A Rollercoaster in Hanoi – My Search for Wooden Buddhist statues

Article written January 20th, 2020 by Kyle Tortora

It has been a very long time since I have been put through the ringer like I have been in the past 48 hours. My buying trip to Hanoi has sent me through the gamut of emotions from pure elation, to utter and complete disappointment, to acceptance and now, to hope for the future… here’s why.

Kyle with the artist, Hung, holding one of his Fat & Happy Buddha carvings.

ELATION!

Hanoi! It is a fantastic city full of life and energy. It has a true beating heart and a vibrancy you just feel when you walk around. I came here in search of wooden Buddhist statues carved in rich exotic woods that I have only seen in pictures through the years. The first morning after my arrival I was picked up by my friend’s cousin, Lan, who lives just outside Hanoi. The plan was for him to take me to Du Du village known for its long history of wood carvings. The village had all these little workshops on the side of the road, I counted about 10 on the first pass. We stopped at the shop of Lan’s friend, Hang, who is an artist in the village. Hang is a 5th generation wood carver in his family.  Looking at the detail in his carvings it was evident that this skill was part of his DNA, it was in his blood. I was not familiar with who Bodhidharma was but when I took one look in his eyes I was hooked! Bodhidharma was a Buddhist monk who is credited with bringing Chan Buddhism to China and who also began the training of the monks of the Shaolin Monastery that lead to Shailin Kungfu. The detail of the carving, in the old, bearded and haggard face of the Chinese Buddhist sage, I felt the smooth surface of wood and looked into the depth of the colors in the veins of the wood… it was love at first sight!

“The detail of the carving, in the old, bearded and haggard face of the Chinese Buddhist sage, I felt the smooth surface of wood and looked into the depth of the colors in the veins of the wood…it was love at first sight!”

A face to instantly fall in love with. Bodhidharma with his pensive wrinkles and intense eyes.

DISAPPOINTMENT

After 2 hours of selecting statues and falling in love with every one I held in my hands, I started the typical back and forth banter of how to organize payment, shipping and export. Hang’s face, although very happy to have me in his shop, turned a little sad and started to tell my friend Lan “You cannot export these statues out of Vietnam”. Those were the sad words Lan translated for me. Apparently the wood these statues are carved from is prohibited for exported out of Vietnam to the United States. I have been exporting from countries all over Asia for over 20 years now, and if I stopped every time I heard this I would not be in business. There is always a way to get it done!

I called my shipping agent in Da Nang and she told me that it is indeed illegal to export the statues because of the wood they are carved from. The statues are carved from slow growing hardwoods which are illegal to export from Vietnam along with every country in Asia. The reason these statues are still sold in the Vietnamese market, I’ve found, is because there is still a market within Vietnam and an illegal underground business of smuggling to the Chinese market. My heart imploded in my chest! To have a whole village with groups of artists like Hang, full of stunning statues and to not be able to show them to the world, show them to you… just awful! I traveled days to get here, 23 hours on a plane, all to be told it is not possible. I went back to the hotel, to sleep, feeling dejected and utterly disappointed.  

I spoke with my shipping agent in Vietnam, Le, who I have worked with for years exporting white marble. She told me about how numerous shops in Hoi An in the south of Vietnam had to close down because they were unable to export to tourists. The export ban destroyed the livelihood of a whole village.

I knew there must be a way around this… I woke up at 3:30 in the morning, thank you jet lag, with a light bulb idea. I sent off a flurry of emails to my shipping agents in China and Cambodia, and Vietnam. I thought, I can ship the statues overland to either China or Cambodia and then ship them to the States from there! Genius! I sat at my computer and waited for the world to wake up…

Click the video above to see how these wood statues are carved

ACCEPTANCE

After a predawn run around the Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi (I love Hanoi!) I returned to my room to check for responses to my emails. Summed up in one word the responses were, NO. The statues are illegal. They would be confiscated at the border. If you did get them across the border you would not be able to export them from either Cambodia or China as the woods are illegal there as well.

On a larger scale my mind started to think about this issue as well. Why are these woods illegal? In thinking about it, the answer was obvious: deforestation. With a deep love for animals I understand the need for wildlife in their own environment. If I was in some way a part of taking away a tree branch for the endangered Black Crested Gibbon to sit on, or the shade for an Indochina Tiger to sleep under, then I would rather not be a part of this in any way. In understanding why these slow growing trees are illegal I was OK with not being a part of the problem. After digesting this in the morning I knew that I would be Ok leaving Vietnam without these statues.  

Click the video above to see the last stage of the carving process; sanding and smoothing

HOPE

I still had plans to meet with another artist from another village for the day. A young man by the name of Bang. Before setting out I knew I could not export his wood statues but my love and curiosity for them and the people who make them fueled my soul. Bang is a young artist whose family has been carving wood for 2 generations. His father started the business and he and his brother now run it.

