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In an Ever-Changing Saigon, Street Artisans Hold Fast to Dying Crafts

We delve into the lives of Saigon’s artisans — an animal coconut leaf folder, a woodcarver embracing modern influences, an accomplished street corner calligrapher, and an itinerant craftsman to see what they’re doing to keep their art alive.

On a normal drive down Saigon's vibrant streets, one might find themselves stopping at a traffic light where a veteran of the arts works alluringly, with the craft laid out neatly on the pavement nearby. Just a few years ago, this would have been a common Saigon experience, however, for many Saigoneers, our loss is a slow and unnoticed disappearance. 

With an increasing number of small food stalls and restaurants, as well as global brands popping up all around Saigon, the city's streets seem busier and more dynamic than ever.

Nonetheless, with globalization changing the once-quaint landscape of Saigon's past, its personality as 'the Pearl of the Far East' has also been altered majorly, reducing the presence of xích lô drivers, children’s DIY kites floating in the skies, and the once-popular and easily recognizable Vietnamese entertainment of cải lương musical drama and hát bội classical opera. For today's young Saigoneers, these previously defining traits are gradually becoming just marks in the country’s rich heritage.

Despite this, and with true Saigon resilience, a crop of artisans are still trying to keep the city’s heritage alive. Amongst them are the true street artists who live and breath the passion of Saigon’s heroic past.

Saigon's Coconut Leaf-Folding "Peter Pan"

As a true "Peter Pan" of Saigon, Le Minh — a retired artist-turned street artist — spends his days surrounded by the magic of his folded animals made of coconut leaves, an art form that has roots in his childhood.

“I never sell in one place because I want to spread the joy and the nostalgic memories of my childhood to as many people as possible,” he tells me in Vietnamese. Minh used to be a painter, however, as old age blurred his vision, he resolved to spend his time remastering the art of coconut leaf folding that he once knew and loved. 

As a child, he spent time with his teacher, helping him fold leaf animals. However, as he grew up, he started working as a painter and trying out other better-paid art forms in order to support his family.

Since his retirement eight years ago, Minh has mastered folding 31 different types of animals. Of these, he claims that he can fold the most common ones, like grasshoppers and fish, in only five minutes, whereas more complex animals like dragons, peacocks, or phoenixes can take him up to one hour. Despite the varied complexities of his product range, Minh sells each for VND20,000. However, he shared that he sometimes sells them for even less, as his main aim is to raise awareness of this beautiful traditional art form.

Despite the joy he gets from his art, Minh would not be able to spread his passion for coconut leaf folding without the support of his family. Even with the fame he’s found through coverage from the Vietnamese media over the past few years, he says that he would have struggled to support himself without them. Thanks to passionate coconut leaf folders like Minh, many young Vietnamese like myself still know about this traditional art and culture.

The Woodcarver Embracing Modern Influences

While some artists have been holding onto the traditions of the past, others have adopted modern influences to bring their art forms into contemporary Saigon life.

A decade ago, one could find an array of wood-carving shops on Pasteur Street, north of its junction with Le Loi Boulevard. However, after years of bad business and increasing rent prices, many of the woodcarvers left and the buildings were torn down to make way for the 18-story Liberty Central Hotel. Now, all that remains of this past is hidden in a dark alley leading to a building behind Pham Minh tailors.

Quang, with 40 years of experience in his profession, is a talented woodcarver. Originally majoring in carpentry at the Ho Chi Minh University of Arts, he uses his experience to lead a team of six carpenters and combine a whole array of wood varieties — including rosewood, ebony and parasol wood — in his art. Not only does he create the signboards which can be seen while driving past his business, but he also creates wooden art pieces, like a giant carved image of “The Last Supper,” menu holders for restaurants, cardholders for businesses and many other wooden items. 

Situated in one of the most touristy areas of the city, the business’ main customers are normally foreigners or tourists who are attracted by the curious, yet alluring, wood art. This makes the retail side of the business more seasonal, increasing over Tet and Christmas when there are more tourists in Saigon.

Meanwhile, the wholesale side of the business is mostly constant year-round. This, according to Quang, is a product of the curiosity of foreigners for the skilled woodwork and the array of wood variety that his products display.

Despite his continued efforts, it is only Quang’s experience and connections that help him secure his small spot on Pasteur. With none of his six-man team of hired part-time woodcarvers interested in continuing his legacy, it looks like Quang will be one of the last to carry on this specific tradition of woodcarving, which used to dominate this section of the busy road.

The Professional Calligraphers

From fantastic coconut leaf folded beasts to Mickey Mouse-themed wooden toilet boards, nothing screams Vietnam more than thư pháp artwork.

