Meet Saigonese man who has been making Tet calligraphy for half a century

By Diep Phan   January 28, 2022 | 04:47 pm PT
Just before Tet each year Huynh Tri Cau sets up a small table at the corner of a street in District 11 and begins to do calligraphy.

Cau's family is from China's Guangzhou City, but he was born in Saigon.

He is a teacher at a Chinese language center.

For more than 50 years now, when Tet (Lunar New Year) comes around, he begins a second job making calligraphy works for people to decorate their houses.

Vietnam has a nine-day break this year for Tet, the country's biggest festival, from Jan. 29.

It is a time for families to clean and decorate their houses, wear new clothes and eat traditional Lunar New Year foods such as banh chung (glutinous rice cake) with their families.

Calligraphers like Cau write Chinese characters on red paper (lien) but also in Vietnamese if asked by customers. They are much sought after since they symbolize what people wish for in the new year like good health, happiness and wealth.

Huynh Tri Cau makes calligraphy works at his booth in District 11 on Jan. 24, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan

Huynh Tri Cau makes calligraphy works at his booth in District 11 on Jan. 24. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan

Cau says: "When I was a child, I followed my father here to learn calligraphy. I was able to sell my first one by the age of 15. I haven't stopped since then as I love writing lien and hope my words bring joy and hope to everyone in the new year".

In the beginning his customers were mostly ethnic Chinese who would ask him to write using traditional black ink.

In recent years he has been using gold emulsion ink because it looks brighter and more eye-catching.

The lien sheets come in different sizes and shapes, depending on where people want to hang them in their houses.

"I use rectangular sheets that are nearly a meter long for people wanting to hang them on both sides of their main door. I use a square-shaped sheet if they want to hang it on their safety box. It can also be done on horizontal paper".

Depending on the size and quality of the paper, a work costs tens of thousands of dong to several hundred thousands (VND100,000 = $4.42).

Since there is huge demand for calligraphy works during the year-end, besides working on the sidewalk in District 11 from morning to afternoon he also works at home in the evening and delivers to people’s houses.

Cau writes out a wish for a customer on Jan. 24, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan

Cau writes out a wish for a customer on Jan. 24, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan

On Jan. 24, Dam Vien, 61, an ethnic Chinese woman from neighboring Binh Duong Province visited Thiec Market on Tran Quy Street to buy Tet decorations.

She says since she was a kid she had seen her father hang calligraphy works in front of the house during Tet. An acquaintance used to write a lien for her, but he recently passed away and she did not know where to find a new calligrapher.

Before discovering Cau, she used to buy printed ones to hang at home, but remained hopeful of finding someone to write by hand since it would mean softer and more realistic strokes.

"We believe that the wishes written by a calligrapher will bring luck to our family and guests visiting our house during Tet".

Cau holds up a lien he wrote for Vien that has wishes like health, prosperity and luck. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan

Cau holds up a lien he wrote for Vien with wishes for good health, prosperity and good fortune. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan

She found Cau's booth while shopping, and asked him to write two sentences 90 cm long to hang in front of her main door. But after talking to him and seeing his handwriting, she asked him to write four more to hang in many places around the house.

Cau says he gets a few dozen customers every day though printed calligraphy is sold aplenty at Thiec Market.

"I find joy in calligraphy, but it will be more fun if every year I am asked by customers to write a new wish and not just traditional ones.

"This year, since the pandemic caused much losses, many people want wishes for prosperity, peace, good fortune, and health".

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