During the years of 2017-2018, there were many activities, projects, and programs that focus on hát bội, where it aimed to revive the art of hát bội upon various mediums and perspectives, the resurgence came up like an exciting wave of vitality for this long forgotten art to be born again.
Entering this second decade of the 21st century, the pace of our lives might have been faster than ever, at such a rapid speed that we can’t seem to catch up. Just like the ocean wave that comes and goes, the collective meanings and humanist values have been on a constant movement, where it comes so suddenly and urgently. With that being said, such changes have pushed our collective perception into new horizons, although, it has also shelved away the older values hidden from our memories. The art of hát bội is one such case, where the traditional practice once reigned the hearts of the many but is now almost forgotten in the present.
Once upon a glory
Hát bội (or also known as tuồng or hát bộ) is one of the traditional theatrical art practices of Vietnam, with a long historical development throughout centuries. Research suggested that this art form was found in the 16th century, started structuring itself during the 17th-18th century, then flourished and was highly celebrated in the 19th century. And so, the art form of hát bội has been matured and artfully mastered during the period of vietnam’s feudal era (thời trung đại). For that very reason, hát bội manage to integrate the aesthetic values from the classical direction of thời trung đại, where the essence of those rules come from the qualities of symbolism, complemented with expressive techniques through distinctive dramatic elements. With more than three centuries of development, alongside with the process of birthing the art form in centuries before that, hát bội has cultivated distinctive aesthetic values, reflecting the desires of a humane culture within Viet traditions.
Hát bội manage to integrate the aesthetic values from the classical direction of thời trung đại, where the essence of those rules come from the qualities of symbolism, complemented with expressive techniques through distinctive dramatic elements. Photo courtesy of Giang Pham.
However, from the beginning of the 20th century, between the transitioning of new ideas, the art of hát bội slowly lost its prime. The art form that used to have such a significant reach within the public then had to share its audience to other cultural-entertainment genres that are Euro-influenced such as cinema, modern music, cải lương, talking theatre, etc. In the midst of new realism art forms that are much less complicated in subtext understanding, hát bội then got left behind for its inherent symbolism. Until the end of the 20th century, around late 80s-early 90s, many artists within the professions as well as the dedicated audiences felt like the art form had reached its demise. The art of hát bội has since lost its glory, now retreating back to the quiet corner and humbly existing within the space of local spirituality and worshipping culture.
So how come hát bội became so neglected in this modern age? As explained, the art of hát bội carries the aesthetic of trung đại era, in which the narrative focus tends to be about war time, political upheaval within the palace in trung đại era, human tragedies and relationships, etc. Meanwhile, the other talking theatre and cải lương explored into more intimate and personal aspects of society, where it can reflect the day to day conflicts of modernity. Within the technical aspects, the symbolic elements of hát bội tends to complicate how the audience can interpret its narrative, since the way theatrical performances, choreography, costume designs present a generational gap to the audience, especially when it comes to the youth.
The demands of modernity
In this digital era, the influence of globalization is increasingly blurring the boundaries of various aspects in order to create the ideal image of a “global citizen”. This reality has made people to become excited and curious with new values, while also made them to become more contemplative with personal identities. Such things don’t seem to stop the youth to seek for the old ways of traditions, the thing that has nurtured generations of Vietnamese people, structuring the identity of Viet culture. Hát bội is one of those things.
During the years of 2017-2018, there were many activities, projects, and programs that focus on hát bội, where it aimed to revive the art of hát bội upon various mediums and perspectives, the resurgence came up like an exciting wave of vitality for this long forgotten art to be born again. Interestingly, those programs appear to be organised and conducted by the youth themselves.When we talk about such activities, there needs to be a mention of the program “Cultural Community Discourse, Course no. 3: Xây chầu hát bội” (August 2017). This appears to attract the attention of many dedicated audiences of hát bội, this program was built and organised with the purpose of assessing the roles and modern environment in sustaining the existence of hát bội and help the art form to thrive. Significantly, with the return of The People’s Artist Đinh Bằng Phi – the artist that has such a profound influence in Southern hát bội scene – who has started a passionate fire back into the public about hát bội, as well as inspire the curious youth to continue their journey of learning about the art form. Indeed, the program has marked a foundational platform for hát bội in the modern scene, it’s been a bridge for a significant number of activities and projects about hát bội later on.
