There was a time when dozens of art stalls and shops could be seen on Hanoi’s Hang Trong Street, where people came to pick up something to take home and display, especially at Tet (the Lunar New Year). Production and sales on the street were so animated and famous that the name Hang Trong became synonymous with a unique style of art. Dong Ho and Hang Trong have been the country’s two most enduring folk art styles over the years.
The first Hang Trong artwork appeared in the 17th century. Different from Dong Ho’s countryside art, Hang Trong was found in the heart of the capital in an area known for its arts and crafts, starting at Hang Trong and running down to Hang Quat Street. This was one of the few places where folk paintings were made in Vietnam during dynastic times.
For religious and spiritual life
The origin of Hang Trong art is in religious paintings, featuring slight lines, meticulous and sophisticated details, or bright and animated colour, according to artist Phan Ngoc Khue, who is also a researcher of Hang Trong art. It also depicts stories of belief and hope among Vietnamese people, in particular reflected in worship paintings, one of its two famous product lines that shows the influence of Buddhism and Confucianism on daily life and culture.
Displayed not only in places of worship such as temples and pagodas but also in family homes, worship paintings are diverse in their content, with familiar figures such as Buddha and the Fortune God, or deities of power and luck like the tiger and the carp. They show the respect of people towards the mysterious and sacred deities and the hope that they can protect them from evil and bring them luck.
Hang Trong art also serves the spiritual lives of people, by depicting their daily life and the traditional habits and customs that express joy, prosperity and happiness, such as colourful flowers in spring, a countryside market, classic paintings of Tung, Cuc, Truc, and Mai (the prosperity trees: pine, daisy, bamboo and apricot blossom), To nu (Young Lady), cartoons of characteristics in famous folk stories and games like Thay do Coc (the toad scholar), Bit mat bat de (Blind-man’s bluff), and Rong ran len may (Dragon-Snake). These pictures belong to the other familiar type of Hang Trong art, known as Tet paintings. After one year people changed their old painting with a new one, to welcome in the new year with hopes of happiness and fortune.
Together with their religious and spiritual value, another unique feature of Hang Trong art is the main part of the painting process, which is done by hand.
While wood blocks are used to both outline and colour in Dong Ho art, blocks are only used to make outlines in Hang Trong art. The blocks are usually made by the most talented and experienced craftsman of a team, who could create new samples with fine lines and good proportions. Sometimes these blocks can take months to finish, according to Le Dinh Nghien, a veteran artist of Hang Trong art, who inherited the job from his father and grandfather.
Wood blocks have a very important role in making the ‘body’ of a Hang Trong painting. But its ‘soul’ is created by the colouring. After sketch lines are printed on the paper, which is usually made from Do (a type of tree), the artist waits for it to dry before colouring. This is the most difficult part and requires a lot of time, attention and skill, according to Nghien.
The skill, experience and creativity, sometimes secretly inherited from previous generations, can be reflected by how the artist uses the brush to ‘dance’ on the paper. The main colours used are deep blue, pink, and, occasionally, red, orange, yellow and green, made from natural materials mixed with pigment. The colours are mixed with sticky glue that makes Hang Trong paintings shiny and clear, an effect that cannot be achieved with modern colouring methods.
The colour in Hang Trong art is used so the piece is for decoration and worshipping and can be quite diverse as it’s done by hand. ‘The amount of paint used, the combination of different colours, and the use of thin or bold lines are all part of creating the shape of the subjects, the effect of light on the painting, or the grace of lines like in water-colour paintings,’ Nghien said. ‘It makes children in pictures look lively, with the true colour of their soft skin, the fresh and blossoming colour of spring flowers, or the brave and strong spirit of tigers.’ Chinese scripts are sometimes also added to make the painting more meaningful, he added.
Therefore, despite being prepared with the same fixed wood block the final product still looks different, thanks to the flexibility of different artistic hands. Some of the best artists don’t even use wood blocks but rather sketch directly on to the paper. They can also make exclusive paintings by order.
During the 19th and early 20th century these exclusive paintings could only be seen in the homes of rich families, who could afford them in this golden time of the art. The popularity of Hang Trong paintings gradually dwindled, though, due to a lack of interest among the younger generation. Many craftsmen and women took on other jobs.
Today, Hang Trong art is just a brand, as no more paintings are made on the street. Nghien is the only artist in the city still loyal to the art but he produces paintings at his house on another street. Le Ngoc Diep, the owner of a gallery in To Tich Street, said there are still fans of the folk art but their numbers are small. Nevertheless, more people have recently become nostalgic for collecting old things. They buy not only worship paintings but also decorative pieces to display in their home or in vintage cafés, Diep said.
There have been several efforts made recently to resurrect the genre, with Hang Trong paintings exhibited at festivals, galleries and exhibitions to introduce and pass on knowledge of how they’re made from old craftsmen and women to younger artists. ‘Many artists have changed their job so I’m happy to see the art still survives,’ Nghien said. ‘It requires a lot of passion and even sacrifice to remain loyal to the art. I’m training my son to follow in my footsteps and I hope that many more young people will find an interest in the art and protect and develop it before it is too late.’