All (Amazing) Hands on Deck: Mahogany Toys, a War Legacy

Vietnamese family turns Sydney studio into a wonder world of wooden artefacts

Wed 06 Dec 23


On a dark day of foul weather in May 54 years ago the 83,000-tonne super liner HMS Queen Elizabeth changed course nor’-nor’-east and ploughed through mountainous waves towards a boat sinking fast in the South China Sea.

Among the boat’s 2000 Vietnam refugees rescued that day was three-year-old Paul Nguyen, found clinging to his mother in what had been a desperate and dangerous attempt to escape the Viet Cong guerilla invasion in South Vietnam.

Paul, now 57, was one of more than a million ‘boat people’ who fled Vietnam during that dreadful war – 300,000 of them would perish at sea.

“Many of them were families of farmers and fishermen who built their boats from bamboo and wood,” Paul said.

“But the boats were only suited for sailing near shore and were not designed for the open sea.”

The Queen Elizabeth and its human cargo eventually docked in Hong Kong and the Nguyen family soon migrated to Australia.

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Paul Nguyen at his Sydney studio with mahogany toy models created by his uncle in Vietnam.

Today Paul Nguyen operates the family-owned Amazing Hands wood artisan studio in Marrickville, Sydney … “inspired by my uncle who chose to stay in Vietnam throughout the war and who is now living and working with wood in Saigon in southeast Vietnam.”

Paul said the family remembered their elder relative as a young boy in Vietnam who was always experimenting with wood.

“He was soon discovered by people who admired what he made, so his hobby has been his profession and passion for the last 40 years.”

Paul, who lost contact with his uncle after the Vietnam War, found him 20 years later when he returned to his homeland. After a search through Saigon, he found the 77-year-old and 15 dedicated disciples working in a factory producing a fantastic range of wooden artefacts.

“After lots of hugging, I decided on the spot to market his creations in Australia.”

These include handmade wooden toys such as replicas of cars, motor bikes, aircraft, trains and tall ships along with jewellery boxes with secret compartments.

Each model is created individually for mass production using mainly mahogany and, when available, teak and other high-quality hardwoods.

But, in an obvious nod to the mahogany used in those refugee boats, Toona sureni is the passionate choice at the Amazing Hands studio.

The species is native to much of South Asia, including China, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Vietnam.

“It’s a beautiful wood highly valued, no doubt about it,” Paul enthused. “It’s strong yet lightweight, resistant to rot and structurally stable.

“After all, mahogany is synonymous with high class and luxury. A single tree can fetch tens of thousands of dollars on the international market when the finished wood reaches retail showrooms.”

Paul said mahogany trees had very slow growth, making the timber significantly harder than most hardwoods.

“The timber polishes to a high shine and has been a favourite choice of cabinet makers since its discovery in the 16th century,” he said.

Mahogany also plays a crucial role in Vietnam’s ecosystem; large trees that grow and thrive above the forest canopy provide habitat and survival for many animal species that depend on them.

Amazing Hands? Let us guess. A tribute to your uncle?

“Spot on,” respectfully responded his nephew.

Fast facts: Bouncing back from the impact of the Vietnam War (1955-75), Vietnam’s approach to forestry has shifted, with natural forest logging banned in 2014.

In 2016, the Vietnam Forest Certification Scheme was developed to meet the Program for Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) requirements. There are now more than 230,000 ha of managed certified forests within Vietnam, a fast-expanding industry for farmers and corporations.

Some two-thirds of Vietnam’s planted forests, mainly acacia and eucalyptus trees, are managed by small landholders.

Reforestation initiatives began in the 1980s, and by 2000, 2 million ha of forest had been planted. The country now has 4.2 million ha of planted forests, equal to 26% of the total forested area of 14.6 million ha.

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The RMS Queen Elizabeth was one of two superliners built by John Brown & Co. in Clydebank, Scotland, in the 1930s, and one of the most elegant ever built.  She entered military service in March 1940 as a troop ship in World War 2 and was named in honour of the late Queen. In an illustrious career, first as passenger ship and later as a merchant marine vessel, the Queen Elizabeth remained birthed in Hong Kong Harbour for a number of years before she finally received a proper burial at sea in the late 1990s.


  • Jim Bowden

    Jim Bowden, senior editor and co-publisher of Wood Central. Jim brings 50-plus years’ experience in agriculture and timber journalism. Since he founded Australian Timberman in 1977, he has been devoted to the forest industry – with a passion.


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