The Huê Dragons

The Huê Dragons

Huê, Vietnam (1996): During the 1990s, industrial cranes and construction yards were a familiar sight in many Vietnamese cities as strong growth and a budding tourist industry encouraged economic revival. In the historic city of Huê, local officials intended to capitalize on the boom by restoring religious temples and monuments as part of a broader objective to increase tourism. After considering various proposals, officials awarded a contract to the Japanese firm Saisei, a development company which had recently completed restorations in Tokyo and Xi’an, China. The site selected was a sixteenth-century complex of Buddhist temples and monasteries that had fallen into disrepair since the years of the Vietnam War.

Saisei began work on the site in 1995, bringing in a Japanese construction team to carry out the planned restoration. Within weeks, the buildings were encased in scaffolding and the land surrounding the sites was torn up to accommodate the work team’s equipment. The project drew criticism from many sectors of the community, not least local Buddhist activist groups concerned with the historical preservation of shrines and statues. Residents complained that work was being carried out at night and disturbing nearby nighborhoods. Especially irksome was the fact that it seemed workers were digging up sections of earth believed to be sacred. After a year and a half, the work on the sites was still not completed to the consternation and bewilderment of many local officials. Initial reports noted that it appeared all work on the location had ceased, despite the fact that bulldozers and digging tools continued to litter the construction yard. Since Saisei remained under contract, some began to accuse the company of fraud while others speculated the firm had gone bankrupt.

Following an official injunction against the company, government officials launched an investigation into the state of the unfinished repairs. At the site it was discovered that the interiors of the temples had all been gutted, with deep pits dug into the floors. Each pit was identical, containing large slabs of alabaster and pools of mud measuring three meters in depth. Housed in each of the pits was also a variety of antique dragon statues surrounded by animal bones. Characters etched into the dirt walls of the pits gave enigmatic references to wani or, in certain instances kuma-wani (鰐). According to the official inquest, Saisei was charged with “desecrating the Buddhist character” of the temples and “replacing it with a foreign religion,” although the report does not specify what religion it believed this to be. After these startling discoveries, the restoration project was halted for two years. In 1999, work was renewed on the site, this time by a Chinese company which completed the contracted work within six months.

Saisei denied any knowledge of the incident and insisted that it had found the Vietnamese government in violation of contract in 1995 after it had failed to protect its employees from assaults by local activists, hence explaining the work stoppage. The dragon statues removed from the site were confiscated by Vietnamese authorities for evidence in any ensuing legal battles. No legal proceedings were, however, ever eventuated. In 2004, the government sold the statues to a Brazilian art collector for an undisclosed amount. The statues purportedly dated from the early Qing Dynasty and have appeared in exhibitions under the title “The Huê Dragons” despite their Chinese provenance.