Old house in Hoi An maintains link with Oriental philosophies

As you look at the thousands of name cards and keepsakes that visitors have left in Tan Ky House in the ancient city of Hoi An, you won't have to ask how much interest there is in a house that has been recognised by the Government as a historical and cultural monument since the 1980s.

Others may have their own reasons for loving the house, but for me, as I let the lady of the house guide me around, I feel like spending hours here just to contemplate truly old Oriental architecture, learn about the history that is integrated with every detail of the house, and meditate on life's ancient philosophies.

The house, located at 101 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street, was built more than two centuries ago. The same family has lived in the home for seven generations. The name Tan Ky, meaning "Progress Shop", was given to the house by the second generation to express the owner's wish for a prosperous business.

"Tan Ky still offers evidence of an era when trade with foreigners flourished in this major commercial port city from the 18th until the first half of the 19th century, a time when wealthy merchants built imposing houses like this," said Huynh Thi Tan Xuan, the house's mistress.

At that time, the Tan Ky family traded in agricultural products. Their customers included local and foreign merchants from Southeast Asia and Europe.

Boats sailed up the Thu Bon River to reach the house. Goods ready for sale were kept on the ground floor, while products to be sold later were moved to the upper storage floors by a pulley system.

The storage area is just one of the many details of the house that has remained unchanged to this day. However, by the beginning of last century, Hoi An was no longer among the most important business centres of the region as a result of continuous floods that silted up the river and prevented big ships from entering the port.

"Generation after generation, the Tan Ky family has made untiring attempts to keep the house in good condition, despite time and the devastation of floods," said Xuan.

She said the architecture is the most special thing about the house because it features elements of Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese cultures from a time when the three communities lived together in Hoi An during the 16th and 17th centuries.

The outside structure of the house is made of bricks and tiles, while the inside is made of jack-fruit trees, ironwood and peck-wood, which are very hard and durable. The floor is covered with stone slates and Bat Trang bricks, which came from northern areas of Viet Nam.

The house is joined together with wooden pegs and rests on marble bases. Thanks to thick roofs and wooden walls, the house is cool in summer and warm in winter.

The triple-beam structure consists of three beams, which represent heaven, earth and humans, and five round blocks, which represent metal, wood, water, fire and earth – the five basic natural elements in Eastern philosophy. The entire structure is a symbol of heaven and earth in harmony.

The ceiling curves like a crab shell, hence it is called a crab-shelled ceiling. The roof is supported by two sabres wrapped in silk ribbons, which represent force and flexibility.

The edge of the roof is decorated with four half-dragon fish, a symbol of people who succeed through hard work.

"All of the carvings here are expressions of our ancestors' wishes for something," said Xuan.

"Peaches symbolise the hope for longevity, bats for happiness (in the Han Chinese language the words for bats and happiness have the same sound), rolls of poetry for knowledge, wine gourds for pleasure, and pumpkins with many seeds for plentiful descendants."

"The furniture and art in the house, much of which are original, are also typical of a bygone era," she said.

One of the famous pieces is a pair of wood panels, which are inscribed with parallel sentences. Each stroke of writing is an image of a bird. One hundred birds in total represent honourable men and perfection, she said. "Another unique piece has an interesting story behind it," Xuan said, pointing at what she called the "Cup of Confucius".

A legend says that when ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius nearly died of hunger and thirst on a journey through the desert, he met an old man who led him to a pond and gave him a cup to scoop water.

He scooped up a full cup but when he brought it to his mouth, there was no water. Surprised, he found that the cup had a small hole at the bottom which water fell through when the cup was full. He finally understood that he could not drink the water unless he only partially filled the cup.

Confucius then theorised that human beings needed to control their behaviours and keep their minds level, not in extremes, and live as gentleman with human love, faith, righteousness, wisdom and loyalty. Later on, the legendary cup that saved Confucius was named the Cup of Confucius and his followers produced similar cups in order to practise and propagate his doctrine.

The Cup of Confucius in Tan Ky house maintains its original strangeness because if someone attempts to fill it more than 80 per cent, all the water falls out, said Xuan.

Xuan said Tan Ky, recognised as one of the best preserved and most beautiful old houses in Hoi An today, has the honour of receiving thousands of visitors every year. Many national and international leaders who have visited the house have left their autographs behind.

"Preserving all of these values has become an age-old tradition in our family," she said. "My husband lives and works in Da Nang, but I stay here to look after this property and conserve our traditions." — VNS