Works of art: Enamelwork made by Tran Dinh Hiep, one of three phap lam restorers in Hue. Hiep’s products require only one firing.
The Hanoi Times - The Hue traditional enamelling industry has a great potential to develop. Its recovery would help restore royal relics and develop local fine arts and tourism.
Standing tall among the city’s grey edifices, the 175-year-old Ngo Mon (South Gate) provides a visual respite of radiant colour on the grounds of the former royal capital of Hue.
Erected during the reign of Emperor Minh Mang, the imposing South Gate remains a fascinating structure, covered with enamelwork that shimmers brilliantly under a late afternoon sun.
Embellished with a five-coloured pattern of clouds, and bordered by four panels of verse and five panels of paintings on each side, the gate’s enamelwork is as resplendent today as it was many years ago.
Decorated in the style of phap lam (enamelware), the art form became popular during the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945).
Used for both exterior and interior decoration, phap lam consists of a copper core coated with coloured enamel that is highly durable, varied in form, and vivid in colour and decoration.
Despite its obvious charm, Hue phap lam dropped out of vogue and became lost after only 60 years of existence in the cradle where it was born.
The development of the enamelling industry, which required costly materials, rested on a stable and prosperous economy. The turbulent political changes during the Nguyen Dynasty’s reign of its last kings, Thanh Thai, Duy Tan, Khai Dinh and Bao Dai, stalled the industry’s progress.
For nearly two centuries, Hue enamelware could be seen only at museums or on the old royal-era buildings, and the techniques used to make them were believed to be lost forever. But the enamelling industry has seen a vibrant resurgence in recent years because of the tireless efforts of a group of cultural researchers and experts.
In June, during the Hue Traditional Craft Festival, local residents and tourists watched as skilled artisans produced enamelware. Although not as charming as the older, original pieces, the new work was admired by visitors who were pleasantly surprised to discover that the Hue phap lam industry had resumed after nearly 200 years of absence.
Because of expensive materials and complicated techniques, enamelwork in Hue during royal times was limited for use on the outer edges and roofs of royal palaces and monuments.
Exterior decoration was in the form of dragons, clouds, flowers, birds and scripts, all of which now can be seen on many architectural works in Hue Imperial City, including the Nghi Mon and Thai Hoa Palace, Sung An Temple at the Minh Mang Tomb, the Bieu Duc Temple at Thieu Tri Tomb and the Hoa Khiem Temple in Tu Duc Tomb.
Many ritual objects, reflecting the spiritual and religious life of the royal family under the Nguyen Dynasty, were also enamelled. The Hue Royal Fine Arts Museum contains 98 pieces of enamelware, including bowls, jars, tumblers, trays, dishes, flower vases, jewellery boxes, incense burners, betel trays and joss-stick pots.
Phap lam was at its height of popularity under the Minh Mang, Thieu Tri and Tu Duc kings (1820-1883), the most prosperous periods of the Nguyen Dynasty. The court at that time was building the royal city and sending many craftsmen to work as apprentices in China to learn enamelling techniques.
In 1827, King Minh Mang ordered that a Phap Lam Tuong Cuc (Unit of Enamelware) be built in the imperial city, where 15 artisans worked for the Hue Court. Later, two other phap lam facilities were set up in Quang Tri and Quang Binh Provinces to ensure supplies of enamelware for the court.
Because all enamelware was used for the Hue imperial structures and royal families, the art form took the name of Hue phap lam. The most common kinds of enamelware in Viet Nam were hoa phap lang (painted enamel) and khap ty phap lam (cloisonne).
Despite its relatively short phase of 60 years, Hue phap lam showed the creativity of the Vietnamese artisan. While the Chinese craftsmen focused on the production of enamelware for daily use and rituals, Vietnamese enamel-makers under the Nguyen Dynasty used phap lam as decorative materials in the construction of royal palaces and tombs in Hue.
Local artisans used highly durable enamelled materials to make decorative motifs for buildings erected in a country with severe weather and climatic conditions.
Because of this durability, the decorative motifs in painted enamels on the structures in Hue still retain their bright colours, lending an air of splendor in the weather-beaten former royal capital.
Hoang Thi Huong, a researcher at the Hue Museum, says the inventiveness of the local artisans showed the independent spirit of the Vietnamese culture, economy and politics during the Nguyen Dynasty.
An admirer of phap lam, Tran Dinh Son, a prominent antique collector in HCM City, says the artisans’ work was distinctive because they painted decorative designs with coloured enamels directly on a bronze base with a brush.
"It was this technique that gave Hue enamelware a special feature completely different from Chinese types," he says.
The late painter Pham Dang Tri, who is well-known for his work in Viet Nam, said once of the Hue enamelware colours: "The artisans knew how to adjust colours in a sophisticated way and in the right dose, creating tones that contrast but look harmonious."
Although Hue phap lam had many similarities in colour, design and technique to Chinese enamelware, it lasted for only 60 years while the Chinese had been producing such works for more than 700 years.
