Let's have a serious talk about those silly Tet mascots

January 18, 2023 | 03:29 pm PT
Trinh Phuong Quan Architect
As the Year of the Cat approaches, cities and provinces across Vietnam have erected large public statues of giant cats in celebration of the Tet Lunar New Year festival.

Several are beautiful and soulful works of art. But many are now local eyesores that are too hideous to look at.

The online community has given several of these statues monikers like: "cat in the shape of a mouse," "miserable cat," "panic cat."

Every time Tet arrives, a different collection of funny Vietnamese-zodiac-inspired mascot designs ruin the views in various localities.

The most noticeable one in recent years was the dragon displayed in the northern city of Hai Phong for the Tet 2017. Shortly after the chrysanthemum flower statue was revealed to the public, images of the mascot went viral online, with almost all internet users finding it ridiculously funny and agreeing that it looked nothing like a dragon.

Then a local artist with the penname Thang Fly brought the statue’s fame to a whole new level when he created a cartoon character based on it. The character making fun of the statue became known as Pikalong, a combination of the word Pikachu (the name of a Pokemon character), and the word "long," which is a Sino-Vietnamese word for dragon.

Pikalong won the internet and Thang Fly has continued to release creative stories featuring the character. Pikalong has since become one of the most-downloaded stickers on Zalo, a popular messaging app in Vietnam.

A photo combination of a real dragon mascot in Hai Phong City in 2017 and the artwork created by artist Thang Fly. Photo acquired by VnExpress

A photo combination of a real dragon mascot in Hai Phong City in 2017 and the artwork created by artist Thang Fly. Photo acquired by VnExpress

I personally adore Pikalong, a one-of-a-kind product that Thang Fly created from a disaster in urban decoration.

But it hasn’t been possible to turn all failed Tet statues into something unique like Pikalong.

Over the years, many Tet statues have become a joke for people to laugh at, rather than artworks to beautify a locality for the new lunar year.

"The sulking tiger family," "the dumbfounded buffalo," and "the malnourished mouse" are some of the nicknames that people have given some of these statues over the years.

I admit that these designs have brought us a little fun. However, I don't think we should accept such careless and arbitrary creations. If we do, it will become a habit and soon none of our public spaces will be aesthetically pleasing at all.

One problem with Tet statues is that the localities erecting them don't have enough money to pay for high-quality products. But an even worse problem is that the people hired to design and build them lack expertise. A product placed in a public place cannot be beautiful and sophisticated when based on a poorly researched and shoddily put together initial sketch.

In most cases, the statues used for Tet decorations will be destroyed once the holiday is over, which is also a huge waste.

Just a few are beautiful and sustainable enough to be given permanent homes in parks, zoos, kindergartens or playgrounds for kids.

An outdated design culture is a big problem that I see in Vietnamese landscape design in general.

Art does not only contribute to beautifying a landscape, but also creates a symbol for the place where it is displayed, and it can bring vibrancy, aesthetics and joy to the public.

A cat statue at an amusement park in the central province of Thanh Hoa’s Quang Xuong District. Many have commented that this cat looks more like a giant mouse. Photo by Le Hoang

A cat statue at an amusement park in the central province of Thanh Hoa’s Quang Xuong District. Many have commented that this cat looks more like a "giant mouse." Photo by VnExpress/Le Hoang

This is one of the first lessons that we designers learn: we should ensure that an artwork will be usable, sustainable, aesthetic and economic.

In 2013-2014, the Rubber Duck created by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman in Amsterdam became a global sensation as it toured 14 cities around the world, including Ho Chi Minh City.

The genuine purpose of the tour was to remind people of their beautiful and innocent childhood memories, and create joy for anyone who came to admire the duck.

Every year, Vietnam graduates thousands of college students with professional degrees in the industrial arts, graphic design and landscape design. They are all properly trained for four to five years at universities.

The artistic level of our students is not inferior to foreign students. However, most of my friends in the design industry have had to quit the profession and have switched to other jobs such as photography and wedding decoration, because jobs in their design disciplines pay too poorly.

In order to solve the current urban decoration disaster, I propose we organize landscape design and decoration competitions to create a forum in which young designers, painters, architects, and students are inspired to create their best work. The annual Nguyen Hue New Year flower street design contest is an example of this sort of thing already successfully in practice.

In such competitions, contestants' designs can be posted online for the public to vote on in order to choose the best image.

Such competitions can be an opportunity for young designers to showcase and contribute their talents to the design world. All factors related to sustainability, reuse, and maintenance should be considered.

Who knows, from these contests, works that are created for Vietnam's Tet holiday may one day travel around the world, bringing joy and spreading Vietnamese culture like the Rubber Duck did for European culture.

*Trinh Phuong Quan is an architect.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
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