Pham Van Quang’s woodworking shop, tucked into an inconspicuous nook of the Old Quarter, is just big enough to fit a worktable, lawn chair, rice cooker and a handful of worn chisels.
His creations — hand-carved wooden cookie and mooncake moulds in ornate shapes — line the walls and dangle from the entryway.
Located on Hang Quat near the intersection with Hang Hom, his shop is close to the backpacker district, but Quang said he seldom sees tourists in his shop. These days, most of his customers are wedding planners, bakers and fortune-tellers who use his products for a number of traditional events.
But his craft is a dying art, he said, lamenting the fact that few people seem to know the meaning behind the images of fish, turtles and auspicious Chinese symbols that he painstakingly etches into solid blocks of wood.
Hang Quat has retained its reputation as a woodworking street, but many other craftsmen have gone out of business due to the decline in demand.
“The other areas, they can’t survive with this job,” he said.
Some of Quang’s smaller moulds are used to make mooncakes, traditional treats that are served during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Moulds of Chinese symbols meaning happiness and longevity are used for weddings, while other moulds are used for funerals and a number of festivals.
For 60-year-old Quang, who inherited the trade from his father, woodworking is more than just an occupation. It’s an act of cultural preservation.
“A lot of people make demands for products, but they don’t really understand the products, they don’t know the culture,” he said.
A traditionalist to the core, he knows the history and folklore behind each symbol. He occasionally consults a couple of illustrated astrology books while designing stamps for fortune-tellers, which are the tools of their trade, just as the chisel is for Quang’s work.
Every detail is crucial, he said while describing a fellow woodworker who botched a product that featured the traditional Vietnamese symbol of two dragons facing a sun and moon.
“The dragons must be below the sun and moon, but here they made it higher. You know why? Because without the sun, there is no life, there is no religion… and we need to respect the sun,” he said.
The Here and Now
In addition to cookie cutters and stamps, Quang also makes altars for ancestor worship and takes orders for customised products. When asked about the future viability of his business amid declining demand, Quang said he couldn’t think about it — he could only focus on the here and now.
He said his trade is a job like any other, but it also requires skill and passion.
“It’s to make a living. Secondly, if you don’t like this job, you’ll never get anything from this job,” he said. “If you go to work and choose this job, you must like what you do.”