It has been nearly 60 years since Hanh cut her first petals, bent her first stems, and painted her first fabrics. She is known as “Queen of Silk Flowers” in Hanoi.
Entering into the small shop of artisan Nguyen Mai Hanh at 5 Cha Ca street, Hanoi, one has the impression of being lost in a forest of flowers. They carpet the floor, climb the walls, and hang from the ceiling.
Hanh was born and educated in a well-to-do family and was urged to pursue a “feminine occupation”. She tried her hand at drawing. But her teacher advised her against pursuing a career in fine art, saying there were already too many trying to make it as painters. What the country needed, he said, were craftswomen. Hanh took his advice and began learning the trade that her mother had practiced for years.
“Silk flower making reminds me of my mother. She taught me a lot about maintaining the household as well as silk flower making. Then I came to be passionate about art so much that I decided to follow the calling of making silk flowers,” said Hanh.
It is believed that the hardest thing is to make the silk flowers look like real ones. But artisan Mai Hanh thinks that silk flowers should look not only lively but also soulful.
“In this job, you really need passion. A real flower looks lively and soulful. So you have to get immersed in every step to make silk flowers as lively as possible. I have to study every petal of the real flower carefully, smell it, watch every bud and even take care of the way flowers naturally fall and arrange themselves. All of this helps me create a work of high standard,” Hanh explained.
Those who come to learn from Ms. Mai Hanh are taught unique techniques. To make the silk flowers look soulful, the artisans have to do every step by hand from cutting fabric, creating curves, to coloring. When doing the job, they have to be very mindful.
Nguyen Thi Hoang Yen, one of Hanh’s students for years, said, “I have studied with her since I was a high-school student. She looks like a kind mother, enthusiastically filling her students with inspiration. This job requires patience and diligence.”
Silk flowers are very popular with both domestic buyers and foreigners visiting the Old Quarter.
Nguyen Thanh Thuy, one of Hanh’s customers, said, “I love flowers very much. Once passing by Mai Hanh’s store, I thought silk flowers were real. They are so beautiful. Sometimes I visit her store to enjoy some new flowers she has made. Of course, I have some vases of flowers at my house and my office.”
70-year-old Mai Hanh has had many business trips abroad to exchange experience, as well as to introduce and demonstrate the art of silk flowers in Japan, France, Mongolia, the Philippines, Germany, India, the Republic of Korea, and Thailand. In 1986, the Government recognized her as an official Silk Flower Craftswoman at the age 35, and then awarded her the title “People’s Artisan” in 2016.
Here are some pictures provided by Mai Hanh’s store: