“Hat boi” – Vietnamese Opera


Source: https://www.facebook.com/vevehatboi/ 

“Red has a  symbol of joyfulness”, Qiang 2011.


This Lunar New Year 2018 celebrates the year of the Dog, lasting from the 16 Feb 2018 (first day of the new Lunar Year) to 26 Feb 2018. We, the Vietnamese simply call it “Tet” time. Tet usually has 10 days celebration with different activities and cultural customs during these days. Most of the activities aim to bring the family together, celebrate the moment and remember the ancestors and embrace our culture. Tet is joyful. Tet is Red.

The local community and the government organizing so many activities for the people to celebrate Tet in Ho Chi Minh City such as the Nguyen Hue Flower Street, Tao Dan Flower Exhibition, Live Music everywhere, LED screens everywhere, temple and pagoda activities for old people and kids, etc. Despite many live music shows at many city central spots, I caught myself looking at a small ad on Facebook, about a traditional art performance on the 7th day of the Tet holiday. A Vietnamese traditional art performance group named Ngoc Khanh will come to one of the most popular temples in Ho Chi Minh city to perform the “Ngoc Ky Lan”.

What is exactly this Vietnamese traditional art performance? It is “Hát Tuồng” –  a form of Vietnamese Classical Opera. “Hát tuồng” (local word from Ha Noi) or “Hát bội” (local word from HCMC) is a traditional form of Vietnamese theatre. This is often referred to as classical Vietnamese Opera, influenced by Chinese Opera. With over nearly 800 years of establishment and development, Hat Boi has become an integral part of Vietnamese Culture, being regarded as a classic and unique performance of Vietnamese traditional stage.

The stories in Hat Boi tend to be ostensibly historical and frequently focus on the rules of social decorum and can include legends from either the history of China or Vietnam. The characters are strongly recognizable from their make-up and costumes, which are typically extravagant and elaborate. There is usually a full Red stage with curtains and carpet, a traditional drum and a lot of shiny, decorative adornment. The decoration is usually in the shape of the Dragon, Pheonix, and Lion or in a shape ancient Vietnamese language characters. The colour and the origin of Hat Boi through its history and its development make a strong association with Tet and other Vietnamese ritual events.



                                Costume of Hat Tuong in 1874                                   Costume of Hat Tuong in 2018 
                                Source: khamphahue.vn                                              Photo: Nguyen, 2018 

The performance takes place at Tomb of Le Van Duyet, in Binh Thanh District, HCMC once a year to celebrate the Tet Holiday. This is a great location in the city centre and has a long cultural and spiritual history with the local people.


Tomb of Le Van Duyet, HCMC, Vietnam 
Photo: Nguyen, 2018 

The show began at 10am but I got there an hour earlier, trying to find myself a good spot in the crowd. Kids, old people and photographers were surrounded the group of artists and took every chance to observe them with so much excitement.

In a Green Room, about  10m x 3m, there were about 20 artists carried makeup, costumes, food, accessories, stage props and so on, parked their scooters on the side and started the preparation while stuffed with fans and photographers. It often took about 2 hours for the artists to finish the dramatic makeup and put on heavy detailed costumes.



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Photo: https://www.facebook.com/vevehatboi/

Most of the time, the artists help each other, have a quick meal or setting up the props. There is usually a team leader, who watches over for the group, takes the booking and simply manages finance, HR, performance and everything else. There is no production manager, no stage manager, no assistant. They are on their own.

A full performance usually last for few hours and artists take-turn to be on stage. There will be an opening session, different acts in middle and recap ending. The music was very loud and dramatic, played by 3 folk musicians on the side of the stage throughout the show.



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Photo: Nguyen, 2018

Despite the difficulties in set up, technical condition and limited in space, all artists of Ngoc Khanh group had such an amazing performance with many applauses.



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Photo: https://www.facebook.com/vevehatboi/

Honestly speaking, I am not an expert in Vietnamese Classical Opera and I had never watched a live Vietnamese Classical Opera performance until this event. But I love the feeling and the connection it brings to my people. A strong reflection of the past but absolutely move into the current age. Despite my little knowledge that I share with you about “Hát Tuồng”, still, I believe this traditional art worth your time of research and try to watch a live one once you are in Vietnam.

There are many challenges for “Hat Tuồng” to survive in recent years due to many competitors in the Vietnam entertainment industry. And “Hat Tuong” is never an easy art form to understand. Not like an hour movie or 3-minute song, the audience needs to be educated about the story, the flow and the situation to understand and feel it a bit deeper while watching it live.  “Hat Tuong” is a unique art performance inspired by Chinese culture, rising again in some Vietnamese regions such as Hue, Binh Dinh (khamphahue.com.vn). However, there are limited resources, mostly in old books at local library and art institution. Not many researchers conduct academic work and studies about Vietnamese Classical Opera and translate it into English. I wish to find many credible articles to expand my knowledge but failed to. I believe “Hat Tuong” is a deep wheel that I haven’t gone far enough till I found the right resources.

Many of you recognise the Red through the mass Chinese culture, such as Red in wedding, and Red in Lunar New Year. However, the Asian culture as a whole also celebrating Red as a symbol of happiness and energy.  The Vietnamese Tet is a part of our heart to celebrate this unique time in the year, the Vietnamese Classical Opera art is one kind of the art performance, we believe, communicate with our spiritual ancestors. “Hat Tuong” could bring curiosity to the youth of Vietnam but to the old, it is the classical entertainment that is unreplaceable in some provinces.

If you have seen “Hat Tuong”, share your experience. If you have any resources, comment below too. I am very interested to learn.

In the meantime, for those who are curious in watching a “Hat Boi”, here is a full performance of another group of artists named Kieu Loan from the Southern cities of Vietnam here (my apology for no English subtitle) and share you thoughts below.


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