The Eyes Have It: a tale of ancient monsters and gods in Hoi An
The ancient port of Hoi An was once at the heart of the silk and spice trade. Situated between China and the sea route to India, the Chinese and Japanese settled in Hoi An and the town thrived for hundreds of years as a result. Long before the silk and spice trading, fishing was probably the reason for the first settlements at the mouth of the Thu Bon river which runs through the town.
The townsfolk’s concerns about the sea and the elements that can ravage this coastline can be seen in the temples and assembly halls on the main streets in Hoi An. The most famous, the Japanese, or Temple Bridge is dedicated to the God of the north who controls the weather and also to Kashima, the Japanese thunder god who has the power to quell Nazuma, the earthquake Catfish Monster whose tail is in India and head in Japan.
Only a few metres away is the Cantonese Assembly where a fantastic sculpture of the imperial, five clawed dragon dominates the forecourt. In Chinese mythology the dragon has the power to control water including the rivers, typhoons and the rain. In a community of fishermen and merchant seamen, these elements stand between life and death as men ply the waves to bring fish and goods to market.
The boats, too, are decorated with omens to protect the sailors from uncertain perils.
If you walk along the riverside in the heart of town, you will see all kinds of wooden boats. Some transport goods up and down the waterways, some are ferries and others fish the waters of the East Sea. Many now take tourists on short trips on balmy afternoons returning as the sun goes down on the silken yellow waters.
What is common to all the boats is the pair of stylized eyes painted on the bow in black and white. These eyes that are characteristic of Vietnamese boats were also once used by the Phoenicians in ancient Greece and can still be seen in Senegal on the west coast of Africa. In Malta, the eyes of Osiris adorn the bows of fishing boats. Osiris was originally an Egyptian god who was believed to be the kind-hearted judge of the dead in their underworld. He also signified rebirth and was associated with the annual flooding of the Nile which brings new life and food.
What do the locals say about the eyes on their boats? Some say they are to ward off evil spirits, some say the boats will thus be able to find their way back to port on storm nights but the most common explanation is that they are there to scare the monsters of the deep. There is no doubt that if you stand in front of the larger boats so you can see both eyes, they can look more than a little intimidating even on the warmest of Hoi An afternoons!
Bridget March is an artist who flew over to Vietnam from the UK to visit a friend a few years back. Deeply inspired, she decided to pack up everything she owned into a shed and move here to create art full time.
Gallery | March Gallery
Address | 25 Phan Boi Chau
Website | http://bridgetmarch.co.uk
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