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Inside the Extravaganza Using Literature to Highlight Hoi An History

Directed by writer Nguyễn Quang Vinh, “Hội An Show – Gratitude” was launched last month in the central Vietnam town. It featured 150 artists portraying the history of the ancient town via stories of Hoi An silk, bài chòi folk art, and Cham culture during major events — such as the re-establishment of trading in Hoi An in the 18th century through the beginning of the 20th century and naval warfare between villagers and sea monsters based on the Tale of Cầu Chùa.

The show was initiated by the Hoi An City People’s Committee in coordination with the Voice of Vietnam (VOV) and the Quang Nam Tourism Association, thanks to VND5 billion (US$217,000) in funding with the aim of restarting tourism post-COVID-19. It was performed in part to celebrate the 46th anniversary of the liberation of the city.

The following behind-the-scenes diary of preparation for the show and the performance is based on a conversation with director Nguyễn Quang Vinh:

February 20

Nguyễn Quang Vinh returned to Hoi An and lit incense in front of the show’s set; the emotional moment was like reuniting with a lover. The wind blew gently off the Hoai River, which was filled with sailboats, and Vinh was touched by the way the set looked exactly the same as he had left it. He burnt another bunch of incense in appreciation of Hoi An’s peaceful lands and to wish for a good performance that would offer audiences lively songs, warm scenery, and thrilling artistry. It would be their way of dedicating their hearts to a land worthy of gratitude, admiration, and pride.

March 12

Just 15 days until show day. The COVID-19 restrictions that had previously been put in place turned out to be a blessing, as they gave the team more time to put thought into the show’s structure, layout, characters and setting and to prepare, assemble, build and reorganize the monster battles. Some scenes needed to be cut and replaced with ones that made better use of the setting and featured mercantile sailboats. Those scenes in particular required a lot of energy and time to prepare, including arranging foreign actors and actresses. Student dancers were replaced with professional ones from the well-known Vietnam National Music Song and Dance Theatre; it cost more, but greatly improved the quality of the show.

March 31

Video via Cát Trắng Media.

The opening: The show begins with the sound of the old town in the early morning, the clip-clop of wooden clogs, vendors selling their wares, then tailors, barbers, potters beginning their days. A soft lullaby from outside the Hoai River grows louder; Hoi An has woken up.

The day ends with the same clip-clop and lullaby from the distance. This ending was slightly altered from the original script to please Sơn, the city councilor, who wanted to see a brighter, more aspirational, and fresher Hoi An.

To create the sea monster, the team faced many challenges and struggled to stay within budget. Vinh trusted several artists to bring to life the idea of a humongous, fierce, and lifelike monster coming out of the Japanese Covered Bridge with as few construction costs as possible. The artists assigned this task were enthusiastic at first, but they sketched and designed the creature and then disappeared. Vinh and his team were forced to search for a solution or replacement. Finally, artists Nguyễn Minh Trị and Nguyễn Tiến offered the best option: put together three basket boats covered with colorful canvas and add a large, ferocious muzzle. Success!

People’s Artist Bành Bắc Hải was in charge of the music and did an exceptional job. The sound processing technician, nicknamed Ku Anh, made a significant contribution as well. Meritorious artist Bùi Như Lại succeeded in staging the jubilant battle between young men and the monster of the Japanese Covered Bridge that left audiences in awe.

Video via Cát Trắng Media.

At first, People’s Artist Hoàng Yến couldn’t make it due to her busy schedule, but ultimately was able to participate. Yến, Quốc Trị and Phương Minh helped tell a story that connected the past to present via the tale of the establishment of the Thanh Hà Pottery Village. That love story moved seamlessly into a Cham dance, performed beautifully by Cham dancers.

April 1

Video via Cát Trắng Media.

Vinh wanted to introduce Trà Quế Vegetable Village, a famous tourist destination, via a short story about the harrowing fate of a young lady. She had left the village to move to the city, but like many, Huỳnh Lý struggled to make ends meet. She returned to her village and made a living via a traditional business growing and selling vegetables. The situation was perfectly summarized in Vinh’s line: “I need you but the city doesn’t need you. Your place is in the village.” This portion of the show was particularly special because people from Trà Quế contributed their produce to the stage, so the aroma of basil filled the air.

April 2

Vinh had previously stopped by the Japanese Covered Bridge and met an elderly lady selling bananas. He took a photo of her but hadn’t thought about including her in the script at that time. A few days later, the old lady found Vinh again and asked him to buy bananas while showing off her Korean language skills that she had cultivated when foreign tourists filled the city. He tried to find a Korean tourist for her, but the closest he came was Michael, a Singaporean who looked a bit Korean.

The show was postponed for a while due to pandemic restrictions. Vinh searched for the elderly lady again, but she was nowhere to be found. It turned out that she was sick and in the hospital. Vinh visited her but did not ask her to participate in the show because she looked so weak. But her son brought her to the last days of rehearsal and she wanted to get involved. The Korean songs she sang were incredibly touching for Vinh. They were a reminder of how Hoi An is a unique city that embraces foreign influences, cherishes art, supports people of all classes, and wants to make its voice heard.

While the performance of "Hội An Show – Gratitude" has already concluded, the vice-chairman of the city, Nguyễn Văn Lanh, hopes that it will be performed weekly in the future.  

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