Tuan is a 42 year old Christian who operates a small metalworking factory in his front yard. He and his family craft gongs using the same methods that his ancestors have employed for the past 400 years. The only modern concessions are the electric fans that replace hand-pumped billows. That, and the fact that all of their gongs are made from liquified American bombs.
I had the pleasure of visiting Tuan’s workshop outside of Hoi An with my friend Khoa, a former software engineer turned free-wheeling artistic inventor. For the past few years, Tuan and Khoa have been collaborating to design and produce a series of multi-toned drums. Together, the metalsmith and mad scientist have created some beautiful, unique instruments.
A few years back, Khoa had tried to buy a hang drum in France; after being placed on a five-year waiting list, he resolved to simply make one himself. Searching for an expert, he rode his motorbike through Tuan’s village, which is renowned as a center of traditional metalworking. There, he followed the clanging and the smoke into Tuan’s workshop. A creative partnership was born. They built their first hang drum, and then started making “sky drums,” an invention of Khoa’s that plays like a convex steel drum.
When we walked in to the open-air workshop, my lungs immediately filled with smoke. Khoa introduced me to Tuan and his family; the first thing I noticed that, despite the smog of the place, everyone was smoking cigarettes. Tuan speaks no English but was genial and welcoming. He walked me through the various workshop stations, all of which were being utilized, as Khoa translated.
Today, there are only three families in the area that follow the traditional method of gong making. It’s a labor-intensive process; it requires a team of people with complementary skills to work together in complete harmony. In Tuan’s workshop, his wife is in charge of everything to do with fire (“she’s the shaman,” Khoa joked), Tuan’s son does the heavy lifting, and Tuan does the intricate tuning once the gong is cast. As I stepped around hot coals, huge molds, and a small dog chasing a kitten, I was amazed at how effortless the family made everything seem.
The process begins when Tuan’s wife fills a cylinder with charcoal and bits and pieces of exploded munitions. She then places hot coals on top. After a few minutes, she starts up a fan that feeds air into the cylinder through a long tube. Sparks fly as the fire grows. It takes about twenty minutes for the metal to liquify.
In the meantime, Tuan’s son arranges the mold, which looks like a solid captain’s wheel halved lengthwise. He binds it with bamboo, stacking stones between the rope and the wood to prevent them from slipping. There’s a small hole in the middle of the mold, which faces upward.
Once the metal has melted, the team works together to pour it into the hole in the mold. Standing just a few feet away, it was like watching a stream of lava flow from a bucket. Some of the liquid spilled and instantly hardened on the side of the mold; one of the helpers chipped at it and it came off in one piece.
The liquid metal takes the form of the mold. Once they have the cast, they place it into an open oven and line it with hot bricks. This makes it pliable enough to tune, which Tuan does by hammering and straightening the metal. According to Khoa, tuning is maddeningly difficult and requires great skill.
After the work was over, I sat with Tuan. He demonstrated the resonance of a finished gong by striking it and counting to five. At exactly the fifth second, the pitch jumped a fifth. It was as if I could see the sound wave emerge from the vibrating metal.
We sat down and sipped tea. Tuan held a piece of metal that had once bolted a bomb together. I asked him what it was like to work with a material that may well have killed people.
Smiling, he told me that he felt good about transforming something destructive into a something that brings people together. His gongs are used by Buddhists and ethnic minorities for prayers, rituals, and celebrations. The metal that once brought pain now brings peace.
Was he angry at the Americans for what they did to his country?
Tuan grinned. His family has been working with metal for hundreds of years. Sourcing it had always been a challenge. By dropping more bombs on Vietnam than all the bombs used during World War II, the Americans had blanketed the country with cheap scrap metal. It’s a resource that won’t be exhausted any time soon.
With his hands held toward heaven, Tuan told me that the metal was “a gift from the sky.”
I realized then that this was no gimmick. Tuan is an artisan, not a peace activist. His only agenda is to craft the best instruments possible. If the source material comes from a bomb, so be it. The profound symbolism is a sweet bonus.
Khoa and Tuan sat and played one of their sky drums. I watched as they spoke excitedly about modifications to the design. “My next dream is to create a drum with a 23-note scale,” Khoa told me. It would require panels on the side and a mechanism for modulating the frequency. “I don’t know how we’ll do it.”
A few locals had wandered in. It seemed like the first time they had seen a sky drum. Khoa sat with one young man and taught him how to play it, first with mallets, then with his hands. “I don’t make any money selling my drums,” Khoa told me. “Sharing the music with others is my real salary.”
I learned later that Khoa had been exposed to Agent Orange as a child growing up in Saigon during the war. His mother had shipped him off to boarding school in Paris at age 10; eventually, he entered the world of computer science and worked all over the world creating security systems. “When I got to the top of the ladder, I thought of myself as a king. Now I’m just a has been,” he laughs.
When he turned 40, Microsoft bought Khoa’s company. His stock options skyrocketed and he cashed out. That same day, he discovered that he had developed Parkinson’s. “God was giving with one hand and taking with the other. It was a good lesson for me.” Khoa’s attitude towards money changed. His priorities shifted from the material to the spiritual.
“That’s when I became a real person. Before that, I was just an asshole,” he told me, his French accent making “asshole” sound like “hassle.” He moved back to Vietnam, where creativity and innovation became his life’s purpose.
Twelve years later, Khoa has given the world the sky drum and his version of the hang drum, a series of “abstract strategy games” (geometrical variations on chess and checkers), and a ton of gigantic kites. He also teaches math and science at a local school, challenging his students to choose creativity over the path of least resistance. For him, these creative pursuits aren’t just a pastime; they are what keep him going.
The day after we visited the workshop, Khoa picked Michele and me up from the hotel. He didn’t really tell us where we were going, just to bring a guitar. Soon we were riding through village roads that I recognized from the day before. Within 15 minutes, we had arrived back at Tuan’s factory.
There wasn’t as much smoke this time. We sat down for tea with Tuan and his family. Tuan’s granddaughter poked her head from around a corner; we waved and she vanished.
“Please share some of your music,” Khoa said to us. “It will be a good way to thank Tuan.”
A group of locals had gathered in the workshop. We played three songs, the last of which earned us a standing ovation from Khoa. Tuan told us that he sings at his church and that we’d have to come back and do a concert with him. We were happy to accept his invitation.
Then it was time to go. We shook everyone’s hands and thanked them. As we rode away, Tuan and his family all waved to us, then went back to work.
More information about Khoa’s creations at his website: http://abstractstrategygames.blogspot.com