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The Hanoi Village Where Making Folding Fans Involves Every Family

One summer day, I made a trek into suburban Hanoi to Thạch Thất District. Walking along the dirt road surrounded by green maturing rice fields, I reached Chàng Sơn Village.

Located around 25 kilometers from central Hanoi, Chàng Sơn still retains distinctly northern traits like an ancient village entrance, banyan trees, and raucous street markets. Tiny lanes run along walls of worn-down bricks in between the shadows of tall heritage trees. The gentle lilac flowers of bằng lăng trees stand out amongst the many shades of green.

Fresh bamboo is chopped into segments.

Chàng Sơn Village was once called Nủa Chàng, a name used in folk proverbs like “chớ cho Nủa coi.” This idiom is meant to praise the resourcefulness of villagers, as they could learn any skills just by observing. It was renamed as Chàng Sơn in 1956. The village is well-known as “Land of Hundreds of Trades” as it’s the birthing ground of several traditional handmade crafts.

Chàng Sơn residents often joke that here, “six people can consume one bamboo stalk,” as craftsmen can use bamboo to create six different products: bed frames, chopsticks, fans, baskets, fish traps, and yokes. Of all the handmade creations here, the traditional way to make fans is the most famous.

The art of fan-making seeps into every corner of Chàng Sơn life.

Village elders told me that the art of fan-making has been around for around 200 years. Generations of Chàng Sơn kids have grown up amid the hues of red, blue, and yellow of paper fans. In the village today, dry bamboo segments and piles of fans are still present in every meandering lane and along walls. The whimsical scenes revealing nearly every household, every resident participating in the craft is proof that this time-honored tradition is still very much alive even in contemporary Vietnam.

Chàng Sơn residents grow up amid the colors of fans.

In the 19th century, paper fans from Chàng Sơn transcended national boundaries to fly to France to be part of the Paris international world fair. Still, these humble folk objects have also been through many ups and downs starting from the beginning of the free market period.

Older villagers often treat bamboo-trimming as a hobby.

At the time, hand-crafted fans faced mounting competition from the cascade of imported fans into the market and struggled to find customers. With dwindling buyers, Chàng Sơn producers couldn’t make ends meet purely by selling their products. But amidst the gradual vanishing of their hometown’s age-old craft, a number of households held fast to the family trade and tried to find new ways to survive.

The bamboo strips must have the same length.

From then to now, when asked about the key figure in the conservation of Chàng Sơn fan-making traditions, locals would point to Dương Văn Mơ, who was born in 1935. Mơ spent much of his time and efforts researching and restoring historic fans in hopes of saving the craft that was on the way to obsolescence.

At the time, a resident from the nearby Bùng Village, aware of Mơ’s high-quality craftsmanship, commissioned him to restore a ceremonial fan that was in bad condition due to termites. The fan was repaired and returned to its post in the village’s spiritual altars. Thanks to this incident, the talent and dedication of Dương Văn Mơ became known all over the region. Many sought him out to place orders. It was then that Mơ realized the importance of adapting to a new age, in addition to preserving the rustic beauty of his village’s fans.

Bamboo sticks are attached together using screws.

From then on, he started to diversify the designs and styles of the village’s products — paper fans, woven wicker fans, silk fans, painted fans, etc. — serving a wide range of clients, from simple, casual use, props for art projects, to decorations for festivals. Most prominently, Mơ once spent a month crafting a record-breaking fan spanning 9 meters in width and 4.5 meters in height, featuring a landscape of Hanoi wet markets painted in the style of Hàng Trống.

Fan making in Chàng Sơn is maintained not just as an intangible heritage and a folk tradition, it’s also helped improve the livelihood of its makers. Moving forward in a new direction, households in Chàng Sơn have specialized the process into different steps undertaken by different families. One household cuts bamboo strips, one makes frames, one focuses on gluing the paper together — everything works together like a factory assembly line. Apart from affordable daily fans worth VND20,000, they also make large-scale artistic versions that display intricately painted artworks. These can sell for millions of dong.

Bamboo strips are trimmed to the same shape.

“From a side hustle done during their free time, the craft of fan making has become the main income for many families in Chàng Sơn,” Dương Văn Đoàn, the son of Dương Văn Mơ and a veteran fan craftsman, shared with me. “Chàng Sơn fans will continue to change to adapt to new trends in market demands.”

To produce a high-quality, aesthetically pleasing fan, artisans in Chàng Sơn put in a lot of time and effort into all aspects of the process, from picking materials, stripping the sticks, sanding them down, gluing the leaves on, drying the final products, etc. After bamboo sticks are cut to the correct length, artisans soak them in water for 4–5 months to keep away insects. Walking across the village, one encounters piles of soaked bamboo stalks awaiting cutting and stripping.

Next, artisans sand down the end of the fan.

The next step involves producing the sticks that form the base frame for the paper. Dry bamboo pipes that have finished soaking will be cut into thin strips and secured together using nails. Usually, one fan has 11 sticks. The sticks are put through a machine to sand down the heads so that every stick is off the same length.

Under the searing heat of summer, 67-year-old Việt painstakingly trims the edges of the fan sticks. Bamboo scraps scatter on the floor like leaves. He wears gloves to protect his hands from splinters. “My household specializes in slicing bamboo. I do it from daybreak to dusk. Every day I go through 1,000 bamboo frames so my back and arms really hurt,” he explained.

Gluing the leaves together requires attention to detail.

When done, the sticks are transferred to the artisans in charge of gluing. They separate the sticks carefully so that the in-between spaces are even. The more even this pattern is, the prettier the resulting folding fans will be. This requires a certain level of finesse in handling the glue as artisans apply a thin coat on the bamboo sticks and cover them with pre-cut fabric or paper.

Each folding fan comprises two layers of paper or fabric, one of each side. While gluing them on, the artisan must pay attention to matching the sides and ensure that the layers are crinkle-free. Finally, the excess paper is trimmed off and the fan is brought out into the open air so the glue can dry off. Finished fans are arranged neatly in rows along the walls.

A layer of glue is applied to both sides of the sticks.

Previously, Chàng Sơn folding fans were made using dó paper from Bắc Ninh and fruit resin as the sticking agent. Today, however, these materials are rarer and sold at a high price, so they have turned to a different type of paper. Meanwhile, fabric fans employ textiles from Đồng Xuân Market in downtown Hà Nội. The fabric often features calligraphic design and ancient proverbs.

The sticks must be spread evenly.

According to Dương Văn Đoàn, making artistic folding fans understandably involves a higher level of artistry and attention to detail compared to household fans. The paintings must be drawn or embroidered before going on the frame. Creativity and well-honed skills are needed to produce a range of good designs. Every painting on the fans is hand-drawn so the resulting fans are all unique copies.

The two paper layers are glued together.

Final fans are trimmed off.

Even during the age of electric fans and air-conditioners, it’s heart-warming to still spot Chàng Sơn paper fans in the hands of Vietnamese. Not only are they pretty to look at, but each folding fan is also the crystallization of our folk knowledge and skills passed down many generations.

Final products are left on the side to dry.

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