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Dinnerware for APEC Gala Dinner:

The Ten-Year Journey Behind the Porcelain Gems That Grace the Apec Dining Table

Tuesday, 11/14/2017 09:49
“Porcelain is a wonderful messenger when it comes to promoting the tradition and culture of a country. This has been proven through a long journey in human history. If Vietnam ever hosts APEC again, I have to take that chance”.


Chapter 1:

The unusual potter

Sticking to a strict macrobiotic diet, waking up at 5 a.m. every day for morning exercise, working 15 hours per day, most people think of Ly Ngoc Minh as an energetic and lively person.

Born in 1950, Minh is the captain and the soul of Minh Long, the biggest ceramics and porcelain brand in Southeast Asia that employs 3,000 people at its factory in Vietnam’s southern province of Binh Duong.

Asked how they feel about their boss, the staff say they admire and adore him, but they're also afraid of “Uncle Minh”.

“Uncle Minh” is a man with an extreme love for clay, a kind of passion that is not easy to understand and cannot be explained in words. Ever since he was a boy, Minh has been playing with the earthy material. For him, clay is like a human being: each piece is individual with its own characteristics and biographies. Holding a piece of clay in his hands, Minh can tell almost immediately what type of clay it is, its structure, where it comes from and how it should be baked.

Minh was born into a poor family. He lost his father as a child and had no chance of attending secondary school.

As a boy, he had to help his mother make ceramics and take them to the market. That boy grew up into a young man who haunted himself with the question: “Why shouldn’t I make the most beautiful and quality ceramic products in the world that can be used by every Vietnamese family?” To find the answer, he traveled across the country, visiting villages where locals held tight to their long-standing traditions of making pottery, and spent days in libraries going through every page that had information about the art of ceramics in Vietnam. His hard work paid off, and he now produces some of the most exquisite Vietnamese pottery to be found.

The journey also took Minh on a long trip to more than 50 countries, from China to Japan and across Europe, setting foot in age-old pottery workshops to learn their skills, experience and knowledge.

Impressed by German products, which he praises as the world’s most best, Minh decided to apply German techniques to his own ceramics and porcelain.

In 1996, he spent more than $1 million building a laboratory, the most modern and well-equipped in Vietnam and the region at the time, just to study clay. Any tableware produced by the Minh Long factory has to go through hundreds of tests in this lab, where Minh can be found every day searching for a better product that can better the world's top brands. Minh knows that being gifted is not enough, and to succeed he needs to test his own knowledge and skills.

This lab is where many firsts in the ceramics industry, not only in Vietnam, but in the world, have taken place. Minh Long has succeeded in producing ceramics using a one-time baking technique, something that several workshops in Europe are still struggling to master.

Dietmar Preibinger, business director of German ceramics producer Sama Maschinenbau, has expressed his admiration for Minh for being able to master this unique technique, which bakes ceramics at 1,380 degrees Celsius.

Minh is at his happiest when he can bring to life a product that no one else has ever made or even thought of, and when he can create quality products for Vietnamese consumers. For him, the best products are elegant and good quality with affordable prices.

The name Minh Long means “eternal quintessence”. Those two words carry significant meaning, Minh explained, saying that without constant care and learning, one can never have a job for life.

This is also the reason he created the motto “Four nos and four bes” for his company: no boundaries, no time limits, no gender, no age; be cultured, be artistic, be stylish, be passionate.

Chapter 2:

From the APEC Gala Dinner in 2006

Minh was one of many guests at the gala dinner that served economic leaders in Hanoi in 2006, the first time Vietnam hosted the APEC Summit.

Ever since that moment, he has nurtured the dream of preparing a set of tableware of international stature for such a gala dinner.

He read everything he could to learn about the concept of a feast of international standards and consulted fellow experts in the field.

His moment arrived in 2014 when he read a newspaper article about a set of dinnerware that was used for the APEC gala dinner China. With his experience, Minh knew it was something that his company could do.

“Porcelain is a wonderful messenger when it comes to promoting the tradition and culture of a country. This has been proven through a long journey in human history. If Vietnam ever hosts APEC again, I have to take that chance,” he thought.

That thought marked the first step of a journey that the boss of Minh Long and his staff have been on for the past two years.

“I didn't know if Minh Long would get the contract to prepare the gala dinner when APEC returned to Vietnam, but at that moment, I could even imagine what the tableware would look like in my head. I just showed my staff how to design, paint and even make the molds for my dream products.”

And just like that, around 30 - 40 members of Minh Long joined a team to create a set of porcelain which was destined for APEC.

He pictured how the whole set would look at the banquet: the rectangle trays, the number of plates, the shape of the bowls for the soups and salads, the lotus-shaped, gold-plated tea cup lids.

