Staying in touch with the past lovingly

(No.7, Vol.3, Aug 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

A Japanese antiquities enthusiast who came to Ho Chi Minh City requested that I take him to visit the house of Vuong Hong Sen, who was one of the most famous antiquities collectors in the city, so that he could ‘go back to the fascinating and peaceful days of the previous century’* as was extraordinarily claimed. To please him, I led him to No. 9/1 Nguyen Thien Thuat St, Ward 14, Binh Thanh District.

Mr Vuong Hong Sen’s house in Ho Chi Minh City.
Photo: Kim Thanh.

Sitting beneath an old mango tree in the courtyard behind the house-not to ‘drink tea from a Ming Dynasty cup’* and fully enjoy the serenity and peacefulness-but rather to eat snails and drink beer amidst a bunch of people eating clamorously, gulping down drinks, chatting loudly, and laughing hardily, we brought up stories of old about which to reminisce.
The Japanese friend had just come back from rusticating in the old town of Hoi An. He passionately recounted his impressions of the house filled with antiquities at No. 82 Nguyen Thai Hoc St in Minh An Ward. The owner of the house, Mr Diep Gia Sung, is almost 50 years old and still lives alone so that he can pour all his emotional energy into caring for and handling various objects thousands of years old. At the beginning of 2002, the Hoi An authorities consented to allow the Diep family to open its doors and receive tourists. But contrary to ordinary convention, Mr Sung does not sell sightseeing tickets. The house, over a hundred years old, lies right in front of a busy street from whence people come by and open the doors wide, if they so choose. Whoever wants to come in and look around can do so and, if it pleases them to be hands-on, they pick up and hold objects to view and even touch them to absorb the beauty of the objects that were meritoriously amassed by Mr Sung’s family throughout the past three hundred years. Among the objects is a gold-inlaid screen from the Qing Dynasty, for which a New York museum in the United States offered two billion dong but only got shaking heads in return. The screen was brought from Guangdong, China to Hoi An by Mr Sung’s ancestor, Diep Dong Xuan, in 1856. As a merchant of Chinese medicine and Jiangxi porcelain, Mr Xuan gradually came to be enamoured by ancient objects and began to collect them. His immense love for them was passed on to his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. They have a principle never to sell anything that they have collected.
Whenever I go out to Hoi An, I always bring a tea scale with me and take pleasure in taking out Mr Sung’s twenty or so sets of tea implements and giving each one in turn a chance to brew tea with the water of Ba Le Well, a famous old well in Hoi An, in order to savour tea with him. Several times when we were drinking tea, some business would come up, and Mr Sung would have to go, leaving me there to sit amidst his family treasury. Many antiques enthusiasts have a bad habit of treasuring objects so much that they do not dare to allow anyone to touch their precious objects. But Mr Sung is different. When anyone is interested, he respectfully hands over the objects so that anyone can view, size up, and take pictures of them. Mr Sung relates, ‘To relish in antiquities only to hoard them compromises intimacy and probity, which is detrimental to both spirit and character. The antiquities need to come into contact with the human sphere; only then can the marvels of the objects’ circumstances be appreciated. As for an ancient object, besides the handling and viewing of artisans, non-professional enthusiasts, even those with little understanding of antiquities, also need to be able to handle and view them. Only in this way can the alluring beauty of time be magnified.’
Going inside, we asked to light a stick of incense for Mr Sen and had to wait several minutes until a youngster named Trang found enough incense and lit it. The altar of the man renown for relishing antiquities did not bear a single ancient object on it. Around it, several loosely bound books covered in thick dust laid scattered all around. My friend was quite taken aback. I woefully said that even while Mr Sen was still alive his ‘wives’ (as he referred to the objects) were already being ‘married off’ by his children. After he died, instead of upholding his dying wishes they quickly ‘broke away like children from their mother’s arms.’

Handwriting by Mr Vuong Hong Sen.

Vuong Hong Sen (1902-1996), sobriquets Anh Vuong, Van Duong, and Dat Co Trai, was a cultural authority, an academic, and a famous collector of antiquities. He was considered deeply knowledgeable of southern Vietnam and was greatly respected in the fields of history and archaeology in Vietnam. Before he died, he donated his house and his entire antiquities collection (a total of 849 different ancient objects) to the Vietnamese state with the hope of building a museum in his name. In 2003, the People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City decided to list the house as an urban heritage site.

