It was back in 1990 when 26-year-old Bai took over the family-owned business after his elder brother moved to the US to start a new life. At the time, his Le Cong Kieu antiques store was showing promise of being lucrative.
A collector himself, at one stage Bai had amassed enough rare old Vietnamese currency in dong and piastres that when counted, he recalls it was valued somewhere between US$15,000 and US$20,000. A lot of money for most young men at any time.
In what is a common story in Vietnam, where family responsibility is regarded as all-important, Bai sold his collection to take care of his family. He points out his daughter who is sitting at the back of the shop, and speaks fondly of her and how she helps him out from time to time when she’s not at school.
“As well as helping me out sometimes, she’s already running her own online shoe shop,” he says. “But I don’t know if she wants to continue the family business.”
In the Name of Progress
Now 52, Bai spends much of his day sitting behind the front counter of his shop in a small chair, checking his Facebook feed and keeping an eye on the trickle of customers wandering through to look at his wares.
“Over the last three years we’ve had few customers,” he says. “My customers are mostly dealers looking for real antiques. The tourists only look for cheap things.”
And while he thinks he will never retire and hopes to sit in the same plastic red chair for the rest of his life and do exactly the same thing he’s been doing for the past 26 years, Bai admits that the life he hopes for could come to an end at any time if, or more likely when, Le Cong Kieu is redeveloped.
“I’ve heard rumours that the area may be redeveloped once the block across the street is finished,” he says, in reference to the development behind Ben Thanh Bus Station.
Yet, Bai remains unconcerned because he’s been living for a long time with the spectre of forced relocation from the shop his family has owned since 1985.
“I’m not worried about it. We’ll just relocate if that happens,” he says.
Still, it’s hard to tell if Bai is being fully truthful or not. After all, this is a man who deals in histories, but appears apathetic towards his own and is seemingly comfortable with the thought that his life’s work could be levelled in an instant. Having said that, most of what’s dear to his heart is kept safely away at his home at another location.
Bai goes on to say he doesn’t know the history behind the many things he has filling his shop, nor does he see the need to charm potential customers with a back story behind each piece.
As the interview continues, it becomes increasingly clearer that the traders in this street don’t concern themselves with gaining the emotional investment of would-be buyers, where an item that comes with a story helps push up its potential value. Rather, if a customer is prepared to pay whatever both parties are happy with, then that’s enough.
“I don’t have a strategy for sales and I don’t push my customers to buy,” he says.
Bai also says he doesn’t use the internet to keep abreast of the antiques industry and fluctuating prices, which is somewhat surprising, given the disruption technology continues to make in the retail sector globally. He says he relies on his face-to-face networks built up over the years and that his biggest markets are in Singapore and Hong Kong. Although one regular customer he is at pains to discuss is from the US, who has come into his shop every six months over the past seven years to buy old photographs.
“Over the years he’s bought between 200 and 300kgs of photographs, but I don’t know why. He says he just collects them,” says Bai. Currently, Bai sells the photographs for US$1 (VND22,000) each.
Indeed, some of Bai's more interesting curiosities are the black-and-white photographs, mostly from the 1950s to the 1970s, of families holidaying at the beach in Vung Tau, couples on their wedding day, dapper young men touring France, businessmen lunching at restaurants, and lovers’ studio portraits with written declarations of love and friendship on the back in ballpoint pen.
The Real Deal?
One thing that Antiques Street lacks is provenance — the magic word that tells you that what you're buying is the real thing. Here, you can’t be sure that what you’re holding onto really is an authentic piece of Ming Dynasty ceramic salvaged from a shipwreck off the coast of Vung Tau. Rumours abound along the street that much of what’s on sale is fake or at least “recycled”; a term that’s sometimes used to describe a piece that’s been renovated, deliberately aged, or touched up.
“Some shops sell fakes,” says Dinh, a 62-year-old trader who was born on Le Cong Kieu and has owned his shop since 1985. “I have authentic and recycled items from shipwrecks off the Vietnamese coast.”
Dinh says that most of his customers are foreign, too, mostly Chinese dealers buying up increasingly rare Ming Dynasty antiques and selling them back to wealthy mainland Chinese for a good profit.
“I believe they are buying them mostly because they can make good money on them back in China,” he says. “They are also buying back some of what they see as their history and this costs money.”
But don’t expect to find these rarities in shops along Le Cong Kieu. It’s apparent that as soon as anything of historic value is unearthed from a dig or raised to the surface from the ocean floor, the network of buyers and sellers lights up as the finder, often a fisherman, places a call to their contacts and, as they say, the rest is history.
Much of Vietnam’s history has never been made accessible to the general public, as antiques often don’t find their way into museums for display, being sold on the black market to foreign dealers before the authorities find out.
However, probably the biggest threat to the future of Antiques Street is the difficulty traders are having in convincing their children to continue the family business. Bai can’t be sure what future his daughter wishes to choose, while Dinh already knows that the future of his shop doesn’t look good.
“I have three sons who don’t want to take over from me,” he laments. “One of my sons lives in Australia and says he’ll sell the shop once I die.”
Dinh’s biggest hope for his shop is that his two remaining unmarried sons will marry someone who’s interested in taking over the business. That’s if, indeed, Le Cong Kieu survives and isn’t relegated to the annals of history itself.
Le Cong Kieu (Antiques Street) is located behind Ham Nghi just a short walk from Ben Thanh Market in District 1, HCMC