In recent years, restoration efforts have led to a resurgence of the enamel industry in Hue.
The main contributors, who all share a passion to restore the art form, found different paths to decode the secrets of the art of making enamelled decorations. They are Dr Nguyen Nhan Duc of the Hue Medical University, Dr Do Huu Triet from the Hue Relics Preservation Centre, and engineer Tran Dinh Hiep of the Hue Ancient Ceramic Production Enterprise.
They say the lack of documents describing phap lam techniques used during the Nguyen Dynasty has hindered restoration efforts.
Duc’s interest in the art form began when he and his friends visited the tomb of King Minh Mang 10 years ago. After talking with a contractor responsible for restoring the relics there, Duc decided that phap lam must be revived.
"After the trip, I began studying and became enthralled by the art form. I sought all the documents I could about phap lam and went to many places, including China, to learn about the art," he says.
"In 1998, I did my first experiments, and after two years of trial production, I finally made the first finished enamelled product in 2001."
In 2003, Duc registered with the Thua Thien-Hue Department of Science and Technology so he could conduct research on the production of enamelware with the aim of restoring the royal structures in Hue.
"I decided to make painted enamel for exterior decoration since this kind of phap lam is also very splendid and durable," he says.
Because he lacked the requisite professional knowledge, Duc found it difficult to identify the proper techniques. "I cannot count the amount of money, labour and other losses that I invested, but I didn’t mention it at the time. What I paid attention to was how to make large painted enamels that could be used to replace eroded ones at the historic sites," he recalls.
"Luckily, the preservation centre recognised the importance as well as the feasibility of our project so they gave us spiritual and material support. This has provided us with opportunities to produce all kinds of enamelware necessary for restoration."
Duc did most of the work himself, from building kilns to mixing enamels for firing. Most of it was done manually.
"The colours were very difficult to imitate. So creating a new enamelware that was a dead ringer for the old one was a really hard job," he said. "We sometimes had to redo it five or even 10 times."
Duc and his collaborators’ ceaseless efforts have finally paid off. His painted enamelware has been recognised by the provincial science council and the preservation centre, which use them for the restoration of Hue’s royal relics.
Significantly, the costs for domestically painted enamel for decoration was only one-tenth of that of similar products that had been ordered from China.
In 2006, the first painted enamel pieces for the restoration of the two Phuong Mon (gateways) of the Trung Dao Bridge were completed. Phap lam work on the Nhat Tinh and Nguyet Anh gates behind the Thai Hoa Palace ended two years later.
"The most interesting thing for me is when I see my phap lam works in films and TV or when I take my friends from afar to visit Hue," Duc says. "I also feel very proud of my contribution to the restoration of relics in the royal city, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site."
Do Huu Triet, supervisor of restoration projects at the Hue Relic Preservation Centre, has also helped to revive phap lam. After he began studying the art form, he fell in love with it and recognised its importance to restoring relics in Hue.
"When I began studying it in 1997, I was considered a pioneer at that time," he says. "My desire is not only to make enamelwork for restoration, but also create new fine art products."
"My main pieces are fine art and handicrafts, all of which are made by hand with different techniques. They include folk paintings, decorative patterns on various products and many other souvenirs," Triet says.
He agrees that the biggest hindrance for phap lam restorers includes costly materials as well as a shortage of skilled workers and technical documents.
"I see that the Hue traditional enamelling industry has a great potential to develop in the future," he says. "Its recovery would help restore royal relics and develop local fine arts and tourism. My products are favoured by many tourists."
Over the last six years, Tran Dinh Hiep, another researcher, has conducted thousands of experiments during his research of phap lam techniques.
"We are producing enamelware that must have Hue characteristics and are popular with everyone. In other words, they should be everyday products but not noble ones," Hiep says.
Phan Thanh Hai, deputy director of the preservation centre, says the restoration of phap lam, which has contributed greatly to the handicraft industry in Viet Nam, is of great significance since many enamel works on royal relics were destroyed by time and war.
"We greatly admire phap lam restorers’ efforts as well as their new enamelwares because they’ve made very important contributions to restoring a precious cultural heritage of Hue. Their initial successes also prove that the Hue phap lam industry will flourish in the future," Hai said.
"We have plans to continue developing the traditional industry to serve relic restoration, and to turn Hue enamelware into a unique tourist product."
The restoration of phap lam and the work of preservationists has also helped to inspire a generation of artists.
Dang Thi Minh Hanh, director of the Viet Nam Fashion Design Institute in HCM City, is an admirer of the art form.
"Hue enamelware attracts people thanks to its colours and designs that are not only exquisite but also opulent," she says. "Their colours create beautiful works which have encouraged fashion designers like me. I used phap lam colours and designs to make a Vietnamese ao dai (traditional dress) fashion collection and it was received enthusiastically by many people at the 2004 Hue Festival."