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July 25, 2021, 9:33 am

The master carpenter of altar cabinets

(14:25:34 PM 21/11/2013)
( - Ngo Tan Duc, 84, of southern Tien Giang province, has preserved and improved on the traditional art of altar cabinet carpentry.

 84-year-old master carpenter poses with his US$35,380, 30-pillar altar cabinet, the first of its kind.


Last month, Ba Duc, as he is informally known, completed the construction of an altar cabinet that set records in both number of pillars and price. The highly ornate, technically-demanding cabinet has 30 pillars and is worth VND750 million (US$35,380).

Duc built the cabinet for a female client from Ho Chi Minh City. He recalled that he and his son were worried when the client gave them the sketch of the cabinet she wanted. He finally decided to sign the contract and risk his 50-year reputation.

“We were elated when we completed a 21-pillar cabinet, which cost VND550 million ($25,943) two years ago. We were nervous the entire time we constructed this cabinet. If the client wouldn’t accept the final product, we would suffer a huge loss, despite the 30% down payment,” he explained.

Over two months, he and his seventh son never stepped out of their workshop, for fear that without their supervision, workers might make costly mistakes on the cabinet. Finally, their anxiety and efforts paid off. The finished cabinet is intricately carved and its four sides are adorned with lustrous conch shells.

Duc’s great grandfather, Nguyen Van Non, pioneered altar cabinet carpentry in the area more than 110 years ago. Go Cong altar cabinets are widely known for their nice shape, high-quality wood, and dexterous carvings.

However, from 1985 on, the craft was plunged into a crisis as few could afford costly cabinets during the country’s dire economic period.

“At that time, local carpenters were forced to make their living by building plain furniture. Only my children and I clung to the craft, and I kept encouraging my children to stay optimistic about its future,” Duc recalled.

In the late 1990s, when the country began its economic integration with the outside world and locals’ lives began improving, more of Duc’s cabinets were sold. Duc then gathered together seasoned carpenters who were travelling from place to place in search of work to revive altar cabinet carpentry.

The craft gradually thrived and many skilled carpenters opened their own businesses. Duc and his children currently run eight shops.

Over the past five years, Duc has sold more than 100 cabinets to expat Vietnamese in the US, Canada, Australia, and France. Two in Australia place regular orders with him and they in turn sell the cabinets to the Vietnamese community in the country.

Despite his old age, Duc remains fit and agile. He comes to his workshops every day to provide meticulous guidance for the succeeding carpenters and consults his clients on which cabinets best suit their houses and budgets.

Considered a key figure in Go Cong’s altar cabinet carpentry business for the past several years, Duc is the first craftsman to add to the original 3-pillar cabinet 21 and then 30 pillars.

His seventh son said that Duc has imparted his passion, skill, and experience to some hundred carpenters for free.

Altar cabinets have always held key significance in the spiritual lives of Vietnamese people. They are a means for them to worship and pay homage to their ancestors and deceased relatives. The cabinets are typically placed in the most central area of Vietnamese homes.

carpenter, altar cabinets

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