Beneath an ancient mango tree located in the courtyard behind the house in 1972, a friend, James Holland, and Mr Sen sat drinking tea from a Ming Dynasty cup. At that time, ‘Water lilies bloomed on the surface of the high waters of the lake right in the middle of the courtyard. The sun had just come up and a cool breeze stirred the bamboo branches. It was truly tranquil and peaceful without a sound to disturb the serenity.’* Today, the surface of the lake is gone, while the courtyard is treated with white cement on which are placed blue and red plastic tables and chairs for customers of Oc Beo (Fat Snail) Diner to eat, drink, chat, and laugh loudly from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. every day.
I was perplexed for some time, trying to unravel why someone who so passionately revelled in antiquities like Mr Sen could share that passion with so many outsiders, yet utterly fail to affect any of his children and grandchildren. It was not until only recently, when I listened to Mr Tran Dinh Son, an antiquities collector who was considered a friend by Mr Sen while he was still alive and who became confidantes with Mr Sen that I finally cracked the reason.
Mr Son recounted, ‘I was older than elder Vuong’s son, Vuong Hong Bao, by one year. At that time, whenever I came to the house I was cordially received in the study, while the son scarcely stepped inside. Later, I eventually learned that it turns out that since the study contained all the valuable antiquities, right from the time when the son was still little, the elder strictly forbade the son to approach the place were his father worked. This caused the father and son to gradually grow distant. Once he realized that he was old and frail, the elder thought of entrusting everything to his son, but the latter displayed total apathy. Apparently, the son held a grudge against the ancient objects, since it was because of them that father and son never become close.’

Antique collected by Vuong Hong Sen on display at Vietnam History Museum in Ho Chi Minh City.
Photos: Do Quang Tuan Hoang

The Japanese friend said that if it were up to him, Mr Sen’s house would become a unique tourist site in Ho Chi Minh City. Just like that, he would bring the artefacts back to the house and replant the ‘luxurious garden full of tropical trees, where the hedges were skilfully trimmed to mingle with the bamboo, mango, and papaya.’* He would transform the house into a museum and organize a ‘House of Sen’ tour, named after the article by James D. Holland that was published in the periodical Arts of Asia in March-April 1972. Tourists would be able to go there, look around, and brew tea in ‘(…) a large teakettle (25cm high) from the era of the Trinh Lords (1767-1782), which is one of Mr Sen’s favourite objects. The teakettle is painted with images of a five-clawed dragon, which is a symbol of the king, a phoenix for the queen, a unicorn for the crown prince of the eastern palace, and a turtle for the prime minister. Along with this object is a large bowl (26cm in diameter) in perfect condition and, when you flick it strongly, it rings like a bell. It is also from the era of the Trinh Lords and, like the teakettle, the bowl has Huế indigo on a white foundation. Both of these objects were purchased by Mr Sen near the ancient capital Huế.’* Tourists would be able to eat folk dishes and southern specialties. At night, they would sleep on a wooden bed inlaid with mother-of-pearl so that ‘one could almost see phantoms of the past prostrating before the ritual altar at a time when the head of the house welcomed Emperor Tu Duc as he came to visit the country village.’* As for entertainment, there would be the Siamese fighting fish, bird keeping, duelling crickets, and cock fighting that Mr Sen depicted in great detail in his books.
And that’s the truth: ‘Going to visit Mr Sen’s house today is to go back and visit the fascinating and peaceful days of the previous century. The house is a beautiful example of Vietnamese traditional architecture, which was built in Soc Trang in the Mekong Delta during the reign of Emperor Tu Duc (1848-1883). Later, it was moved here.’
‘(…) Mr Sen started gathering ancient objects in Vietnam in 1927, beginning with Sa Dec and Soc Trang in South Vietnam. Then he went out to Hue and the areas surrounding Central Vietnam, North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. He is a taciturn, erudite and sensitive person. (…) He’s sentimental about his house and the antiquities inside. Each object among the thousands of objects was selected by Mr Sen himself and he can describe each one of them without files or references. (…) His collection is the most complete collection in Southeast Asia.’
(…) Mr Sen said, ‘Traditional customs are disappearing faster every day. I remember those customs, but here in my house, when dusk comes, I can reflect and reminisce.’*
*Quotations are extracted from the Vietnamese translation of James D. Holland, ‘The House of Sen,’ Arts of Asia (March-April 1972): 54-60 translated in Nguyen Q. Thang, Tuyen tap Vuong Hong Sen (Anthology of Vuong Hong Sen), Nxb Van hoa (Cultural Publishing House), March 2002.

By Do Quang Tuan Hoang
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