Embracing the Art of Calligraphy in Chinatown Cholon

The Searching Journey For One Of Last Remaining Calligraphy in Cho Lon – Ho Chi Minh

Discover Cholon Saigon – Ho Chi Minh

Every day, in front of a small house on Lao Tu Street, District 5, Ho Chi Minh City, you can find a dedicated artist meticulously practicing the art of calligraphy. This has been the daily routine of Kim Hy for over 30 years.

At 70, instead of enjoying a leisurely retirement with his family, Kim Hy rides his bicycle from his small house in an alley off Tran Hung Dao Street to his “workplace.” 

Things to do in Chinatown
This “workplace” is actually a small table surrounded by red and pink sheets of paper, and a collection of various brushes, gold ink, and Chinese ink.

Despite his reluctance to be interviewed, citing that his Vietnamese is not very strong, Kim Hy shares his journey with a modest smile. “My parents were originally from Guangdong, China, and migrated to Vietnam long ago. Although I was born and raised in Vietnam, living within the Chinese community in Cholon meant that I primarily communicated in Chinese, which is why my Vietnamese isn’t very fluent.”

“I’ve been doing this for over 30 years now. I learned to write characters at school, studying Chinese calligraphy. Initially, I sold various goods, but when the economy took a downturn, I couldn’t find a job and turned to writing calligraphy to make a living. Surprisingly, this has been my trade for decades,” he recounts. He is the only one in his family who practices this craft, with no children to carry on the tradition.

Despite the availability of beautifully printed calligraphy scrolls, many Vietnamese people of Chinese descent in Saigon still prefer the handcrafted versions. “Handwritten characters may not be as sharp and glossy as machine-printed ones, but they have a soul and liveliness with their graceful strokes. It’s a tradition that has been preserved since ancient times,” he explains.

Even so, Kim Hy admits that business is slow on most days. “Some days, I don’t earn anything; other days, I make a few tens of thousands of dong. But every day, I open my stall from 9 AM to 4-5 PM,” he says.

dicover cholon chinatown ho chi minh city

He uses gold ink mixed with varnish or black Chinese ink. “Older people prefer black ink on white or pink paper, while gold ink has become more popular due to its brightness and eye-catching appeal,” he notes.

During the twelfth month of the lunar calendar, as families begin preparing for Tet (Lunar New Year), Kim Hy moves his table to Hai Thuong Lan Ong Street to write calligraphy throughout the month. According to Chinese tradition, red scrolls are hung to bring good fortune. “In December, there are more customers seeking my calligraphy, so I work from 7 AM to 6 PM,” he shares. “The prices of red scrolls vary depending on size and the amount of text, ranging from a few thousand to tens of thousands of dong. I never hope to get rich from this; I’m just grateful to make a living.”

People request various phrases, depending on their needs or preferences. Most commonly, customers seek phrases that convey blessings, luck, and prosperity, such as “Khai truong hong phat” (grand opening with great success), “Ngu phuc lam mon” (five blessings upon your house), and “An khang thinh vuong” (health and prosperity). “Around Tet, everyone comes to ask for ‘Binh an’ (peace). It’s the most requested phrase,” he adds.

Despite the difficulties and hardships, Kim Hy finds joy in his craft, especially as more Vietnamese, not just those of Chinese descent, seek his calligraphy. “Nowadays, even Western tourists in Ho Chi Minh City stop by, curious about my work and often buy pieces as souvenirs,” he smiles.

A Day in the Life of a Calligraphy Master

Discover Cholon Saigon – Ho Chi Minh

Things to do in Chinatown
His eyes reflect a genuine enthusiasm for his work, showing his passion and dedication.

I sat down with Master Kim Hy one sunny afternoon, observing him at work. His hands moved with practiced ease, creating beautiful, flowing characters.

“How did you start learning calligraphy?” I asked.

“Initially, it was just part of our school curriculum,” he began, his eyes reflecting fond memories. “We studied Chinese characters and calligraphy. But when times got tough, and I couldn’t find other work, I turned to calligraphy. It was meant to be a temporary job, but here I am, over thirty years later.”

“Do you find joy in this work?” I inquired.

He paused, a serene smile spreading across his face. “There’s a unique satisfaction in this craft. Each stroke is a part of me, and seeing the appreciation in my customers’ eyes, especially during Tet, makes it all worthwhile. The characters I write carry wishes for prosperity, health, and happiness. It’s more than just writing; it’s sharing hope.”

The Art and Tradition of Calligraphy

Discover Cholon Saigon – Ho Chi Minh

Things to do in Chinatown
Each calligraphy stroke carries wishes for prosperity, health, and happiness, sharing hope through art.

As we continued our conversation, Kim Hy shared insights into the traditional materials he uses. “I mix gold ink with varnish or use black Chinese ink. The black ink has a classic appeal, preferred by the older generation, while the gold ink’s brilliance draws younger customers.”

“What’s the busiest time for you?” I asked.

“Definitely the month before Tet,” he replied. “Families want red scrolls to decorate their homes, wishing for good luck in the coming year. I set up on Hai Thuong Lan Ong Street and write from morning till night. It’s exhausting but fulfilling.”

The Future of Calligraphy

Discover Cholon Saigon – Ho Chi Minh

“Do you think this tradition will continue with the younger generation?” I asked.

He sighed, a mixture of hope and concern in his eyes. “It’s hard to say. My children haven’t taken up the craft. The younger generation is more interested in modern technology. But I believe as long as there are people who appreciate the art, calligraphy will survive. It has a way of touching the soul.”

A Lasting Impression

Discover Cholon Saigon – Ho Chi Minh

As our conversation came to an end, I felt a deep respect for Master Kim Hy and his dedication to preserving this beautiful art form. His life, interwoven with each brushstroke, is a testament to the enduring spirit of tradition and the quiet strength found in resilience.

For those exploring Ho Chi Minh City, a visit to Chinatown and a conversation with a master calligrapher like Kim Hy offers a glimpse into a world where every character written is a bridge between the past and the present, a whisper of history in every line. It’s an experience that leaves you inspired, carrying a piece of this rich culture in your heart.

Let’s Wrap It Up: Experience Calligraphy with Jackfruit Adventure

At Jackfruit Adventure, we believe in offering unique, culturally immersive experiences. Our Ho Chi Minh City Cycling Tour includes a special stop at Chinatown, where you can meet artisans like Master Kim Hy. This tour not only lets you explore the vibrant streets of Cholon but also provides an intimate look into the lives of local calligraphy masters, allowing you to appreciate the intricate art of calligraphy firsthand.

Join us for a journey that blends tradition with adventure, and take home not just memories, but a deeper understanding and appreciation of Saigon’s rich cultural tapestry. Book your cycling tour today with Jackfruit Adventure, and let us guide you through the heart of Vietnam’s most vibrant city.

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