With the return of The People’s Artist Đinh Bằng Phi – the artist that has such a profound influence in Southern hát bội scene – who has started a passionate fire back into the public about hát bội, as well as inspire the curious youth to continue their journey of learning about the art form. Photo courtesy of Cultural Community Discourse – Đối thoại văn hóa cộng đồng
Significantly in the year 2018, a project that could be seen as a pioneering move for the youth renaissance movement must be “Vẽ về hát bội” (Illustrating hát bội). With the hope of inspiring the traditional theatrical art of Vietnam, the project gathered more than 40 artists from North to South to join in and create artworks that use hát bội as a central theme.The artworks were diverse in genres, while also exhibit an integration between the traditional and the contemporary that brought a refreshing atmosphere never before to hát bội, especially through the lens of the youth, where some people are only started on getting to know about this traditional art form. As the revival movement is growing strong and lively, there were also projects like “Sài Gòn hí viện” (Saigon Theatre) by artist Nguyễn Đức Huy that illustrates a series of hát bội character under chibi art style; the collection “Má ơi đừng đánh con đau. Để con hát bội làm đào má coi” (Don’t spank me mom. Let me perform hát bội for you to see) by artist Phạm Rồng; the typography project named “Bội tự” (Bội alphabet) by designer Nguyễn Phương Vy, etc. In general, these projects tend to focus on the visual aspects of hát bội, where it delved into the extravagance and drama of the costumes, choreography, makeup, bringing these stunning features into a modernised format for this present era.
Project “Vẽ về hát bội”’ teaser, the project gathered more than 40 artists from North to South to join in and create artworks that use hát bội as a central theme.
“Sài Gòn hí viện” (Saigon Theatre) by artist Nguyễn Đức Huy that illustrates a series of hát bội character under chibi art style
The collection “Má ơi đừng đánh con đau. Để con hát bội làm đào má coi” (Don’t spank me mom. Let me perform hát bội for you to see) by artist Phạm Rồng. Photo courtesy of 419.vn
Siding with those projects, there have also been publication projects like “The art of performance: Hát bội, đờn ca tài tử and cải lương in Saigon and Southern Vietnam in late 19th century to 1945” (by Nguyễn Đức Hiệp, 2017) has provided a critical scholarship and resources to understand the contextual history of hát bội, notably when the resources have been limiting and rare for a long time. Not only there, there has been many projects that acknowledged the role of hát bội as a crucial chain link in the historical flow of traditional theatre of Vietnam such as the program series “Diễn xướng Nam bộ”(Southern Vietnam Performances) and project “The library of Southern melodies – Lục tỉnh cầm ca” from the Cultural Community Discourse (CCD) group; numerous articles written within the project “Trường ca kịch viện”; guidebook “Storytelling on heritage: On Southern theatrical art” by British Council; etc.
Introduction to Southern performing arts – a introduction book collection by “Thư viện diễn xướng Nam bộ – Lục tỉnh cầm ca”
All of those projects were only made possible through the enormous support from the generations of hát bội artists that range from private to government sectors. Overcoming the hardships of social waves, they’re still passionate with the art, continue to pass down their teachings, and inspire the beauty of the professions through different avenues like in academic and schooling environments (with local talk shows like “Humanities cafe – Hát bội then and now” – November 2019; crashcourse “Path to hát bội” – March 2020; event “Sustaining the thousand years fire” – March 2021;…). This shows a movement of engaging the youth with the art form, providing them important knowledge and insights about hát bội as they’re growing through life.Cultura Fish also aims in the same direction, where the goal is to cultivate and spread the knowledge of hát bội to the public, especially to the contemporary youth. Started from the competition TechCul Initiative hosted by UNESCO, with the idea “Hát bội 101 – bringing hát bội to the modern life through the support of digital technology”, Cultura Fish has sustained and developed project “Hát bội 101” into different formats such as communication campaigns on Facebook, digitalised a database about hát bội on an international platform (ichLinks); organise introductory class to new hát bội audience (“Biết người biết ta”, “Cắc rụp tịch tang”) that express their interests in learning about the art form.
