Life’s mission: preserving central region’s wooden houses

The famous old town of Hội An stands unaffected by the creation of another old town nearby, this one ‘virtual,’ which has been open to visitors since 2002.

The new “town” has 18 wooden houses and 15 other wooden structures, and is a museum of traditional architectural styles from different parts of the country.

But the more interesting aspect is that it owes its existence to the extraordinary passion of an ordinary carpenter.

Lê Văn Tăng, a former local officer and the third generation of a carpenter’s family from the once-renowned Kim Bồng Carpentery Village, quit his job 16 years ago, wanting to do something about wooden houses in his locality, which had more than 400 of them over 150 years old, falling into disrepair because of harsh weather conditions and the lack of money needed to preserve them.

Tăng watched in pain as several such old houses were pulled down by the owners because the expense for restoring them was five to six times the costs incurred to build a new concrete house.

The expense for restoring these houses was five to six times the costs incurred to build a new concrete house

“Penniless, my wildest dream was to have money to buy all those dismantled buildings for restoration later.”

Recalled Tăng, who then took a big risk by borrowing two million dong (which is worth more than 40 million dong at the present time) to buy a house in  Binh Nam Commune.

On the third morning after he had reassembled and repaired the house in his front yard, the carpenter and his two helpers were approached by three men who came in their car.

“They asked me to sell the wooden house for six million dong, but I said no.”

Tăng said.

The men returned in the afternoon and doubled their original offer, but they were turned down again.

“The next morning they came back the third time with VND28 million, and cold sweat broke out.

I had never thought that the house could be sold for such a high price.

This time, of course I said yes.”

The profit from the deal set Tăng off, hunting other houses that he could restore.

He traveled from Quảng Nam to other neighboring provinces to look for houses in both bad and good conditions.

When he came across well-preserved wooden houses, the carpenter asked the owners’ permission to study their homes, including copying sophisticated patterns with carbon papers, taking notes on their history and structure.

On the other hand, he was willing to pay money for houses even in badly dilapidated conditions because they could provide useful materials to save other houses in future.

In some instances he was willing to buy a whole house because of a single beautiful piece that he could salvage.

The artisan’s experience, which enables him to tell the age or origin of a wooden building even after it has been pulled down, has helped his work greatly.

Tăng, who along with his son leads a team of dozens of craftsmen and sculptors, said a house, even after being well restored, is at just 50 to 60 percent of its original condition, because it is impossible to find skillful, talented artisans as in the past.

(He has opened a 3,000-square-meter workshop for 300 local carpenters and sculptors from Vân Hà and Kim Bồng villages in Quảng Nam Province to promote the craft.)

Tăng and his men, however, amazed the Ong family in Huế after they successfully replaced the whole rotten frame of the temple dedicated to worshipping their ancestor Ông Ích Khiêm (1831 – 1884), who served as a general under the Nguyễn Dynasty, without removing the structure’s roof and tiles.

Since 1997, Tăng has helped restore a countless number of old houses from the north to the south.

Tăng said a 4-story French style wooden house belonging to áo dài designer Sĩ Hoàng was the most difficult case because of exacting demands from the client.

It took 40 carpenters six months in 2000 to restore the 140-year-old house, which is now located at 36-38 Lý Tự Trọng Street in Hồ Chí Minh City’s District 1.

To move a house from its original location is the last thing Tăng wants to do, but it is still better than seeing it being destroyed by the wear and tear of time and/or the lack of money.

“The best thing is to restore the structure back to its original state, before handing it over to those who are really interested and can afford it.”

Tăng’s eldest son Lê Văn Vinh, director of Vinahouse Space, the company that was set up to fulfill the carpenter’s vision, said that it often takes years to convince the owner to sell her or his house.

“Only when the house is seriously damaged and the family is not able to have it repaired will they agree with us.”

Said Vinh, who has accompanied his father since he was a teenager.

However, Tăng said that the secret to his success, however, is being devoted and doing good deeds, both for the building and its owner.

He said they are not afraid to travel to a mountainous area just to repair a small detail; or offer lower restoration charges to enable owners to hold on to their ancestral heritage.

Even when a house is purchased, it is a long process, Tăng said, since he voluntarily builds a new house for the seller as payment, attends the housewarming ceremony and chooses an auspicious day to install the new family altar, before taking the old one.

“Most of those who have no other choice but sell their houses are needy and lack knowledge (about their houses’ real value), so who else but us to help them to settle down?”

Source: Thanh Niên News

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