Clay statues have been a traditional type of toys in Vietnam, and are popular during the Mid-Autumn Festival and Lunar New Year. They are usually figurines of animals like turtles, birds and people in traditional clothes.
Today they have lost their popularity, and Phung Dinh Giap, 67, and his wife Nguyen Thi Dieu are among the last artisans to still make them.
“The technique of making these figurines is simple, but the entire process, from preparing the materials to completing the product, requires a lot of meticulous work,” Giap says.
A traditional set of statues comprises five images: turtle, bird, an elderly person, a baby, and a Buddha in the middle. A craftsman can also make customized statues on orders.
To make a clay statue involves various tasks, from preparing the clay to painting the finished statues. The most challenging one is to soak do, a kind of traditional paper made from tree bark in villages. The craftsman needs to soak the paper sheets for seven days until the paper becomes soggy.
“When I was young, I start making simple figures. At the time, the clay statues were popular toys during the Mid-Autumn Festival. They seemed to be disappearing because kids only like modern toys, but in the last two years people have been coming back to order statues of Zodiac animals or some other shapes,” says Giap.
The clay is dug up from a depth of 2.5 meters to have the required smoothness and cleanness.
Nguyen Thi Dieu filters clay to make it smoother.
Dieu says: “After letting the clay dry in the sun, we pound, grind and filter it. To be usable the clay needs to feel smooth and cool and be gray in color.”
The clay is mixed and kneaded with paper powder to make the material for making the statues.
All the statues are hand-made. As the 2019 Lunar Year of the Pig approaches, many people are asking Giap to make pig figurines, both plain and painted.
A set of pig figurines representing a family of pigs. There is one mother pig and five piglets.
The clay statues are not baked in the kiln but are durable.
The craftsman covers the statues with a white powder before painting them.
To complete a set of six statues, it takes a craftsman around a week.
“Making clay statues does not involve sophisticated details, but it is important to create an elegant, rustic image and to present traditional images,” Giap says.
A set sells for VND300,000 ($13) though small items can be had for less than VND100,000 ($4.3).