Viet Nam News
HÀ NỘI — In a tiny workshop perched atop a narrow four-storey house in an alley of Hà Nội’s Old Quarter, Nguyễn Văn Hòa puts the final touches on a handmade paper Spiderman mask – a fresh take on a traditional Mid-Autumn Festival toy.
In the weeks leading up to the September 24 celebration, the 64-year-old craftsman has created thousands of masks to meet increasing demand.
“After many years of dominance by toys made in China, more people have shown interest in these humble traditional products,” Hòa said without taking his eyes off his work.
Hòa is one of only two craftsmen in Hà Nội who still use traditional mask-making techniques.
He got involved in the craft nearly 40 years ago, when he married Đặng Hương Lan. Her family had spent decades making the masks.
“My father used to make paper masks for me and my siblings to play with during the Mid-Autumn Festival,” said Lan, 60. “As the life in the old days was quite tough, especially since my parents had many children, they had to sell masks to cover their basic needs.”
“When he realised my husband is careful and good with his hands, my father handed down the family job to him.”
“Like my parents-in-law, Lan and I used this job to support our children,” Hòa said.
According to Hòa, a mask maker must be patient, hardworking, meticulous and skilful. It takes care in every step of the process to create a good mask.
Hòa tears paper into small pieces, which he pastes onto decades-old cement moulds.
“The most difficult step is creating the mould, but once that is done you have a mould you can use for tens of years,” Hòa said.
Living legend: Hòa has made traditional paper masks for nearly 40 years. — VNS Photo Thúy Hằng
For decades, animal masks have been most popular. Rabbits, buffalo, tigers and dogs sell well. Other favourites include Chú Tễu (a comedic water puppetry character), princesses, the Monkey King and Pinocchio.
In recent years, Hòa has introduced Superman and Batman masks to excite his young clients.
Each mask has five or six layers of paper and cardboard, held together by homemade cassava-based glue. The recipe for this special glue was passed down from his father-in-law.
After the mask is removed from the mold and dried in the sun, the final step is painting.
“They should be painted carefully and cautiously,” Hòa said. “You have to wait until the first layer of paint dries to keep painting, otherwise the colour will blur.”
“This might sound simple, but if you try it you will understand why there are so few people doing his [Hòa’s father-in-law] job,” he said.
Hòa and Lan work to produce the masks all year, not just around the Mid-Autumn Festival.
“There are only two of us so we are busy every day to supply the market thousands of masks during the festival,” said Hòa.
The couple creates more than 20 masks each day on average. The 28 different designs are sold with prices ranging from VNĐ30,000 to 50,000 depending on the size.
“What’s a pity is none of my children want to continue the family business,” he said. “However, my wife and I will stick with this job until our health doesn’t allow us to.”
“Seeing the joy in children’s eyes as they put on one of our masks is all the motivation we need to keep going,” he added.
From now until the Full Moon Celebration on Monday, anyone interested in Hòa’s handmade masks can visit his booth on “Toy Street” at 81 Hàng Lược. — VNS