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Paper Chase

By: Brian Webb - photos by Nick Ross Posted: June-21-2009 in
Mr Dieu, one of the few still making traditional paper - photo Nick Ross
Brian Webb - photos by Nick Ross

A Rare Look into Paper Making
The Dieu family is one of the few remaining households that stick to this old art. Not accustomed to curiosity from outsiders, it took several phone calls before Mr Dieu opened his gates to us. But once he did, it was immediately obvious how non-industrial their process is. Every part of the house and every available family member is devoted to some stage of the production.

His wife stands just at the entrance dipping a bamboo screen into a large vat of pulpy water, expertly extracting the film as a sheet is added to the stack. When asked how it is that these sheets do not dry as a big clump, he just smiles and replies, “Trade secret.”

At the same time his mother sits in the living room on a wooden stool three inches above the ground separating the dried sheets.

An Art
Once convinced the aim of the visit wasn’t industrial espionage, Dieu took great pride in showing off what he does. One destination for his paper is gift shops around Hanoi, and for them he makes attractive notebooks made up of unbleached paper, bound together with bamboo slats and tied simply together with various leaves embedded into the sheets.

Another one of his specialities are ultra-thin sheets of paper that are as sheer as lace. These, in particular, take a great amount of skill to make. Looking at these sheets in wonder, one of our group, Elizabeth Briel is surprised. An American writer and artist who is working on a book to be called The Paper Apprentice, she has come to Hanoi to visit Dong Cao village and catch a glimpse of this ancient and unique form of making paper.

“Paper makers work really hard to get paper that thin,” she says. “They usually can’t do it.”

There’s one particular use for do paper that is probably familiar (if overlooked) to those versed in the Vietnamese arts. Long used for Dong Ho woodblock prints – fittingly, the village of Dong Ho is just a short ride away – Dong Ho-style painting is an art form unique to Vietnam. Its equivalent elsewhere can be found in the Japanese art of making woodblock prints.

From Bark to Paper
The actual making of the paper is quite simple, but requires a great amount of skill. The first step is to select the tree bark.

“The trees have to be young trees,” explains Dieu.

The bark is then soaked in a pond for 30 hours before being split. The inside part is used for the highest quality paper. After this they stamp on the soaked bark with their feet “until it’s clear.” Then the bark is broken down into pulp. This seems to be one of the few aspects that has become mechanised over the years, although Dieu doesn’t say clearly what machine he uses. Another trade secret.

“We used to use a mortar and pestle, but the paper would fly everywhere and we’d have to pick it up,” he says. “So now we use a machine for this.”

After adding a thickener derived from another tree, the pulp is filtered with a screen to make it into sheets.

An End to Tradition
The few families that still specialise in the trade have passed down their technical know-how from generation to generation. When asked how long his family has been living and working in the same location, Dieu’s face takes on a look of puzzlement. “A long, long time,” he says. “I know that my family has been making paper since 1453.”

Sadly, this practice may not continue much longer. The Dieu family has three sons ranging in age from 30 to 50, but none has chosen to continue the family business. They have each ventured into the more lucrative and less tedious enterprise of recycling.

Before leaving, he points to one of the square columns of paper in his house with a smile. “Look,” he says, “each one is different.”

And indeed, on close inspection, two sheets of paper cannot be found which are exactly alike. Uniqueness, quite a beautiful thing actually. It reminds you of how lucky it is to be in a place where such things haven’t vanished completely.

This article 1st appeared in Word HCMC


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