All the designs for this set should be different from any products that Minh Long has ever produced before, Minh told himself.

“We couldn’t tell you how many headaches we had. A team of more than 30 people did everything they could to get this project done. It took us more than six months to come up with the final design ideas,” he said, adding that just one detail like the lotus design was already challenging enough, even for the most patient artists.

The observant will notice that the lotus flower design on Minh Long’s porcelain is completely different from any of his other products.

For decades, Minh collected lotus flower designs he found in Europe and Asia, and bought books and furniture patterns featuring paintings of the flower, but it wasn't until he took a close look at the genuine Vietnamese lotus flower in a pond that he realized that it was the true lotus he had been looking for.

s research into Vietnamese lotus flowers started from that moment. He looked for information on the internet and went through old documents to see how people had painted lotus flowers in the past, with a special focus on the work of Vietnamese author Tran Dinh Son in the Imperial City of Hue, Vietnam’s former capital.

He then worked with artists to come up with a unique design for the lotus flower, which resulted in thousands of different designs being tested.

What makes Minh Long’s design special is a combination of East and West, thanks to a Swiss artist.

“I hired a Swiss artist because I wanted my lotus design to strike both Easterners and Westerners.”

Minh fell in love with the artist's work because the lotus flowers she painted had thick but regular petals that somehow made them look warm and tender at the same time.

Using her paintings, Minh and his designers created the unique design for Minh Long. That design has been painted, printed, sculptured and carved onto different products and is adored by both Asian and Western customers.

The work on other designs such as the birds, temples, pagodas and Vietnamese women was no less tough and took Minh’s team two years to complete. Minh repeatedly made tiny alterations to the designs until everyone in the company agreed they were perfect.

But the APEC journey did not simply end there. The process of finding the right materials, testing and producing the final products lasted for months after that, and hundreds of people were called in for the main project of creating just one set of tableware - the one for the APEC gala dinner.

Dinnerware is not only for dining. In the beginning, humans did not even have plates, bowls or spoons. Dining became a culture and an art. As Nguyen Tuan, a famous Vietnamese writer, once said: “a good meal means good food, good surroundings and good company.”

Chapter 3:

Quintessence is from the Earth

For Ly Ngoc Minh: “Everything that appears in this life is already the quintessence of nature, and so is earth. What we have to do is use our knowledge, skills and efforts to turn earth into gems.”

The tableware set that Minh Long has created for the APEC gala dinner is made from a mixture of soils from different parts of the world.

“40 percent of this mixture is kaolin clay from across Vietnam. The rest of it is from New Zealand, India, Canada, the U.S., Russia, South Korea, Germany, France and the Middle East,” Minh shared.

The quest for soil of the boss of Minh Long.

After 40 years of playing with soil, Minh knows that this ‘skin of the earth’ has its own soul. Each type of soil is a different individual, a unique child of Mother Nature, and the ones that can be used to create ceramics and porcelain should be among the finest products of nature: rare earth elements, kaolin, felspat, quartz and clay.

And as a rule of nature, it is impossible to find all these types of soil in one place. That is why the process of finding the right materials for Minh Long's porcelain is like “panning for gold”.

For Minh Long's products, the materials must be pure enough to withstand the extreme heat to come out shining and flawless.

Minh remembers the time when he got stuck in a forest in Laos under heavy rain after he had driven more than 2,700 km (1,670 miles) to look for soil, and another time when he spent almost half a day walking through the jungle in Vietnam’s northern province of Vinh Phuc. Flashbacks of traveling hundreds of meters underground to explore a mine in Shanghai and one in New Zealand also stay with him.

Minh had to go on the quest himself because no one else knew what Minh Long really needed, and the entire journey would have been wasted.

But sometimes, he did send workers around the mine to pick up lumps of soil before showing them how to extract exactly what he needed to prepare the tableware for the big party.

The criteria at Minh Long was always strict, but Minh decided to bring the definition of “strict” to a new level for the APEC gala dinner.

After arriving at the door of Minh Long, each piece of soil had to go through a number of tests and only the purest was selected.

“It has to be pure from the very beginning to prevent any stains, even tiny ones. There are chemical substances that can affect the quality of the final product but we cannot see them, so these tests are extremely necessary.”

“Only the best workers were chosen for this project, and they all know how much effort they need to put into working the clay. Even bakers don't take that much care with their cakes,” Minh said.

The modern equipment and manual labor needed to produce the final product is the reason for the high cost. Everything comes at a price, and turning soil into something much more is not an exception.

If he sees anyone drop a piece of material at the factory, Minh tells them to pick it up immediately because that tiny piece had cost “blood, sweat and tears”.

