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The Fading Legacy Of Lê Công Kiều’s Camera Shop

Renowned among local photographers and cameras aficionados, the Phạm Thê Camera Repair Shop, which opened before 1975, has stood the test of time. But behind the façade of customer’s smiles sit the worries of a son who bears the responsibility of continuing his father’s famed but fading legacy as well as securing his own children’s future.

Phạm Văn Thê, in the memory of his third son, Phạm Văn Tuấn, was a very respectable man. “He built this business from nothing to support the whole family even though he wasn’t trained in the technical nature of cameras,” said Tuấn.

Phạm Văn Thê learned about the mechanics of the devices as an apprentice in a photo studio where he tirelessly taught himself to repair cameras. 

After years of practice, he saw the opportunity to make a business out of his passionate hobby. Despite his wife and relatives’ opposition, he borrowed some money and bought an old, run-down house at number 11 Lê Công Kiều Street. There, he opened Phạm Thê Camera Repair Shop and it quickly became the city’s most well known.

Some well-connected customers got him in touch with international traders who supplied him with camera components that could not be found in Vietnam at the time, increasing his profile even further.

Thê had trained two of his sons, including Tuấn, in the art of camera repair and they joined his business in 1982. “We keep reminding ourselves that our father set the cornerstone and that we are the ones responsible for building it up,” he said.

Tuấn, attempting to live up to his father’s reputable achievements, became the first Vietnamese to join Nikon training courses in Singapore and Hong Kong.

In 1998 when the famous camera brand arrived in Vietnam in search of a local company to serve as a service center, it chose Phạm Thê’s shop. “All my life I’ve tried to make my father proud, being the only Vietnamese to join that training course, at that time, is indeed an utmost pride” Tuấn humble shared.

One of the customers, when asked, said that besides having things fixed here, the owners of the shop were very trustworthy in terms of price and taking responsibility for expensive equipment. “My father was always around our desks supervising and reminding us to avoid complaints at all costs,” said Tuấn, setting his eyes on the board of mottos behind him. “Those mottos were his. Although some were incorrectly translated, we didn’t change them to keep it genuine. Besides, what really matters is the meaning behind those unpolished words.”

The dust of time, however, has not only faded the words on that board, but also his father's spirit. Tuấn admitted that he couldn’t remember exactly what year it was, but recalled that Thê was 72 when he passed away.

The golden age of the shop seemed to wither away with his passing which coincided with the dawning of the digital age. Fewer customers visit the store nowadays.

The desks, once surrounded by customers, now sit vacant most of the time; magnifying glass head straps and tools sit idle in a corner. “Cameras are affordable now. Why should someone spend money on repairs if it costs less to buy a new one?”, Tuấn lamented.

Mentioning his hopes of prolonging his father’s legacy, a hint of hesitation set in. “All my father’s life he didn’t try to make money for us, but offered the family a business to grow with,” he said, looking back at the grammatically incorrect mottos.

There is guilt, he admitted, as he guides the next generation of Phạms away from the family business. “Things have changed with time. Our father did his best to make our family prosper; and we must continue this goal, even if it means straying from his path”, he said, looking away from the mottos.

“In today’s society, I’m just a mechanic.”

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