The business of art

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A performance of lion dance at the rehearsal of Ngoc Viet Show, featured at Non La (Vietnamese conical hat made of palm leaf) Theater in the Labor Cultural Palace in Ho Chi Minh City

Huynh Anh Tuan, director of the renowned Idecaf Theater and the successful Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater in Ho Chi Minh City, has for the past three months been seen every day at a construction site behind the city's Labor Cultural Palace.

Tuan moves quickly around, inspecting everything, including the toilets, and checking if his workers need more building materials.

He is transforming a two-story building inside the palace that had housed a billiards center into a theater for traditional Vietnamese folk music targeting tourists. It is likely to open on February 20.

The 52-year-old is one of few Vietnamese to make a commercial success of art shows.

Tuan said the 350-square-meter theater, Non La referring to the conical hat made of palm leaf would have a giant conical-hat-shaped roof and thatched ticket booths.

Its 250 seats would be made of bamboo and rattan, "to bring a Vietnamese atmosphere for audiences."

A food corner on the first floor will serve tourists cuisine from the north, south, and central regions before the show begins.

The regular menu will have phở (Vietnamese beef rice noodle), gỏi cuốn (summer rolls), two of the world's 50 most delicious foods, according to CNN.

Every 50-minute show, titled Ngoc Viet (Vietnamese pearl), will feature various forms of traditional music, including the Hue royal music, gongs from the Central Highlands, Ä‘àn Ä‘á (a lithopone, an ancient musical instrument comprising 11 slabs of stone), and lục cúng hoa đăng (a dance with lotus-shaped lanterns, adapted from Buddhism).

Brochures for the music program will be in eight languages including Chinese, Thai, German, Spanish and Portuguese.

Tuan has for long been derided for his ambition to develop a traditional art and music show for tourists after the failure of many previous attempts by others in recent years.

Percentage of success

NON LA THEATER

55B Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street, District 1, HCMC.

For the first three months, free dinner, including phở, chả giò (spring roll), and gỏi cuốn, will be served after each 50-minute Ngoc Viet show to be held at 8:35 p.m.

Ngoc Viet show includes 10 performances in 50 minutes.

La Quoc Khanh, deputy director of the city's Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, admitted that like other major cities in Vietnam, HCMC too had few music shows for tourists, with most, including the recent Hon Viet (Soul of Vietnam) show, not lasting for more than half a year.

"Most of the shows are boring and not well-prepared," he said at a press conference last December to launch the city's 2nd 100 Excitements Campaign, explaining why they were short-lived.

Tuan, who began his career in art with the Nu Cuoi Puppet Theater for children more than 30 years ago and toured remote areas around the country for shows since "every child has the right to be entertained," has plans not to follow in their footsteps.

"It is not enough to say that after the success of the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater [also located inside the palace],

I will be one hundred percent in promoting the Ngoc Viet Show," said Tuan, because "Vietnam's water puppet itself is so artistic, unique, and incomparable with anything else in the world."

Tuan, who has traveled to several Asian countries with diverse cultures and developed tourism industries such as Thailand, Japan, and Korea said most Vietnamese organizers do not understand what foreign tourists want when they visit the country.

Since most visit for just a few days, they do not either need luxurious spas and bars nor do they have time to travel from place to place to explore different aspects of Vietnamese culture.

"They want to have a glimpse of the culture, including cuisine and arts, in a few hours in a comfortable, intelligent manner," he said.

After watching a water puppet show at the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater located near the palace's main gate on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street, tourists can explore Vietnam's diverse cultures from north to south and then have dinner on the first floor before going back to their hotels.

"After the show, those who are really interested in what the theater offers will do further research on their own from books or online or return to the country for deeper understanding."

Another reason all the shows did not last long, according to Tuan and Le Hong Trieu, 52, the Labor Cultural Palace's director, was the lack of enthusiasm among the local government and the organizers themselves.

"Most previous projects were state-run, and everyone from the chiefs to the staff were not professional or really got into what they were promoting," Tuan said.

"For, even if they failed, they got their salary."

"This explains why Vietnam's entertainment industry and tourism remain 20 years behind even the neighboring country of Cambodia."

Trieu, who has been visiting the site often since the renovation began in December admitted, "Some did put in an effort, but it was insufficient."

Tuan, who is considered a coordinator in the field of performing arts, said further: "It is not easy to get different art troupes from different traditional music styles to gather on one stage for such a variety show like Ngoc Viet, for each of them have their own pride."

Ngoc Viet will feature Vietnam's 32 most talented artists in various genres of music, including Ä‘àn tranh (16-chord zither) artist Tuyet Mai and drummers Duc Trung and Duc Dung from the band Phu Dong.

Except for issuing a license, the local government did not do anything to help him, and no official or staff from the Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism had visited the Golden Dragon Theater since its opening in 2007.

The theater project has been his dream since six years ago when the District 10 People's Committee promised to give him a piece of land. But the committee changed its mind since the land was earmarked for a planned city financial center to be developed by Malaysian investor. The latter project still remains on paper.

Trieu said like the Golden Dragon Theater before, the Non La Theater project too caused skepticism among people, except among the management of the Labor Cultural Palace, which was keen on promoting the country's traditional arts.

It established Vietnam's first and only Ä‘àn tranh club several years ago.

Trieu concluded: "Tuan loves and is proud of the country's arts. I believe he has at least 70 percent chance of success."


Huynh Anh Tuan, director of the renowned Idecaf Theater and the successful Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater in Ho Chi Minh City, together with artists of Ngoc Viet Show

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