HCM CITY — When the wife of rubbish collector Tong Van Thom complains about the accumulation of junk in their home, the 63-year-old often asks her what she would prefer: collecting trash or drinking wine?
There’s little that she can say in response, so the small house in Thoi An Ward in HCM City’s District 12 remains messy and full of objects that Thom picks up every day.
In his rented house, where there is not much room for his family to sleep, nearly everything is stored on walls, floors and nearly available space. He estimates that he has brought home more than 1,000 objects since 1998.
His wife may be displeased, but he makes it clear that there’s method in his madness. Most of the objects that were thrown away by someone else are either repaired or recycled.
When the slender Thom talks about his private “museum”, as he calls it, his face lights up. He grabs an object to proudly show visitors how he refashioned it into something useful or artistic.
Some pieces are more special than others.
One of his favourite items is an accordion that he found in Hoa Binh Market in District 5 in 1998. Thom spent more than a month looking for metal bars, glue and paper to repair the keyboard.
Whenever a visitor asks him about the instrument, he holds it up and says, “I just knew how to revive it. I just knew how to make sounds from it, even though I don’t understand musical notes.”
The clever Thom, who has only a third-grade education, has also built toy models, including motorbikes made from recycled metal waste.
“This job isn’t very hard. I also make boat models from beer cans,” he said.
His latest model is a spider made from a gourd that he picked up while collecting trash.
Cigarette boxes, beer cans and metal spokes are transformed into a telephone, speakers, MP3 players or models of fighting vessels in a matter of a few days or weeks.
Besides recycling parts, Thom also collects and repairs old electronic products such as disc players, radios, mobile phones, desk phones, televisions and fans.
“Some kinds of objects take a very long time to disintegrate, so it’s not good if they are discarded in the environment,” he said. “Those who don’t have enough money can use these repaired products.”
Thom says he is able to find objects every single day, and is never short of trash, much to his wife’s chagrin.
Having learned something about mechanics while studying at a French-owned school in Cambodia (where he was born), Thom was able to get work at a military workshop that repaired vessels in Viet Nam shortly after 1975.
Four years after, however, he had to retire because of ill health. In 1982, he began working as a trash collector.
At the time, he knew little about the concept of recycling, but a HCM City environmental protection campaign ignited his imagination.
Nguyen Thi Hoai Linh, programme coordinator at Enda Viet Nam, an environmental NGO that offers support for Thom’s private group of trash collectors in District 5, said she had worked with him for several years before discovering his talent.
“I didn’t know about his hobby to recycle and repair things until one day he presented me with a model of a globe to express his gratitude for my support. He told me that he didn’t have to buy it, and that he had collected it from the dustbin,” Linh said.
Linh then visited his home to see his giant collection.
“After seeing his ‘artworks’, I realised he was wonderfully creative, even though he never studied at a professional school. I really admire him for his work,” she said.
She said he had set a good example for people in the community by raising their awareness about environmental issues.
“People in my office buy a lot of recycled products from him, and so do I,” she said.
To pay for his children’s education, he has sold two houses, one of which was in hoc Mon District.
“My family also used to live in District 5. Every time a child of mine goes to study at university, I have to sell a house. The higher my children study, the further away (from the centre of the city) my family has to move,” said the father of three.
Every day, Thom collects trash from 6am to 3pm. He loves his job, and considers his “museum” a treasure and a possible source of income when he retires from rubbish collecting.