Art at your fingertip

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To the craftsmen kneading rice paste in different colors to the likenesses of animals and famous characters from cartoons, comic books and folk stories.

Every morning, Dang Van Ha rolls up his trousers, takes a wooden box containing his tools and travels from his home in Xuan La Village to downtown Hanoi to make and sell to he (edible toy figurines) at Thong Nhat Park for VND3,000-5,000 each (US$0.20).

Considering he is over 80 years old, Ha said his family does not want him to sell to he anymore. But, he exclaims, "My whole life I have been earning a living making to he. Sitting at home makes me feel restless."

Dang Van Ha's village is well-known throughout the region for making to he. It is said that the practice started there over 300 years ago, invented by Vu Van Sai, who learned how to make the toy during a trip to China, and then taught the people in his village.

To he is an edible toy usually made from glutinous rice powder and sugar, and hand formed to create likenesses of animals, flowers and people. In the past, to he was only sold during major festivals, especially the Lunar New Year Festival and Mid-Autumn Festival, the festivals most popular with Vietnamese children. Recently, the toy is seen being sold at almost all traditional festivals as well as in parks and other public areas.

To create the toy, Ha mixes a paste made from glutinous and traditional rice powders which is malleable enough to knead into different shapes. After using his artist's eye and his sculpting skills to create the shapes, he sticks them through with bamboo sticks.

Ideas for the forms of to he figurines are drawn from animals, flowers and characters in folk stories and cartoons. Some popular ones include dragons, buffalos, Sun Wukong - the Monkey King in "Journey to the West" - and Superman. There are seven basic colors used in making to he figurines: green, sea blue, red, purple, yellow, white and black. The colors are taken from natural food dyes such as gardenia and turmeric.

Making to he requires the utmost patience from the craftsman. Traditionally the practice has been passed from father to sons and daughters-in-law, but not to daughters.

To he (edible toy figurines), with a history going back 300 years, attracts both children and tourists for its diverse and colorful figurines.

"At first, the local artisans made figurines of animals and fruit used to offer to ancestors on worship altars. Then they started making the twelve animals in the zodiac which led to making toy soldiers during war time, who were many times depicted blowing on trumpets. Since then people started to call this traditional toy to he (onomatopoeia for the sound of a trumpet)," said Ha, who has been making to he since 1947 after learning the craft from his father.

While Ha displays his to he at Thong Nhat Park, his grandson Dang Dinh Tien, who won the first prize in the village's to he competition in 2010, sets up his wares at West Lake Water Park.

To he is now not as popular as many colorful, imported, hi-tech toys, but it is still well-liked among children and foreign tourists for its history and simplicity, Ha said.

According to Nguyen Van Thanh, head of the Xuan La to he artisan club, to he artisans not only work hard at building a client-base, but also pay strict attention to market demand.

"Children nowadays no longer like buffalos or flowers... they prefer Superman, Son Goku (the main character in the Japanese comic book "Dragon Ball") and Pikachu, so we always have to keep up on comic books and watch cartoons," Thanh said.

Another of Ha's grandsons, Dang Van Kha, has been invited to perform his to he making-skills in schools and restaurants in Hanoi.

An assistant principal of a secondary school in Ha Dong District was impressed by Kha's talent after the young artisan made her a figurine wearing an ao

dai in just minutes. After he started selling to he in front of the school, she asked him to prepare forty kilograms of paste to teach a class in to he-making to the students.

The school then introduced Kha and his younger brother, Dang Dinh Tien, to other schools nearby, including Van Phuc, Ba Thang Hai, and Van Quan schools to perform and teach to he. The two brothers were paid VND1 million ($50) for their services. Some parents even asked them to tutor their children.

After that success, many restaurants and hotels invited Kha and other young artisans from the village to teach foreign tourists how to create to he.

Dang Dinh Tien practices his skill at West Lake Water Park and plans to build a website for to he and even start a company specializing in to he. Kha now sells all kinds of pen and pencils decorated with to he for VND10,000 each. His creations are a huge hit amongs students in the capital.

According to Thanh, there are two major obstacles in promoting and preserving the art of making to he - finding another ingredient to replace rice powder, as it easily spoils, and the perception of the public that to he artisans are low-class vendors. They are not common street-sellers, he says, they are artists.

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