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Rosewood suite with an imperial story

Vietnam Heritage, March 2011 -- The villagers were harvesting their crops, and the path leading to Mrs Pham Thi Huong’s house in Hai Phu Commune, Hai Hau District, Nam Dinh Province, in northern Vietnam, was crowded with produce.
Mrs Huong, regarded as the richest person in the commune, owns an elaborately carved suite of rectangular table, sofa and armchairs, thought to be nearly a hundred years old.
Mrs Huong said she and her husband had bought the suite from an acquaintance in 1992. She had fallen in love with it because of its strange style. She had rushed home to borrow money while her husband remained to talk the owner into selling.
‘We loved them so much, we decided to sell whatever we could in our house to be able to buy the table and chairs. The only thing we didn’t sell were the earrings my grandmother gave me when I was a girl . . . everyone who knew about it said we were crazy.’
The price was 25 taels of gold (now $44,500).
Mrs Huong said their acquaintance had bought the suite from a grandson of a mandarin of the court of Khai Dinh (1916-1925). It is said the emperor commissioned the best artisans and that the suite was to offer to a French official. Artisans went to Pu Mat Forest, in Nghe An Province, to find rosewood over hundred years old.
Mrs Huong said one thing she liked about the suite was that it was ‘cool in summer and warm in winter’. As well, the family had been luckier in business and people had said the suite had magic powers. ‘Once, they used to come to look at it and touch it . . . Some people have come from Hanoi and even France to ask to buy them but we don’t want to sell. We really need money but the spiritual value is more significant.’
The suite has always been in Mrs Huong’s living room and every day she and her daughter have taken turns cleaning it so it always ‘looks like new’, but Mrs Huong said that the older it became and the more use it got the smoother and darker it would become. ‘Some people do not believe the dark colour is natural. They say we paint it.’
The table is 98 cm long, 58 cm wide and 75 cm high. On the top is a large, carved design of a dragon pulling fish up from the sea. The head of the dragon is in the shape of Chinese script for ‘king’. At the corners are carved apricot blossom, daisy, lotus and conifer, representing the seasons.
The feet of the table and chairs look like the feet of a nghê, a mythical animal with the head of a lion but a body with scales, often seen in front of pagodas and communal houses.

By Ha Tung Long
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