Art of water puppetry a lifetime obsession
|Gathering dust: The water puppetry collection of Nguyen Huy Hong. — VNS Photos Viet Hoang
It has been said that water puppetry has lost its relevance but one exponent of the art begs to differ. Nguyen Huy Hong says the genre can be adapted to any period and that as human beings get more civilised, so should the puppet. Nha Trang
and An Vu
Nguyen Huy Hong has been obsessed with water puppetry for his whole life.
Born in Hoang Long Commune's Thanh Xuyen Hamlet on the outskirts of Ha Noi, the 85-year-old still shows obvious excitement when it comes to things involving water puppetry. As one of the first water puppetry researchers in the Red River Delta, he was recently chosen to be one of 100 people honoured for their dedication to the capital in celebration of the city's 1000th anniversary.
No one can explain this old man's love for water puppetry. Yet, he will immediately shout at anyone who dares say that this kind of art is not suitable for modern life.
"The puppet can be adapted to any period. If human beings get more civillised then so does the puppet," he says, holding a plastic water puppet toy made for children.
During his 20 years floating around the traditional water puppetry villages in the northern province of Thai Binh, Hong wrote hundreds of books. One of them, Tim hieu mua roi dan toc (Studying the traditional water puppetry art), won the national award in 2007 and the Ha Noi art prize in 2011.
His depth of knowledge about the topic recently helped him complete a Vietnamese water puppetry map.
The researcher's house is piled up with more than 300 water puppets of all kinds. The biggest are the shape and size of a real human being, and the smallest can fit in the palm of the hand. His collection also contains 5,000 books, documents and photos about water puppetry. "They are the result of 43 years of work," he says proudly.
Hong is now the chairman of the Vietnamese branch of Unima (Union Internationale de la Marionnette), the world puppetry organisation. His biggest success to date is bringing more than 20 artists from water puppetry villages in Thai Binh to perform in Paris in the late 80s, when water puppetry was popular neither inside the country nor overseas.
After retiring in 1987, he established a centre for traditional water puppet research in his house on Bui Xuong Trach Street in Hoang Mai District.
No one believes that this place was once a cultural destination for foreign visitors.
Suddenly, out of the blue, he returned to his homeland at Dong Vang Village and had a three-story house built, where he decided to open a new centre for water puppetry. "Water puppetry is a symbol of the Red River Delta that really expresses the countryside culture. The puppets can only come to life when they are put into the lake. That is their real stage. Therefore, when the street became more crowded and narrow due to the process of urbanisation, I decided to bring my puppets back to their place of birth," he explained.
|Prolific writer: During his 20 years floating around the traditional water puppetry villages in the northern province of Thai Binh, Hong wrote hundreds of books.
At the moment, he looks like a real farmer, biking around the village every day in his threadbare brown shirt and raising dogs and cats.
"I own a full collection of water puppets in my house in Ha Noi. But when I am in the city, I do not feel like I'm telling the true story to visitors," he says. "Only when the audience can see puppet characters like fishermen and duck catchers act out their daily lives with the countryside as a backdrop can they sense true water puppetry."
However, due to the progress of time, many documents and books related to water puppetry that Hong keeps in his house are covered with dust. His puppet collection is also gathering dust, since he does not have time to classify them.
"My private museum must have a net worth of VND50 billion ($250 million), since it contains all the projects, documents and books about water puppetry that I have spent 50 years of my life to write and collect. Yet, it is a sad fact that it is falling into oblivion and no one cares about it any more."
However, Hong says that he will never lose hope. "I am saving to build a puppetry museum and a new performance venue in Ha Noi. I am also racing against time to finish my magnum opus, Tu vung va lich su mua roi nuoc Viet Nam (The Vocabulary and History of Vietnamese water puppetry)," he smiles. — VNS