of different baskets. “I always go by myself on my own motorcycle. It often takes a day, sometimes 2 or 3 days for a distant destination and half a day for a nearer place”, said Mr. Đoán.
He then shared a story that happened two years ago when he rode to Phú Thọ to buy some cãnh barks. This kind of tree has become quite rare now, so he was ecstatic when he found some. Forgetting about his exhaustion, he instantly tied bundles of barks on his motorcycle to carry them home. However, due to the large amount of the barks, he had to make several trips to transport them all. Finally, he brought home a total of 200kg of dried barks of cãnh tree. “Sometimes I get scratches from carrying the barks, which makes my children worried. So they said I should hire a car to help move the huge bundles but I didn’t because I want to save more money. Now when recalling that, I am starting to think I’m really strong”, he eagerly said.
It is estimated that roughly more than 10,000 dong are needed in order to make a single sheet of silky dó paper, nearly 2 or 3 times the spending for regular dó paper. You get what you pay for. The regular dó paper made in Bắc Ninh cannot be compared with silky dó paper. Such common kind of paper is produced using modern techniques with bleaching and softening chemicals, which leads to a friable surface. He then took out 2 different paper sheets, one was the regular type and the other was the special silky dó paper. The former proved to be friable after being dipped in water while the latter remained its original shape.
For that reason, silky dó paper produced by Nguyễn Thế Family was chosen to be the printing paper for multiple documents for The Central Committee of the Labor Party of Vietnam during wartime. When Mr. Đoán was little, his grandfather would tell him “You only need to spend 5 days a month making 20 thousand paper sheets and live in wealth for the rest of the year”. However, in Mr. Đoán’s words, money doesn’t matter to him despite great effort and expenditure he has to put in every sheet of paper. What matters most to him is his desire to help younger generations become more aware of “Paper Craft in Bưởi Village”. He intends to give the next batch of dó paper to other people as a present instead of selling it. He added: “The point here is to help young people develop a passion for the traditional career and let the tradition not go out of Hanoian’s minds.