Vietnamese opera masks a decades-long pursuit

By Diep Phan   April 22, 2021 | 09:01 am GMT+7
Nguyen Van Bay has crisscrossed Saigon on his bike to sell masks used in 'hat boi', a Vietnamese operatic art form, for more than 30 years.
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Since the 58 years old artist was born in central Binh Dinh Province, the cradle of hat boi, he has had a strong passion for the traditional theatric art form. In Saigon, he found a way to make the masks, decorate and sell them and so help preserve their heritage.

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Initially, he made masks from plaster but realized the material is not durable, easily scratched and broken. Using wood, the masks would often crack after a few hours under the scorching sun. After a year, Bay finally found a way to cast durable masks by mixing plaster and stone powder, pouring the molten material into rubber molds.

He shared that decorating is even harder than the casting process since each character has a different personality, so drawing technique is also different based on each character.He explained that the reason why he keeps making these masks hoping to promote this traditional art form to more people and keep it alive.

He said decorating is even harder than casting since "each character depicts a different personality."

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Bay decorates the masks using oil-based paint as it is more durable, saying "I won't have to worry about whether it rains or not when I hang them on my bicycle."

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Large masks, taking up to three hours to complete, are often displayed on walls inside houses and coffee shops as decoration.

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Each mask costs between VND185,000-520,000 ($8-22.61), depending on size and design.

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"Business started to pick up about 10 years ago as people opened more shops and enjoyed higher living standards, driving demand for home decoration," Bay explained.

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He confided there had been times he could not sell anything for a whole week, but in return, received large orders for hundreds of masks from souvenir shops.
"A few years ago, a customer passed by and bought my entire stock without even haggling about the price, " he said, happy to be able to make a living from his masks.

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Bay cycles eight kilometers per day from his house in the outskirts Go Vap District to District 3 in the downtown of Saigon.
"I've been doing this job for the past thirty years, just focused on working hard. Even though I'm not rich, I have the freedom to do the things I like and send my two children to school. My oldest daughter is in her second year of college," the father boasts.

 
 
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