Alone with his puppets

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An octogenarian historian's 50-year-long efforts to set up the perfect water puppetry theater have come to naught


  85-year-old Nguyen Huy Hong holds a modern plastic toy puppet, which he says is modeled on traditional wooden puppets

The famous Hanoi water puppets show is one of the capital's most popular tourist attractions. For most foreigners who visit Vietnam, the performance comes to define part of their experience here and is one of the more significant ways they engage Vietnamese art and culture on their short visits.

The art form is unique and indigenous to Vietnam and its popularity with foreign tourists demonstrates its staying power an art form devised by peasant farmers hundreds of years ago still resonates with modern cosmopolitan audiences, even though the stories are still simple stock-tales from the countryside. And it's 100 percent Vietnamese; it's something a nation could be proud of.

But for Vietnam's top water puppetry historian, Nguyen Huy Hong, 85, just keeping the authentic traditions of the art alive is hard enough, let alone accomplishing his goal of having it thrive across the country.

The puppet master

Hong can spend a whole day sitting in his home chatting about his beloved puppetry. And it's a good thing this reporter visited, because no one else is listening.

Hong's love affair with the art began 50 years ago.

He spent decades recording the histories and traditions of 30 puppetry groups in then northern province of Thai Binh. He practically lived with the puppeteers for years at a time and compiled some 600 stock stories that have been used to make water puppet plays. Some stories have different versions or modifications, but Hong says there are now just over 200 stories that puppeteers currently use, and only 30 are really popular.

He has written over 20 books on the art of puppetry that have been published in Vietnamese and other languages. For that, his work has been recognized by the government on several occasions; most notably he was given the State Award for Literature and Art, specializing in Folk Art in 2007.

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His books have chronicled the history, culture and ethnography of Vietnamese water puppetry in various regions. He also created a water puppetry map, which details the geographic localities where certain troupes and styles emerged.

In the 1980s, Hong organized one of the first overseas tours for Vietnamese water puppeteers, in which 20 Vietnamese artists from Nguyen Xa puppetry group of Thai Binh Province performed in Paris.

As a result of a life of dedication, he is considered the top researcher of Vietnamese puppetry, though he never earned a degree or official title. The only official position he's ever held is chairman of UNIMA (Union Internationale de la Marionnette Union of International Puppetry) in Vietnam.

Pulling the strings, to no avail

One must talk with Hong in person to understand his passion for puppetry. He practically scolded this reporter when it was suggested that puppetry was an old fashioned game that no longer fits with modern-day society.

"Puppets can exist in any era. They can be somewhat awkward in primitive societies and sophisticated in cultured societies. They have close ties with the people," said Hong.

After retiring from his research job at the Vietnam Theater Institute in 1987, Hong opened the Center for Research and Practice of Water Puppetry in his own home on Bui Xuong Trach Street in Thanh Xuan District, Hanoi.

The center quickly attracted many visitors, particularly international tourists, and became as popular a destination to watch a show as the major state owned theaters such as Hanoi Puppetry Theater and the Thang Long Puppetry Theater.

It was good at first, but eventually Hong realized that water puppetry stories of rural life needed to be told in the countryside to achieve their full effect.

"˜Homecoming'

Hong believes that only in their birthplace around lakes and ponds can puppets really thrive. They are not urban creations, he says.

As Hanoi has become more and more urban every day, and Hong's Bui Xuong Trach Street has become more and more crowded, he moved all his puppets and his entire center to the lakes and ponds of Dong Vang Village, a Hanoi outskirt 40 kilometers from the city center in Ha Dong District.

Hong explained that he needed to take the art form to the place where its "soul" lives.

"Water puppetry originated in the northern delta so it only lives and retains its soul when it is performed on ponds or lakes in such rural areas."

Unlike most European cultures that value wheat, Vietnamese people are steeped in what Hong calls a "rice culture," in which people are closely bonded to water. Thus, water puppetry tells the stories of plowing, rearing water buffalo and catching fish stories in which water plays a major role.

When traveling to one of Hong's performances at his remote theater, show-goers pass through rice fields beside ponds and lakes and see the life of the countryside before they enjoy it on stage.

No biz like show biz

The countryside theater seemed like a good idea, but it was unfortunately not built to last.

On a 500 square-meter piece of land, Hong dug a pond to make a stage. He built a library and a museum, but now the site evokes mixed feelings: his hard work is admirable, but one cannot help but feel bad for the art of Vietnamese water puppetry and those who love it as Hong does.

The materials for his museum sit in his three-story house collecting dust. His 5,000 books, posters, traditional puppets and other miscellaneous items hardly see any visitors at all.

The tiny nearby pond where Hong intended to build a small performance stage has run low on water and its surface is covered with algae and rubbish. It's hard to imagine puppets in that water. It's as though Hong's museum has been forgotten and all that's left behind is a man living alone with his puppets.

Hundreds copies of his book "The Art of Folk Puppetry," which was printed in 2010, are now neatly packed in cardboard boxes. Many people have asked for the book but Hong hasn't set a single copy free because he's afraid people will plagiarize his book and steal his work.

 
Hong's water puppets are no longer wet but covered in dust instead
Hong uses a separate storage room for some 3,000 puppets of all kinds that he has collected over the years. There are hundreds of them lying all over the place, with their paint already peeling and some already misshapen.

His current project is sorting the 3,000 puppets in his collection, which Hong claims accounts for "90 percent of Vietnam's puppetry materials." This will make it easier for followers of the art (if any), but Hong also has to rush because many old puppets have already been lost to the ravages of time.

Another issue that concerns Hong is that much has been added to today's version of water puppetry, such as extra scenes, longer scripts and new songs and stories.

He said that in the past, scripts weren't very long because the audience could understand the plot via the puppets' movements. But now, too much is narrated or explained verbally and the puppets' dancing has lost some of its subtlety and nuance, Hong argues.

His only wish before he dies is to have enough money to transform his place into a working water puppetry theater, with a training class and the biggest water puppetry library in the world.

He would also love it if the art were recognized as an UNESCO intangible cultural heritage.

But as Hong grows older, it appears that the window of hope is shrinking.

Government agencies have not come forward to support Hong's vision, and it appears no one else is interested in funding it either.

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