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[Illustrations] An Ode to Sữa Ông Thọ and the Games of Our Saigon Childhood

To assess how important condensed milk is in Vietnamese culture, think of cà phê sữa đá, Vietnam’s national drink that wouldn’t exist without a dollop of Sữa Ông Thọ (Mr. Longevity milk).

With just a short visit to your street corner coffee cart, you can probably spot it in the form of a metallic can covered by white paper packaging. Its illustration depicts a cherubic old man, Ông Thọ, and two young children cradling a giant pinkish peach. He’s one of the trio of household guardians in Chinese, and subsequently, Vietnamese, folk culture that goes by the name sanxing (三星).

The deities — Phuc (Fu), Loc (Lu) and Tho (Shou) — are believed to govern local life, looking after a family’s prosperity, status and longevity, respectively. Despite the connection with Chinese culture, Sữa Ông Thọ was first produced by Foremost, a brand of Dutch multi-national company Friesland Foods, prior to 1975.

After that, the company’s assets and factories were collectivized and then distributed to national milk company Vinamilk, which has been producing condensed milk with the name Ông Thọ ever since. In today’s Vietnam, newcomer Dutch Lady also produces condensed milk, but Ông Thọ still possesses national recognition in the market, along with Ngôi Sao Phuong Nam, a cheaper condensed milk alternative also by Vinamilk.

The trailer for the Sữa Ông Thọ project. Video via YouTube user Vy Mai.

Sữa Ông Thọ’s longevity echoes its namesake, having existed in Vietnam on and off for 45 years. Cans of Ông Thọ are so popular because all aspects of the can appeal to a different part of the Vietnamese family. Condensed milk in cà phê sữa đá is enjoyed by older members while those who cook use it to make yogurt or ice cream. In the years following đổi mới, when jams and peanut butter were prized rarities, families broke out their trusty can of condensed milk to eat with fresh bánh mì for breakfast. Last but not least, once the milk is used up, the metallic can itself is transformed by local children into toys and even lanterns.

Growing up having witnessed all these different ways Sữa Ông Thọ has entered family life in Vietnam, a group of young creatives from the Ho Chi Minh City University of Architecture have decided to honor the brand’s 45th anniversary with an illustration project, with a focus on the can’s immense potential for entertainment in the eyes of local children.

Have a peek at how Vietnamese kids repurpose these cans into creative handmade toys during times of hardship:

Spinning lanterns are made by connecting two empty cans using a metallic rod. Then, poke holes in the top and bottom parts of the spinning can. When a small candle is lit inside, the light escaping the holes creates a mesmerizing effect. Some also add pebbles inside to create noise when the lantern is rolled around town.

Tạt Lon: A simple game consisting of different players competing to knock a standing can off using only their slippers.

Telephone: Two cans are connected with a string to mimic a phone. Players try to communicate across a distance.

[Illustrations and video via Behance]