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A Family Embroidery Business in Ha Noi

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Bach Thi Ngai grew up in Ha Tay Province, where she learned the skills needed to become a good wife; cooking cleaning, paining and embroidery. She was particularly good at while embroidery – white thread on white linen – and learned new techniques from the French who came to her village to buy from local artisans. In the 1950s, Mrs. Ngai married and moved to Ha Noi, where she helped run the family shoe business. Its name “Tan My” or “New and Beauty,” came from the names of her first son, Tan, and her second son, My.

For many years, Mrs. Ngai’s family lived behind its shop at 66 Hang Gai Street. Even when material was rationed during the war, Hanoians brought Mrs. Ngai’s pillowcases and sheets to embroider. Young girls asked Mrs. Ngai to embroider handkerchiefs as souvenirs for boyfriends leaving for the war. She stitched such endearments as “I will love your forever” and “Faithful always.”

In the late 1970s, many Swedish people employed by the Bai Bang paper factory as well as wives of Cuban and Russian diplomats brought designs to Mrs. Ngai for copying. More foreigners came to the shop after Viet Nam implemented a free-market ecomony. Mr. Ngai and her daughter, Huong, began exporting embroidered products to Sweden, France, New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the United State. The Europeans and Australians wanted bed sheets, duvets pillowcases and other things for the bedroom. The Americans wanted small bags and hand towels.

Now, there are three Tan My Shops. Mrs. Ngai is still the quality controller; she carefully inspects all of the merchandise. The original shop at 109 Hang Gai and another at 16 Han Trong belong to two of Ngai’s son. However, Mrs. Huong presides over the biggest shop at 66 Harng Gai. Mrs. Huong works seven days a week, overseeing 500 employees mainly in the Thuong Tin District of Ha Tay Province and Ninh Binh’s Hoa Lu District. Thuong Tin does color embroidery and Ninh Binh, white. Mrs. Huong bring materials and designs to be copied to each village. Most workers embroider all day long, stopping only during transplanting and harvest seasons to work in the fields. Although most of these families have worked with Mr. Huong for years, many remain mystified by the purpose of shoe bags, duvet covers and Christmas stockings.

The shop sells goods that are embroidered with traditional Vietnamese designs such as dragons, village life, symbols of long life, health and double-happiness symbol for weddings. There are also man decorative types of embroidery gracing shirts, shoes, and tablecloths.

Two rooms on the second floor are devoted to embroidered reproductions of old European masterpieces, Vietnamese landscapes and paintings by Swedish artist Carl Larsson. These pieces represent Vietnamese embroidery at its best. Many are of museum quality, demonstrating the Vietnamese needlework is a serious art form. “During the war,” Mrs. Ngai says, “people were so poor and could no appreciate beauty. Embroidery almost died out in Viet Nam. I am extremely happy to see the tradition returning.”

Mrs. Huong’s one son wants to study computer science. However, Mrs. Huong’s daughter Thuy Linh helps in the shop after school. After finishing college and studying business administration in London, Thuy Linh plans to help her mother run the business and eventually take over. Linh will be the third generation of her family to work in the craft; she will continue the resurgency of Vietnamese embroidery. This makes Grandmother Ngai very happy.

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