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A yearning fo urns
Groundbreaking nears on $11 million San Jose. Project ( Dec 19, 2002)

By Michael Bazeley

Undaunted by a poor economy that has hurt fundraising, backers of a Vietnamese cultural center and garden in San Jose are finally close to breaking ground on their project. By Michael Bazeley When finished, the center will transform four acres of Kelley Park into a Vietnamese garden with a Lotus Tower, a 7,000-square-foot museum and a 4,500-square-foot community hall.

This month , the Vietnamese Cultural Heritage Foundation received nine hand-crafted bronze urns -- shipped from Vietnam to the Port of Oakland -- that will be a main attraction of the garden.

"For me, after more than seven years of hard work, my money and my time, seeing these sitting here, it makes it worth it," said Liem Nguyen, president of the heritage foundation. He was admiring the large urns after they were unpacked.

The $11 million project has plodded along since 1987. The original backers abandoned the project after several years. Nguyen restarted it in 1993 and has dedicated most of his spare time to it ever since.

The group has relied almost entirely on private donations to fund the project, which is estimated to cost $11 million. So far the group has raised $1 million. As a result, the foundation will first build only the museum, and add other portions as more money is raised.

Backers say the downturn in the valley's economy has made fundraising extremely difficult.

"I'm worried that because of the economy, we will not be able to do what we want to do," said Vicki Tindel, vice chairwoman of the foundation. She said the project could take 10 years to complete. "Money is tight. But we are moving in the right direction."

Nguyen has traveled to Vietnam several times to seek advice for the cultural garden and on the design the main buildings. The ornate structures will feature floor and roof tile imported from Vietnam, and visitors will enter the museum through 9-foot tall handcarved wood doors, also from Vietnam.

The museum's ceiling will depict scenes of ancient Vietnamese daily activities, and the interior will feature hand-carved beams and painted rafters.

"I want it to become an attraction for our future generations so they can come here and see that a part of Vietnam is here and it will link them back to their homeland," Nguyen said. "But also, it will make Vietnamese culture part of American culture."

Nguyen said the garden and center will eventually be donated to the city.

At the behest of Tindel, the center will also feature a memorial to women -- American and otherwise -- who served during the Vietnam War.

"Future generations, especially girls, will be able to see what previous generations gave to their country," Tindel said. "I'm hoping they will see that women gave their fair share."

The foundation already has a building stuffed full of Vietnamese historical artifacts on North Ninth Street in San Jose, and Nguyen said more is in storage.

But the organization's most prized possessions are the nine handcrafted urns. Weighing about two tons a piece, the urns are exact replicas of the Nine Dynastic Urns that greet visitors to the royal city of Hue in Vietnam.

The original urns were cast in the 1830s by the Emperor Minh Mang. Each urn symbolizes a king's sovereignty, and the whole row of urns represents the power and stability of the Nguyen throne.

Carvings are chiseled into the sides with images reflecting Vietnam's landscape and people. Designs include the sun, moon, meteors, clouds, mountains and rivers.

Nguyen received special permission from the Vietnamese government to produce replicas of the urns for the center. Vietnamese craftsmen spent nearly five years making them -- each with a different name and style -- at a cost of nearly $300,000.

"It's taken a long time," Tindel said. "But we're finally here. It's going."

Reprinted from Mercury News


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