Tough acts to follow

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Passionate circus performers eke out a living serving poor rural folks

Hoang Minh Tan of the Hai Long Sao Do Circus lifts up two cases of empty bottles hung from a hook caught in his neck.

In a world overflowing with entertainment activities like game shows, movies, concerts and so on, they belong to another world - a world old timers wax nostalgic about, a world one comes across in books and in films set in a bygone era.

But in Vietnam, the itinerant circus performers are part of the present; albeit a present without much of an apparent future.

They are still welcome among low-income residents across the Mekong Delta which, despite being the nation's main food producing region, also boasts among the highest rates of poverty in the country.

Hard as it seems to believe, the performers say they do this job both to make a living and to fulfill their passion for performing and entertaining people.

On a clear night in Soc Trang Province, hundreds of residents in a rural commune gathered around an open-door stage to watch the performances of the Hai Long Sao Do Circus.

A dark complexioned shirtless performer started the show with some warming-up exercises. Moments later, his head tipped back to show his Adam's apple and his assistant put an iron stick through his larynx.

The first act lifted the spirit of the audience to the max. Well most of them. Some kids burst into loud wails.

In the second act, two cases of empty soft drink bottles were tied to an iron hook caught in his neck. After several failed attempts, the performer managed to stand up, lifting the two cases up with his neck.

His bare back ran wet with sweat. Those who stood near the stage could see a few drops of blood running from his neck that was stretched by the heavy objects.

These are among the best-seller acts of the circus that help it manage to survive when the profession as a whole is set to go out of business.

Thanh Nien met with Hoang Minh Tan, the performer of the two above-mentioned acts, in a small riverside coffee shop at the end of the show.

"It was just a trained act. I am okay," said Tan, a native of Tra Vinh Province, smiling. The blood stains on his neck were clearly visible.

"I have antiseptic medicines for my neck. The important thing is that we sold a lot of tickets tonight."

Tan was paid VND120,000 (US$5.7) for his act, and he said he did not care if the payment was too little. He said it was better than having no opportunity to perform, like on rainy days.

Tan said he was happy to see excited crowds with elders and children sitting on the grass to watch his performance. On the opposite side of the road, street vendors who sold cotton candy, grilled corn and eggs were also cheerful.

The circus had brought a fun night to the rural village, which was celebrating a good summer-autumn rice crop.

Hard times

Trong Kha, chief of the Huong Xuan Circus in Vinh Long Province, said traveling circuses always disband during the rainy season.

When summer returns, circus managers have to seek performers all over again. The managers struggle to collect performers, who have wandered around all parts of the country making ends meet through other work.

Ngoc Giao, a circus manager, said: "When a circus disbands, many talented performers leave their jobs. They take with them the most spectacular acts and tricks."

"Many tricks have been lost; maybe they just exist only in the memories of the audience."

Minh Tan, a seasoned circus performer widely known for his sword-swallowing act, is proud that many of his disciples are still pursuing a performing career.

"Some of my students can make big money from what I've taught them to do, some cannot."

"However, my house is always wide open for those who are struggling to make a living from the circus."

Since their audience is mostly poor Mekong Delta residents, the tickets for circus shows usually range between VND10,000 (50 US cents) and VND20,000 ($1).

The low and unstable income force many performers to take up many other jobs during the rainy season. They sell their labor, engage in petty trade or do whatever is needed to survive.

Minh Long, one of Tan's disciples, decided to give up his performing career several years ago to set up his own circus.

The circus traveled across Mekong Delta provinces for a while until it disbanded. Long, who used to be a sought-after performer, became jobless and discouraged.

His mother tried to talk him into doing other jobs such as a construction worker or security guard for some company, but he refused to do so.

He hit up on the idea of performing circus acts in small beer and coffee shops. He earned a little money from customers' tips and gradually became a "professional" mendicant performer.

Long said he does not want to turn back and live the "floating life" of a performer in a traveling circus any more.

"Now that I have a wife and a daughter, I just want a stable life. I have just turned down an offer to manage a circus," he said.

However, Long felt sad and ashamed of himself for sacrificing his career.

"As a mendicant performer, I dare not enter large nice coffee shops and I am afraid of being recognized by someone who has seen my performances before.

"I console myself that I am shedding sweat, tears and even blood for this job, so I deserve the money I earn."

Risky stuff

Many performers are willing to risk their health for engaging in impressive, genuine circus acts in which they do not use any tricks to deceive the audience.

Tan said Long was ready to do anything asked of him during his apprenticeship. For instance, when Tan was teaching Long the light bulb-swallowing act, Tan gave Long a light bulb and said: "You will be okay. Just chew it."

Long immediately put the bulb into his mouth and chewed it.

At that time, Long just had absolute trust in his teacher and felt no fear, he recalled.

Shortly after that, Long become a trained performer who could chew and swallow light bulbs as well as other glass objects.

There are no schools to train circus performers. They are usually trained by their predecessors in a circus, sometimes very quickly during tours. They themselves have to think of ways to overcome their fear and pain.

Trong Kha, chief of the Huong Xuan Circus, said he once watched online a foreign performer who put a drilling machine into his nose so he tried to imitate the act.

When the machine drilled his nose, blood streamed out and it hurt him to the bones so he had to stop. He took some painkillers and continued to practice.

Now he can perform the act in a practiced manner, Kha said.

It is common for circus performers to have accidents. Kha said he narrowly escaped death when an assistant, who was in charge of pouring oil into his mouth for the fire swallowing act, poured gasoline by mistake.

Hoang Long, another performer of the Huong Xuan Circus, said he had been admitted to nearly 10 hospitals during the month-long tour of the circus last year.

Tan, who performed the act in which an iron stick was thrust through his neck, said he had previously practiced a lot by stabbing sharp pointed objects into his neck until a "hole" was formed on it.

He lost a lot of blood and it hurt a lot at first, but later, it "just felt like an ant bite."

Hoang Long, the manager of Tan's circus, said the act was performed by many other circuses.

"They usually used a piercing gun to shoot on the neck skin of the performer. A hole will gradually form on the neck, which will help pointed objects go through it."

"However, I don't think it is okay. I think we must do something real so that the audience feel the pain and see real blood."

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