Old couple mask decline of traditional craft

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  Traditional masks are popular with children during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Photo: VNA

An old couple living in a small apartment in Hanoi's old quarter are the last of a breed they are the only artisans alive making paper masks in the capital.

The mask had been a favorite plaything for children as recently as the 1980s, but it has since lost out to the myriad of modern toys that are available. In Hanoi, which was once the epicenter of the craft of mask making, Nguyen Van Hoa and his wife Dang Huong Lan now plow a lonely furrow.

They have been doing it for over 30 years and are now in their sixties, though they look younger.

"Working on the funny faces gives us a lot of joy and that may be the reason why we look young," Hoa explains with a laugh while arranging the masks on the floor to dry.

There are 16 traditional kinds of masks made based on animals like the tiger, lion, pig, and rabbit and popular characters from children's films and stories like Ông Tiến S (Doctor), Ông Địa (The Earth God), and clowns.

But with little demand these days, the pair do not have much work, except around the time of the traditional Mid-Autumn Festival, which is their only busy season.

"It seems that people only remember our paper masks during the traditional children's festival," Lan says with a sigh.

"Thanks to this festival, we still have a chance to ply our trade."

 Like every year they started to prepare in March-April for the Mid Autumn Festival which falls on September 30.

"We usually [start] right at the beginning of summer when there is a lot of sunshine," Hoa explains. "We normally sell some 3,000 masks during the festival, so we have to start soon to ensure that number."

Dang Huong Lan gathers masks to pack for customers
They explain that making a paper mask requires a lot of steps all done by hand such as cutting paper into small pieces and gluing the pieces together following a mould made from cement, drying the plain mask in the sunshine, and then painting and drawing patterns on its front.

The simple but sophisticated patterns make it easy for us to recognize the characters. But since they are done wholly by hand and not machines, each mask is slightly different from the other, even if they portray the same character.

It takes about four hours to complete a mask on a sunny day, Lan says.

"The masks look simple but it needs skill and patience to make them strong, eye-catching, and with soul."

Making them may require lots of skill and time, but the materials used for the masks are quite simple: wastepaper, glue made from kudzu tuber powder, paint, and different moulds for different masks.

The couple cannot work on rainy days since there is little room in their small apartment.

"We are lucky to live on the top floor of this old apartment building because we have a little more space to dry our products," Lan says.

Their apartment is on the top floor of a four-story building in a long, dark lane.

Though it takes much time and skill to make a mask, they can only get VND21,000 (US$1) for one.

Their two children are not into the craft, Lan says. "They often ask us to stop the work and enjoy our retirement, but we don't want to see this traditional craft sink into oblivion when we can still continue with it, especially when cheap Chinese plastic masks are dominating the market."

However, her sadness quickly disappears and is replaced by strong optimism: "Though some people do not really understand the difference between our handmade products and mass-produced plastic masks, we are encouraged by many customers who are even taking our products to some foreign markets."

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