Brandon’s sole goldsmith restores final rings

In a small workshop set aside from the modern, brightly lit customer service area of TCM Goldsmith in downtown Brandon, Dat Tao sits at his work desk with a look of serene concentration on his lined face. His fingers, still dexterous at 68 years old, nimbly work a tiny blowtorch as he repairs a dainty gold ring.

After spending more than 30 years working his magic on all sorts of golden treasures in the Wheat City, Tao announced several weeks ago that he would retire. Since then, he’s been flooded with calls from customers desperate for him to bring their jewelry back to its former glory.

“I already extended [my retirement] one month,” said Tao, whose business is located at 929 Rosser Ave. “I’m really quite busy.”

Being the only goldsmith in the city, there’s always been plenty of work for him to do.

His work desk, abundant with the tools of his trade including pliers, a jeweller’s saw, hand and needle files, drill bits, soldering tools and more, hasn’t changed much over the decades, but Tao’s life in Manitoba’s second-largest city looks much different than his early days in Vietnam.

Thousands of refugees from Vietnam and across southeast Asia came to Canada in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This marked a turning point in the history of immigration in Canada, since it was the first time that the federal government applied a new program for the private sponsorship of refugees — the only one of its kind in the world — which allowed more than half of the Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugees who came to Canada during the period be admitted into the county.

The refugee crisis was spurred by several conflicts in southeast Asia, after the colonies of French Indochina — Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos — gained their independence from Japan in 1954 after an eight-year war that saw 500,000 fatalities and left Vietnam divided into two separate, rival states. The Vietnam War commenced shortly thereafter.

Although North and South Vietnam both signed the Paris Peace Accords in 1973 calling for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, release of civilian detainees and prisoners of war, unity of Vietnam and free elections, the last condition was not met. As a result, in April 1975, the South Vietnam capital of Saigon fell, leading 140,000 people to flee the country.

Many of the refugees, including Tao, fled by boat and were rescued by the U.S. Navy. A few weeks later, Canada announced that it would accept refugees from Vietnam, and by 1976, the country took in more than 6,500 Vietnamese as political refugees.

Tao arrived in Canada with his wife and daughter in 1979. They initially landed in Vancouver, and eventually made their way to Brandon, which proved to be a very welcoming place.

“It was pretty friendly at the time,” he said. “It felt very nice.”

Tao chose to settle in Brandon because his brother, also a goldsmith, had already established a home and business there. Having family in his new city proved invaluable for Tao, not just for the business, but for adjusting to life in a new country with a completely different culture.

“We help each other, we talk, everything.”

Around 16 years ago, Tao took over as owner of the business. He’d been working with his brother since settling in Brandon and was happy to continue the family tradition of goldsmithing, which he’d learned from his father back in Vietnam when he was around 18 years old.

Neither his daughter, who tends to customers at the business, nor his son, who works with computers, will follow in their father’s footsteps, but that hasn’t dampened Tao’s pride in his children.

“They’re not interested in that at all,” Tao said. “You have to be very patient … you cannot be panicky.”

Tao recommends that anyone who is interested in goldsmithing prioritize their education through a college diploma or university degree relevant to jewelry and metals.

“You have to go to school in Canada,” he said. “It’s very hard to apprentice and to learn the trade like that, because when they expect to practise on their own time, they don’t yet know anything. They could end up damaging things, and who will pay for that?”

Becoming a talented goldsmith takes years to accomplish, even after one receives an education, Tao said. Experience is the best teacher for learning the intricacies of the trade.

“For example, is an item a genuine stone or synthetic? Is it a real diamond, or will it crack, and then you have to pay for it?”

Tao has no plans to sell his business but will empty it of his personal effects and keep it permanently closed. He believes the changes seen in downtown Brandon over the years, including shops going out of business and issues such as homelessness and addiction, have made it a far less desirable place to do business than it was in the ’80s.

“There’s been a big change in downtown,” he said. “Even if I were to continue the business, I think I’d still like to move out from here, because … lots of people here bother my customers.

“It’s tough.”

Looking back on his career and his life, one of the things that brings him the most satisfaction and pride — other than his family — is in all the hard work he put into mastering his trade.

“I become confident in myself,” he said. “That’s why I learned it.”

With retirement on the horizon, Tao is looking forward to travelling, especially to places in Canada he hasn’t had the chance to see before. Although the business has sustained himself and his family for decades, the true treasure, he said, is the relationships he’s built with his customers and the wider community.

“My customers always helped to further and support my business.”

Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun