As time goes by, passion for water puppets never cools

By VnExpress   December 12, 2016 | 11:49 am GMT+7

The artisan has brought thousands of water puppets to life over the past 25 years.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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

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“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. 

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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. 

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

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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.

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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.

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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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