With thư pháp’s modern reputation of appearing mainly as entertainment during Tet or at special traditional Vietnamese festivals, one of the last places you’d imagine to find these fluid brush lines is on the humble Truong Dinh-Dien Bien Phu intersection, on the wall of the Department of Science and Technology of Ho Chi Minh City.

At around 8am each day, a husband and wife can be seen putting up calligraphy art on a small opening on the foliage-covered crumbling wall of the department. Nhat Minh, the sole calligrapher of the two, with 12 years of experience in the profession, lends his name to the branding of their small enterprise. 

Originally from Dong Thap Province, he told me that he left his hometown to learn his craft, an endeavor which took him a year to master fully. Since then, he has created pre-made and made-to-order calligraphy art for the people of Saigon. Most of his customers, he says, are regulars who have known him for a long time. They come to him with orders for themselves or as gifts for their friends and family. For his efforts, he charges around VND200,000 for smaller artworks, and VND500,000 for larger pieces, although his prices differ depending on the request. 

With calligraphy now something that only big businesses generally do on a large scale, a life spent selling homemade calligraphy on the streets is not an easy task. For Minh and his wife, calligraphy is their only life-line, though thanks to the continued appreciation of Saigoneers for this art, he can continue to keep this tradition alive as a street artist in Saigon’s modern landscape.

The Hát Bội Classical Opera Masks Creator

Finally, a once-popular form of entertainment which is now disappearing and becoming a niche interest, hát bội classical opera has for many years been a rapidly fading tradition. 

A true guardian of his art, for nearly 30 years, itinerant craftsman Nguyen Van Bay has been cycling around Saigon with a display of hát bội classical opera masks on his ramshackle bicycle. He sells his art to people on the street, as well as museums, tourists or cafes and villas for decoration. 

With hát bội classical opera having an abundant number of characters, “chú Bảy” — as people know him — claims he knows the details of over 1,000 opera characters. For anyone interested in these characters, he sells his products in sets of 13, 21 or 33 masks. However, he shared that he once sold a whole bike full of masks to a very enthusiastic foreigner for around VND20 million, which he estimated to be way over 33 different character masks.

Although in the original hát bội classical operas the actors painted their faces instead of using masks, chú Bảy uses the image of the fully painted actors’ faces to create masks to capture the essence of the art.

Hearing chú Bảy talk about his work, and seeing the detail he puts into every mask, shows how much of a perfectionist he is. His smallest masks take around six hours to create. This process includes creating a separate clay mold for each mask depending on different characters' faces, then creating a plaster mold combined with silicon and stone powder as a base, and finally painting over the base with oil paint to reveal the distinct traits of each character. A similar process is used to create the larger masks, which take several days to finish.

Looking at most of his masks, all of them have one thing in common — the vibrant colors of red, white and black. Talking to chú Bảy, he explains that these are the main shades of hát bội classical opera, each signifying a different meaning. Nonetheless, he also chooses to portray a majority of characters with these colors because they stand out compared to characters with less eye-catching designs, thus attracting more customers.

Chú Bảy identifies as a big fan of hát bội and has childhood memories of the traveling classical opera group which would stop by his village. According to him, the 1960s were the golden age of the genre, but now it is a dying art form. 

As the creator of hát bội masks as a means to preserve the art he loves, and being the sole street artist dedicated to hát bội in the whole of Vietnam, chú Bảy is trying to spread his passion to Saigon’s younger generation. He said that, in the past, he has tried to pass on his trade to other people, however, he is yet to find anyone who has even a small amount of the commitment and passion that he has for his art. Despite this, he says he will try to continue to work and spread his passion for hát bội until the day he dies.

Like many who still see a mirage of Saigon's past, when writing this article, I believed I could simply drive around the city to find a variety of street artists. I couldn't have been more wrong, as I spent hours scouring the streets before I found even one artist, by accident, on my way home. Although these are hardly the only street artists in Saigon’s modern landscape, the sad fact is that every type of art is struggling to survive. 

Though these four street artists come from different areas of the arts, when interviewed, they all had one common thing to say, which was that they had barely been able to sell anything in the past few months due to the pandemic and that they are still struggling now in its aftermath.  

By meeting these four incredible people and learning about their stories, it is hard not to see the pure passion which drives them to maintain this almost-sacred Saigon heritage, and the sacrifices that they make to preserve their art forms. The only question now is whether or not Saigon will still be home to a new generation of street artists maintaining tradition, or embracing modern life in the future. Only time will tell…

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