Trung Thu 2018: The Return of Old Things
While China, Malaysia and Singapore’s mid-autumn festivals, and even South Korea’s Chuseok festival, place more emphasis on familial celebrations and giving thanks for a bountiful harvest, in Vietnam, Trung Thu (literal translation of “Mid Autumn”) has taken on a different meaning as a festival for children. And perhaps for those who were once children as well.
1. Born in the 1980s and 1990s, the young artists in this article are now in their late 20s and early 30s. For them, Trung Thu perhaps is one of the most vivid parts of their childhood, “something really meaningful, wonderful and such a sacred tradition” as one of them said. Images that are associated with the festival like glass paper lanterns, lion head masks, papier-mâché of folklore characters (e.g. chú Tễu, ông Địa) now become sources of inspiration for their artworks.
As the description in her page says, “the project is dedicated to all beautiful childhood memories of every Vietnamese about the mid-autumn festival”, Thao Nhi, a Hanoi-based graphic designer, has brought all the traditional icons of Trung Thu into her designs, breathing a new life into the old images.When looking at these smartphone cases designed by Thao Phi, a Hanoi-based graphic designer, young Vietnamese, especially those who were born in the 1980s and 1990s will immediately feel related. The patterns are the icons made up their childhood memories of Trung Thu: star-shaped lanterns, lion-head masks, mooncakes in the shape of piglets and carps, metallic ships, and fruits in moon-viewing parties. Also sharing the nostalgia for Trung Thu of the old days as much, Tired City, a manufacturing and retailing company dedicated to local young artist empowerment, decided to cooperate with two young artists, X.Lan and Tam Bui, to make a Trung Thu-themed collection inspired by traditional icons of the festival for this year’s Trung Thu. The collection consists of two different products: enamel pins (X.Lan) and T-shirts and Hoodies (Tam Bui).
2. Unlike the first group, these people can be called artisans, even though many of them refused that title, when many of them have spent half of their life preserving the essence of Trung Thu – traditional arts that are fast being lost to modernity. Perhaps it is the childhood memories that keep them stay in this cause through thick and thin.
“Tonight is the Full Moon Night of the lunar eighth month.
Mom lights up the swing lantern.
As soon as the light is on.
Hundreds of silhouettes run around…”
(An old poem for children)
A swing lantern, or “Đèn kéo quân” in Vietnamese has six sides which represent six feelings of a human: love – hate – anger – sulking – sadness – happiness. It is the heat from the candle lit inside the lantern that makes the propeller at the bottom swing and all the images inside move around. Traditionally, the images were usually from historical stories and folklores. The adults lit up the lantern, the children sat around, watching the movement and listening to the stories. That’s why “Đèn kéo quân” earns the name of “the lantern telling story by light”.
Today, compared to flashy smartphones and colourful plastic toys, the lantern seems inferior. Its maker, Vu Van Sinh, 58, based in Dan Vien Village (Cao Vien Commune, Thanh Oai District, Hanoi) has pondered and came up with an idea to renew the old art: making a swing lantern with 3D effects. Instead of paper cut images, all the characters are drawn on different layers of plastic papers to create better shapes and enhance the depth. Electricity is used to replace candle light. The old art has just been revitalized in such a sophisticated manner. Sinh, along with a few of other artisans also participate in events hold by the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology for children every Trung Thu. Lantern and traditional toys making sessions are always busiest with lots of kids and their parents. Sinh believes with sincerity, his works of arts can touch the right chords of young hearts and thus, keep the love for traditions burn forever.
Another artisan that has managed to bring new values to the old things is Pham Van Quang, 62, who has carved wooden mooncakes moulds for 40 years. Based in a small house of less than 10m2 at 59 Hang Quat Street, Quang is said to be the last hand-carved mould maker in Hanoi.
The cake moulds are usually made of mahogany and ebony, which are said to be safe for food processing. The wood block is cut into a rough formation before being carved following a design. The carving process requires multiple tools and can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days, depending on the size and sophistication of the mould.
Aware of the harsh competition of cheap, convenient plastic moulds currently rampant on the market, Quang is, however, persistent doing what he has considered his family career and looking for new ways to preserve it. He decided to take more various orders: not only cake moulds but also moulds with bespoke designs, particularly highly artistic moulds as premium souvenirs.
“Sometimes the hardship it takes to make one mould costs only 1 dollar. But with the maker’s creativity, the value is ten times as much,” said Quang, explaining why many moulds can cost several million Vietnam Dong. Turning a traditional cooking utensil into a work of arts worth millions is perhaps a sustainable resolution to old arts preservation and indeed, evolution.
By Thu Ngo