Man among toys: preserving the art of Tò he

February 20, 2022 - 07:53

Artisan Đặng Văn Hậu has always had a passion for the traditional craft of tò he -- toy figurines that are made of rice dough.


Artisan Đặng Văn Hậu has held the traditional craft in his heart since he was a child. — Photo

By Thanh Nga

Artisan Đặng Văn Hậu has always had a passion for the traditional craft of tò he -- toy figurines that are made of rice dough.

Tò he, like traditional toys in general, have to compete with modern toys, but I am happy to realise that many children still love tò he. I'm also very proud of my traditional craft because it brings joy to everyone," Hậu told Việt Nam News.

The toy figurines hold considerable charm because of their colour, fun and all-round cuteness, not to mention that each toy has its own backstory, usually from ancient folk stories. The small figures were being made as far back as the 17th century, though still remain popular today.

Hậu, 38, from Xuân La Village, Phú Xuyên District, Hà Nội, was awarded the title of “Artisan” in 2014, becoming the youngest person to ever receive such a title.

Enchanted youth

Hậu was born into a family that has been making toy figurines for many generations, so was familiar with the craft from a very early age.

He remembers being a small boy and following his grandfather to watch him make the toys at festivals throughout the city. By the age of 10, he could make them himself. Since then, with unceasing creativity, he has created many products and won several prizes in competitions.

“My maternal grandfather was very good at making tò he. When I was a kid, every time I returned home from school, I ran over to his house and asked him to knead rice powder into coloured dough to make miniature animals. His skills fascinated me,” said Hậu.

With over two decades of experience in the craft, Hậu now often crafts and sells toy figurines at Hoàn Kiếm Lake walking street or fairs in the city, following in his grandfather's footsteps.

He has also participated in many exhibitions, and recently collaborated with RMIT University in an exhibition titled "Tò he Revolution." He plans to open another exhibition this year in HCM City.


A set of five tiger figurines for the current lunar year, the Year of the Tiger. — Photo


The original miniature animals were made of rice dough mixed with natural ingredients for colouring. The four primary colours were yellow, red, black and blue. The rice dough was steamed to become shiny. After that, the 'folk sculptors' crafted the dough into edible figurines such as trees, animals, flowers or characters from folk stories.

Earlier, people used colour derived from herbs boiled with a little rice flour. This process is very clean and customers could steam the used toys and eat them.

However, Hậu did not think the materials were suitable for making high-quality products, so he researched and improved the materials to make the dough more durable. The new toys are no longer edible, and he uses artificial colours to create fresh, eye-catching and vivid artworks.

“Since 2012, I started to improve the dough to make its quality more durable. This was very important in my career development. To bring toy figurines closer to the people, it is necessary to have good and long-lasting products so that tourists coming to Hà Nội can buy them and take them home for their family and friends,” Hậu said.

“The improved dough must be safe. If it is not safe, the artisan is the first to suffer. Thanks to the improved materials, my products are more diverse and better meet the needs of customers.”


 Hậu’s products have a lot of charm because of their colour, fun and cuteness. — Photo

Hậu said that there are two different styles of making toy figurines.

"Đồng Xuân" toy figurines have cultural depth and are focused on showing folk characters and stylistic influences of Đông Hồ folk paintings. Although they look simple, they are not easy to knead. The craftsman must shape the product so that it is both rough and graceful, and has a traditional look.

The toys can be in the shapes of horses, buffaloes, goats, pigs, fish, shrimp, elephants, tigers, or fruits. Some toys even depict scenes, such as a boy herding buffalo, or children performing lion dances.

The other style is called "Phố Khách" and was created by ethnic Hoa craftsmen in the capital's Old Quarter streets of Hàng Buồm and Mã Mây. The toy figurines look more sophisticated and focus on details, creating more realistic images.

Realising that toy figurines in the current market are mainly superheroes or characters in modern cartoons, Hậu is determined to combine Đồng Xuân and Phố Khách styles to produce new products, which have both folk characteristics and eye-catching aesthetics.

Hậu believes the folk characteristics helped toy figurines to survive for a long time and that they are a great gift for international friends.

The figurines not only reveal the artist's technique but also show the individual stories of each folk character. He has created many classic sets of folk toys such as Ngũ Hổ (five tigers), Tố Nữ (beautiful women) and Tam Sư (Three Kylins).

Traditionally, the toys sold for around VNĐ20,000 (less than US$1) each, but thanks to the improvement of raw materials and investment in fine arts, Hậu’s product can be sold at VNĐ500,000 -- there is even a set of toy figurines valued at VNĐ3 million.


Đoàn Văn Hậu says making tò he is not difficult, but the important thing is love and perseverance. Photo Tò He Việt

Preserving a traditional craft

With the desire to maintain the traditional craft of his village, many years ago Hậu decided to open free classes to teach children from 6th to 12th grade in the countryside.

However, as the economy in the region gradually gets better, children are less interested in making rice-dough toys to earn extra income. Only a few have the passion to stay with the craft.

Hậu said that making the figurines was not difficult and that the important thing is love and perseverance. He believes the work of an artist is to bring soul to the characters.

He is worried about the direction things are going. To make products that combine the two styles, workers must be skilful, and although many of the workers are very good, it takes years to master both styles, so many give up halfway.

Master artisan Hậu is determined. "I hope to be able to preserve and develop this craft further, not only in terms of design but also in materials,” he said.

In the hands of Hậu, one of the capital’s unique crafts looks set to continue for many years to come. VNS