Balancing act

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A circus virtuoso stays true to his art through 50 years of good times and bad

People's Artist Thai Manh Hien still remembers meeting Ho Chi Minh a half-century ago.

The 74-year-old looks down at the photo of his younger self standing next to a smiling Ho Chi Minh, father of the nation. The shot was taken when Hien's circus troupe performed for the late President.

"This photo is a very important part of my life."

And it's a life that has spanned a watershed era in Vietnamese history: three wars, the defeat of colonialism, a revolution and now globalization.

Hien's seen it all, weathering the storms of history by taking comfort in his labor of love: the circus arts.

Good times

Appointed deputy head of the art department at the Central People's Circus in 1972, the veteran unicyclist and tightrope walker was charged with training young artists and ensuring that talent was up to the troupe's standards.

A young Thai Manh Hien performs with the Central People's Circus in Hanoi

Hien calls the time the best in his life, though the times were not happy ones for Vietnam.

With the intense US bombing crippling the north, there was little room for growth for circus artists.

"At that time there were few circus trainers. I would train with Chinese troupes who visited Vietnam from time to time. I learned a little a bit from each troupe and I taught myself. I spent a lot of time learning new tricks on my own," said Hien.

"I would practice more than ten hours a day, sometimes all night."

Like other artists back then, he endured the tough economic times, living on coupons for 2.5 kg of meat and scant supplies of eggs and fish each month.

"But this was the most beautiful time in my life. We were committed to life and art and were full of aspirations," Hien said.

He remembers living on tiny scraps of food while practicing all day, but says there was no trick to it.

"When we were young, we were committed to the circus and never felt tired."

Hien was born into a large Chinese community in the northern port city of Hai Phong in 1935.

Wandering art troupes, usually run by elderly Chinese men, would perform martial arts shows and circus tricks on street corners all around town.

Their skills drew large crowds of fascinated children and adults. As a young boy, Hien was enthralled by the performances.

Hien began learning the tricks of the trade from a Chinese performer when he was only seven or eight years old. Every night, he dreamed of performing in a real traveling circus. Soon he was walking tightropes, riding unicycles and performing balancing acts.

Hien applied in 1947 for a place at the Valiant Capital Circus, which changed its name to the Central People's Circus in 1956 and is now known as the Vietnam Circus Federation.

A novice in the circus arts at the time, the 12-year-old boy was turned down.

But he practiced patiently, honed his skills and was finally accepted into the troupe as a professional circus artist in 1955.

After his stint as deputy art department director of the group, Hien moved on to head the struggling Long An Circus in the Mekong Delta in 1982.

Hien reinvented the Long An show and rescued it from near financial ruin. He soon had the troupe touring year round on a schedule it still keeps to this day.

In 1993, he was appointed to head the Ho Chi Minh City Circus and has since turned it into a cash cow. He's taken the show on several trips to Russia, China and Eastern Europe.

What the future holds

Though he retired in 2000, Hien is still worried about the development of the circus arts in Vietnam.

"The HCMC Circus has lost many of its performing animals because it can't afford to feed them. Without animals, circus will lose half of its appeal, especially to kids," he said.

"The circus should help educate children, as the more they adore the tricks animals perform, the more they love them and will do their best to protect them and their habitats.

"We should keep the animals at any cost. We could afford them when we were poor, why can't we now?"

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