Cultura Fish has sustained and developed project “Hát bội 101” into different formats such as communication campaigns on Facebook
“Sắc – ấn ngọc Nam Phương” show: an effort of paving a new wave
Being introduced to the public in April 2022, the program “Sắc – ấn ngọc Nam Phương” (The Southern Gem) could be considered a spectacular return of hát bội after two years of hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This project is a new direction from the Art Theatre of hát bội Ho Chi Minh city, under the supervision of Culture & Sports Department of Ho Chi Minh city in order to focus on the conservation of culture and advance the artistic values, as well as investing in the purpose of cultural power and tourism.
Program “Sắc – ấn ngọc Nam Phương” (The Southern Gem) scene. Photo courtesy Art Theatre of hát bội Ho Chi Minh city
The program of The Southern Gem seems to be an enthusiastic response to the youth’s newfound passion with hát bội. The program exhibited a phenomenal effort of hát bội in its versatility, where it can effortlessly display through contemporary choreography and circus techniques…
The program exhibited a phenomenal effort of hát bội in its versatility, where it can effortlessly display through contemporary choreography and circus techniques…Photo courtesy Art Theatre of hát bội Ho Chi Minh city
Within the script, The Southern Gem sophistically portrayed a perspective that is not too foreign with the traditional form. The audience can easily get into the flow of hát bội through the familiar vè* melodies and childlike joy. Despite its transformation into a more formal and professional presentation, hát bội still keeps its core as a raw and folklore spirit that has essentially kept the art form alive through centuries. Indeed, the atmosphere during Đại bội (Grand ceremony) is inseparable from the packed audience between the staging wings. And so, the rising sounds of the orchestra of hát bội harmonise with the thrilling audience from the seats that came all around from small kids to adults.
Program “Sắc – ấn ngọc Nam Phương” (The Southern Gem) scene. Photo courtesy Art Theatre of hát bội Ho Chi Minh city
The Southern Gem wrapped up its show within 60 minutes, fully expressing the desire to be performed by the hát bội community. The hardship journey of the girl in the story seems to represent the public’s sentiment of appreciating the traditions of this historical art form. And vice versa, the traditional art form of hát bội reciprocates the sentiment where it willing to embrace the audience and bridge the generational gap, finding a unifying voice with the youth to build the ambition of “saving the sounds of hát bội for future generations ahead”.
The show might only be a testing ground to experiment with how versatile hát bội can be in this modern age, but it’s been a commendable effort in paving a new way for the genre. It is a positive sign for us to see the possibility of organising a regular program that can provide the cultural taste of the public, not only for the locals but also to an international audience in the near future./.
*Vè: Songs and melodies that tend to be for children
(Continue reading: BEHIND THE THEATRE’S CURTAINS. Cultura Fish’s interview with the director of The Hát Bội Theatre of Hồ Chí Minh city, mister Võ Hồ Hoàng Vũ, he was also the art director of the program “The Southern Gem”)
This article (“A MOMENT FOR HÁT BỘI”) was co-produced by Hiếu Văn Ngư – Cultura Fish and ICHCAP. Please give proper citation and do not repost by any type.
Author: Vương Hoài Lâm
Translator (Vietnamese – English): Hà Hoàng Minh Trang
As of today, Cultura Fish has only started its first steps on this long journey ahead. Looking back on our two years of formation and progress, Cultura Fish has slowly grown through each of our projects.
As an effort to have a full picture about The Southern Gem, Cultura Fish had the opportunity to meet and interview with the director of The Hát Bội Theatre of Hồ Chí Minh city, mister Võ Hồ Hoàng Vũ, he was also the art director of the program.