At the back of Tan Sa Chau Church on Le Van Sy Street in HCMC’s Tan Binh District, antiques create a space of ancientness and quietness. These antique collections belong to Priest Joseph Nguyen Huu Triet, who lives in a room behind the church.
Ancient culture through oil lamps
Known widely, Triet’s collection of ancient lamps consists of 1,400 units from nearly 20 countries and territories. The lamps were made of various materials, such as clay, copper, iron, silver, glass, ceramic and porcelain. They were used indoors, outdoors, or on a train, a ship, a horse cart or a bicycle, or for religious ceremonies.
Asked why he collected lamps, the priest of Tan Sa Chau Church said the light, which is life, appears wherever there are humans, so lamps have played a significant role since the early time of the humankind. The light, or lamps, mentally conveys different meanings: life and lifestyle. The Vietnamese have a saying 'gan muc thi den, gan den thi sang" (Evil communications corrupt good manners); whereas, the Bible mentions light for more than 1,000 times.
“Due to influences from the Bible, I tried to collect concrete light, the physical light, which are lamps themselves,” said Triet. However, he said, he has failed to gather all kinds of lamps but aimed at oil lamps as they are no longer popular and he wants to find and preserve the ancient aspects of forefathers, the cultural space and daily activities of the former generations.
In 1993, Priest Triet was appointed head of Tan Sa Chau Church. One year later, he happened to see six or seven oil lamps of different sizes and styles in a retired priest’s room while tidying up the room after the latter’s death and burial. He first thought the elderly are often thrifty and they keep old objects even if they seem to be useless, so he kept these lamps and later found them interesting. He then wondered why he did not make a collection of ancient oil lamps. And he has realized this idea for 18 years.
“It seemed a bit late because I heard beautiful, precious lamps had earlier been sold and brought elsewhere,” the priest said, adding that he was still lucky to buy precious lamps when he built up his collection.
According to Priest Triet, it is costly and it takes time and energy to collect antiques but it is a great joy to possess a collection which becomes more valuable and preserve the forefathers’ ancient culture and share that joy with the community. Looking at lamps enables one to guess many things about politics, economy, culture, society, history and geography of a time. For instance, sophisticated, skillfully carved lamps are connected with a time of good economy; a simple lamp existed in an economically hard time. Lamps have their own spiritual meanings. No temples, no pagodas or no churches do not use lamps: the lamp light expresses life, solemnity and reverence. The peanut oil-operated lamp he has recently bought in Phu Yen Province is shaped like a buffalo standing by a lamp post.
“This lamp was made in about the late 19th century and its anthropological value is very high because buffaloes are a close friend to Vietnamese and the source of life for farmers,” he said.
Religion and antiques
Triet said he has chosen to be a monk in all his life, so he gives priority to his religious practice and only hunts for antiques in his leisure time. Collecting antiques has its cultural value but also helps him popularize the religion. Thanks to antiques, he explained, he has many acquaintances, learns a lot and attracts many people to the church to learn more about the religion. “People come not to learn about the religion but to see one another, hence we can share and understand each other. If everyone stays within their boundary, they cannot approach people,” he said.
The church, according to Triet, is an open space, where members of the ancient book lovers’ club meet together every month and the association of antiques collectors meet once for every two months. At night, antique lovers often come to talk and drink tea.
Triet said some people said he is extravagant and that he had better sell the antiques and use the money to develop the church. But he thinks differently that the Vatican is only famous for three fields—architecture, library and museum. He said, “The Vatican Museum is so wonderful, attracting millions of visitors a year, so it’s impossible to say it is extravagant. To buy an entrance ticket, I had to queue for more than one and a half hours.”
Not only lamps…
Apart from the collection of ancient lamps, Priest Triet owns a collection of Truyen Kieu (The Story of Kieu), a poetry work by the Vietnamese poet Nguyen Du (1765-1820). He loves these two collections the most.
According to him, in the Vietnamese literature no work has ever surpassed Truyen Kieu and no author has outstripped Nguyen Du. The priest’s Truyen Kieu collection comprises 20 copies in Nôm, a kind of Vietnamized Chinese (some were published in 1886, 1872 and were reprinted in 1891,) and nearly 200 copies (including Braille copies for visually impaired people) published in different times in different languages such as Vietnamese, French, German, Romanian, English, Japanese and Korean. He also has 700 books about Truyen Kieu, 700 newspapers and magazines about Nguyen Du and Truyen Kieu. In addition, the priest has 50 pictures of Kieu, bowls, dishes, potteries and ceramics with verses of Truyen Kieu, a pair of wooden shoes with pictures and verses of Truyen Kieu, cassette tapes and discs with the recitations of Truyen Kieu, and statues based on Truyen Kieu.
The priest said he also enjoys collecting ancient books because lamps and books always accompany each other. The precious books include Handbook for Educating Children by Dang Cong Toan, published in 1718. He also collects pots and bowls for drinking tea (40-50 sets, including those from the Le Dynasty); wine jars (according to Triet, the wine culture is older than the tea culture, and he has even wine jars from the Tang and Han dynasties in China); more than 300 tintinnabulums, paintings and other kinds of antiques such as bricks used in construction. “That brick dates back to the Tran Dynasty, nearly 1,000 years ago,” Triet said, pointing at a framed brick hung in front of his room.
Talking about his passion and antiques collections, the priest in his late sixties compared himself with a scrap buyer because a monk cannot have money to own a collection worth several billions of Vietnamese dong or millions of U.S. dollars. What he does is to gather and preserve part of the forefathers’ ancient culture that remains. “I will devote all [my collections] to the [Vietnam] Catholic Association and just want to have a room to display them so that everybody who wishes to study and learn can get access,” he said, adding that this is also a way to share cultures.
At present, the Catholic Agency in Hue City, Thua Thien-Hue Province, is building an exhibition room at the Pilgrimage Center for La Vang Basilica (Quang Tri Province) to display Priest Triet’s antiques.