As time goes by, passion for water puppets never cools

By VnExpress   December 11, 2016 | 08:49 pm PT
The artisan has brought thousands of water puppets to life over the past 25 years.

Phung Quang Oanh, 46, has spent half of his life making countless numbers of elaborate water puppets such as a dragon that can spurt fire and water, a frog that can snatch bait, or Chu Teu (in the picture) with joints in his hands, wrists, elbows and shoulders that allow him to catch fish and raise a flock of ducks.


The artisan comes from a rural area just outside Hanoi where water puppetry has been nurtured for thousands of years by rice-growing farmers as a way to celebrate the end of the rice harvest, religious festivals and other important occasions.


Oanh has continued to make hand-carved water puppets for the past 10 years living in the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City.


He said artisans must be good at carving and have a sound knowledge of the complicated movements of water puppets. “To create a water puppet, what matters the most is how to make them reflect the cultural features of northern Vietnamese rural life as well as important historical events,” he said. 


Water puppetry is a unique folk art that originated a thousand years ago; however, Oanh said that only a few people are continuing his art. “My two sons refused to follow in my footsteps because they said they would not be able to make ends meet,” he said.


Each water puppet is hand-carved from wood and given layers of vivid lacquer paint to protect it from the water. 


“We have to give each puppet at least 10 layers of paint. It takes only 3 days to finish a wooden puppet but it takes up to 15 days to make a water puppet,” Oanh said. 


Oanh and his wife have been making water puppets for the past 25 years, however, they have been unable to save enough money to buy their own house. 


He said the artisan must think of the movements of the puppets to make them realistic.


His ambitious plan is to create a collection of water puppets that reflect the cultural values of the northern regions and other parts of the country.


A performance puppet costs between VND300,000 ($13) and VND1.8 million ($78), Oanh said, while a puppet for display is about VND150,000-VND300,000.


Oanh always leaves his door open to let young people have a look inside his workshop. “Sometimes, up to 200 students visit me each day to collect information, take pictures and record videos of the puppet-making process,” he said.

Photos by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen

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