An Artisan Who Makes Soulful Masks

For more than 20 years, Nguyen Van Bay has been familiar to many people in Ho Chi Minh City with his sunburn skin and long hair over his shoulders, riding an old bicycle loaded with masks for sale. He is a lovely man called by the locals “Old Mask Bay”.

Nguyen Van Bay was born in An Hoa Commune, An Lao District of Binh Dinh Province, the cradle of Vietnamese classical opera, or Tuong. Since he was a little boy, he showed a passionate love for this kind of performance full of highly conventional artistic value.

“Many times I went to see Tuong performances without my father’s permission, and when I returned home I was always punished by him,” Bay recalled, adding that despite that he never gave up his love for the art.

In 1992, Bay quit his job at a Taiwan-owned fine art company and opened a shop to make human statues. However his products did not sell well.

Bay changed his business line to make masks for Tuong performances, and his first 20 items sold out within a few days.

“It was my fortune and destiny. Since I was a little boy, I was so attached to Tuong performances, hence the images of Tuong characters were imprinted deeply in my mind, even when I was in the army or worked in Ho Chi Minh City. It’s my love for Tuong that helps me make those beautiful masks,” Bay confided.

The artisan decorates a mask of a character of an ancient Tuong act. Photo: Nguyen Luan/VNP

He introduces his works to customers. Photo: Nguyen Luan/VNP

Every day, “street artisan” Nguyen Van Bay rides his bicycle
from his house to many streets in District 1 and 3 to sell his masks. Photo: Nguyen Luan/VNP

Bay said that it took him lots of time to find suitable materials to make the mould from which the masks would be formed.

According to Bay, shaping the draft mask is the most difficult step because without correct details or lines, the mask will be an ugly one.

For a good quality mask, Bay used a plaster and silicon mixture to make the mould, and a stone powder and polymer mixture to make the mask.

Then he painted the draft mask with oil, each with a suitable color that described the true nature of the character.

“An upright man often has an honest smile and bright eyes, while a dishonest man always has a wicked glance and curling lips. Meanwhile, a crown’s face just needs some simple drawing on the cheek, nose or lips to reflect his comic character,” Bay shared his experience.

Besides making Tuong characters such as Bao Qing Tian, Guan Gong, Cao Cao, Buddha and Bodhisattva, Bay also made masks of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, ancient Egypt and Arabia, .

Bay has not been trained in painting, yet he can paint various masks which are vivid and full of artistic value.

Every morning, Bay carries the masks on his bicycle, riding through streets and selling them to tourists, students and especially Tuong lovers, then he goes back home in the afternoon to make new ones. The old “street artisan”, as he is called by the local residents, has devoted his whole life to popularise a feature of the country’s traditional art form in his own way.

Some products of “street artisan” Nguyen Van Bay:

Story: Do Van – Photos: Nguyen Luan