Sam Thi Giang is an exceptional artisan of the community of Thai Do ethnic minorities in Quy Chau District, Nghe An Province. Although she is unable to move around normally due to a congenital disorder, Ms. Giang has proved to be an excellent embroiderer.
Her personal disabilities and her family’s financial constraint forced Sam Thi Giang to quit schooling after she had finished primary education. However, she did not surrender. At home, she began to embroider to continue to cherish her hope and find happiness. Ms. Giang learned embroidery from her grandmother, her mother, and from other neighboring women. Initially, she was so disappointed as she was unable to hold the needle firmly enough due to her weak hands. However, her patience and persistence enabled her to surmount difficulties. It was the only way for her to make a living, Ms. Giang told herself. “Many asked me why I practiced embroidery day in day out, I didn’t dare to answer the question,” she says. “As I conceal my aspiration in embroidery, I have to do the job until I am totally exhausted.”
Her determination and aptitude have gradually paid off. Ms. Giang has come to master all the complicated embroidery techniques of the Thai Do, or Red Tai, people, especially the reversing embroidery (embroidering using colorful threads on the reverse side of the product and the patterns will appear on the right side). All the patterns on Ms. Giang’s embroidered products are Red Tai people’s symbols such as the sun, dragons, tigers, two-headed scorpions, flowers and butterflies. She uses threads spun from cotton fiber or natural silk fiber and dyed with natural plant colors.
To have a beautifully embroidered brocade fabric, says Sam Thi Giang, the first thing is to select the suitable colors, and the next is to pick the right patterns, each of which has its own meaning. For instance, the sun symbolizes human love. “Notably, a Thai people’s brocade is embroidered on the right side but it is worn with the reverse side out, as all the patterns are more beautiful on the reverse side,” Ms. Giang explains.
Embroidery skills play an important role in making a robe or a pieu scarf, aside from the quality of threads and the use of colors. Such skills require embroiderers’ diligence and artistic creativity. This is why Thai mothers often teach embroidery to their daughters when they become 13 or 14, especially when they have finished farm chores or in the rainy season.
Out of school
Sam Thi Giang looks like a 10-year-old girl though she is 32 now. Her timidity makes others think that she is an introvert person. However, the tiny woman is actually fond of learning everything around her so that she can integrate into and contribute to the community.
Ms. Giang loves reading very much, saying she learns the outside world through the books given by her relatives and friends. Internet has been available in her village since 2010 and this has opened a new horizon to her. Smartphones and social networks are now communication means that help her overcome her physical disability and connected with the outside world.
Despite her tiny body and weak health, Ms. Giang’s parents were determined to let her go to school. She was able to go to school on her own in the first two school years, but her mom had to carry Ms. Giang on her back in the three school years that followed.
Sam Thi Tinh, a cousin who lives next door to Sam Thi Giang’s house, still remembers that her cousin studied well in spite of her poor health. Ms. Giang was also friendly to her friends and neighbors.
The secondary school was on the other bank of a stream in the commune and was three kilometers from Ms. Giang’s house. In the flooding season, crossing the stream was dangerous to all students, while her mother was busy to support the family and could not carry her daughter to school on her back every day. Therefore, she had to quit school.
As she had to stay home while her friends continued going to school, Ms. Giang was sad. Yet she did not let her mother know it, fearing that she could make her mom sad. “I was very sorry not to be able to go to school,” she says. “I’m always fond of learning, and I always love to hear songs about school and teachers.”
Over the past 20 years, Sam Thi Giang has seldom gone out. Every day, she embroiders from 8 a.m. till 11 p.m., and only takes a rest for her meals and sleep. After years of training to bolster her job passionately, she is now able to make her embroidered products become more sophisticated and livelier.
However, while her craftsmanship has been better, she has had to face new challenges. Her hearing and vision abilities have been weakened over the past three years. Her wounds will bleed when she sits for a long time, so she has to lie down when embroidering. This working position has affected her productivity: it takes her four months to finish embroidering a robe instead of just one month as she did previously. Given her current situation, she thinks that she can do the job a few more years before having to stop embroidering for good.
Although all Ms. Giang’s embroidered products are beautiful, subtle and unique, they are hard to be sold because she has not had any marketing channels. If the output for her products is good, she can support herself and the local embroidery craft will not fall into oblivion. This has prompted a group of young people to lend her a helping hand.
Do Quy Duong, a group member, says in June 2019, he and some of his friends started their project by making a video clip about Sam Thi Giang. They then wondered whether traditional weaving could secure a position in modern life, and whether a change in patterns and designs to suit the market would have any impact on the local culture.
Mr. Duong found the answers for such questions at a seminar held at the National Museum of Singapore. Earlier, he learned about the “Entwine: Maybank Women Eco-Weavers Meet Southeast Asian Artists” project via Facebook. He made a trip to Singapore to see how Maybank Foundation could support this project. There he learned that Maybank Foundation would finance non-governmental organizations or cooperatives in Southeast Asian countries to train weaving for low-income women. The project had been implemented for two years, and this was the second time Maybank Foundation had introduced the project to the public and invited embroidery artists to perform their craftsmanship in Singapore. “Color Silk, a non-governmental organization from Cambodia, was invited to perform at the event,” Mr. Duong says. “I had a talk with Ngorn Vanntha, a representative of Color Silk, and the talk answered all my questions.”
Ngorn Vanntha said Maybank Foundation funded Color Silk’s training courses for the women participating in the project in five months. Apart from training in weaving skills, her group also offered training in business affairs and craftsmanship. After such courses, Color Silk would grant startup capital for students to buy looms and materials for production. Color Silk would buy all their products for export to Europe or Japan upon request. Interested women participating in the project were low-income earners or disabled ones, who wanted to develop traditional weaving.
From the Color Silk’s model, back to Vietnam, Mr. Duong’s group discussed with Sam Thi Giang and reached an agreement on the designs of tablecloths and embroidered paintings for wall mounting. All the patterns embroidered on these products are symbols in Thai people’s culture.
Another member of the group, Sam Thi Tinh, who is an artisan in Thai brocade weaving and a cousin of Ms. Giang, carries out a long-term project to welcome and entertain tourists who want to learn about brocade weaving craft and Thai culture in the village.
“I pursue embroidery not to aim at just raising my income,” Ms. Giang says. “I want my offspring to learn the embroidery handed down from our ancestors. I also hope that local and international visitors know about the traditional embroidery of our Thai people.”
By Do Quang Tuan Hoang