Seen from afar, a section of Road 867 across Long Dinh Commune the Mekong Delta province of Tien Giang resembles a colorful work of art, rather a painting. Along the road, some 10 kilometers from Trung Luong T-Junction at the end of the HCMC-Trung Luong Expressway, are finished sedge mats of different colors as well as materials having been dyed. Many first-time visitors to the commune will run into rupture at the mere sight of the scene.
So I am driven wild as well. The bright red and yellow colors of bundles of dyed sedge arouse an unspeakable feeling in my heart. Seeing such bundles of dyed sedge locals are drying on either sides of a small bridge, I decide to stop my bike to have a closer look as well as to learn something about the occupation of weaving sedge mats of the commune.
Long Dinh Commune has been recognized as a traditional craft village by Tien Giang Province, as hundreds of families have been earning their living from the occupation, for 50 years or so. Despite the country’s economic development that sees sedge mats being replaced by softer rubber mattresses, the occupation of mat weaving in Long Dinh still stays, although residents there cannot lead a decent life from the raft handed down from their older generations.
Responding to my interest when seeing those colorful sedge bundles, a local woman smilingly says, “Today we only dye sedge yellow and red, and there will be sedge dyed green tomorrow,” as if she guessed I would feel more enjoyable if I were there the following day, seeing the roadsides decorated with colorful, dyed sedge.
The mat weaving village in Long Dinh Commune is more than ten kilometers from My Tho, the capital city of Tien Giang Province. The occupation of mat weaving of the village was said to originate from the northern region and move south with migrants more than 50 years ago. Sedge, according to locals, is not grown in the area but bought from neighboring provinces of Long An, Dong Thap and Vinh Long. Sedge mats are mainly sold at traditional markets and sales are a bit higher in the lead to the Lunar New Year.
In addition to dye sedge to have colorful mats, some facilities in Long Dinh also weave ivory-white mats which be then painted with floral patterns of different colors.
According to locals, weaving mats manually really takes time and requires more laborers, which has prompted mechanization. Weaving workshops in Long Dinh started to mechanize production a few years ago when almost every workshop tried to afford at least one pricey machine and bigger one could afford more.
Making sedge ready to be weaved, Dao, a middle-aged woman in Khu Pho Hamlet of Long Dinh Commune, says, “Life is not easy if we just weave manually. That’s why I bought this machine, which is not cheap at all.” The price could amount to around VND50-60 million a set, beyond reach for low-income earners. But mat weavers for the most part are low-income earners.
The workshop of another local named Tien, also in Khu Pho Hamlet, is one among the few remaining workshops in Long Dinh still weaving mats manually. “We combine both manual and mechanized weaving. Mechanization is, no doubt, delivers higher efficiency. It helps us save on labor, save on time, increase productivity,” Tien makes a comparison.
Weaving mats manually needs two persons, with one putting every blade of sedge into the weaving loom and the other compressing the sedge tight to make durable mats, while with weaving mechanically, only one person is needed.
“It takes us a day to weave one pair of mats (two mats) manually by hand, others can weave more, whereas a machine can produce 10-12 mats daily,” a woman working at Tien’s workshop says while preparing the twines which will be the vertical spines of a mat.
And when mechanization has become so popular and reached every corner of the village, the supply is abundant and workshops face more difficulties in selling their products. Some big workshops export mats. Smaller ones just produce sufficient volumes while trying to seek new customers, according to Tien.
An average laborer would earn only some VND1.5-2 million a month from the job now.
Weaving sedge mats to earn a living for over 30 years, Dao says the occupation looks simple but it is not easy as it requires time, patience and meticulousness. “If not doing housework, I weave. I also weave at night, until 9,” she continues. Like Dao, Tien says the occupation is hard as he could earn just enough for his family but he wants to retain the craft.
So, behind the colorful picture of the traditional craft village, life is still full of challenges and difficulties. The provincial government has considered mat weaving in Long Dinh a job-creation occupation, but without greater financial and material supports, the craft may fall into oblivion before long, when it is further menaced by other money-making careers.