The ancient Catholic village of Kien Lao in Nam Dinh Province is well known for its bronze casting.
Nowadays, it also produces machinery for construction projects across the country.
Mai Van Tan, chairman of Xuan Tien Village (as it is now known), says: “Bell casting has been around for more than 200 years, and there is still room to develop.”
|Kien Lao Church, which was built in 1533, is one of the most beautiful catholic churches in Nam Dinh Province. Photo nhathoconggiao.com|
Village elder Le Van Hao says the craft was founded by Le Van Nghiem, who took the art of casting the famous Dong Son bronze drums in Thanh Hoa to Kien Lao.
The last six generations of the Le Van clan have continued his work and provided stable jobs for local people.
From the youngest generation, Le Van Kha says his workshop produces bells and statues weighing from 0.5-7 tonnes.
“I was born into a bronze casting family, so I know how to fire up the furnace and combine the right ratio of bronze and tin, as well as designing patterns on items such as bells,” Kha says.
|Bell casting has existed in the village for more than 200 years. Photo anninhthudo.vn|
To make a bronze bell, a worker first has to make a mould from clay mixed with rice husks. The mould is then fired to harden it, and while it cools workers design patterns inside before firing it again, he says.
The most important part of the process is the bronze casting itself. Only skilled workers know when the molten metal is ready to pour it in the mould, Kha says.
“We have to work carefully through each stage to ensure quality,” he says.
Thanks to this meticulous process, customers from across the country order his items. Ha Tinh ordered a 5-tonne bell to place at the Dong Loc crossroads, while the Spratly Islands commissioned a 7-tonne bell to hang on the archipelago.
Kha’s younger brother, Le Van Khiem, is an expert in casting bronze statues.
|Cement mixers are also produced by Kien Lao Villagers. Photo daidoanket.vn|
“Kien Lao casts are always high quality thanks to the dedicated workers. The process of polishing the statues is very important to ensure their longevity," Khiem says.
“I still need to improve my skills and accumulate experience every day. That's my secret,” he says.
Painter Tran Hoang from Hanoi says: “People can see the soul in Khiem’s statues of President Ho Chi Minh and village gods, particularly in his Buddha statues that can be found in many pagodas across the country.”
To cast a statue, a worker needs skilled hands and a rich imagination, and more importantly they need to know the correct size, physical form, costumes and characteristics of each statue.
Hoang says he was impressed with Khiem’s Buddha statues because of their expressions of mercy, leniency and sublimity.
Khiem says in most villages, the traditional job is handed down to male heirs, but in Kien Lao, both men and women pursue the job.
Mai Van Hau from the Le Van clan says his workshop have created stable jobs for a dozen workers with monthly salaries of VND6-10 million per person.
“We produce different kinds of bells; some for churches and others for pagodas. Each bell has its own sound. The church bells have a higher pitch while pagoda bell emits a lower tone,” Hau says.
A perfect bell should ensure the right tone, shape and designs, he says.
Hau’s fame has spread far and wide. He has received orders to cast Buddha statues for pagodas and temples throughout the country, including Vang Pagoda in Tam Dao and Thiện Son Pagoda in Vinh Phuc Province, and a statue of national hero Tran Hung Dao for Thang Phuc Pagoda in Hai Phong.
His workshop also cast a bell for Thang Long Citadel for the 1,000th anniversary of the capital city of Hanoi. The bell hangs in Kinh Thien Palace inside the Citadel.
Hau’s three younger brothers all have their own workshops.
One of them, Mai Van Phuong, says: “We are Catholic but we know about Buddha and other religions. We do a lot of research for our work.”
“Even though we are busy with new orders, we are preparing to welcome Christmas by decorating our homes and buying new clothes for the festive church service.” VNS
Ha Nguyen & Hoang Ho
Vietnam is the home of the traditional hand-crafted bronze drum, aged 4000 years.