(No.4, Vol.8,Aug-Sep Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

At a workshop making paper masks designed by the artists Nguyen Van Hoa and Dang Huong Lan, Hanoi, 2018.

Aarcheological evidence
from the Dong Son civilization shows that 2000-3000 years ago ancient Viet people were already making masks from tree barks and animal skins. Later on, with the advent of new, more modern materials, they started using paper. Like any other products of culture that carry elements of folklore, the masks reflect many aspects of agricultural life and aspirations of ancient Viet people. The Earth Lord mask, round and cheerful, represents the fertility of the land and healthy growth of every living thing. The jade rabbit mask, on the other hand, represents the beauty of heaven and earth, favorable weather and abundance of crops…

Pasteboard masks have been Hanoi kids’ toys, especially in the occasion of Mid-Autumn celebrations, for ages. But today, just a handful of people still remain loyal to the art of mask-making.
The couple of Mr Nguyen Van Hoa and Mrs. Dang Huong Lan at 73 Hang Than Street, Ba Dinh District of Hanoi are among the last artisans that still hold the secrets of traditional paper mask-making trade.
Making a quality pasteboard mask is quite a complicated process that requires a lot of skills, deft hands and artistic taste. Waste paper torn to small pieces is the main raw material. For each mask there is a concrete form cast beforehand. A layer of white paper is wrapped tight on the form, and then layers of torn paper are glued on top of it and left to dry. There are mask forms on traditional motifs such as Chi Pheo, Thi No, Teu (folklore characters), and animal faces etc. This year Mr Hoa has new forms to make modern and foreign characters such as Batm Man and Spider Man etc. to satisfy the market demands. Each mask is usually 5-6 layers thick, and the glue is simply cooked cassava starch.
With such materials, the masks can only be sun dried. Any other, more advanced way to dry would deform and destroy them. So the artisan couple can only work on sunny days and have to find something else to do when it rains.
Painting is the next most important part because it too decides how the masks look. ‘You can paint only one color at a time. Only when the top color dries you can you paint the next color. So it may takes many such repeating steps to finish coloring a single mask to ensure the colors are clear and well- edged. It takes a lot of patience to achieve the desired effect.’

*The article in Vietnamese was printed on The Gioi Di San

Text by Thanh Huyen ; Photos by Le Bich