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[Photos] Making Sugar at an Early 20th-Century Boiling House in Quang Ngai

Unlike cash crops such as rubber or coffee that were brought in from other parts of the world, sugarcane was among Vietnam’s original native trees, and locals have been growing the sweet plant for centuries, ever since we learnt about agriculture.

Today, apart from being a common feature of rural home gardens, sugarcane is the centerpiece of a major industry in Vietnam. Across the central belly of the country, fields of towering cane stretch towards the horizon, from Khanh Hoa to Phu Yen to Quang Nam. The plump stalks are now ferried to processing plants to be transformed into refined sugar, but there was a time before automatons when every step of the sugar-making process was accomplished with manual labor by humans, and even water buffaloes.

These black-and-white shots, taken in Quang Ngai, from the photo book An Nam 1919 – L’Indochine française, are among the earliest visual records of boiling houses in Vietnam. Under colonial French rule, it was likely that the sugar boilers and farmers worked under poor conditions. Still, the trade endured and became a lucrative craft for locals at least until the 1980s, when large-scale production started replacing family-owned boiling houses.

Nguyễn Thị Lệ, who was 75 at the time of a 2013 interview with Thanh Nien, spoke fondly of her childhood, when her father’s sugar boiling business was booming. The family's home is based in Bao An Village of Quang Nam Province, an area well-known for its sugar production. Lệ explained that all sugar-making families must have a giant “juicer” and rear a few water buffaloes to run the juicing. Two wooden blocks, carved with a zigzag pattern, formed a center. The sugarcane stalks were wedged in between the blocks while the buffaloes, attached to the juicing core by a bamboo stick, walked in a circle around it.

The sugarcane juice was then boiled into a syrup, and any impurities were removed. Lastly, the syrup was poured into molds and left to dry. The resulting blocks of crystallized sugar were carted off to the local markets.

Lệ’s family continued boiling sugar at least until 1986, but after older artisans died, few descendants wanted to take up the withering trade. Other households in the village shared the same fate.

[Photos via Redsvn]