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A solo Vietnamese water puppetry artist brings a simpler version of the classical art form to the world


Phan Thanh Liem's solo water puppetry performance surrounded by both adults and children. (Below) Liem controls a puppet.
Photos courtesy of Phan Thanh Liem

In many ways, Phan Thanh Liem, 46, carries the future of a classic Vietnamese art on the back of his motorbike.

The rectangular wooden chest is tied tight to the rear of the bike as Liem heads to a primary school in the capital.

The trunk weighs about 100kg, and in it are over 100 years of tradition and culture that have been passed down through the generations: an array of colorful wooden water puppets, a detachable pool, and other instruments, all of which Liem has built with his own two hands since he began his traveling solo water puppet performances in 2001.

This afternoon, the puppeteer performs Bat tien (Eight Fairies), a Vietnamese folk tale, and other popular water puppet plays, for a school full of Hanoian primary students.

As always, Liem a seventh generation puppeteer from an artist family in the northern province of Nam Dinh assembles his two-square-meter stage, which is a shallow pool of water. It's a reduced-size version of the traditional 16-square-meter stage used in larger performances with several puppeteers. He is soon surrounded by hundreds of students.

Standing behind the semicircular-shaped pool, the artist's two hands are busy manipulating the eight fairies as they dance across the surface of the water.

In comparison with a typical show that features at least eight puppeteers standing knee deep in water behind a split-bamboo screen, the scene of Liem alone controlling all the puppets at once from outside the pool is slightly more humble, but no less enjoyable. The only thing missing is live music, which Liem replaces with a CD.

"It's tiring to play with several puppets simultaneously as my performance must be in sync with the music," said Liem, who says he inherited his creativity from his late father, who patented the traditional water puppet stage on which Liem's small pool is based.

In addition, Liem's father, artisan Phan Van Ngai, also built a statue of chu Teu (a comedic farmer named Teu) the most famous character in Vietnamese water puppetry whose likeness is now recognized by millions as the narrator of most water puppet plays that is currently on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France.

Liem's reduced-size puppets are marionettes and are much lighter than standard water puppets, each of which weigh at least 15 kilograms and are manipulated by poles instead of string.

For some of his traveling performances, Liem, a member of the Worldwide Puppetry Organization since 2008, reduces the height of his puppets to 20 centimeters and replaces some of their wooden parts with plastic to make it lighter.

"The show, however, can be seen by hundreds of people from different views," he said, adding that since the stage's design is small and simple, many children compete to sit near the stage in order to touch the puppets and learn the craft after the show.

"My target audiences are neither from Hanoi nor Ho Chi Minh City, but people, especially children, in remote, poor areas of the country, as they don't have many recreational activities to enjoy," said Liem, who is so far the youngest puppeteer in his family.

"Water puppetry, like other performing arts, could claim back its glory if people experience it throughout their childhoods," said the artist, whose three-year-old son has also fallen in love with the puppets.

However, Liem's oldest son no longer studies the craft after he was made fun of by his teacher and classmates when he told them his father was a puppeteer.

"Children will not treasure the art unless adults have the proper attitude toward it," said Liem.

Mobility

Liem's mini stage made of wood and sheet iron has traveled to different parts of Vietnam, including remote areas and venues that don't have enough space for full-stage water puppet shows. He has even brought his show abroad.

Last month, the puppeteer toured to the central province of Quang Binh and Japan.

In Japan, the Vietnamese artist, whose family founded the country's first private water puppet company, Song Ngoc, had 16 shows in ten cities over 15 days. His most popular plays feature lion and dragon dances, and stories of farmers plowing their rice fields.

Liem has also toured Italy, Poland, Korea, Canada, Thailand, and Malaysia. 

Whereas a typical crew of water puppetry includes more than ten artisans and five tons of instruments, Liem's shows are cheap and easy.

"High transportation costs and accommodation fees discourage most puppeteers and organizers, especially cultural organizations and NGOs, from promoting the art to abroad, even though foreign audiences really love the show," he said.

Liem, who is set to tour Europe again next year, said that some organizations in France could not afford to invite full Vietnamese water-puppetry companies to perform in their country even though they wanted too.

That's why he argues that his solo performance is a perfect solution to the problem.

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