Hanoi is the center attracting quintessencenationwide: Painter Le ThietCuong

Thứ tư - 11/07/2018 08:14
logochuan - I met Painter Le ThietCuong at No.39 Ly Quoc Su Street right after the 12th anniversary of Gallery 39. This is the only gallery working on the non-profit basis in Vietnam.It is hard to believe that for the past 12 years, Cuong has held 60 events there. It is worth mentioning the fact that of those 60 events Cuongreserved most for his friends, who organizedpainting exhibitions, book debuts, etc. According to Cuong, that is his“hobby.”However, how to keep a hobby is a long story to tell.

+ As we are talking about hobbies, let me ask where your hobbies came from?

Let me tell you this story. A few days ago, TuoiTre (Youth) Newspaper posted an article introducing the newly-reprinted memoir of Madam Hoang Thi The. Madam Hoang ThiThe is a daughter of National Hero Hoang HoaTham. I mention this memoir because I once met her more than half a century ago when she just came back to Vietnam from France. She was afriend of my paternal grandfather. At that time, our family lived in Hang ThungStreet, in a three-storey house which had a large balcony with a lot of flowers. She took a cyclo from Van ChuongStreet to the house to visit my grandfather.

The two of them sat there, watching phyllocactus (lady of the night) flowers blossom and discussing the poetry of the Tang and the Song dynasties. Madam Hoang ThiThe then signed on her memoir and presented it to my grandfather. I still keep that memoir now.At that time, everyone was poor, really poor. However, people were still happy and knew how to keep their hobbies. My grandfather had the passion of drinking a little alcohol with his French-time friends. To keep that routine, he bought a momordica, fermented it and got the liquid call “alcohol to welcome Madam The.” It means without much material they could still keep the noble and luxurious spirit. Luxury doesn’t lie in material. That is the spirit that I learnt from my grandfather though he didn’t teach me. People those days kept their hobbies in a very subtle and meticulous manner, such as watching phyllocalus blossom, poem reciting, antique collecting. However, just like antique collecting, every hobby requires knowledge and understanding. Knowledge brings luxury to keeping hobbies.

You just said your grandfather didn’t teach you. I find it difficult to imagine…

- He didn’t teach me, but he trained me, forged me into the person today. My grandfather lived in a very big houseon Hang Thung Street. In the house, there were a lot of antique pieces such as cupboards, parallel sentences, fish tanks, carved beds, desks, etc. In that atmosphere, he didn’t teach me, but little by little the thingspenetrated into my mind. And then, when I grew up, I found I like the things that he liked years ago. I also learnt fine arts. He had a lot of grandchildren. Each time we did wrong things, he penalized us by making us clean the carved patterns on furniture. He had a hubble-bubble tube, always spotlessly clean. Every day our task was to clean the tube in turn.

I often went to market with my paternal grandmother. Hang Be market captured most of my attention those days. It is the only market that has three ends connecting Hang Be, Cau Go and DinhLiet streets. Until now, the market still has the florist’s and leaf shops in those three ends. The leaf shops are never in the middle of the market. Those features I found out myself. Never did my grandmother have to tell me. My grandmother often bought pickled eggplants and salted vegetables from one shop in the market. The shop still sells pickled eggplants and salted vegetables now. This is the very “logo” for an ancient market of Hanoi. For a market that lies in the middle of an oldquarter street, which is for those with the most subtle culinary taste, people need to go to the exact shops tobuy the exact things, even pickled eggplants and salted vegetables. How change is that? Things must be handed down from generations to generations, even for pickled eggplants and salted vegetables, not to mention “Pho” (beef noodle soup). For that pickled eggplants and salted vegetables shop, I guess it must have gone through three generations of shopkeepers. However, nothing changes. Theshopkeepers only sell pickled eggplants and salted vegetables, regardless of all changes.

As you’ve mentioned Hang Be market, does it mean that a market in a place best reflects things like culture, tastes and flavors of that place?

- It exactly is. A market is the face of the locals and the finest portrait of that land. Though every market is in a mess and untidy with things like vegetables, fish, meat, etc., each of them produces a panorama of a land. Ancient markets in Hanoi show very clearly an ancient Hanoi. For example, in Hang Be market, there are a lot of “gio” and “cha” (kinds of Vietnamese pork pies) shops, but there is only one shop that sells best. Another example is that everyone want to buy “mam tepchungthit” (fermented shrimp paste cooked with pork) from Old madam Boong. It is the manifestation of punctiliousness of Hanoians, which differentiates them with those newcomers to the city in the last few decades.