Upon entering his small shop my heart immediately swelled again, taking in all his beautiful carvings. I always find it amazing how styles and composition change from village to village. His statues had an entirely different feel. More refined than the rustic and natural carvings of Hang.  

After going through the entire process of falling in love and my heart breaking at not being able to export these beautiful statues, another light bulb went off in my head!  What if, instead of using illegal, slow growing wood, we could use legal faster growing wood? This was righteous on so many levels! I could give the artists in Vietnam an alternative, something legal and sustainable. I could then do my part to prevent deforestation of old growth trees by providing a profitable alternative in using legal, faster growing trees. I could help reinvigorate life into the carving industry, making it Ok to export once again!

It is a plan that is in the works now… I am not sure it will come to fruition as there are many new licenses that I must obtain. If you have ever dealt with Asian bureaucracy then you will appreciate how difficult this can be! But I have hope that with the help of my shipping agent, Le and the artist, Bang and Hang, my plan will work.

We want to do this the right way – to keep this beautiful art alive.

You, our loyal customers will be the first to know if it does!

Three artists working together in their homes, it is an industry where the majority of the artists are woman which differs greatly from other Asian countries

UPDATED MARCH 20, 2020

We have exciting news! We have found hard, fast growing woods which are legal to export from Vietnam. I have placed an order with Bang and look to have these statues for sale in late 2020!

Be sure to subscribe to our newsletter, at the bottom of the page, for more stories about my buying trips. By signing up you will also be the first to find out when these statues arrive, and receive a sneak peak at what these statues look like when completed.

Thailand; Love for Making Buddha Statues

 

Chaing Saen Buddha Statue
Large Thai Brass Buddha with Jew, view his Thai Buddha statues here>

I love meeting people with true passion. Passion for anything; painting, traveling, their children. Six years ago I was very fortunate to meet someone passionate about making Thai Buddha statues and his name is Jew.

In my first 4 years of traveling through Thailand I spent every waking hour of every day I was there looking for good honest people who make great Buddha statues for my budding business, Lotus Sculpture. Every year I was disappointed and had to settle for doing business with a factory who made quality, yet uninspired Buddha statues.

6 years ago while meandering through an amulet market in Bangkok I stumbled upon a great little shop full of beautiful Buddha statues that had both a sense of peace and radiated energy. They were not typical of the Buddhas sold anywhere else in the market. I was giddy from the start. Did I just find the people that I have been looking for the past 4 years? I stayed and enjoyed the day with the mother and wife of the owner who was away at the workshop. I made plans to come back the next day to meet the owner, Jew, and to go to see where he makes his Buddhas. When I met Jew I was outright ecstatic! He was young and passionate. In the hour and half drive to the outskirts of Bangkok to see his workshop I could feel that he was just as excited as I was. He was telling me about himself in his broken English and I was doing the same in my broken Thai.  One thing I remember from our first meeting was that he was not trying to sell me anything. He was continually pointing out the Buddha statues that he loved and that he was proud of making. “No one else has this style. I am the only one making this Buddha.” he kept saying. And he was right. No one else has his quality and style in making Buddhas. Jew’s father started the workshop 25 years ago and Jew just took over the day to day operations of the workshop. He was very happy to have their first and only foreign customer!

 

“I just love making Buddhas.
I’d make Buddhas even if I made no money.”

Besides the beautiful proportions and style of the Buddha statues Jeuw is a master of patina. He can make any statue have the most beautiful antique patina. I noticed this immediately that the color of his Buddhas was so authentic and stunning to look at. Even in his smaller Buddhas there is care given to the color of the piece. For this reason many known “Antique” shops in Bangkok purchase his Buddha statues. They sell his newly made sculpture as antiques to foreign tourists. I have seen many shops selling antiques in Bangkok that are not antique at all.

Enjoying dinner of the Khoa Praya river in Bangkok
Enjoying dinner of the Khoa Praya river in Bangkok

Six years later our relationship has grown immensely. Each year he shows me other styles he is making and Buddhas he had in mind for the future. Each night after our business is done we go out to a dinner on the Khoa Praya river in Bangkok and just talk Buddhas and life. One thing he reinforced to me was the passion he carries with him about Buddhas. “I just love making Buddhas.” He told me to start on my personal collection of Thai Buddha statues which I have done. He told me that there is no one else in Thailand who makes Buddhas like him. The younger generation has no interest in making Buddha statues and he feels that when he gets older there will not be anyone else who will carry on with his passion for the sculptures. I do hope he is wrong.

Lotus Sculpture has been blessed to have such a good person with Love for his Art and Lord Buddha supplying us with all our Thai Buddha statues.

 

Click here to View the Thai Buddha Statues Jew Makes for Lotus Sculpture!

