Culture Culture

28/07/2019 - 07:20

Talented tho kep

When more and more “tomb cities” appear, tho kep become much needed. Tho kep are masons specializing in making complex decorative patterns.

In order to create decorative patterns such as the set of dragon, unicorn, turtle, and phoenix, the moon, clouds, carp dragons, dragon gates, obelisks, etc., tho kep need not only patience and diligence, but also skillful hands and creativity. 

Tho kep building screens

Only 1-2 out of 10 can “graduate”

According to a man who has good knowledge of this career, in order to learn about lives and work of tho kep, one needs to visit Van Quat Thuong, Huong Phong District, Huong Tra Town, well known as the “village of tho kep.”

This time of the year is the “main season” for tho kep. One has to come to cemeteries, ancestral temples, communal houses, temples, etc. to meet them.

Wiping the sweat off his weather-beaten darkened face, Vo Mung (at Van Quat Thuong Village) says this work is hereditary, and he (aged 45) is the third generation. Probably, the career is in his bloodline. He has had a passion for it since he was a boy.

At the time, every day, he went to school for half a day; on the other half, he followed his father to the construction sites to see workers paint flying dragons and dancing phoenixes to satisfy his curiosity and passion.

His father used to be hesitant about allowing him to take up the career as a mason because of little demand and low income at the time. Tho kep’s lives were therefore very difficult. But it was hard to give up his passion. Finishing secondary school, he decided to follow in his ancestors’ footsteps.

It has been about 30 years since he began his career. That period of time is long enough for him to understand its hardship. It requires not only exposure to the sun and rains, but also passion, determination, diligence, not mentioning the gift.

 “It is not compatible to compare apprenticeship with studying at university. But it is no exaggeration to say that learning to become tho kep is not at all easy. Depending on ability of each individual, it takes him from 3-4 years to be able to work. But in order to be really good at it, it takes him from 7-8 years to learn while working,” said Mr. Mung.

According to Mr. Vo Quan, a good tho kep with over 30 years of experience at Van Quat Thuong Village, it is not easy at all to become tho kep. On his first year as an apprentice, he worked just like a help, training his endurance of the hardship of the career. He just observed senior workers, learning how to paint and how to finish a construction.

Not until in the second year was he allowed to paint and create decorative characters. After that, in the following years, he began to learn skills to finish a construction such as making pottery mosaics, creating decorative patterns such as the moon or the set of dragon, unicorn, turtle and phoenix, etc.

Making decorative patterns

According to Mr. Quan, making a set of dragon, unicorn, turtle and phoenix, the moon, etc., requires accuracy and the ability to make well-proportioned figures, not too fat or too thin.

In order for the dragon to look flying, its tail, scales, body and head must be smooth and its feet stepping on clouds. To have an angry dragon, its eyes must be big and round; its mouth reveals its pointed teeth. In order to have happy dragons and phoenixes, tho kep need to work with delicacy and have their own secrets.

The most difficult stage for tho kep is when they finish a construction. Tho kep needs half of his apprenticeship just to practice this final stage. There have been cases in which the flying dragon turned out to be a snake or the dancing phoenix to be a rooster.

Many apprentices had to quit because they failed to complete this stage. Only some out of 10 are able to “graduate” and make a living out of this career.

Different from learning other careers, tho kep are strictly regulated. It is to ensure the prestige for the career and other masons. Not everyone is able to “graduate” and “work by himself” after 3-4 years of learning.

After 3-4 years of training, if the apprentice does not make any progress, his master does not allow him to “graduate,” because he will not be able to work and may ruin the prestige of the career.

There is usually commitment between the master and the apprentice that if he quits halfway, he has to pay a big sum of money as compensation. Thanks to this rule, almost all apprentices abide by their masters’ regulations. 


There are far fewer tho kep than bricklayers. They are also treated with favor by the client because they are “decisive factors” for the beauty of the construction. Bricklayers call the work of tho kep “career of pride.”

Some years ago, Mr. Quan’s and Mr. Cu’s teams of tho kep built an ancestral temple at Phong Hai Commune in Phong Dien, the largest-scaled construction at the time at that “village of Vietnamese overseas.”

The finished dragons

While the constructing of the temple took about one year and a half, the decoration stage took almost a year. Working far from home, Mr. Quan’s team required a temporary house for them to stay.

As a priority, the client agreed. He had a 40-square-meter house of two rooms built with electricity and running water for 6-7 workers.

During the time working on the decorative set of dragon, unicorn, turtle and phoenix, or other important items, if they did their job well, they were complimented and awarded with money. Completing the work at Phong Hai, his team received the bonus worth half of the money they charged for the whole construction.

As for other constructions, the bonus may not be as much, but tho kep were always treated with favor. The client’s compliment and bonus encourage tho kep to try to work with all their heart to please their clients.

For tens of years of working, Mr. Quan has been experiencing many difficulties of a lifetime. Once he met a very hard client with many strict requirements. For example, he wanted the dragon to look smiling on the right, but angry on the left. When he was not pleased with something, he had it destroyed and made the masons do it all again, which took them lots of time and efforts. Every time it happened, Quan suffered a lot in terms of finance. In return, the client always treated them with favor and gave them a bonus as compensation.  

A good tho kep, besides his good skills, has to meet the client’s need and requirements. For many years now, tho kep in Van Quat Thuong have been seen not only at almost all constructions in the province, but also in many others in the Central such as Quang Tri, Quang Binh, Thanh Hoa, Da Nang, Quang Nam, Nha Trang, etc.

Story and photos: HOANG TRIEU