As Iimagine, your grandparents were among the well-off then in Hanoi…

- My paternal grandfather is a lumber trader. In easier words, it means he traded on wood and processed wood. He had a wood processing factory outside the Red River’s bank, for there were no other ways than using rafts to transport wood from mountainous areas to Hanoi. In the downtown, he had tens of stores and workshops. My grandfather was also the one to build Hang Thung Temple that is still in its place today.

Are there any ones in your family following the fine arts career?

Just me. In the old days, for artistic entertainment, as I still remember they just enjoyed“co dau” (geisha-like) singing or reciting poems together. Therefore, I see that now I can keep more hobbies than our forefathers.

When thinking about Hanoi and Hanoians, I feel that the Hanoian soul lies very clearly in the portrait of women…

- True. One of the traces of Hanoi lies in the culinary culture. My mother is a typical Hanoian. She is the oldest daughters-in-law and was trained very hard by her mother-in-law and older sister-in-law, especially in cooking. Later on, my mother also trained my younger sister like that. My uncle told me that she taught my mother both how to prepare a feast and how to cook a meal. Some people are really good at preparing feasts while unable to cook a meal. You must prepare very thoroughly for even a daily meal. My mother can cook a lot of dishes that quite a few people now have never even heard of. She can prepare various kinds of cakes and dumplings, too. For her, cooking is a lot of fun, a hobby and even an entertainment that keeps her working all the time.

+ When it comes to cuisine, it is said that it is hard to please Hanoians…

- As I see, Hanoi is the center that attracts all the quintessence of all regions to it. Hanoi itself is “zero.” It has nothing with it; therefore, it can admit the quintessence from all regions. However, the most important thing is that the quintessence when reaching Hanoi has been added with “micro-substances” to make the quintessence unique, completely different from that same quintessence in other places. Take for example,Hai Duong is the “capital” of clam worms, featuring various clam worm dishes. However, only when reaching Hanoi were the dishes added with tangerine peels. The peels I think are one of those “micro-substances.” Another example is “mam tepchungthit.” Hanoi does not have shrimp and shrimp paste is not the dish of Hanoi. However, “mam tepchungthit” has become a specialty of Hanoi, so much that people miss it even when they travel and live overseas.

The other day, I invited writer-translator Ba Chung and his wife (now living in the USA) to my house for a meal. He said he only wanted to have an ordinary meal with ordinary dishes of Hanoi. I told my mother and she prepared the dish “oc hap la gung” (snails steamed with ginger). You know what? To make the sauce for that dish, she had to develop fermented rice paste from sticky rice, then minced and filtered the ingredient to get the juice for the sauce…

Painter Le Thiet Cuong at Gallery 39A Ly Quoc Su, Hanoi

Isee. For some dishes, being delicious or not depends on the sauce. As for food, is everything kept unchanged compared to previous time,those Hanoi’s dishes that everyone comes to find?

- Fora long time now I haven’t eaten Bat Dan “pho,” for “pho” there is mainly for tourists. They season the dish too much, making it too sweet-tasting. It cannot be delicious when so sweet. To be delicious means the dish must be carefully-prepared and medially-seasoned. A lot of special dishes of Hanoi are now losing their original tastes.

+ Still about food, I see that Hanoi has dishes that can never be found elsewhere in the world, for example porridge served with tofu and pickled egg-plants. I have to admit that though having become a daughter-in-law of a four-generation Hanoian family, I could still hardly follow my sisters-in-law to Hom market to try that dish.

Delicious, but because of memory. I still remember that Hanoians those days ate “pho” with cold rice. I sometimes reminisce about how it felt those days when I ate steamed rice with “mam tepchungthit”, just “mam tepchungthit”and nothing else. I still remember the taste now and in my mind it is still so delicious. I am sure that we eat and reminisce about the past, those days of hardships.

+ I always feel that there is an implicit running current of the culture of Hanoi, the culture of the old quarter. It may have changed or fallen into oblivion a little bit, but I could still feel it…

- Each society has its own people. As for the current society, with all the hustle and bustle we can see, which almost always lacks subtlety and accounts for the majority, I am sure that what you feel will increasingly deteriorate. We have already had to change our habits, though the changes may be the refusal to have a bowl of “pho” at an old food shop that you used to visit for the past tens of years.

