When you visit Dong Ho village in Bac Ninh Province’s Thuan Thanh District, you won’t necessarily feel the bustle of frantic trade that once characterised the folk-painting hub.
But the vitality of the art itself lives on, maintained by scores of highly skilled artisans.
Though many families now produce such votive objects as artificial gold and counterfeit money to burn at funerals and wakes, there are still plenty who stick to their traditional artistic pursuits.
Artisans Nguyen Dang Che, Nguyen Huu Sam and Tran Nhat Tan all believe that the lapse in folk painting will be short-lived and that their art will last forever.
"The most difficult thing for a calendar-maker is choosing the painting for the first page," Sam said.
"For example, for the Year of the Horse we used the image of Thanh Giong, the three-year-old hero who turned out to be a giant and defended Viet Nam in the sixth century before flying to heaven on his metal horse."
"For the Year of the Mouse we used a picture of a mouse’s wedding."
The mouse’s wedding is a traditional tableau from Eastern philosophy. It depicts the way that with a bit of palm greasing, peaceful co-existance can be achieved within relationships of unequal power. In the painting the mice hand the cat a bundle of fish so their marriage can go ahead safely.
"This year is the Year of the Goat, but goats have never been a sacred part of Vietnamese culture so we can’t put them on the front page," Sam explained.
Instead he uses the image of a boy holding a carp and a cock that represents prosperity. For each season there is a different illustration, depicting wealth in spring, peace in summer, fertility in autumn and peace and freedom in winter.
Hang Trong style
Artists living in Ha Noi’s Hang Trong Street use somewhat different techniques. They take black ink and glue to create an initial design, then a paint brush to colour in their work.
Hang Trong artists use just one block for their paintings while their counterparts in Dong Ho village have to use several to produce their multi-coloured work.
People say that these Hang Trong works of art delve further into realism than their Dong Ho counterparts. They depict scenes such as games of hide and seek, rural markets, girls playing musical instruments and ancient scenes from the Truyen Kieu epic.
They are often illustrated with verses.
Dong Ho village currently boasts more than 150 paintings in the local style. Of these, Nguyen Dang Che himself has restored more than 140 samples totalling more than 1,000 wood blocks.
But he’s not a complete traditionalist. He is constantly designing new works of art to meet the demands of the contemporary market.
"Last year, our family produced 500 local style calendars and exhibited them at Ha Noi’s Culture and Tourism Week as an experiment. We were surprised to see that after just a couple of days the calendars had all but sold out." The few that were left were quickly snapped up by a Swedish tourist at $12 a pop.
Initial success made him more confident about his new designs. This year he has made around 300 calendars for sale mainly in Ha Noi and HCM City.
"My customers are often foreigners, who should understand both the humane and traditional values of this special kind of calendar," Che says.
He adds that calendar making is a harder process than printing ordinary paintings.
You can buy Che’s calendars in either Vietnamese or English for VND30,000 to VND40,000.
They detail the capricious rhythms of the seasons in Viet Nam; the fertile spring, the colourful summer, the powerful autumn and the withering winter.
People have been ordering calendars from Che’s workshop since March last year.
While Che offers a wider selection of calendars, artisan Nguyen Huu Sam’s calendars seem somewhat more distinguished.
"Many people are still fond of Hang Trong painting," says Le Dinh Nghien, a man whose family have been making the paintings for centuries, "but trouble arises when you try to teach young people to understand their value and appreciate their importance to the Tet celebrations.
"The pictures of the four girls playing musical instruments are very popular, but we only sell about two or three of our paintings a day. This makes life an uphill struggle for many of us."
But Nghien’s passion for his work and pride in his family’s reputation spur him on.
"Sometimes I can’t meet my customers’ demands as I’m running my business single-handedly. I hope young people will come to me and learn about the rich cultural tradition of this art form," he says. — VNS
Reprinted with permission from Vietnam News Agency