Culture Culture

18/03/2018 - 07:50

The antique collection of a Hue man

Born in Quang Binh, but Hoang Dai Le lived in Hue from adolescence to adulthood. His father used to be a "chef de gare" at such railway stations as Lang Co, Thua Luu, Noong, Truoi, etc. in the colonial time. He was always on the move working from Hue to Tourane (Da Nang,) leaving his children in Hue. Their childhood was thus attached to the land of Perfume River and Ngu Mountain.

Specially ordered porcelain plate in Le-Trinh's times

In 1964, Hoang Dai Le moved to Saigon to live with his brother, and in the early 1990s, he and his family settled down in America. However, his memories of Hue, Hue characters, Hue lifestyle and Hue history and culture are always with him. 

Hoang Dai Le enjoys collecting antiques, playing with stones and growing bonsais. He is especially passionate about bleu de Hue, a line of porcelain specially ordered in China during the Le-Trinh and the Nguyen Dynasties from the 17th to the early 20th centuries. We have become close friends because of this shared interest. Occasionally he sent me photos of a certain item, asking me to check for him whether it is real or fake and how much it is worth.

By the end of 2015, I traveled to Southern California. Hoang Dai Le invited me to his home in Lake Elsinore to see his collection of Hue antiques that he had accumulated for tens of years then. He said he had been familiar with antiques from childhood because there were many antiques in his house in Hue, most of which were Western such as clocks, pottery, wooden furniture, etc.

At that time, few people knew bleu de Hue because most of them were confined in the royal palace. Later in Saigon, reading Vuong Hong Sen about Chinese porcelain and bleu de Hue, he got to know that type of porcelain and began to look for them as reminders of his time in Hue. Bit by bit, his collection took form.

He showed me around his house, talking about his collection and how he had chased them. He has returned to Hue several times, visiting the railway stations between Hue and Tourane where his father used to work as head. The rest of his time has been spent on searching for Hue antiques. Hoang Dai Le knows almost all antique collectors and antique dealers in Hue and becomes their regular client. 

Hoang Dai Le was introducing the author to a specially ordered bowl in King Tu Duc's times in his collection

He said it all depended on luck. Sometimes he could obtain the antique the first time after just a few exchanges. But sometimes despite lots of negotiation, he still did not succeed. “For example, there was an apricot-crane tea set, made in 1804, owned by Mr. Cuong in Chi Lang Street. He requested a very high price. I offered up to 80% of the price, but he refused. The following year I came back, only to find that he had sold it at half the price he requested."

Hoang Dai Le's porcelain collection consists of about 150 items, most of which were specially ordered during the Nguyen's times. Besides tea sets, bowls with Vietnamese poems in Minh Mang's and Tu Duc's times, there is porcelain from Sevres (France), Stoke Upon Trent (England), Delft (Holland) in which French officers in An Nam in the early 20 century were very interested.

Not only bleu de Hue, Hoang Dai Le also chases Nguyen Dynasty furniture such as cabinets, couches, mother-of-pearl boxes originated in Hue and brings them to America "to match my Hue items," as he said. Besides his collection in Lake Elsinore, he also owns specially ordered objects of Le-Trinh's times and displayed them in another house in Seattle in Washington. He invited me to go there to visit whenever possible. 

Hoang Dai Le's original display style

In April 2016, I attended an international conference on environment and climate change in Seattle. After the conference, Hoang Dai Le picked me up to see his second collection. Just as he said, not many in number but very selective, especially the ones belonging to Le-Trinh's times and Chu Dau pottery line in Le's times. 

Every time he obtains a precious item, he lingers in Hue or Saigon for some more days to have it lined with gold, not only to avoid getting chipped but also to enhance its value. He also designed shelves for display and had them made in Hue to match the style and value of his items. 

In April, 2017, Hoang Dai Le brought his wife and younger sister to Hue again. He told me when I picked them up at the airport: "After two days visiting Da Nang and Hoi An, would you please take me and my family to Hue?" I brought them to Hue, visiting King Gia Long's and King Minh Mang's Tombs, Hue Museum of Royal Antiquities, Tran Dinh Son's Porcelain Museum and last of all, chasing antiques.

I had Hoang Dai Le meet some well-known antique dealers in Hue. However, he just bought some tea sets. "Antiques have legs. Many precious objects have left Hue. Fortunately, Hue has two museums preserving many precious items for younger generations," said Hoang Dai Le before leaving.

Story and photos: Tran Duc Anh Son