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Vietnamese man devotes life to making traditional masks despite their waning popularity

Tuesday, February 19, 2019, 14:42 GMT+7
Vietnamese man devotes life to making traditional masks despite their waning popularity
Nguyen Van Bay shows his masks on a sidewalk in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Thao Thuong / Tuoi Tre

A man in Ho Chi Minh City has spent nearly 30 years making masks inspired by traditional play performances as a labor of love although the long-standing form of theater is now considerably out of vogue, especially in urban areas.

Nguyen Van Bay has vended his home-made masks along the southern metropolis’ major streets of Nguyen Dinh Chieu, Dien Bien Phu and Nam Ky Khoi Nghia since he was in his twenties.

Masks like those of his are related to a type of theater quite popular across southern Vietnam multiple decades ago known as hat boi or hat tuong, in which a performer in elaborate colorful costumes and accessories combines singing, gestures and facial expressions to depict a character.

The mask creation by Bay, 56, is an effort to give such character-portraying expressions a definite physical form so that younger generations and posterity in general have a chance to know about the once-thriving form of theater.

But the more immediate purpose is to satisfy his passion for masks.

Nguyen Van Bay’s masks are displayed at his home in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Nhu Hung / Tuoi Tre
Nguyen Van Bay’s masks are displayed at his home in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Nhu Hung / Tuoi Tre

Fascination in childhood

“When I was a child, I did everything to watch a hat boi play after I heard it was going to come to my village,” Bay recalled of the old days in his hometown of Binh Dinh Province in south-central Vietnam.

“What I liked best was the performer’s makeup. The curves and colors there told a lot about whether a character was kind-hearted, aggressive or humorous.”

When he was demobilized, the man in his late twenties earned a hard living by doing various jobs but an idea of pursuing mask making usually came to him.

“I believed at the time that doing things I liked would give a better future,” he recollected.

“That’s why I went to lots of places and found that not many people made masks for sale. So I decided to start doing them.”

Around 1990, he traveled to Ho Chi Minh City, started his business on a shoestring and got married to a woman who was a factory worker.

Eloquent paint brushes

The process of creating a mask begins with forming a clay mold and overlaying it with silicone, he said.

Then a limestone called calcium carbonate and synthetic plastic are used and the mask is completed after he has painted designs on it.

He said the painting poses a challenge as the task requires the maker to translate his impressions of good and evil onto the empty mask.

“Every paint brush has to show the typical character in a way that one can unmistakably know the mask describes a good or bad person.”

Nguyen Van Bay makes masks at his home in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Nhu Hung / Tuoi Tre
Nguyen Van Bay makes masks at his home in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Nhu Hung / Tuoi Tre

Perseverance in declining demand

Bay said few people buy his masks a day and the chief family income comes from his wife’s wage.

“Over the past many years in my business, a number of people have asked me why I kept doing this job and how I could make a living from it,” he said.

“They told me they had seen my face too often but my masks were strangers to them.”

The masks, hung on a support on his bicycle, fetch VND150,000-400,000 ($6.5-17) apiece.

“There’re days when I sell two or three masks but there’re some when I find no buyer. It’s possible that I sell no mask during an entire week.”

When asked whether he was deterred by the modest income, the man turned his head away in a gesture of dissatisfaction.

“I can work as a laborer or do other jobs to get better earnings but I will never do that.

“I love making masks for sale, although their demand is shrinking and they are gradually forgotten.

“People may not buy them, but they are reminded of hat tuong whenever looking at the items.

“My family have never complained about my job because they know I have a passion for masks.”

His wife supported him, recalling happy moments when she heard him telling stories related to a play character that he wanted to describe with his masks.

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