Two of the folk opera's greatest artists are still at it, hoping to pass their craft to the next generation
There was a time in Saigon when the operatic art of cai luong was so popular that the south's sexiest pop stars had to do away with their fancy suits and tight dresses to don the royal attire of ancient China or the historical Vietnamese court in order to get a gig. It was the 1960s and cai luong was king.
Although the trendy youths of today make fun of the old form and some even wish it dead, it's still alive thanks to the work of a few dedicated artists.
"Without cai luong, I don't know how people can describe the culture of Saigon," said Cong Minh, 57, one of cai luong's most sought-after costume designers of the last 20 years.
Trinh Thien Tai, 71, one of the art form's most popular set designers for the last 30 years, agreed.
"Although cai luong started in the Mekong Delta, Saigon is the place where it blossomed," he said. "I just want the art to stay forever in the heart of Saigon people."
Though both Minh and Tai are known for preserving cai luong, they're also known for changing it Minh for making it more historically accurate, and Tai for changing the way it was sold to the people.
In the blood
Cai luong, which literally translates to "reformed opera," was born just after World War I, and took many of its conventions from the Vietnamese theater art of tuong, which is a 1,000-year-old tradition heavily influenced by, and reminiscent of, Beijing Opera.
Minh's father, Minh To, was considered the greatest tuong singer of his day, and Minh's mother, Bay Su, was also a famous tuong artist.
Thus, Minh virtually grew up on stage, surrounded by aunts and uncles who were also performers.
It was the ornate costumes shiny in gold, bright in reds and yellows, and flush with make-up, fake hair and fancy shoes that he fell in love with.
"Back at those days, I kept watching my family perform and the costumes at some point became a part of my blood," he said.
As a young boy, he would ride across the city on the back of his father's beat-up motorbike, clutching the troupe's costumes with all the might his tiny arms could muster. He remembers the way the costumes felt and smelled, and he still remembers getting a scolding from his father for dropping one of the long beards on the way to a show.
But after his father retired due to arthritis in the 1980s, the general popularity of tuong and cai luong began to wane and it wasn't until 1992 that Minh had his first chance to make cai luong costumes professionally.
And what an opportunity it was: the story was the tragic tale of Yang Guifei, one of the Four Beauties of Ancient China and the beloved consort of Emperor Xuanzong. Yang's elaborate clothes allowed Minh to shine, and his outfits have remained a sensation ever since.
Long-time tuong costume designer Cong Minh shows off pheasant feathers left to him by his late father, himself a famous tuong artist. Minh says pheasant feathers are important in traditional performances, but very rare to see.
Saigon Video, a major producer of cai luong films, prefers Minh's work as it's often considered more "authentic" than most commercial artists.
"[I got my beginning] in the days when many cai luong films were produced but the costumes were mostly flashy and did not keep with tradition, so I felt the urge to jump in," Minh said.
Before Minh, Vietnam's historic heroines the Trung sisters (12 BC-43 AD) were often depicted in ao dai (traditional Vietnamese long tunic) and their Chinese enemies were given pigtails.
Minh put an end to that by infusing his work with a little knowledge of history: the Vietnamese ao dai was created in the 18th century, long after the Trung sisters lived, while the pigtail hairstyle only appeared in China during the Qing dynasty in the 17th century.
He said the audience should be respected and that "costumes must be closely linked to history."
The faces of cai luong
Trinh Thien Tai, the cai luong set designer, was born in the delta's Bac Lieu Province, the birthplace of vong co (literally "longing for the past"), a Vietnamese musical structure created around 1918 and subsequently used primarily in cai luong.
His father Trinh Thien Tu, a noted academic who wrote primarily on southern Vietnamese music during the early 1960s, had called for artists in the region to help the family of Cao Van Lau, the author of the first vong co song the structure of which all other vong co songs would subsequently be based on called "Da co hoai lang" (Night song of the missing husband) after the author died.
Tai went to college in Saigon and graduated with a degree in sculpture, but he became a painter before he started designing sets.
He said that after the reunification of Vietnam in 1975, he couldn't make as much money painting signs and billboards as he had been doing. He became poor and lost his home, but somehow managed to scrounge up enough dough to rent a home for his family and he never gave up painting.
Ironically, in the 1980s, when the popularity of cai luong began to fade, opera troupes began recognizing Tai's skill and hired them first to paint their posters and then later to design their sets.
"So, I had money to send my children to school and I bought a piece of land in the suburban Tan Phu District and put up a bamboo house," he said.
Tai has since painted posters or sets for over 200 cai luong performances.
He was the first to paint the artists' faces on advertising banners for cai luong.
"Before me, designers only put artists' names and the names of the performances on the banners," he said. "I took the risk to paint their faces and many people liked that."
Tai, who has a daughter now working as a cai luong makeup artist, said he still has one wish: to design a traditional cai luong set including trees, streams and lakes instead of the modern storefronts producers now use as settings for their contemporary cai luong performances.
Nowadays, Minh not only designs his costumes, but also dyes the cloth, and designs his own original patterns.
He works at his house in a small alley on Bach Van Street in Ho Chi Minh City's District 5. His wife does the sewing and his daughters help attach beads and other small decorations.
He had started his work by copying costumes his father had left him. Some of the older-style tuong costumes he first used were imported by his father from Guangdong, China, and the cai luong outfits were ordered from a village in Tien Giang Province in the Mekong Delta. That village no longer specializes in the craft.
Minh has also exported his tuong and cai luong costumes to Vietnamese artists in the US, France, Australia, and Canada "as a way to preserve our culture," he said.
Minh has also gifted some of his best costumes to the Ho Chi Minh City Museum. He could have sold them for between VND700,000 and VND2 million.
"Later children will look at those and learn something about Vietnam's theater history from several decades ago," said the artist, lamenting kids' disinterest in the art.
Minh and his wife now teach tuong and its various arts and crafts to the young people in their extended family.
"I don't want it to be forgotten as it's not simply clothes-making, but it is about keeping the spirit of the country's culture alive."