One of our that su dac biet (supa doopa specials) is A Dream of Red Mansions — a beautifully bound and boxed coffee table-type book, illustrated on each of its 233 pages with watercolour paintings.
The story was initially authored by Cao Xueqin (1715-1763), who was an important court official in the final years of the Kanxi reign of the Qing Dynasty — but who fell from favour into poverty when a new ruler, Emperor Yongzhen, punished his family for supporting a rival in the fight for the throne. In 1744 he began to write Dream, and had finished 80 chapters when he died. The final 40 were written by an unknown court historian, using Cao Xueqin’s preparatory notes.
After the book was published, many artists painted illustrations of its stories and characters in the accepted Chinese realistic style using fine brushwork and bright colours, and the paintings of the artist, Su Wen, are considered to be among the finest. The originals are at the Lushun museum in Liaoning, China.
Coffee Tables, Vietnam-Style
If the above book whets your appetite, Tranh Tho Viet Nam: Vietnamese Ceremonial Paintings will put the icing on the cake. It’s becoming as scarce as hens’ teeth to buy, but a few good used copies are available. It’s another coffee table-sized beauty that is in demand by scholars, art historians and Vietnam-philes alike.
In the late 1990s, three Vietnamese friends decided to try and preserve and collect both antique and modern Vietnamese cultural artifacts. Pham Duc Si was given the task of searching for folk pictures, especially those used in worship by ethnic people. He was also tasked to collect Dong Son and Han pottery — and by 2009, when he published this exceptional book, his collection of pictures was extensive. The majority Kinh people are well represented as are the Cao Lan, San Chi, Dao, San Diu, Tay and Nung. A small collection of wonderful wooden masks used by the Dao Ho completes the handsome book.
The deities in the pictures are from the Taoist belief system practised in northern regions of Vietnam, where Taoists painted deities instead of erecting statues to them, as was the Chinese practice. In the past 60 years the process of modernisation has resulted in the loss or sale of many of the pictures, and they are no longer painted. Thus Pham Duc Si’s collection is vitally important.
A Bumper Crop of Cookbooks
Collectors of another kind — those that like to stare at glossy food pictures — have had a bumper year with the release of several coffee table-type food tomes about Vietnamese food. One of the most famous Vietnamese-oriented food writers is the handsome and gregarious Luke Nguyen, whose books on regional food are runaway bestsellers.
Luke is now seen everywhere that good local food is grown, cooked, experimented with and talked about in Vietnam and, increasingly, internationally. However, most of his legion of fans are not aware of the book that started it all way back in 2007, Secrets of the Red Lantern, which is named after the Nguyen family’s very upmarket Vietnamese restaurant in Sydney, Australia.
The book was authored by Luke’s sister Pauline with the assistance of her Australian husband, and chronicles the Nguyen family’s emigration in a leaky boat to Australia via Malaysia in the turbulent 1970s.
What made the book so popular with food porn addicts — and the reason it was awarded the Best Asian Cookbook award in 2008 — were the recipes by Luke. Thus his stellar career was launched and shows no sign of deflating in the near future.
For the Youngin’s
Parents of littlies who haven’t discovered the delightful books by Oliver Jeffers are doing their offspring a disfavour. Jeffers is considered to be one of the most original and imaginative children’s book writers and artists of our time, with several books bound to become all-time classics in the canon of kids’ literature. If you haven’t come across any yet, try his 2012 book This Moose Belongs to Me and be transported. His latest is Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All Letters. Its quirky, alliterative and sometimes irreverent tales belong on all home and pre-school bookshelves.
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