“Some people hoard gold, but I keep soil because there are some types of soil that are hard to find so we have to stash them for future use.”

Chapter 4:

Delicacy is from man

“Materials first, baking second, shaping third and decorating last” is the principle of making ceramics and porcelain. Baking, shaping and decorating are jobs that require both knowledge and clever hands.

Baking is a crucial step in which the temperate, pressure and timing must be accurately adjusted, and the environment around the kiln needs to be monitored.

Even the most experienced potters with a modern kiln cannot take this step lightly. Sometimes, the humidity in the air can affect the quality of the products. The quality can also be ruined if even a small piece of paper falls into the kiln or if the gold-plated products are not put into the kiln at the right time.

Every finished product has to go through at least 34 different stages, including designs on computer, paper, print and paint. Designers and artists have to decide which designs should be printed on the porcelain and which should be painted by hand.

Minh believes that a delicate handmade touch is reflected in his products.

For the tableware being used for the gala dinner, each color comes from a different baking process.

Despite the fact the tableware features gold-plated items using 24k gold produced by Germany’s Heraeus, which has more than 260 years of experience, its most valued aspect is the craft itself.

Many people spend serious money to cast a solid gold bowl, but plating gold on porcelain is a technique that only a few workshops can master.

“I was over the moon to see the first finished products. What I felt at that moment could be compared to the feeling of a mother who has gone through pain to give birth to a child and raised that child to become a beautiful person.”

For the most experienced potter in Vietnam, opening the kiln to touch a perfect product is his greatest happiness.

Chapter 5:

The beauty of light

Standing in front of the dinnerware set crafted specially for APEC, Minh could not hide his excitement and enthusiasm, just like a little boy. “Round plates and bowls are placed on a rectangle tray following traditional Vietnamese culture, which comes from the old belief that the sky is round and the Earth is square,” he said.

Minh did his best to pull out all the stops for this year's gala dinner.

Minh Long’s artisans have used the finest glazes to turn their porcelain into gems, making them as smooth as silk and elegant from all angles. What is more important is that they are practical.

The soup tureen has two layers of porcelain to trap the heat, and is paired with a ladle with a handle shaped like a peacock’s tail.

The spice and sauce sets are designed in Western and Asian styles to help diners make their choices more easily.

The set for tea and coffee has just the same level of delicacy, with cups for espressos, double espressos, cappuccinos and tea, while the wine glasses are light and thin.

Adorned with intricate patterns, the ice cream bowls are made from porcelain but are much thinner and lighter than crystal.

The sauce spoon featuring a dragon’s head with a gemstone in its mouth is a highlight of Minh Long’s tableware for APEC, one that diners will struggle to keep their eyes off.

The rest of the set blends together in perfect harmony.

Cobalt and lime have been chosen as the two main colors for the APEC banquet.

Yellow is a royal color, while lime is a classic color used in the courts of both Asian and European countries. In the world of porcelain, cobalt is the most beautiful, most premium, but also the most challenging.

And cobalt is at its best when it is accompanied by a vivid shade of lime. Together, they give the product a simple and refined elegance without being over the top.

“Sometimes, a premium product is just one stitch or brush stroke away from something that's run of the mill. If we are standing next to porcelain giants, we have to stand out to the rest of the world,” Minh said.

“When we were crafting the dinnerware for APEC, the number of the pieces we needed to produce had me worried, sad, happy and excited at the same time. Sometimes my happiness quickly turned to disappointment when I found a flaw.”

Aside from preparing for the gala dinner, Minh Long has also produced unique gold-plated porcelain cups with lotus flower patterns for Vietnamese leaders to present their APEC visitors as gifts. They feature three dragons, representing the north, center and south of Vietnam, holding a bowl. This design has never appeared before, and features the mouth and wings of a phoenix, because “only wings can help us to fly”.

“These cups are for APEC economic leaders only," Minh said.

APEC 2017 is an important diplomatic event of Vietnam this year, which gathers leaders from 21 economies. Minh and his team have spent two years so that: “Vietnam can give its visitors a gift that carries the culture, history, skills and knowledge of the Vietnamese people. These products are beautiful and carry the Vietnamese spirit inside them,” said Minh.

For this artisan, Vietnamese people are “children of the dragon and grandchildren of the fairy”, and that story should be reflected by art to show the rest of the world what Vietnamese people are capable of.

“Vietnam now has the opportunity to flourish, and we should all be proud of that. Anything can happen if we put our hearts and souls into what we do. I had no idea if the authorities would allow my company to be part of APEC,” shared the veteran potter, the grandfather of five kids.

“I have no intention of making up a thrilling story to attract attention. The story of making ceramics is simple.”


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