VietNamNet Bridge – Nguyen Tuan Quyet's family has run a special profession for three generations: making sculptures from black coal, one of the most exploited minerals in northern Quang Ninh Province.
| Nguyen Tuan Quyet puts the finishing touches to his sculpture of a lion made from black coal. Coal sculpture is a profession unique to the northern province of Quang Ninh where there is a large concentration of coal. (Photo: VNS) |
Although the profession dates back dozens of years ago, few people are aware of its existence, even locals.
"Many people are surprised to find that artful sculptures could be made from the crispy, fragile black coal," said Nguyen Thanh Binh, Quyet's wife and coal sculptor.
She added that the profession could only be found in Quang Ninh Province where there was a large concentration of coal.
Sculpting the black rocks into works of art, indeed, does not seem a simple job.
Unlike other handicraft professions such as rattan weaving or embroidery, coal sculptures must be hand processed without the use of any machinery, due to the fragile nature of the material.
In the hands of skilful artists, rough rocks can be transformed into shining sculptures in the shapes of various objects from animals, flowers to famous people.
However, the most produced and popular souvenirs are famous tourism icons from well-known Ha Long Bay, such as the kissing rocks or the sailing boats.
Phan Thi Cong, owner of the Dac Cong black coal fine arts shop in the province, said half of her customers looked for art products from black rocks.
"My customers are interested in these products as they are beautiful, unique and completely handmade," she said.
Quyet's factory currently has only three sculptors, including himself, his wife and a worker.
Four years ago, he and his wife set up a company with a shop of its own, hoping to make good business of the distinctive profession.
The company used to have eight employees and display their products in many exhibitions in the country and China.
The business, however, received very little support from local authorities and the company dissolved due to a lack of funding and an effective promotion plan.
"We sent letters asking for assistance to many places, but did not receive any positive response, except from the Women's Union who offered a loan of only VND3 million (US$143)," Binh said.
Now, with the souvenir factory based in their own home, the couple manages to take care of their family thanks to the orders from regular customers, which are mostly tourism companies and souvenir shops, but their ambition to develop the profession seems to have faded away.
"With so little potential, many people left the profession, and there are now only 5-6 people still doing this," she noted.
Binh said foreign customers sometimes came to their factory to order sculptures in large numbers, but they could seldom take the order due to the lack of materials and human resources.
Nguyen Tam Nham, a veteran coal sculptor, holds the same opinion.
"Little attention is paid to the development of handicrafts in Viet Nam," he said.
Nham added that local authorities could only go as far as offering locations for exhibitions, and there was no hope for long-term assistance and financial support.
"There is no one responsible for orienting or managing the profession or for promoting the business for export purposes.
Viet Nam News contacted the Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the Department of Planning and Investment of Quang Ninh Province, but they refused to claim responsibility towards the profession and failed to name any assistance plan.
Luu Duy Dan, chairman of the Viet Nam Association of Craft Villages, said that coal sculpture was an interesting and distinctive profession and that there should be a village specialising in making such works, especially in a tourism area like Quang Ninh Province.
He added, however, that due to the Government's limited budget, there was no financial support for the profession.
"It doesn't seem there is a future for this profession," said Quyet in a matter-of-fact tone. VietNamNet/Viet Nam News