Small winding alleys, dodging in Kham Thien market street where artist Phan Thanh Liem has been preserving and promoting the little old soul cultural treasure of Vietnam - the water puppetry. Today I had an interesting visit to this talented artist's home theater and had chance to interview him about water puppetry and his second-to-none small water puppet theater.



Small lanes and alleys that lead to Liem's little house and theater



Water Puppetry is a theatrical art form with unique folk tradition, born from wet rice culture over 10 centuries ago in the Red River Delta. From an art folk elements, water puppetry has become a traditional art, a special creation of Vietnamese people.


What connects you with this traditional art form?


"“Homeland” – the word that always sounds loving to everyone. Why homeland takes an important part in our soul? Perhaps, the old cultural traditions of the village was always a proud part hidden in each of us when we return. Homeland is the bridge connecting the past and the present, connecting the traditional cultural values of today and yesterday."


Water puppet artist Phan Thanh Liêm was born in a family of 7 generations doing water puppets in Rạch village, Nam Chấn commune, Nam Trực district, Nam Định province- about 80 kms to the south of Hanoi. His family has been contributing a lot to Vietnamese water puppetry.


Please tell us briftly about your family's tradition of water puppet!


"Our social develops like a dizzy spin with integrations to other developed cultures in the world. Where dotraditional art forms of Vietnam in general and water puppetry in particular stand? In the old days, my grandfather was a craftsman making worship statues for the living. Besides, he managed a water puppet assembly, crafted puppets and built different plays like the famous play “ Le Loi returns the Sword”.My father was the first one in Vietnam to introduce water puppetry of Vietnam to the world in 1980 in Poland. At that time he just simply performed a few puppets with a very simple theater in a swimming pool. Artist friends from other countries rated it very high and considered it to be a unique art form of Vietnam. After that trip in Poland, my father improved it from performing in ponds or lakes to mobile theaters. Before that, water puppets were mainly performed in ponds and my father was the first one who brought it into theaters."



Liem and his wife after a show



In the old days in this village, there were about 40 people who could handle this art. I was the youngest to learn at age of 10 and I could perform it when I was 14, 15. Old men in the assembly and in the village respected me to be young but could do both crafting puppets and performing. After the Center Theater came and watched my shows, they asked me to come to the capital city to work for them. At first, I crafted puppets and trained actors. In 1982, I was sent here to work in this Nam Chấn water puppet assembly. I then studied and created the mobile water theater. At that time things were not in good conditions like those nowadays. We took great effort to make the first show in a mobile theater and invited the Ministry of Culture to come. Mr. Mai Vi, the vice minister came and liked it a lot.


Famous water puppet artist Phan Văn Ngải, father of Phan Thanh Liêm devoted his whole life for water puppetry. He was the one who brought water puppets from village’s ponds into theaters. And that creation is now being well used in all water puppet theaters. Plus, he is also the creator of Chú Tễu (the M.C) which is now being displayed in Louvre Museum in France. He was also the first in Vietnam to form the very first private water puppet incorporation named Sông Ngọc for doing shows nationwide.


Water puppet has been lasting for centuries but the plays and shapes of the puppets haven’t changed much. Meanwhile, exchanging cultures between provinces or nations worldwide is really important. And to spread water puppetry to outside world makes Phan Thanh Liêm to improve his puppets to a mobile theater to make it easy for showing at different places. Liêm’s new theater is also a one-man-show.



Liem and one of Incense Travel guests



What is the main difference between the traditional water puppetry and yours?


"Water puppetry is especially different to other folk art forms like operetta, opera, traditional folk songs…  I have to bring along lots of bulky and heavy stuff like these puppets and the theater itself. Having a mobile pond is a must. That makes it really hard for mobility and advertising. I always have a thought that this is a very unique art but we haven’t introduced it widely yet. School children and other people should have a chance to know it. I have managed to minimize the theater as one-man-show to make it easier bringing it outside. Say, in the old days there must be at least 25 to 30 men for one show. Now it needs only me to handle. Plus, my theater is now a lot lighter and smaller with simple materials. But basically I keep the plays and shape of the theater original."


Traditional puppets are made of fig wood. They are attached to a long stick so artists can control. But with this design, one artist can only control one puppet at a time. So in a play of 5 characters we need 5 artists to handle. The traditional theater can be as big as 10 meters wide with a lot of heavy decorations. It makes traditional theater next to impossible to be moved.Artist Phan Thanh Liêm, creator of the mobile theater and new puppet designs. He can control multiple puppets at a time. His theater is smaller, movable for his shows at different places.In the old days with big theaters, artists had to stand in a big pond with water up to their chests for hours long. But with Liêm’s theater he can sit on a bench to control the puppets. He named his creation “one man water puppet show”Phan Thanh Liêm never stops thinking of improvement and bringing new life experience to his theater. Traditional puppets now also have a new role as ambassadors of the environment or to give warnings about social evils like illegal motorbike racing. And the most recently he creates new play of the South China Sea problem named “Tễu tells story of the South China Sea”



Liem and his workshop where his carves all the puppets



Artist Phan Thanh Liêm has been invited to bring his mobile theater to different remote areas of Vietnam, as well as taking part in international puppet festivals in South Korea, Italy, Poland, Thailand, Canada, Britain, France and Japan. Through these festivals, his favorite thing is to introduce Vietnam’s traditional art to friends worldwide.


"Before coming to Vietnam I have heard of the water puppetry from my friends who had been here. It was a nice surprise for me to learn about the technique and the plays of this water puppet art. This is surely a very unique art form that could only be found in Vietnam." Said one of his admirers. 



Showing his audience how to control the puppets


Water puppetry is certainly a very unique traditional art of Vietnam that needs to be well preserved and developed.Generally speaking, water puppetry has been devoting to introduce images of Vietnam and its culture, people to friends all over the world. Hopefully, Vietnam water puppetry will be more and more welcomed and loved by Vietnamese people and friends worldwide.



By Pham Tuyen