Friday, May 3, 2013


                                                               by Jim Goodman

Hàng Bạc decorations
     Hanoi’s Old Quarter originated with the establishment of the city as the national capital just over a thousand years ago.  Between the Red River and the royal citadel, this was the part of the city where the commoners lived, providing craft products and other services for the royal court, and in time for the expanding city’s residents.  By the 15th century the Old Quarter was organized into 36 guilds, each specializing in a single product, divided into wards about two blocks long, named after the item produced there, and featured gates at each end, locked and manned by sentries at dark. 
    Even today the Old Quarter still retains much of its ancient organization.  Most streets begin with word Hàng, which translates as goods or merchandise.  Many of them are still dominated by shops selling the product the street was named for, such as Hàng Thiềc, named after its tinsmiths, while on some streets only a few shops still market the designated product.  Others have switched products.  No cooking oil (dầu) can be found on Hàng Dầu, but now all the shops there sell footwear.  You can’t find any Chinese medicine on Thuốc Bắc, but that’s where you go to buy locks and other hardware.  No bamboo is for sale on Bamboo Street (Hàng Tre).  Now you find it on Cloth Street (Hàng Vải).  So the system more or less remains.  Hanoi residents buy products street by street, rather than at a big shopping mall, which is anyway several kilometers from the Old Quarter and a relatively recent addition to the city.
Hàng Bạc decorations
    One of the best known and most typical of the Old Quarter streets is Hang Bạc, or Silver Street, still full of jewelry shops and money changers.  It got its name in the late 15th century when a Court mandarin secured a royal commission to set up a silver bullion workshop in this ward.  He then invited his fellow villagers from Châu Khê, in Hải Dương province, to settle and work there.  They were later joined by migrants from Định Công, near the capital, and goldsmiths from Đồng Sâm, in Thái Binh province.
    As was the norm elsewhere in the Old Quarter wards, when villagers moved into the capital to live and work they maintained relations with their original villages by erecting a communal house (đình) in the ward, just like in their villages, to honor the tutelary god of their former village.  The village đình was the focus of religious and social activities for the people, where village elders adjudicated disputes, organized the periodic redistribution of land and managed the annual festivals.  The tutelary god, the village protector, was often a military hero who fought Chinese invaders, but could also be, in craft villages, the person who introduced the craft.
      Silver Street residents built a đình in honor of Hiên Viên, the legendary father of all crafts, and located it first around the corner in a side alley, then moved it to the upper part of Hàng Bạc, calling it Đình Kim Ngân.  When Huế became the capital after 1802 the ward lost its bullion-making contract, so the residents got into the jewelry business, if they weren’t already, and currency exchange, which continued throughout the colonial period.  And Đình Kim Ngân remained the cultural focus of the ward.
Hàng Bạc procession
    After 1954, though, the government, faced with a severe housing shortage in the capital, allowed several families to take up residence in the đình’s compound.  It had already lost its spiritual significance, for during the anti-French struggle Đình Kim Ngân was used by the Việt Minh to teach people quốc ngũ, the Romanized alphabet for the Vietnamese language, and to organize resistance campaigns.  For the next fifty years the number of people residing in the compound continued to increase. 
    Then in 2009, as part of the official attention to the country’s heritage, with Hanoi’s 1000 years anniversary due the following year, the government put Đình Kim Ngân on the list of places to renovate and restore to their original functions.  And so 83 people from 25 families had to move out.  The work was finally finished in 2012 and the compound employed to host thrice-weekly performances of ca trù, a traditional singing style that originated in the early 15th century and has recently been recognized as part of the world’s intangible heritage.
    The actual dedication and official re-opening of the đình, however, did not happen until the last week of March, 2013.  During these days large yellow paper lanterns and Buddhist flags lined both sides of Hàng Bạc, silver and white silk floss flowers were attached to tree branches and utility poles and Đình Kim Ngân’s compound was turned into an exhibition of traditional Vietnamese culture. In the front courtyard stood six huge gilt guardian statues, three to a side, with a chandelier of crescent-shaped metal gongs, oversized old square-holed coins and streamers of golden thread suspended above the yard.  Flanking the entrance to the sanctuary were outstanding examples of carved wooden panels and cabinets lavishly inlaid with mother-of-pearl.
lacquer ware display
carved lamp housing
     Just inside the sanctuary were a collection of old coins on the right and of silver jewelry, still a Hàng Bạc specialty, on the left.  Next to the coins were samples of outstanding ceramic wares, while next to the opposite wall were lacquered tumblers, goblets and vases, beneath a low-relief, gilt carving of a classical lute player.  In front of the altar was a carved wooden platform holding silver mugs, candlesticks and sculptures of phoenixes.  Yellow silk lanterns flanked the altar, the same kind that hung along each side of the street outside.  The walls behind the sanctuary displayed more handicraft art—carved wooden lanterns hanging from dragons and low relief carvings of traditional domestic life.

lion dancers
    At dusk on the last Friday of March participants from the three associated villages assembled for a grand procession to and past the đình.  Dressed in traditional silk festival garments, in ranks of men, women or school children, under their village banners, the participants advanced slowly down Hàng Bạc towards the đình.  They carried elaborately carved palanquins bearing traditional offerings like fruits and nuts and more recent products like canned soft drinks and packaged noodles.  Behind them came the huge drum and big metal gong, both mounted on wheeled carts.  The people in the procession flanked them and made their way forward to the đình entrance.  Just as they got close a dragon dance team emerged from within the compound and cavorted up and down the street between the procession lines. 
   Three lion dancers followed them and both entertained the participants, as well as the hordes of spectators hemmed in on both sides of the street, for about twenty minutes.  Then they marched to the front of the ranks and the procession continued to the end of Hàng Bạc.
    The displays inside the compound stayed in place over the weekend, but on Monday folks began dismantling them and returning them to their place of origin.  The guardian statues went back to Sơn Đồng village in Hoái Đức district, about twenty km west, the silver or coin collections back to their owners, etc The decorations on Hàng Bạc remained up a few more days.  Then, stripped down to its essentials, Đình Kim Ngân returned to its new role as the venue for ca trù music performances, thus continuing to play its part in the preservation of traditional Vietnamese culture. 
traditional handicrafts workshop

No comments:

Post a Comment