Retired stage artists are happy to be among their own in the autumn of their lives
Then and now: Doan Thien Kim with a photograph taken during her heydays as a cai luong artist in HCMC several decades ago
Former cai luong (reformed theater) artist Doan Thien Kim, 77, looks sad whenever she receives a phone call from her youngest son and his wife.
Known for her portrayal of a rich, strict mother-in-law in the series Me chong, nang dau (mother-in-law, daughter-in-law) last year, her role in real life is very different.
"They asked me for another million dong (US$50) from me," said Kim, who has lived in a special home for poor, old artists located at the end of lane 314 on Au Duong Lan Street in Ho Chi Minh City's District 8 for several years since the children could not afford to take care of their mother.
"Though I am an artist, I am now living on people's offerings, but my daughter-in-law keeps asking for money from me," said Kim.
Kim is also known for several leading roles on cai luong stages in the city and southern provinces before the art went into decline in the late seventies, but financially, she has nothing to show for her success.
"There is nothing left for me because all my income from performing was spent for my younger siblings, and then my five children, who now earn their living as workers," Kim said.
The mother of five children, however, still gets the chance to get on stage again, as she is among the few old artists here who is sometimes asked to play roles of mother or grandmother in some local series for very low payments compared to their younger peers.
The rest of the artists can only recall their young days of performing cai luong in TV programs. They get the chance to get on stage every full moon day of the lunar month at a newly built hall nearby their two-storey home to raise funds to meet their own expenses as well as for other less lucky peers outside their home.
New home, old friends
Kim's neighbor, 75-year-old Mong Lanh with short white hair, refuses to have her picture taken, not because she is having a late lunch at 2 p.m. or because her face is strained from a cold she has been suffering for a few days.
"Please don't take a picture of me. It is humiliating to be seen like this," said Lanh, recalling her young, golden days when she left her family at the age of 12 to pursue her dream to become a cai luong artist.
Lanh was famous in the sixties and seventies for playing many leading roles, including that of Phan Le Hue, a Tang Dynasty general. Childless, she was hit hard as cai luong lost its place as a popular entertainment. She ended up at the home, abandoned and homeless after her husband's death several years ago.
"There was no stage to perform as most of the theaters closed," said the artist, who was found sleeping under bridges and streets for years in the city. "I earned a living selling lottery tickets in District 4, until I was hit by a stroke some years ago."
Lanh looked downcast as she sat in a hammock in a big garden at the center to have a lunch of cold beefsteak and French fries. Everything at the center, from the white benches to the trees, has been donated by cai luong lovers and rich artists.
Lanh, Kim and 19 other artists live in the nearly 6,000-square-meter center which first opened in 1998 with support from the government and senior local artists.
"I have lost my voice but at least I now have two meals to eat everyday and a new house to share with my old artist friends," Lanh said.
Tan Nguyen, 66, who has been the nursing home's manager since its establishment, says most of the resident cai luong and tuong artists are from poor families who could not afford to provide them with a complete education.
"They all left their families at a young age to travel from south to north to perform, and then lost connection with their relatives because of their long absences as well as their free-style life," said Nguyen, a senior journalist who has written extensively on the entertainment industry before 1975.
Even when these artists got married and had children, their life did not change much because to pursue their career, the artists had to send the children to their hometown for grandparents to raise them. Chances to visit the children were few and far between, Nguyen said.
"After retirement, most of the artists found it difficult and impossible to adapt to normal life, partly due to the cold treatment from their families and children as well as the prejudice among local people about their career."
Former comedian Truong Son said, "Like father like son. My sons are all poor and unable to finish their education, so they had to let me spend my old days alone here."
Birds of a feather
But Son and his old friends also admit that they are happy to live here as they don't have to worry about what to eat and wear tomorrow and, most importantly, have someone to talk to, especially those who share their love for the art.
Nguyen said not only needy artists, but some who are better off also choose to spend the rest of their lives here as their children don't share their passion for cai luong.
The late artist Sau Ngoc Suong, a few years younger than the legendary artist Phung Ha (who had suggested that the home be built in 1986), refused to live with her rich son because she wanted to die in an artistic atmosphere.
According to tuong artist Ngoc Dang, 82, who was widowed at 34 and raised her children on her own, her daughter and son are both doctors in HCMC, but due to their jobs, they had to leave her alone at home. So she asked her children to let her move to the center.
"At my age, I no longer perform but I still need to have someone to share my artistic passion with, or at least I can be a loyal audience to other artists here whenever they perform," said Dang, who was born into an artistic family.
Like other residents, Dang now lives in a small 10-square-meter room which is just big enough for a bed and a cabinet, but which is full of photos of her young, beautiful days.
Meanwhile, taking care of the artist, is not all that easy, said Nguyen. "It is difficult to serve the elderly, but it is more difficult to serve the old artists whose ego is sometimes as big as the kings and queens they played on stage, and I am kept busy all day arbitrating among them."
However, Nguyen added that the artists also make up easily with each other. They are especially of one accord for their monthly performance, which next month will be the 151st.
Since December, 2009, the government has stopped funding the center with a monthly stipend of VND3.8 million for no reason, although the money is too small for 21 artists and four staffs.
"In order to feed them and pay the staff, we need at least VND16 million ($780) per month, so in addition to the regular donations from sponsors, every full moon night, we hold a concert with those who can still sing to raise some money," said Nguyen.
Each "show" gets donations of about six to seven million, with money stuffed into (plastic) flowers that are given to the artists as they perform until midnight.
"It's tiring but they all are happy since they can still do something to feed themselves."
The rest of money is used to support 60 needy artists among nearly 500 in the city. Those outside the home have to wait until someone dies to occupy a room as the center can only accommodate 21 people.
Nguyen said that some sponsors have suggested that another 21 rooms are built for the homeless as the center is a model not only to other localities in Vietnam but also the world, "but I had to refuse as we are already exhausted earning money to buy food for the current residents."
The manager, a pensioner who is willing to receive a salary of VND100,000 per month, said that all the artists also refused to let the city's Department of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs manage and support them instead of the city's friendship association of stage artists.
The department would like to bring non-artist elderly to live in the center, which the current residents do not want.
"Only artists understand artists," Nguyen said.