Princes and paupers

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Artist Xuan Dieu helps his wife clean their rented room in Ho Chi Minh City's District 7

Thanh Xuan is delighted that the doors of the rented rooms next to hers have been locked for a few days.

It means that the occupants, who hail from different parts of the country and are cai luong (a form of modern folk opera in southern Vietnam) artists like Xuan and her husband, are not around.

"They're on tour," says Xuan, who lives in Quarter 3 on Tran Xuan Soan Street of Tan Hung Ward in District 7, Ho Chi Minh City. She and her husband have lived in the area since 2003.

"It upsets me when these doors are open, especially at night as it means they are unemployed," she says.

Unlike celebrity entertainers who get paid well for their shows, just one jobless day worries these relatively unknown artists, for their income is barely enough for their daily bread.

They are paid between VND100,000 (less than five US dollars) and VND200,000 per show at a restaurant in the city and double that for performing in the outlying suburbs or the countryside. A gig at a provincial pagoda pays better, but it's still only VND500,000 even with the travel and other expenses.

And if there are few customers, the artists go unpaid and are lucky if they're reimbursed for their travel costs.

Because of the poor pay, martial arts master Kim Tuan is reluctant to work these days. He is known for peeling coconut shells with his teeth.

"It costs nearly a hundred thousand dong to buy ten coconuts, and it's the same amount for gasoline. The meager pay I can get isn't worth it," says Tuan.

Biggest art troupe ever

Yet these artists consider themselves fortunate that they can survive with their precarious careers, and that they can live together in one place like a big family to form "the biggest art troupe ever," according to musician Lu Dat.

"We can gather hundreds of artists, from magicians to martial artists to actors, just with one call," Dat says.

Says Nguyen Thi Kim Ba, one of the residents of Quarter 3, "There are more than enough artists here to put on a show at a funeral or wedding party, whether it be pop or traditional, circus or comedy. We don't have to travel elsewhere to find performers."

Their neighbors are used to seeing the artists have a late breakfast or morning coffee at a café as they discuss their upcoming gigs, and notice that they rise mid-morning and return to their rooms after eating.

"As they work late at night, they only wake up around 9-10 a.m. and not leave for the night shows until around 5-6 p.m.," says a local resident.

Though the artists get up late, other family members rise early
to prepare breakfast for the children and clean their small homes, which are around 25-30 square meters, and the outside areas like any ordinary family. They all respect their neighbors and obey the rules and regulations.

First residents

Nearby, in quarters 2 and 4, nearly one hundred artists' families of different generations have lived for more than 20 years.

Among the local landlords, Tu Min and his wife were the first to welcome the home-seeking artists. In the 1990s, they built thatched rooms on their land and rented them out for VND200,000 per month each.

Min says the first artist to take one of his rooms was the late cai luong musician Hoang Mai. "Since he felt lonely, and the rent was low, Mai invited his fellow artists to live with him here."

"We're great fans of these artists and find them to be decent, well-behaved people, so we prefer that they live here."

Mai invited Minh Tri and Vuong Tuan to live with him, and then Tuan, who had worked with the renowned senior cai luong actor Minh Vuong, invited Dien Thanh and Vu Quang, and so on.

Tuan, who had belonged to the cai luong troupe Tien Giang 1 before working in private troupes as far away as the central region, says he returned to the city in the late 1990s after ten years in the provinces and tried to make a living as a merchant, but he didn't succeed.

"That's when Minh Tri asked me to move here to devote myself to my art again," says Tuan, who has been living at his present address since 1999.

"It's very hard for us artists to do anything else for work," Tri says. "So we live together in order to help each other."

Thanks to the support and love from the others, says Tuan, life is getting better. At present, his income mostly comes from leasing out his musical instruments. Minh Tri, on the other hand, is more established and has his own house nearby.

Of the 20 rooms owned by Tu Min and his wife, 18 are occupied by entertainers. In addition, the couple built a big yard for the artists to rehearse, discuss important matters, even host birthday parties. His wife is happy to prepare food for the parties for free.

Many left

Despite the advantages, says Tu Min, many have come and left. Some depart in secret because they are behind in their rent and cannot afford to pay, but the landlord understands their situation and doesn't chase after them for the money.

The others are getting on in years and rely on their children, most of whom have followed in their parents' footsteps and become entertainers.

Thanks to his son, a child singer with several hits to his name, Huu Tri recently bought a house nearby. Circus artist Minh Tan did the same with financial help from his relatives.

Thanh Xuan is in her 40s, and though she and her husband work day and night, it's nigh impossible to save enough money to buy a small plot of land on which to build a house.

Lu Dat has accepted that he will never have a place of his own. "When I was young, I dreamt of owning a house, but no longer. At my age, I cannot ask for more, just enough money for my family to live on."

Hau, the musician, who is 58 years old, does have his own house, but it's in the neighboring province of Long An and he cannot leave to go back to his hometown.

"Though my house is not here, at least I can work to feed myself," he says ruefully. "Back home I don't know how I would survive. Only death can release us from poverty.

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