Tien Giang Theater on Nguyen Hue Street, My Tho Town of the southern province of Tien Giang. Formerly known as Thay Nam Tu, it stages a monthly cai luong show on every 20th.
Cai luong (a form of modern folk opera in Vietnam) writer Nguyen Thanh Hai has been unable to contain his excitement since January when Tien Giang Theater officially reopened in My Tho Town in the southern province of Tien Giang.
Formerly known as Thay Nam Tu, it stages a monthly cai luong show on every 20th.
Hai remembers clearly his wonderful experiences as an audience at the 95-year-old theater, thought to be the oldest in Vietnam, before 1975.
“The chaotic scenes, people jostling to get a ticket, the loud announcements about the start of the show, posters of the gorgeous actors and actresses in front… all are still fresh in my mind as if they happened yesterday,” says the writer of nearly 20 cai luong plays.
Sitting next to him in the theater, which is situated 50 meters from the town’s My Tho Market, during the reopening last January was Tran Van Hai with his one-year-old grandchild, cheerfully tapping his feet to the music.
Tran Van Hai says My Tho had three cai luong theaters – the others being Dinh Tuong and Vien Truong – which he visited often with friends.
But with first Vien Truong in the 1980s and then Tien Giang in the 90s closing down, and Dinh Tuong becoming a movie theater, he had no more chance to watch cai luong.
But thanks to the reopening of Tien Giang, he can see it again, he says.
“It has been years since I last enjoyed a live show here.
“Now, even though the feeling [watching a cai luong show] is different from before, I’m glad that My Tho people are still so passionate about the art.”
The theater’s Lunar New Year show last month attracted two people to their first ever cai luong show – Le Thi Cam Nhung of nearby Cai Lay and her French husband Robert Nugier.
The couple spend around four months every year in Vietnam, helping needy people.
Nugier says he was mesmerized by the performance.
First cai luong theater
According to the province’s relics site administration board, Thay Nam Tu Theater was built in 1918 by a rich man named Chau Van Tu (aka Pierre Tu), a cai luong lover from Chau Thanh District.
Earlier he had built his first cinema in 1905 and bought An Nam troupe from a businessman. Tu then sank more money to get famous cai luong actors to work for him and founded the Thay Nam Tu troupe to perform at Vietnam’s first cai luong theater.
Earlier most art troupes had been performing at temples and pagodas and at outdoor venues.
Tu, thought to be the first car owner in the south (1907) and a pioneer in promoting Tien Giang as a cai luong hub, had sets made for the theater to provide background like landscapes, similar to those seen in western-style theaters in Saigon at the time.
He also persuaded renowned cai luong writer Truong Duy Toan to create new plays for his troupe, of which Kim Van Kieu (based on the epic “The Tale of Kieu” by Nguyen Du) was the first and most famous.
Some of the biggest stars of the time like Tam Cui, Sau Nhieu, Bay Nam, and Phung Ha performed at Thay Nam Tu Theater.
But the building was sold to a goldsmith in the 1950s, and was renamed Vinh Loi Theater. It was used for both films and cai luong shows until 1981, when it was renamed again, this time as Tien Giang.
But it was soon closed and abandoned until, in April, 2011, the province’s association of literature and arts made an effort to reopen it.
Its front was decorated and given a new coat of color, and free cai luong shows began to be staged.
Nguyen Huynh Anh, the association’s chairman, says: “Only cai luong can attract locals to the theater. Many of them are very busy, but they still set aside time to enjoy it until the end of the show though it is quite late.”
Huynh Anh, who invites local artists and those from other province to perform at the theater, adds: “This proves the everlasting vitality of the art among My Tho people.”
Since the building is not fully restored yet, it is not very convenient for the artists, but nobody complains. In fact, they are very proud at getting the opportunity to perform in Vietnam’s first cai luong theater.
Minh Thiet, who has been a cai luong performer for more than 25 years, says he is very proud to be on the stage there no matter how many other venues he has performed at.
“There is no other art which plays such an important role as cai luong in the south.
“And now though cai luong has to compete with other arts, it is found to be beautiful by locals. The theater has been full of people every night.”
Admittedly, the building is in modest shape.
Nguyen Ngoc Minh, director of the province’s Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, says: “Many My Tho natives have no idea that this very old building is the cradle of cai luong.
“We are working on a project for its recognition as a national relic site and to restore it.”
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By Thuy Hang - Hien Tran (The story can be found in the March 22nd issue of our print edition, Vietweek)