Vietnamese cai luong, or renovated theatre, is one of my favorite art forms.Â It started as a mix of French theatre as well as traditional Chinese opera (historically Vietnam was colonized by both these countries) and evolved into something uniquely Vietnamese.Â It’s essentially a musical.
The core of cai luong is the vong co. The term vong co means nostalgia for the past, and it’s actually a song written some time between 1917 and 1919 by a man who was forced by his family to seperate from his beloved wife because they couldn’t have children together.Â It describes the immense longing that he feels for her.Â The song was so popular that several songs were composed based on it, and these songs transformed into the distinctive Vietnamese cai luong‘s vong co.Â Period pieces often feature Chinese folk stories or French novel-adaptations.Â Many stories deal with poverty and difference between classes.
For your listening pleasure:
Tinh Anh Ban Chieu: [audio:Tinh Anh Ban Chieu.mp3]
Ong Lao Cheo Do: [audio:Ong Lao Cheo Do.mp3]
Doc Suong Mu: [audio:Doc Suong Mu3.mp3]
The first two are vong co songs from the King of Vong Co, the late Ut Tra On.Â The first is about a straw-mat weaver who delivers a bed-mat to a customer he’s fallen for, only to find that she’s left her village to get married to someone else.Â The second is about an old ferry man who talks about how he loves nothing better than to man his ferry boat and enjoy the simplicity of that life.
The third is an excerpt from a 1970s (I think?) cai luong, roughly translated as “The Foggy Hill.”Â It’s supposed to be based on a Japanese story.Â In this excerpt, an infamous bandit has just discovered the girl he’s in love with lying on the ground, dead.Â Two other men are there with her, and listens as he mourns her death.Â It’s sung by Thanh Sang, who’s a much-respected elder in the cai luong business.Â His voice has a very special quality, and it flows so smoothly like water.Â It really demonstrates how well the vong co can convey a character’s emotions.Â You really have to know what he’s saying to truly see how good it all is.