This year’s must see performance – back to calssical theatre – Hat Boi

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A Vietnamese folk saying reminds me of a celebrated period of the art of hat boi. People spent most of their time neglecting their work in order to enjoy performances of this intriguing art form.

Hát bội làm tội người ta

Đàn ông bỏ vợ, đàn bà bỏ con…”

From royalty to everyday people

According to many documents, hat boi (also known as hat bo, hat tuong) was already in existence at the end of the 12th century when the Tran dynasty defeated Nguyen – Mong and captured many prisoners of war who were famous performers. One of them was Ly Nguyen Cat, a singer of the early Chinese opera genre. King Tran kept Ly Nguyen Cat and these artists to perform in the palace and introduce the art of hat boi to the Vietnamese people.

In fact, we only learnt face painting, costumes and some Chinese songs to improve our art of tuong, which had existed before. Not solely a leisure activity in the palace, hat boi also spread out over the country and became the favorite performance of the local people. Dao Duy Tu was the father of hat boi in Southern Vietnam. Dao Tan was the developer of hat boi. He raised this art to “the ultimate in art and literature”.

Being a lover of hat boi, Le Van Duyet brought this art to the South. Shedding the cumbersome style, characteristic of the scholarly rituals of the Royal Palace, and adopting the performances and musical characteristics of the Chinese people in the South, the hat boi of Southern Vietnam has found its own style, which is bolder, more colorful, animated and jubilant and reflective of the liberal spirit of the new land.

During each ceremony, villages are bustling with hat boi performing troupes. A performance of hat boi is commonly very long and must be separated over many nights. Therefore, local people are willing to miss their meals and work to see a complete performance.

Artistic conventions

Hat boi is an art form with symbolic conventions from the makeup, face painting to the choreography and expressive features. In hat boi, there are always two types of character: the good and the evil, the loyal friend and the sycophant. In this art form, the half-good, half-evil or complicated characters found in other drama do not exist. This is also a strict art when all characters’ personalities and actions are expressed through disguising and painting the face directly instead of using masks as are used in jingju in China. The artists are therefore required to bring the character to life through their movements and gestures.

Only by looking at the painted faces, the way the characters stroke their beards or moustaches and laugh, can hat boi’s fans understand their personalities. The characters with red faces are remarkable and loyal heroes; with white faces are dishonest mandarins; with black faces are frank and hot tempered ones; with pockmarked faces are cruel rebel leaders; those with an eye painted on the forehead are the visionaries… Beards also express characteristics: a three-tuft or five-tuft beard (black or gray) symbolizes that they are honest, calm and noble; curly black beards are for the wicked and hot-tempered…

Developing in the prosperity of Confucianism, the King used hat boi as a means of propagandizing lessons about moral standards, loyalty and faithfulness. Popular stories of hat boi include: Tram Trinh An, Luu Kim Dinh, Case Quach Hoe, Case Bang Quy Phi… In addition, some plays were invented and created as Ngoc Ky Lan, especially San hau (written by Dao Tan), which has been considered the “big brother” of hat boi throughout the country.

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Modern Hat Boi

In the 1980s in Ho Chi Minh City, hat boi was in competition with cai luong. Tickets were sold out one day before the performance on weekdays, except for Monday. That is a beautiful thing for those who have a strong attachment to this art to realize. Hat boi is performed in communal houses as it has been for a very long time. Since 2000, the Ho Chi Minh Hat Boi Theatre has trained 14 young artists to follow in the hat boi tradition of their brothers and sisters.

However, Hat boi is “struggling” to attract audiences, which is the inspiration behind revitalizing the performances with the use of Vietnamese, professional artists, clear conversations, quick rhythms and background music to improve the quality of the play and attract different audiences. The innovation is also manifested in many experimental plays such as Foxman – a performance with Western costumes or Sinh vi tướng tử vi thần – a wordless emotional hat boi story depicted through performances, music, sound and light.

 “These changes have been well received by both new audiences and old fans. We have been trying to promote this art form in many different ways such as performing it in schools and on roadsides and we have got positive feedback from our audiences. “They have said that this art form is not as hard to understand as they’d always thought it would be”, NSƯT artist Ngoc Nga told us.

Where to see hat boi in Ho Chi Minh City over the Tet holiday

+ Long Phung theater (234 Ly Tu Trong, Dist. 1)

+ Or at art shows during the festival seasons (especially in February and March, August and September lunar months), in the suburbs as detailed in the Ho Chi Minh Department of Culture, Sports & Tourism schedule or in parades and New Year performances.