View All Kyle’s Stories from His Travels and Meet the Artists!

Meet Balan Marble Artist
Travel to Bali
Stone Artists South India
Bronze in South India Artists
Meet Wood Artists
Kolkata Fiber Artists
 

 

Cruising for Ganeshas & Buddhas in Bali!

Bali….I was amazed that I got through India without getting sick. In my 10 years of 15 trips to India I have managed to get a wide range of illnesses ranging from ordinary bugs to full-on, 105 degree temperatures. I dodged the bullet this trip! I was amazed! I jumped on the plane to Bali and patted myself on the back. Well done Kyle!

My favorite days in Bali are spent on my motor scooter visiting the markets and being invited into homes in village workshops

After arriving in Bali I sat down to a nice dinner at a respectable restaurant then quietly went to sleep that night. I awoke at 5am with an acrobat in my stomach. Yup, sick off the first meal I ate in Bali! That is what I get for counting my blessings to early! I spent the next day going through the lava stone workshops of my friend Christian, looking for quality Buddha statues that his family has been producing in Bali for the past 20 years. He consistently has the best quality Buddha carvings as well the best coloring for the statues. His artists can produce any color or texture in the stone. Each year I have seen a consistent improvement in the statues.

Lava stone Ganesh statue

On previous trips I have always shied away from Bali style Ganesha statues.  I was so used to the refined lifelike appearance of Ganesh in my travels through India, that the more crude Ganeshas of Bali did not seem attractive to me.  However, this year I opened my eyes and really saw the Bali style Ganesh for the first time and I liked what I saw.  There is a quote that I love about Ganesh;  “If you take home a stone and worship it in full faith, over a course of time you are bound to see the image of Ganesh.”  I truly saw Ganesh in the stone!  His fat almost tribal qualities are a perfect variation to the Indian style Ganesh.  As usual I bought too many of them!  I can never say no to a good statue!  In roaming thru his workshop I was consistently fighting back the desire to sit down and go to sleep or just fall over.  But I made it through the day…then on to Ubud, the cultural center of Bali to visit my Buddha wood carvers!

My favorite days in Bali are spent on my rented motor scooter cruising through the markets, stores and back village workshops in Ubud. I must go into 30-40 shops a day. It is not easy to find quality wood Buddhas in Bali. There are hundreds of shops selling wood Buddhas however, over the years I have only found a small handful of artists who actually carve with true feeling for the work they are doing. Two artist that consistently make beautiful Buddhas are Mr Sayub and Mr Wayan. Wayan and his son carve my large standing Buddha statues on a blooming lotus base. This year he has carved two of them for me. One 8 feet tall and the other 6 feet tall. The detail and time taken on the flowing robes of the Buddha set his Buddha apart from other standing Buddhas!

Wayan with unfinished 6 foot Buddha statue
Wayan with unfinished 6 foot wood Buddha statue

wooden buddha statues in Bali
Sayub with his son displaying his unique Buddha statues

My other artist who I always look forward to seeing is Sayub. He makes small Buddha statues each usually with a very unique hand position. The thin fingers of each statue and minute detailing in the robes in my opinion crown him the current king of Balinese wood work…at least for Buddha statues! I also managed to pick up some very large wood statues including a 7 foot Kwan yin, 8 foot meditating Buddha and two other 7 foot standing Buddhas. After a couple of days of searching for Buddhas and cruising through rice fields on my scooter it was time to return to the coast.

I noticed in the shops in Ubud that there was some new metal work in Bali and I was determined to find out where they were being made. The statues were of Hindu gods and goddesses in various forms. The style was more similar in style to Cambodian Hindu and Buddhist statues with many arms and small weapons. I thus headed into Denpasar, the capital to check the markets. I knew I would not find the source here but I did find many shops that were selling the statues I was looking for. After many questions to many dealers I finally nailed down the source of the metal Hindu statues which I went to the following day. My search was rewarded and I choose some beautiful images. My favorite being a dancing Vishnu statue like no other I have seen before. The statue reminded me more of a Nataraja figure. I find it so fulfilling to start on a search for new sculpture mediums and designs and then achieve my goal. There is nothing like finding new artists!!!

By this time in my trip I really needed a reward. I spent the past 23 days working, flying, scooting, exploring every day and deserved a day off. I went to the quite surf beach of Padang Padang and got a bungalow on the ocean and spent the next day surfing and enjoying the ocean and stillness. My body and mind appreciated the day of mental tranquility and relaxation! Here is a video I shot from my bungalow. Yes, it was paradise!

Then I was off to Bangkok, Thailand and the last leg of my trip!

 

Click here to View the Wood Buddha Statues Made in Bali

View All Kyle’s Stories from His Travels and Meet the Artists!

