Traditional toys: Artisan Nguyễn Văn Thành teaches foreign children how to create toy figurines.— Photo ngaynay.vn
by Vương Bạch Liên
HÀ NỘI —When I was a child, some of my favourite toys were small, colourful figurines made from glutinous rice powder. The figurines, called tò he, were brought back to me by my mother from the Xuân La village, which was separated from the village where I used to live by a rice field.
At that time, in the mid-1980s, when not many comics and illustrated books appeared in Việt Nam, those tò he toys were made to depict heroes, ordinary people, symbolic animals like dragons or phoenixes, common water buffaloes, flowers and fairies.
I used to spend hours listening to stories told by my mother while contemplating the king and mandarins in their elaborate costumes and beautiful red roses, which were made by skillful craftsmen. I imagined the whole vivid world of heroes and fairies.
Like many other children in my village, I grew up with those toys.
It is said that the art of making tò he originated 300 years ago in Xuân La village, Phú Xuyên District, located about 40km from Hà Nội’s city centre. It remains the most well-known village in the country for preserving this unique art.
Many generations of Vietnamese children who grew up with these toys have visited the village to rediscover the art and meet the talented but modest craftsmen who work behind the scenes.
Development of the art
Each time I go to the village, I meet several old people at least 80 years old, in addition to young people and children, who knead the colourful rice powder into different figurines. They create red roses, little herdsmen sitting on buffaloes’ backs while play the flute and countryside women in traditional dress.
Different characters from history, movies and cartoons — from the famous monkey named Tôn Ngộ Không in the Chinese novel The Journey to the West to characters from famous Japanese cartoons to princesses in fairy tales — also bring inspiration to the craftsmen.
Old craftsmen told me that tò he toys were originally only made for children in the village. In their free time, the farmers ground rice into fine powder, steamed it and then used different kinds of vegetables and ash to colour the rice powder with seven basic colours (green, sea blue, red, purple, yellow, white and black). After that, they shape the dough into edible figurines such as trees, animals, flowers or characters from folk stories. Children can even eat tò he after playing with them.
In time, the art gained a reputation outside of the village. The craftsmen travelled near and far to bring the toys to children. They carry a compact set of tools, and in one day they can make stops at several markets, communal temple grounds and especially local festivals where children often gather to play or accompany their parents.
Many children and adults are delighted to see the beautiful toys created by skillful and creative artisans with simple tools, including a knife, a small comb, a bunch of bamboo sticks and a box to display their products.
The two most important occasions each year for tò he craftsmen are Tết (lunar New Year) and the Mid-Autumn Festival because they are the favourite holidays among Vietnamese children.
However, tò he is made and sold year-round in public place like parks and gardens. The price for a figurine sold in Hà Nội varies from VNĐ15,000 to 20,000.
Out of the 3,000 inhabitants in Xuân La village, 200 people earn their living by making tò he to supplement their income from farming. In fact, most tò he craftsmen are men.
Xuân La families have one rule: the secrets of making tò he are only passed down to sons and daughters-in-law - not to daughters. “Tò he” makers do not teach the craft to women because the fathers fear their daughters will reveal precious trade secrets to their husbands’ families. There are no formal lessons for tò he making; sons learn the skill from their fathers simply by watching them work. This folk toy is considered a representation of Việt Nam’s culture.
Several local craftsmen have gone abroad to perform the art of tò he-making.
“Kneading tò he is just a seasonal occupation, so no one can live on that. But I try to preserve it as it’s a traditional art of Việt Nam,” said artisan Nguyễn Văn Thành, who has been to the US, Thailand and Japan to give to he-making demonstrations.
“Kneading tò he can help a lot of children become more creative, improve their imagination and help their psychological development,” he said.
Tò he is also brought to poor children in northern mountainous regions whose families cannot afford to buy toys. They are also given instructions on how to make simple forms of tò he figurines.
Preserving the art
For me and other children at that time, tò he opened a colourful and magical world.
However, now that children are showered with modern games, toys and other forms of entertainment, tò he craftsmen have to be creative to keep their characters relevant. Figurines nowadays are often modeled after characters from international films and cartoons, such as Doraemon, Pikachu, Sailor Moon and Minions.
The toy figurines, which have brought joy to many generations of Vietnamese, have experienced many ups and downs, but Xuân La villagers are faithful to the craft, even though it is not a money-making job.
“Sometimes tò he makers lose their jobs because they can’t compete with Chinese toys, which are eye-catching and cheap. But we try our hardest to preserve this art,” Thành said.
“This is a seasonal occupation, just serving festivals, so I hope the state will have more priority policies for us to develop this traditional art more.”
Thanks to the efforts of Xuân La villagers, this craft is surviving. Now children can see to he at many parks and school gates.
There is a saying that goes, “Everywhere there is tò he – that place has Xuân La villagers”.
So you can meet those skillful craftsmen even near your house. However, a visit to this village allows guests to further discover the technique of shaping dough and witnessing the local inhabitants’ passion for the art form.
As tò he is one of the rare surviving traditional toys of Việt Nam, there are many efforts to preserve and develop this traditional art.
Many years have passed since I was a child, but I keep loving those traditional toys. — VNS
Beloved character: A tò he figurine is modeled after characters from the Minions franchise.— VNS Photo Bạch Liên
Hand-crafted: An artisan from Xuân La Village creates toy figurines (tò he) and sells them at the Trăm Gian Pagoda festival in Hà Nội. —VNS Photo Bạch Liên