Xuan La village
Riding on a motorbike on burning National Highway 1 on a scorching sunny noon, I felt the difficulties of To he craftsmen from Xuan La village, I Phuong Duc commune, Phu Xuan district, Hanoi.
Everyday, To he (toy figurine) craftsmen in Xuan La village have to leave their home in the early morning on bicycles to be timely present at parks, flower gardens and markets in Hanoi.
With small wood boxes containing glutinous rice powder of various colours, some bamboo sticks and magical hands, Xuan La craftsmen create extremely lively toy figurines to sell to children at VND3,000-5,000/toy.
Xuan La village has three thousand people and around 200 people are earning their living by making To he. Everywhere there is To he – that place has Xuan La villagers.
The toy figurines which have brought a small joy to many generations of Vietnamese have experienced many ups and downs, but Xuan La people are faithful to this job, though this job can’t make them rich.
To he – folk culture
For children, To he can open a colourful world where they can see characters from history, movies and cartoons, from the famous monkey named Ton Ngo Khong in “The Journey to the West” Chinese novel to Picachu and Pokemon, characters from famous Japanese cartoons to princesses in fairy tales, etc.
Today, when children are flooded in the world of modern games, toys, etc. To he craftsmen have to be very creative to make their characters lively.
To make To he, craftsmen must be very patient, but most To he craftsmen are men. Xuan La families have one oral rule: secrets in making To he are only transmitted to sons and daughters-in-law, not daughters. According to old craftsmen, this job appeared around 300 years ago.
To he is a traditional toy that is closely tied to the lives of farmers. To make To he, craftsmen only need glutinous rice powder, which is dyed with seven basic colours (green, sea blue, red, purple, yellow, white and black), and bamboo sticks.
In the past, Xuan La villages used trees, ash, etc. to make colours for rice powder but now they use food dyes, to still ensure that children can eat their toys.
The tools to make To he are very simple, comprising a bamboo stick, a small comb, a bee wax piece and a small knife. With a small box containing the above things, a To he craftsman can go everywhere for several days or even a month.
Like other traditional crafts, To he has experienced many ups and down. Sometimes To he makers seemed to have lost their job because they couldn’t compete with Chinese toys, which are eye-catching and cheap.
Thanks to the efforts of Xuan La villagers, this craft is surviving. Now children can see To he at every park or at the gates of schools.
To he – A cultural ambassador
This folk toy has confirmed its position and is considered a cultural ambassador of Vietnam.
Craftsman Nguyen Van Thuan, who has made To he for 56 years, has been to the US and Japan to perform To he-making art.
No one knows when the art form first appeared but Xuan La is seen as its traditional home. Like other children in the village, from the age of 7 or 8, Thuan started to learn how to make To he from his father. As there were no lessons, learning was mostly visual.
From sticky rice flour and pigment, the artisan can shape the dough into a doctor’s figure, dragons, a phoenix, birds and trees. Though To he is not a particularly difficult job, artisans should know well how to combine different colours in order to produce a lively effect.
During the holidays, from the first to the third lunar months of the year, 60% of the villagers from Xuan La go to different cities and provinces to knead To he. An artisan can earn around VND40-50,000 per day. But money is not the issue. Mr Thuan says he is happy seeing the joy in the eyes of children who get to see his work.
In his travels, Thuan has been everywhere, from the north to the south, wherever there are festivals. He considers it a free tour while earning a little bit for the family. “Kneading To he is just a seasonal occupation, so no one can live on that. But I try to preserve it as it’s a traditional art of Vietnam. I have three sons and all of them follow the art,” said Thuan.
Many people say he should stay at home as he is now old, but Thuan still wants to go to as many places as he can to popularise the art.
“Nothing is more valuable than bringing joy to others by one’s occupation.”
“In recent years, the Ministry of Culture and Information has paid more attention to the art of kneading To he and that’s a good sign for the further development of the art,” Thuan said. But he still expressed his worry that “this is a seasonal and roving occupation, just serving festivals, so I hope the state will have more priority policies for us to develop this traditional art more.”
Dao Duy Men, head of the Xuan La village said, “For years, when speaking of the art of To he, people have thought of Xuan La. But at present, the village has yet to be recognised as a traditional trade village. Therefore, I hope our village will be recognised so that we can preserve and develop this traditional cultural feature. This can also help improve the spiritual as well as material lives of the inhabitants.”