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Ho Chi Minh City couple bring traditional lantern to global audience

Thursday, September 28, 2023, 14:32 GMT+7
Ho Chi Minh City couple bring traditional lantern to global audience
Khoi Dang Tac Khi’s Ly Ngu Hoa Long (Carp Leaping over the Dragon Gate). The lantern measures 62x38x62 centimeters. Photo: Minh Chau

At Khoi Dang Tac Khi, a lantern workshop where old-fashioned Mid-Autumn Festival lanterns are crafted for and promoted to customers from around the globe, Nguyen Thi Kim Thuy, 31, and her husband are busy preparing for the occasion.

Founded in 2022, Khoi Dang Tac Khi refers to the sound of a beating drum on a battlefield. 

Though the workshop was only launched in Ho Chi Minh City last year, Thuy has been working with lanterns since 2018 when she came across photos of people hanging traditional lanterns on the streets of Hanoi in the 1920s to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival.

The Mid-Autumn Festival, which is celebrated by many Asian countries including Vietnam, is due on the 15th day of the eighth month in the lunar calendar.

It is a tradition for children to carry lanterns, chant traditional moon-welcoming songs, and play traditional games.

Seeing those pictures of the old days, Thuy was deeply impressed with the sophisticated and exquisite lanterns which resemble animals and nature such as fish, crabs, butterflies, and the moon.

“The Mid-Autumn Festival season is when many of the nation's cultural characteristics should be most clearly shown. Nowadays, people put little effort into celebrating as our culture is increasingly commercialized,” Thuy said.

“I wonder if young people, like my children, will remember anything about our culture or history.”

Nguyen Thi Kim Thuy carries a gigantic lantern in one hand while cradling her toddler in the other. Photo: Khoi Dang Tac Khi

Nguyen Thi Kim Thuy carries a gigantic lantern in one hand while cradling her toddler in the other. Photo provided by Khoi Dang Tac Khi

Thuy’s mission with Khoi Dang Tac Khi is to ensure Vietnam’s traditions are carried on by future generations and introduced to the world – a task particularly difficult given the fact that she has no mentor and most of her designs and techniques are self taught from pictures that are decades old.

4 stages, 31 hours

Normally, it takes at least 31 hours for a lantern artisan to finish a project.  

The process of shaping the frame takes about nine hours. 

In the early days of the workshop, Thuy and her husband experimented with both rattan and bamboo for the frame. Eventually, they settled on using Phyllostachys, an Asian type of bamboo.

“We use heat to create curves from stiff sticks, then attach them together to make circles. We can use those circles to create fish and crab lanterns,” Thuy said.

The next step in the process is gluing glass paper onto the frame.

Khoi Dang Tac Khi co-founder Nguyen Thi Kim Thuy glues glass paper onto the curve of a fish lantern at her workshop . Photo: Minh Chau / Tuoi Tre News

Khoi Dang Tac Khi co-founder Nguyen Thi Kim Thuy glues glass paper onto the curve of a fish lantern at her workshop in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Minh Chau

It usually takes 4-6 hours for craftsmen to carefully stretch and glue each piece of glass paper onto the frame. 

This step is crucial and requires meticulousness. One misstep and the glass paper can tear or become wrinkled, making it impossible to paint the lantern.

A lantern maker removes excess material while applying colored glass paper to a curved frame. Photo: Minh Chau / Tuoi Tre News

A lantern maker removes excess material while applying colored glass paper to a curved frame. Photo: Minh Chau

Once the glass paper dries for 16-20 hours, artisans begin painting the lantern. 

Lanterns are left to dry after being covered with glass paper. Photo: Minh Chau / Tuoi Tre

Lanterns are left to dry after being covered with glass paper. Photo: Minh Chau

Lantern makers apply paint to glass paper. Photo by courtesy of Khoi Dang Tac Khi

Lantern makers apply paint to glass paper. Photo courtesy of Khoi Dang Tac Khi

Finally, the remaining parts are attached to the main body, everything is aligned, and a string is glued to the lantern. 

Each lantern is a different size. 

A crab is typically 80x80x90cm while a fish is often 160x130x189cm.

'Made-in Vietnam' lanterns go global

Khoi Dang Tac Khi does not target a specific market segment, but its customers are generally people who love tradition and culture.

The workshop is open all year, but its busy season is typically the days and weeks prior to the Mid-Autumn Festival. 

A lantern from the workshop can sell for anything between hundreds of thousands to seven million Vietnamese dong. (US$1 = VND24,400)

This lantern, named Cu giai (crab) by Khoi Dang Tac Khi sold for VND5,830,000 (US$239). Photo: Khoi Dang Tac Khi

This lantern, named Cu Giai (Crab) by Khoi Dang Tac Khi, sold for VND5,830,000 ($239). Photo: Khoi Dang Tac Khi

“We have received about 100 domestic and 10 foreign orders so far this year,” Thuy said. 

“In the past, our customers were mainly businesses, but recently the number of individual purchasers has increased 400 percent compared to last year.”

This year, many of Khoi Dang Tac Khi’s customers are households, individuals who purchase the lanterns as gifts for foreign friends, shops, and tourist attractions in need of decorations.  

There are also artists who collaborate with Thuy and the workshop to create truly unique pieces.

Early this month, Bau Cua Vui Hoi, a costume designed by fashion designer Truong Tan Linh and adorned with lanterns made by Khoi Dang Tac Khi, won the Best National Costume at the Mrs. Celebrity International 2023 beauty pageant in Malaysia.

A photo fashion designer Truong Tan Linh posts on his Facebook account to annouce Bau Cua Vui Hoi won Best National Costume at the Mrs Celebrity International 2023 beauty pageant.

A photo fashion designer Truong Tan Linh posts on his Facebook account to annouce Bau Cua Vui Hoi winning the Best National Costume at the Mrs Celebrity International 2023 beauty pageant in Malaysia.

"We are very proud to have contributed to promoting Vietnam's tradition and culture abroad,” Thuy said.

According to Thuy, the workshop has just finished an order for the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to send to countries around the world in order to promote Vietnamese culture. 

“A female customer just ordered a number of lanterns for her exhibition space in Taiwan,” Thuy added.

Thuy and her husband also plan to organize workshops to teach young people how to craft old-school Vietnamese lanterns. 

Khoi Dang Tac Khi’s available lanterns recreated from those used by Vietnamese in the past. Photo: Khoi Dang Tac Khi

Khoi Dang Tac Khi’s available lanterns recreated from those used by Vietnamese in the past. Photo: Khoi Dang Tac Khi

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Minh Chau / Tuoi Tre News

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