Rural puppeteers struggle to preserve their art

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For the past 300 years, farmers in the Dao Thuc Village have perfected the local art of water puppetry.

However, the village's puppet guild is still struggling to survive since the farmers know little about self-promotion.

Artisan Ngo Minh Phong, vice director of the guild and the owner of a mechanical workshop in the village, can recall happy memories of foreign visitors who were brought to tears by their performances.

"No one could believe that such plain country people could be capable of creating beautiful, wonderful puppet shows," he said.

The guild has toured abroad and to other provinces. But they are struggling to find new blood and enough capital to keep up with Vietnam's post-boom economy. Seven artists have quit performing for other well-paid jobs.

According to Phong (who has worked as puppeteer for nearly 30 years) half of the village's 40 artists regularly perform. The oldest is nearly 80, while the youngest is 16.

Together, they put on roughly 20 shows a month and are paid very little.

Phong estimates that they take in about US$75 per show the sum includes expenses for fireworks, electricity and puppet materials.

Each performer receives just $2.5, which is quite small, compared to the $10 they make working as carpenters, farmers or mechanics.

Thanks to the support of the local government, the group has managed to survive until now.

The village has received $500,000 to improve and build new roads and $7,500 to build two mobile stages which they take on the road.

Outsiders continue to complain about the guild's sub-par facilities and maintenance costs only add to the farmers' woes.

"We need world-class restrooms for our foreign audiences," Phong said. "The most important thing, however, is the puppets," he said.

The crew uses at least 100 puppets in a single show and they are often destroyed by the water.

Each puppet costs $25 and the farmers are often left to make repairs on their own.

In the meantime, the guild's future remains unclear.

The village held classes for local teens, but most of them left after they figured that puppetry would not provide them with a stable income.

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