The disappearing art of calligraphy….

Hai is a calligrapher. Here is how his days go: From 9am to 7pm, he sits in his usual spot on a small plastic chair at the corner of Dien Bien Phu and Truong Dinh in District 3 where he draws, writes and sells his creations to tourists, passers-by or to the odd nostalgic connoisseur of fine calligraphic arts.

He does this every day, Monday to Sunday, the same thing over and over again for the last nine years. Among the incredibly small and ever-shrinking community of full-time calligraphers in HCMC, he’s known as one of the oldest and most experienced artists of the trade.

However, Hai looks nothing like a stereotypical calligrapher. He doesn’t wear the traditional black and white ao dai that has long since become the calligrapher’s uniform in Vietnamese society. He doesn’t even own one. He’s not a thin 50-something, respectable-looking old man with a full white beard. He’s only 34, brown and scruffy, slightly on the portly side with scraggy, swirly hairs where his beard should be, and while he does look mildly easy on the eyes, his looks in no way scream respectable.

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“When you go to a Tet flower show or when you want to get a lucky word for the coming year, you are not actually looking for a piece of art or to understand the true meaning of a word. You are actually looking for an experience. So the people in those places give you the experience you want. They do that by wearing the clothes you expect them to wear and appear the way you want them to look,” he explains of his attire. “I’m not selling anything like that. I’m just a guy doing what I like for people who like the same things I do.”

Words to live By
Hai’s love affair with the art of writing began during Tet 1999. He was 19 then and a student at Cao Thang College of Technology and Engineering. “One day I went to the night flower market in Tao Dan. They still hold it now. There were lots of calligraphers there that night. The first thing I saw were two verses from a poem by the Buddhist monk Man Giac and it goes like this: Cho bao xuan tan hoa rung het. Dem qua san truoc mot nhanh mai. (“Do not say that when spring passes all the flowers leave. In the courtyard last night, one still blooms.”) These two verses came from the last poem Man Giac uttered right before he died. The last line, “a single apricot blossom,” was later used to name a Vietnamese princess.

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“That was the first time I ever saw a true piece of calligraphic art,” says Hai. “Despite my preconceptions, it wasn’t some big, lofty statement or words of grandiose wisdom. It was just this incredibly gentle, seemingly whimsical poem. But at the same time there was power and layers of meaning in it. “Beneath the flowers” is actually talking about the human will to persevere against the hardship of life. It’s saying that all things have an intrinsic worth and despite how the world may change, there comes a time when things return to their original values. There’s so much more to it. It amazed me that a few short sentences can impart such wealth of wisdom, that there is such weight and depth to each word. These are not the empty, hollow vessels spewn forth every day by society. Even now, I still feel like there’s yet another layer of meaning so profound that I haven’t been able to grasp.”

From then, he trained under an artist while also learning on his own through books and constant practice. The first ‘shop’ he opened was on Dien Bien Phu Street in 2005, a few years after graduating from college. “There’s no story behind it. No drama or big scoop. I just went from being a tech student to being an artist-in-training. Everybody has a calling in life. Mine is calligraphy.”

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In 2009 he moved to where he is now and shared the street and one storeroom, (borrowed from the Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Public High School) with four other older, more experienced calligraphers.

“This street back in the day was known as ‘the calligraphy street.’ People used to call it the go-to place for all things calligraphy. The press has come here. Newspapers have come here. TV shows. A couple of them were foreign, too. I have met my share of journalists and reporters before you,” adds Hai.

In early 2013, things took a turn for the worse when the high school reclaimed its storeroom and wall space, prompting the gradual departure of the other four artists. Hai is now the last of his group. “It’s tough to make it as a calligrapher. It’s not a very modern art. It’s outdated, out of fashion, and fans are dwindling. It has to compete with younger, mass-produced ‘art’ like cross stitch paintings. Something so small like having no place to store your supplies can put you out of business. It really is a job you can only do if you truly love it.”

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When asked whether he is allowed to continue to stay in the same corner, Hai is unsure. “For all I know, they may just boot me off their curb tomorrow.” But he does not particularly mind either. “If that happens, I’ll go home and keep doing what I love. Things come and go, and some days they come back again. In this tumultuous world, I believe that there will come a time when things return to their original value.”

Images by Ngoc Tran