Meet Jew, Thai Buddha Artist
Meet Balan, Indian Artist
Stone Artists South India
Bronze in South India Artists
Meet Wood Artists
Kolkata Fiber Artists
 

 

From Jail Cell to Family Man, the Rise of an Artist!

I met Balan on my 2nd trip to India in 2001. Balan was somewhat of a celebrity among the Indian stone artists of the small fishing village of Mamallipuram, India because he had a golden tongue that could seal the deal with any of the visiting tourists for exporting any of the furniture or statues they purchased locally.  His celebrity brought me knocking to his door one evening looking for someone to help me export my statues that I purchased for my budding company Lotus Sculpture.

He is a character taken right out of a Bollywood movie cast as the criminal or crime boss.

My first thought as I saw Balan was; “Thug”.  He is a broad boned, heavy set man with balding hair, gaps in his teeth and skin the blackest color of night.  He is a character taken right out of a Bollywood movie cast as the criminal or crime boss.  I’m not going to say I trusted him immediately because I didn’t.  That took time.  His bachelor pad as he referred to it was a rented three room space that was formerly the town jail complete with bars in the windows and that feeling that some unsavory things took place there.  This only assisted my first impressions of my future shipper.  Balan was also a budding artist who had two marble artists in his employment.  I looked at his marble work and was impressed.  That night we worked over some of the details of my export and his golden tongue went to work on me and I was won over by his sense of humor and keen business acumen.  Today he is my best friend in India.

Balan with his two daughters Adittya and Akash

With each passing year Balan’s business has continued to grow.  From day one we forged a strong business relationship where I would pretty much buy every Hindu marble statue he produced.  I was his only customer.  His work he called “Masala statues” where he would mix together different aspects of different gods in poses that were not typical and never produced before.  His work was fresh and new and I loved it.  With each passing year I would see how much he had grown and each time he would thank me and tell me it was all from me.  I was, after all his only customer.  View Balan’s red marble and black marble Hindu Statues.

Now Balan is married to his wife of 6 years, Aril.  He has two adorable children, Akash 2, and Adittya 5, and a workshop of 30 men working for him.  Akash is an eater.  When I first held her she tried to bite me by taking a nibble out of my arm I guess it was her only defense against her older sister.  Addy is a talker and continually speak to me in Tamil even though I don’t understand a word.  Both love photos and on each visit to the house they would take out pictures of me holding them when they were babies and keep putting them under my nose to look at.
Their little friends in the neighborhood call me the “big white man”.  Akash got very confused because she thought my name was “uncle”.  She asked Balan who is “big white man”? in her high pitched little girl voice and we had a laugh over this.

My favorite days in India consist of sitting under his large Banyan tree he has in his workshop/home with Akash and Addy crawling around causing trouble, which is what we did this Sunday.  It was unbearably hot so we just stayed put and played with the kids as we talked about future plans for each other.  His workshop has grown so much in the past couple of years.  I am no longer his only customer.  He is building a temple in Mumbai and is starting on plans for a temple in London!  It is amazing how much has changed in 10 years.

Sometimes I feel like I have a double life.  I have my life in the USA consisting of my family and friends.  Then I have my life in Asia filled with a different group of family and friends.  Most of the artists I work with are similar in age to me and thus I have grown as they have grown.  As each has married and had children I have been there to see them as babies and watch them grow up.  Having Addy and Akash crawling around me like I am a jungle gym calling out “uncle” whenever they want to get my attention fills me with love for them.  The connection to my artists and their families only grows with each trip I take.  I am so thankful for having these special relationships half way around the world.  They are my 2nd family and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Things have come so far since my first meeting with Balan in his bachelor-pad, jail cell home. My “thug” best friend has a beautiful family and business is great!  I couldn’t be more happy for him!

Large Hanuman statue
Balan and I together with a seated Hanuman sculpture

 

Click here to View the Statues Balan Makes for Lotus Sculpture!

View All Kyle’s Stories from His Travels and Meet the Artists!

Meet Jew, Thai Buddha Artist
Travel to Bali
Stone Artists South India
Bronze in South India Artists
Meet Wood Artists
Kolkata Fiber Artists
 

 

Guru the Taxi Driver

On a rather sad note I found out that Guru, my taxi driver for the past 6 years, pictured on the right, passed away from a heart attack two months ago. He was one of the happiest people I have ever met. He was only about 4 foot 10 inches tall and had to reach down to touch the pedals of the car. He always had a big devilish grin on his face with big gaps in his teeth you could drive a car through. His main one liner to me was “Kyle, are you Happy?” as he winked, held his thumb up and smiled displaying his naughty grin. He did this about 5 times a day just to make sure I was happy…
The taxi rides of this trip were not the same without him. He was sorely missed.

Balan & Guru enjoy an afternoon Thali, lunch, while on a buying road trip in Mysore, India

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