Toy stories

Traditional Vietnamese toys and the artisans who make them may soon to be confined to history.

By JESSICA NGUYEN on September 15,2018 11:09 AM

Toy stories

For hundreds of years in Vietnam, on the night of the full moon of the eighth lunar month, homes and streets have been filled with mooncakes, fruit, and toys of all kinds. This is the Mid-Autumn Festival, which falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month (September 24 this year in the solar calendar). There are several explanations about its origin, one of which relates to the ancient practice of worshiping the moon during fall. Today, the festival is mostly for kids and usually features unicorn dancing and lantern processions.

A couple of days before the festival, Hang Ma, Hang Luoc, Hang Thiec and Luong Van Can Streets in Hanoi’s Old Quarter bustle with people shopping for toys for their kids. On the night of the full moon, these streets turn into a playground lit with red light beaming out from lanterns of all kinds. Masks, drums, and other toys are piled everywhere and people - children and adults alike - jostle each other as they shop.

Some of the most popular traditional toys are lanterns shaped like rabbits or stars, drums, ships, paper lion heads, paper masks, and “to he” - handmade toys crafted from humble materials like paper, rice powder and recycled metal. Others include bamboo telephones, helicopters, flute kites and super mini terracotta cooking sets. The three most popular are tin toys, paper toys, and drums.

Tin ships sail on

Tin toys are still made today in Hong village, or Khuong Ha Street, in Hanoi’s Thanh Xuan district, some 15 km south of the city center. The village originally specialized in tinsmithing and close to 100 households made buckets, water basins, incense holders, decorative alter pieces, watering cans and the like. When the great-grandfather of 55-year-old Nguyen Van Manh Hung got the idea of making toys from discarded tin and waste metal, a toy village was born. In the fierce fight with imported and especially Chinese toys, the only true survivor is the tin ship. When the oil inside is burned its boilers produce steam and propel it across the water’s surface like a real ship.

Toy stories

The Khuong Ha craftspeople used simple tools like chisels, awls, hammers and scissors to create their toys. To make a ship, they started by drawing the parts of the ship on tin sheets, before cutting the parts out, bending them into shape, and then making holes around the ship’s body, welding the parts together, applying a primer coat of paint, and, finally, decorating it.

Each boat comprises a hull and a deck made from flattened tin and iron, as well as boilers and a fuel tank made from thin leaves of tin covered in copper. The boiler is the most important component of the ship, because it enables it to move. There are also two interconnected pipes on the bottom of the ship. The ship is propelled when the oil tank is lit with a small wick, causing the water in the boiler to boil, having an effect similar to that of a steam engine. This steam is expelled from one of the pipes, while cold water is pumped into the other.

The ship is kept balanced by two buoys welded to its sides. One interesting thing is the more aggressive details on the deck, including rockets, cannons, radars, and even scouting helicopters.

Nowadays, as more and more modern toys flood into the market, Mr. Hung is the only one in Khuong Ha keeping the craft alive. He has eight brothers and sisters, who were previously involved in the craft but have now joined the rest of the village in giving up on it. “Sometimes I feel it’s time to stop,” he sighed. “But whenever customers come from far away or I receive orders from foreigners, and especially when I see how excited my daughter is watching the ship sail, I gain more enthusiasm for the craft.” His little girl is now be able to help him build a ship by making some of the simpler details and, for Mr. Hung, offers hope that he will be able to pass on his artisanship.

World of paper toys

Of the paper toys made, lanterns are the most traditional but masks and lion’s heads are more familiar to many children. Traditionally, lanterns have come in a range of shapes and sizes. “Many of the shapes correspond to legends and sayings from Vietnamese folklore,” said 60-year-old craftswomen Nguyen Thi Tuyen from Hau Ai village in Hanoi’s Hoai Duc district. She is the last of the craftspeople in her village to continue making the traditional lanterns.

Toy stories

Traditional Vietnamese lanterns can be found in the shape of rabbits, toads, carps and stars. Toad-shaped lanterns recall the folk saying “the Toad is God’s uncle and God will punish those who beat it”, which reflects farmers’ hopes for a plentiful rice harvest. Lanterns in the shape of carps bring to mind the legend of the carp who passed the rain gate, winning a competition and turning into a dragon. The star-shaped lantern symbolizes a man as five points - the head and four limbs. When lit, it offers an image of fire in one’s heart, representing people’s strong will.

Lanterns are placed among fruit and cakes set out on trays for children during the Mid-Autumn Festival. After enjoying their festive sweets, children carry their lanterns lit with candles in a procession around their hamlet, street or village before taking them home, where they stay until they are no longer usable.

Apart from Hau Ai village, lanterns are also made in Thuan Thanh district in Bac Ninh province, 35 km northeast of Hanoi, and Bao Dap village in Nam Truc district, Nam Dinh province, 100 km south of the capital.

“Nobody knows when the lantern-making first appeared in the village,” said 55-year-old Nguyen Van Xa, a craftsman in Bao Dap village. “My grandfather did it, then my father, and now it’s my turn.” Apart from making votive paper and worshipping objects, most households in the village also produce Mid-Autumn lanterns, especially the star-shaped variety. Each family can produce some 5,000 to 7,000 at that time of year, while larger families can produce up to 30,000 and send them to cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

The tools and materials used to make star-shaped lanterns are quite simple and include knives, scissors, saws, glue, steel wire, bamboo for the frame, colored glossy nylon for the cover, and a handle made from a jute stem.

According to Mr. Xa, it isn’t too difficult to make a star-shaped lantern but it does take time. About two hours is needed from the first step of shaping the bamboo to the final step of drying the lantern in the shade, but much preparation comes beforehand. During the first month of the lunar new year, households in the village travel to nearby Thanh Hoa province to collect bamboo for the lantern frames. Long pieces are cut into smaller sections then soaked in water for at least three months, which is necessary for ensuring that the bamboo is both flexible and durable.

Making glossy nylon is another important step. The high-quality nylon is dyed, cut into star shapes, and then glued onto the bamboo frame with glue made from sticky rice. The star-shaped lanterns are divided into three sizes - 30, 40 and 50 cm in dimension. Though a time-consuming task, profits are tiny, as each completed lantern sells for around VND4,000 to VND5,000, depending on its size.

Time for drumming

Toy stories

Apart from fruit and other food, the vivid colored lanterns, and the joyous traditional toys, the Mid-Autumn Festival isn’t complete without drums. Doi Tam commune in Ha Nam province, about 80 km south of Hanoi, is one of only a few ancient villages specializing in making drums of all types, from small paper tambourines to giant cylindrical temple drums. The village has traditionally made drums for festivals, “cheo” and “tuong” operas, and schools. It used to make tens of thousands for the Mid-Autumn Festival alone, but in recent years a decline in sales has led many households in the village to abandon their traditional calling.

Though they may be falling out of fashion, traditional toys have many advantages. They are cheap, easy to play with, and conductive to group and outdoor play, which simulates children’s mental development. Nonetheless, they are fast disappearing.

One reason for the decline may be that no one has told children the meaning of the toys. Lately, however, the tradition has been fighting back thanks to efforts by NGOs, hotels and, especially, the Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi, which annually highlights these traditional toy villages.

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