When it comes to “pho,” I remember taking a friend to TuLun “pho” restauranton Au Trieu Street. The restaurant is now run by his grandson, as Mr. Lu died long ago. “Pho” here has turbid broth. It is going against the concept of “clear broth”and can still survive, proving it must have something interesting. Compared with “pho” in the subsidy time, “pho” here lacks only onething. That is, they now have ready-to-eat slices of beefto be taken to the bowl of “pho,”and then the broth is added. I think doing that way would give us no sounds of preparing ​​beef on the chopping-board when the salesman used the back of the knifeto make the beef tender, then used the blade of the same knife to slicethe beef and lightly fling the slices into the bowl. That is because the restaurant is so crowded that they have to prepare the beef from early in the morning so as to quickly servetheir customers. Those details that are filled with sounds and images must be sacrificed. I still remember Pha“pho”on SinhTu Street (Nguyen Khuyen Street now),where they kept beef in a compartment. Each time when a guest ordered, they pulledthe beef out, cut a piece, put it on the chopping-board. The knife must have been extremely sharpas the slices of meat, as slim as a sheet of paper,curved in the edge and fell out... It looked magnificent.

+ You belong to the group of old Hanoians, as you claimed. So, when all the old Hanoians are gone, what are the things to remain with Hanoi?

It is hard to answer this question (smiling)because even my children are now leading a different life. They don’t take due attention. I don’t know where the old values can stick to and stay on. They don’t see the values in what I am preserving and see as very precious. True! The values are falling into oblivion right in our homes. I have no hope!

I’ve been living in Hanoi for 20 years now and I am one of those “newcomers” to the city as you said (smiling). However, I have much love for Hanoi and I think that love must also be expressed in a right way. The way I choose is to stay away from those hustle and bustle and uncomfortable things that everyone often laments when coming to Hanoi. For example, as I am living far from the city center, I choose to go to work 10 minutes earlier so that I don’t have to experience smog and traffic jams. I never get in the line to wait for a bowl of porridge or vermicelli added with scolding words from sellers. I would rather eat a loaf of bread. Generally that is what I choose to do. How about you? How do you live in all those uncomfortable hustle and bustle?

The quintessence of all regions converges to the old quarter of Hanoi, converges to the red-lacquer trimmed with gold, to the statues, the terracotta items and parallel sentences here, etc. All of them are my masters, made on the thousands-of-year foundation and all I have to do is to enjoy them. Every day I live in that environment, breathe in that air and enjoy it. I am living that way: Knowing how to work and entertain myself. My eyes are regularly trained in the quintessence of the Tonkin civilization and in the culture of Hanoi; therefore, they are sharp. At the same time, due to various factors, people working in the fine arts sector often have higher aesthetic taste than others. That is the only field that I am good at. If you tell me to choose to buy a motorcycle, then I could only tell which one has the finest color or nice mirrors. It’s no use for the buying then. In return, I am endowed with the ability to enjoy all kinds of beauty, even a ray of sunlight.

Yes, but I think there must be conditions for us to sharpen our eyes and train our tastes…

- Of course. However, you can also say that there are a lot of people with much more capable conditions and richer than me but they still fail to sharpen their eyes and train their tastes.

But you must have prepared for the honing of your tastes, yes? I am a little curious about what you’d prepared for that.

Yes, when I managed to sell my first paintings in May 1991, I used that money to buy little things like pottery vases, some of which were a little broken so they were sold at cheaper prices. I have a lot of passion for pottery items. Since then, I’ve been saving money to buy things like furniture, antiques, etc.

If you hadn't painted and earned (much) money from painting, how could you have kept those hobbies?

- Let me tell you, there are hobbies that do not cost much. The thing is you need to have knowledge about them. Twenty years ago, when fishermen found antique items from a sunken ship in Cua Dai Estuary, they sold those items by kilograms. No one knew the values of those items. Some of my friends and I came to buy those items at very cheap prices. You see, it doesn’t always require you to have a lot of money to keep your hobbies. The most important thing is knowledge. Nothing could be said if I had had the money and hadn’t bought pottery, furniture items, etc., but had invested in real estate…

+ Born and growing up in Hanoi, witnessing changes and losses of the city, even foreseeing part of the future the old quarter culture, have you ever thought of moving to another place to live?

- Never! I like traveling to places. I like Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Hoi An, but I have never thought of living in those places.

+ Thank you very much for spending time with us!

Translated by HUU DUONG

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