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Imagination key to art of maskmaking

Update: December, 25/2012 - 18:19


Mobile market: Bay hawks masks around the streets of HCM City everyday. A Vietnamese customer from Germany bought thousands. — VNA Photos Thanh Hai
Whether it's wet or fine, maskmaker Nguyen Van Bay piles his creations on to his old bicycle before sunup and pedals downtown in HCM City. Thanh Hai and Trung Hieu report.

In the crowded street of HCM City, surrounded by modern cars and motorbikes roaring loudly, Nguyen Van Bay is difficult to miss.

Whether it's rainy or sunny, before the sun comes out, Bay piles masks on his old bicycle and pedals to the city centre.

Pedaling around the city on his old bicycle, loaded with masks of historical drama characters, he stops every few minutes to smoke a cigarette to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere before continuing on his rounds.

His skin has turned grey from the dust, and his hair is so long that it reaches his shoulders. Along with his long black beard, this makes him resemble one of the characters in his masks.

But behind this shabby facade hides an artist with a unique imagination.

Born in An Hoa Commune, An Lao District in the central province of Binh Dinh, Bay was always fascinated by historical dramas. He loved imagining the lives of Chinese and Vietnamese historical characters. From his home village, he travelled to Sai Gon (former name of HCM City), where he spent many days wandering the streets before deciding to apply for an apprenticeship at a handicrafts company. After his apprenticeship finished in 1992, he embarked on a career as a sculptor.

"Those statues did not sell very well," he recalled, "so I decided to turn to making masks. Unexpectedly, my products were received enthusiastically by customers."

For almost 20 years, Bay has devoted himself wholeheartedly to the job, producing faces that reflect various emotions: loyalty, integrity, joy, anger, love, hate.

Visiting the small but colourful room on Nguyen Oanh Street in Go Vap District where the artisan works, we watched him pour stone powder into a mold.

Then he removed the mask from the mold, dipped a brush into the paint and began to decorate the mask. A lively face gradually appeared from the lines of vivid colour.

"For good and loyal characters, their faces and smiles must be merciful and the eyes must express spirit," he said. "As for predators and evil people, their eyes are always fearful and they have curved mouths."

Every day, the artisan works until 2-3am. As dawn illuminates the sky, he piles all the masks on his bicycle and leaves his room, travelling to the city centre to earn his living.

Pointing at some masks hanging on the wall, he said: "That type of Indian mask has been exported to the United States, while the drama masks are exported to France. The laughing masks and these frogs are exported to Germany."


Expressive: Masks created by Nguyen Van Bay draw a lot of attention. Some have been exported to Europe and the US.
He showed us a photo of himself standing by the masks, which he said was taken by an American customer in 2006.

"I was selling my masks on Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street, near the Le Quy Don School," the artist recalled, "when a foreigner asked to buy all the masks I had brought that day. After the purchase, he took some photos. Unexpectedly, the next day, when I came back to that place to sell masks, he stood there waiting for me and presented me with this photo."

Another time, in 2007, a Vietnamese customer living in Germany bought hundreds of his small masks and then asked for his phone number.

Some time later, Bay received a phone call from an unfamiliar number. To his great surprise, it was the overseas Vietnamese client, who then commissioned him to make 7,000 small masks to send to Germany.

"But my greatest pleasure was one rainy afternoon," Bay said. "When I came home, I saw a group of students in front of my door."

These students, who studied fine arts at the Architecture University, had come to see Bay's drawings and listen to him tell stories about the lives of the historical characters whose faces are depicted on the masks. Some of them even asked Bay to teach them some basic painting techniques.

Even now, although his customers are fewer than they once were, Bay still rides his mask-loaded bicycle every day around the streets of HCM City. — VNS

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