Mr. Nam Mieng, born Tran Ngoc Huong in 1911, used to be a worker in the Ba Son shipyard. It was by chance that he took up the art of making flowerpots.
Once he saw broken pieces of porcelain dishes on the street and worried that the fragments would cut passers-by, he gathered them with a broom. Having seen beautiful items with inlaid porcelain fragments in pagodas and temples, he thought porcelain fragments would be charming if they were used properly.
At that time, none of the ornamental plant growers in Thu Duc used terracotta and porcelain pieces to decorate their pots. As soon as the thought came to his mind, Nam Mieng started to carry it out. He applied this art not only on flowerpots but almost everywhere around his house -- on his family’s altar, incense burner, ancestors’ tombs, and even beds.
Not all his children were industrious in this painstaking handicraft, however. Hence, Mr. Huong often encouraged his children and posted rewards for the hard-working ones. In Mr. Ut Thao’s room of worship now stands a plank bed with beautiful mosaic made from Japanese porcelain splinters. A carved sentence can be seen under the bed, which says, “I leave this bed to the hard-working children, not the lazy ones.”
By 1960, Mr. Huong had made a set of exquisitely beautiful flowerpots for his garden, which ensured that his name became well-known all around the area. People started to call him Nam Mieng, meaning Master of Porcelain Fragments. Around 1978, the terracotta-porcelain mosaic pots officially became a market product.
Ut Thao’s preoccupation with his family’s traditional handicraft
Mai village mosaic pots are now associated with Mr. Ut Thao, born Tran Ngoc Thao, a member of the Thu Duc Farmer Association. Ut Thao was Mr. Nam Mieng’s beloved hard-working child, who the old artisan tried to leave all his skills to.
Mr. Ut Thao told us that his family did this job first of all out of passion. Around 1980, they rode their bicycle to Lai Thieu (Binh Duong) every day to collect terracotta and porcelain fragments, and then classified them by patterns and colors at home. Later, it became less strenuous as people from kilns started to deliver fragments to their door.
Artisan Ut Thao and a complete mosaic pot (Photo: Tuoi Tre)
Still, the art of making mosaic pots is a lot of hard work. Therefore, the number of artisans and workers in this field is decreasing. Mr. Ut Thao is teaching his youngest son the family’s handicraft. However, his deepest concern is whether his son will be passionate enough to cling to this art.
He said, “I have trained five nephews to do this job, and they have their own workshop in Thu Duc. This skill can help them earn enough for a living, but I am worried that they just make products for sale and won’t be able to develop the handicraft as an art.” Mrs. Ut Thao, meanwhile, has a more practical concern, “Mosaic pots used to sell very well at this time in previous years. We often sold 30 to 40 pairs by the Tet Holiday. But now the yard is still full of pots, and I wonder if they will sell well this year.”
Developed by three generations over nearly a century, flowerpots from Thu Duc mai village have become familiar to flower lovers nationwide. Mr. Ut Thao was also asked to make items for public art projects, such as ten lotus fountains behind the statue of Uncle Ho in front of the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee Hall, the table and chair set in Thien Thu Cemetery in Dong Nai, and Superior Buddhist Monk Thich Tri Hue’s grave tower in Van Son Pagoda in Thu Duc.
The special features of mosaic pots
The mosaic pots in mai village are made completely by hand. The pots are made from a cement and steel framework without any fixed mould. They are left three days to solidify. Then a wet layer of plaster is pasted for inlaying the terracotta and porcelain fragments. The inlay is the most important step, and requires both speed and skillfulness.
Then, the lines between inlaid pieces are filled with white cement and colored appropriately. It takes several people and around 10 days to finish an artistic mosaic pot.
The design on the pots can be a set of mai-orchid-chrysanthemum-bamboo, or dragon-kylin-tortoise-phoenix, or ones that customers require. Mosaic pots have an elegant beauty, especially when they are made with broken pieces from valuable ancient porcelain dishes. Depending on the size, form, and design, a pot can be worth from several million dong to VND70-80 million (US$3,300 – 3,800).
Making pots from cement (Photo: Tuoi Tre)
Making the mosaic with terra-cotta and porcelain fragments (Photo: Tuoi Tre)