Illustration by Trịnh Lập
by Nguyễn Mỹ Hà
This Lunar New Year, which falls on January 23, 2020, for the first time in 16 years, Vietnamese families will not sit down after eve dinner to watch the most anticipated TV show of the year: Táo Quân.
Despite the show's popularity, on November 22, Việt Nam Television and Việt Nam Television Film Centre declared that they will stop producing the show.
The show is named after the Kitchen Gods in Vietnamese mythology and each household has three of the gods, two men and a woman who fly up to Heaven on the 23rd of the twelfth lunar month to report to Ngọc Hoàng, or the Jade Emperor or the Heaven Ruler, on what went on in that household throughout the year.
In Vietnamese Mother Goddess worship, the Jade Emperor rules over everything under the sky. He is the Supreme Ruler, who lives in a celestial palace with beautiful fairies and protected by guards.
Developed from the year-end show of a weekly comedy, the Year-End Meeting, later named shortly as Táo Quân, the show summed up the year's issues in Vietnamese society from good performances to bad governance, bureaucracy and corruption, all in a comedy performed by the country's top artists.
Applauded by many as the best thing on national television, the show combines contemporary issues with popular songs from Vietnamese traditional theatre including tuồng, chèo, cải lương, as well as international songs with Vietnamese lyrics adapted to comment on social issues.
International hits including the Titanic theme song and songs from the Phantom of the Opera were used to tackle issues in Vietnamese society.
Ostensibly, the Jade Emperor, with his assistants Nam Tào, who oversees the southern part of the sky, and Bắc Đẩu, who takes care of the northern part, deliver justice. They should be upright, fair and govern by the rule of law.
But even the Jade Emperor has a friendly side, shown by his moniker "Anh Hoàng", or "brother Emperor". The informal form of address helps reduce the social distance from the supreme ruler to everyone living under his rule and actor Quốc Khánh has played the signature role for years with aplomb.
Nam Tào and Bắc Đẩu, played by actors Xuân Bắc and Công Lý, respectively, form an entertaining, but controversial duo. The former is straight while the latter is gay and is depicted as capricious and vain. Children liked Bắc Đẩu and called him Miss Đẩu.
The show focuses on issues ranging from family planning, to drug abuse and urban planning. Public health and education usually get the biggest reaction as these fields affect everyone.
"I watched the show when I was still single," one person commented under a clip from the show uploaded on YouTube.
"Now I have two children and we would all clean up after dinner so everyone can sit down and watch the Kitchen Gods together."
During the show, the criticism of many gods of different fields including traffic, social, health and education in the show received public support, and the following year, changes were made. If anyone feared the show, it was the officials and public workers mocked.
During its run, the show also received some criticism for falling short of expectations, particularly for falling somewhat behind the times.
Many see 2015 as the most disappointing year for Táo Quân, when it did not include the biggest concern of the year when China's Hai Yang 981 oil rig illegally operated on the Vietnamese territorial waters in the East Sea in May 2014.
Then in 2018, Táo Quân received official letter of protest from the Institute for the Studies of Society, Economy and Environment , a Vietnamese NGO based in Hà Nội, and the Information, Connecting and Sharing Centre for the LGBT community. They expressed their concern over lines in the 2018 show, which described Bắc Đẩu as "someone living in the sky who is neither man nor woman," or "those who are half-women".
The latest Táo Quân earlier this year was deemed to lack sharp conversations, avoided thorny issues and failed to mention the accomplishments of H'hen Niê, who won Miss Universe 2018.
News on the replacement show will be announced in December.
There have been speculations run high that a version of Táo Quân, produced by Việt Nam Television Film Company in the Czech Republic in September, titled Táo Quân in Travels, will be broadcast.
In the coming Lunar New Year, many families across Việt Nam will still sit down together, but not with the same anticipation for a good laugh as they used to.
They will be presented with a new special TV treat, but memories of Táo Quân, with all its hilarious moments, its classic tunes, jargon and jokes, and even its shortcomings, will be heart-warming souvenirs for all who lived through those 16 years. VNS