Chu Bay has a dream. He is living in his home province of Ninh Binh, regularly taking his family to see hat boi (also known as hat tuong) — a traditional opera being performed by travelling troupes and in local theatres. This is his utopia.
It may never happen, but as long as he has something to aim for, it keeps him focused. He works night and day creating traditional masks in the hat boi fold to make enough money to allow himself a shot at retirement and to get out of dodge — dodge being Ho Chi Minh City.
Bay, 49, in true artist style sports facial hair and an unkempt appearance, with grey, dirty hands from the production process. He is a working man. He has been in the city for half his life, and when probed about the possibility of trying an alternative profession, he sniffs. He tried it once at a statue factory, but quickly found it wasn’t for him.
He could quit the masks for a more profitable job, but he’s stubborn and can’t stop. It’s not just hat boi masks he creates, but also the iconic, fictional characters of Egypt and Native America, as well as Chinese historical figures.
“I have been creating the hat boi masks for so long that I have a bond with them until my time is up or my hands don’t work anymore,” he says. “I save money so that every year I can take my family back home to Ninh Binh for a visit. That is my motivation to make and sell as many masks as possible. If I don’t make enough the family can’t go.”
An Angel in a Scary Mask
At first glimpse the masks can be scary to some people, but hung on a wall at home they purportedly bring good fortune and keep the demons at bay.
Bay became hooked as a child, often sneaking into hat boi shows unnoticed just to see the painted masks. His admiration helped mask his fears. He later studied the art from local artisans. As he moulds and paints his love for his hometown in his makeshift studio, he is always drawn back to his childhood. He makes his masks with rock powder, which he puts into the mould and then rubs with sandpaper to make them smoother. Then he paints.
Selling roughly 100 a month, he considers himself a poor artist. He knows he’ll never be rich, but is happy with his destiny. In the past the masks were painted on paper, but they didn’t last. After trying a traditional mould product, he switched to his own special ingredients which include a plastic product to make the masks more durable.
Ever the salesman Bay asks me if I can take some masks back to Scotland and introduce his art to a new market. He is no stranger to international trade and occasionally ships off products to Japan or the US. He even sold thousands of his small masks to a German company a few years ago.
He is a familiar figure about town and his favourite spots are on Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, Dien Bien Phu and Truong Dinh. He admits sales are down in the rainy season, so if you spot him and like the products at hand, cough up the cash and make his Ninh Binh dream come at least partly true.
The Birth of an Art Form
It is believed that hat boi was imported from China around 1285, when Vietnam was warring against the Mongol Yuan Dynasty. A famous actor named Ly Nguyen Cat was imprisoned by the Vietnamese, and the Dai Viet imperial court at Thang Long (now Hanoi) asked him to spread his knowledge of Chinese theatre to the children of the elite at the royal court. He taught the court performers the techniques of Chinese zaju opera, creating what is now hat tuong or hat boi.
Over the next century the art form welcomed the introduction of southern songs. The theatre was later adapted to travelling troupes who entertained the common people of Vietnam. The National Tuong Theatre was set up in Hanoi after the end of French rule.
My Lucky Mask
My brother brought me a devilish mask back from Japan and explained to me that it brought good luck and helped ward off evil spirits, or so it said on the tin. I suppose if you believe you are lucky you become so. It was a bit ghoulish with its horns and wicked smile — and quite fragile, as it smashed quite easily.
I was hoping it would still have its powers, but no amount of glue could put it together again. Post-accident, I kept it in a little green bag. My mother was visiting my flat and after tidying up put the bag in my drawer. I awoke that night sensing something trying to force its way out the drawer. I opened it slowly and carefully. The bloody mask. It was never put in a drawer again. Then one day it disappeared, never to be seen again.
After our interview, I bought a new mask from Bay. Fingers crossed it doesn’t break and brings me my billion.