We speak to possibly the last artisan of his kind and find him as enigmatic as the faces he creates…
CHU BAY (UNCLE BAY) is a curious looking character with a mane of shiny black hair, prickly mustache, dirty glasses with the price tag still on them, and shaggy, paint-splattered clothes. his hands and feet are sometimes white with plaster, and his favorite accessory is a cigarette dangling loosely from his mouth. But beneath this unkempt appearance lie the meticulous skills of an artist, one who can carve and mold rough materials into beautiful, colorful emotive masks.
“I love the tradition of hat boi theater and my masks are inspired by it,” he explains while pointing to each one hanging on a wooden square board. “every one of them is different because I let my imagination run wild sometimes. All of my drawings contain my love for my hometown, my love of imagination and my childhood.”
For Chu Bay, who experienced many hat boi performances as a child, authenticity is essential. Hat boi is a traditional dramatic art form that first appeared in Vietnam during the Tran Dynasty in the 14th century. The performances feature an array of stock characters acting, singing and dancing, who promote moral values while showcasing a story relating to a historical event. Since they portray a wide array of emotions, they often wear make-up or masks to accentuate their facial expressions.
As the story goes, a famous Chinese actor named ly nguyen Cat was imprisoned by Vietnamese soldiers in the war against the Mongol Yuan Dynasty in the 14th century. Wealthy Vietnamese aristocrats became aware of the actor’s talents and asked him to teach their children how to act, sing, and dance. From these humble beginnings, the art form developed over time to become an integral part of Vietnam’s cultural history.
A passionate cycle
In a tiny house-cum-studio with a cozy loft space hanging over his kitchen and bedroom, Chu Bay crouches on his hands and knees over a half finished mask, making sure every detail is precise and dramatic. As he paints, molds masks with plaster, or mixes rock powder, he flips through books detailing the design and history of hat boi to study and find inspiration.
“The only way you can have a career like mine is if you are passionate about your art form, and I am very passionate. I definitely haven’t followed any type of traditional career, but I’ve made this lifestyle work for me,” he says.
Every morning Chu Bay gets up and rides his bicycle, with his mobile gallery attached, into District 1 or District 3. He waits patiently for sales and chats with people on the street. Then in the afternoon he returns home to make more masks.
“It’s a never ending cycle,” he declares. “I can’t imagine doing anything else, and I haven’t tried for over 20 years.”
Catch him if you can
Chu Bay’s business model is as antiquated as the art form he makes his living off. He has neither an internet presence nor a consistent location where he sells: you’ve got to find him if you want a mask.
“My locations will change based on how I feel and where I want to ride. I do tend to frequent Dien Bien phu, Nguyen Dien Chu, Truong Dinh, and Nam Ky Khoi Nghia.”
Even though he is difficult to pin down, Chu Bay is well-known amongst the locals and has found a large client base among Viet Kieus who live in the US or Canada. “Sometimes people will come to me from other countries to order 1,000 masks or more at a time to sell abroad. When that happens, i rarely leave my studio for a month straight.”
His works have attracted the attention of local television stations and numerous Vietnamese publications, and he credits this to the dying art of hat boi.
“No young people are making these kinds of masks anymore,” emphasizes Chu Bay. “When I was growing up, I was the only one in my hometown who was continuing the tradition, and I learned how to make them myself. As far as I know, no one from the upcoming generation is doing what I’m doing. I’m the only one.” (Masks range from VND80,000 – VND300,000).