“Among sufferings, flowers bloom. Instead of suffering, make better products. When the pandemic has been dispersed, we can come again in the former pure radiance." Nestled in the mossy old houses, timeless philosophies of life are voiced by a mask maker through humble and simple stories.
Born and raised in the ancient town of Hoi An, artisan Bui Quoc Phong has never been trained in a formal education. After the liberation of the South, he worked in artistic movements, drama production, and actor training. A few decades have passed, now he is one of the leading birds of the Hoi An artistic movement, and also a famous artisan for making masks.
The tireless daily dedication of artisan Bui Quoc Phong has been acknowledged by Hoi An. That is his own value, the creation space of the maker of Timing Mask - A space that he has devoted all his heart to creating and giving it to the community.
“DIVE INTO CREATIVITY & DEDICATION!”
Mr. Phong, can you share your memories of the time before coming to the profession of mask making?
Artisan Bui Quoc Phong: It was the best time of my life, because I was working and creating at the same time. I had a few dozen medals in my career, along with compliments and congratulations, but money was not much.
When I got married, I found that the economy could not be such unstable. I stopped performing in 1988, went to work as a lion head for lion dance teams, worked as a football referee, opened a shoe store, gathered underprivileged children, and gave them a job.
Although I worked many jobs to earn money to support my family and help the kids, I still missed the stage job. I continued to work until the age of 60, then retired in accordance with state regulations.
My friend-brothers did not like it, but I thought there were many stage directors, but not many mask artisans. My own experience has been squeezed out here!
What brought you to the "Timing mask"?
Artisan Bui Quoc Phong: Well, that was troublesome. In the past, masks were just toys that children played with and then discarded. I wanted to turn a child's toy into an art toy for adults, for those who know.
2014 was a turning point.
At that time, I had deep concern about Hoi An. The city was tiny, just the size of a palm, with only three horizontal roads: Bach Dang, Tran Phu, and Nguyen Thai Hoc. Outside the edge of those three roads was the end of Hoi Street. There were super rich people, but you know, wealth inequality, many people were still really poor.
I made masks, the first purpose was to solve the work problems, find a job for children with special circumstances. Next, with the experience of a stage performer, making lion head for many years, these two things are extremely related. I used that experience to make masks, but not the kind of toy mask. This is called the Mask of Time.
The "Time" here is to receive the culture left by the ancestors, record the imprint of life and then pass it on to children and grandchildren. The ancestors are Mr. Phan Chau Trinh and Mr. Nguyen Duy Hien... This land was formed by the cultures of many countries, with the footprints of the Spaniards, Portuguese, Japanese and Chinese...
Footprints left many good things and otherwise. But something far better!
Hoi An people has high self-esteem, they are dignified and clear, not self-seeking, never taking anything that does not belong to them. In the flow of history, Hoi An people are proud of being always (and will be) kind people.
“THE TIMING MASK – IMAGE OF HEARTS!”
It can be seen that your mask is not related to Chinese drama, not Japanese Noh, but only carries the folk breath of Vietnam. It is presented as a painting, which can be used to decorate the living space, but above all, it honors Vietnamese culture. Hope you can tell more about Heart and Time on each mask!
Artisan Bui Quoc Phong: Looking at the mask around this workshop, everyone can see that the theme is not many but constantly changing. All are based on the word "Heart".
You have kind heart or not, love or hate life, be faithful or inconsistent, be a good or bad person, etc. Just like that, there are so many different faces and shapes.
So far I has drawn several tens of thousands of pieces, but I still likes the "heart" painting about the mother's conception, the shimmering in love... In short, about the good.
What are the steps to make this mask, sir?
Artisan Bui Quoc Phong: To make a mask, regardless of size, it is necessary to complete each stage.
Firstly, we need a concrete or gypsum molded core, cover this layer with two layers of paper mache, and then frame it with rattan to make a solid frame. Hold the frame and then add plaster to make it sturdy. Once dry, you must use sandpaper to make it smooth and durable with time.
After that, you have to carefully dry this rough mask, then cut and shape all kinds of people: the aggressive or funny people, girl and boy...
Having done all these steps, the artist begins to paint. Be very careful, because looking at the mask can reveal your spirit at that time. Finish drawing, we apply a layer of glossy topcoat.
If done correctly, with standard, a product will last 30 years under normal conditions.
Many stages require creative inspiration and health. So some days I can draw 10, but some days only 1 or 2.
How are customer feedbacks?
Artisan Bui Quoc Phong:
Foreigners appreciate this product very much, when the streets are full of Chinese fine art, this is a purely handicraft product, made by Vietnamese hands.
A mask costs VND 300,000. At first I thought it was high, maybe very picky for Vietnamese guests. But no, Vietnamese guests love it, even more excited to hear stories about spirituality, modern life, and stories about culture.
I set a principle: The mask is for honoring traditional values and conveying a message of goodness to the beholder.
“WHEN PEOPLE UNDERSTAND THE MEANING OF EVERY STORY, TAKE EVERY MASK OF TIME AS A WORK,THAT IS THE BIGGEST SPIRITUAL REWARD”.
Traditional crafts have great respect from customers who love beauty. But in return, this profession is often difficult to get rich, just eke out a living. Over the past two years, it has been a little challenging for Hoi An. How has this affected your mask making?
Artisan Bui Quoc Phong:
The past two years have been very challenging, especially for tourism-dependent places like Hoi An. Timing Mask is no exception.
Although Covid takes many things, it also brings many benefits. Two years ago the products weren't all pretty, but two years now the masks have been all very nice. Every work is "smart". The creator himself also finds joy every morning with his brainchild.
Each time the epidemic was reduced, Timing Mask was the first place to open even though there were no customers. But despite the difficulty, layoff, the teachers and students always persevere to maintain "rhythmic breathing."
Among sufferings, flowers bloom. Instead of suffering, make better products. When the pandemic has been dispersed, we can come again in the former pure radiance.
After many difficulties, what do you feel now?
I always feel lucky because I chose the right path. Although there is not much economic benefit, the profession has helped me and tourists of Hoi An better understand the culture and beauty of Vietnam. In the future, the students will continue on my path, even if it is only a small one to honor the beauty of Vietnam.
Nguyen Hoang Phuong