Located at Quang Phu Cau Commune, Ung Hoa District, Ha Noi, Quang Nguyen Village is well-known with a long-standing tradition of ca tru (ceremonial singing). It has a temple named Quang Nguyen dedicated to worshipping the two 15th century ancestors of ca tru, Dinh Du and Man Duong Hoa.
The village was established by the Nguyen family and to this day most of villagers are surnames Nguyen. Nguyen Ngoc Thu, 30, is currently head of the clan, the 13th generation since the founding fathers.
Cultural tangible heritage
The village consists of 18 hamlets, including Large Nha Tro (singsong house) and Small Nha Tro.
In the past, both hamlets had a set of gates built in 1931, but now only Small Nha Tro hamlet’s gate remains. The gate has a vaulted roof with four large Chinese characters encouraging villagers to help one another.
The temple of ca tru’s ancestors is located at the centre of Large Nha Tro hamlet and is run by Nguyen Ngoc Anh, 61. The temple is divided into four areas that are used to worship the Nguyen family’s founder, the patriarch’s parents whom were famous artists as well as ca tru’s two ancestors.
The ancestors’ shrine is highlighted by two large wood-carvings (45cm by 95cm), relief portraits of the two saints. The god cuts an imposing appearance in a red imperial brocade robe and mandarin’s bonnet and holds an ivory tablet.
The goddess possesses a benevolent face, wearing a yellow brocade dress and a crown with tassels and holding a fan. Each bas-relief is placed in a sculpted frame. It’s said that two alto-relievos were granted by the court to reward their merit and make villagers remember them from generation to generation.
A horizontal lacquered board hanging in the central chamber states: ‘Cultured Nguyen family preserves ca tru art’.
The temple also stores a wood block carved history of the Nguyen family in the village. The block was carved in 1794 under the instruction of Nguyen Dinh Nha, sixth generation.
Based on the document, it’s estimated that the temple was built over 200 years ago.
Many famous singers on Kham Thien and Thai Ha streets come from Quang Nguyen Village, according to Nguyen Ngoc Anh. Ngoc Anh, his sister Nguyen Thi Nhat and his uncle Nguyen Ngoc Da have a thorough knowledge of the village’s traditions and stories of the previous generation. They pride themselves on being descendants of beloved artists.
Nguyen Thi Do who lived in the 17th century, is one of the most famous artists of the village. With a fascinating beauty and enchanting voice, she was invited to perform at palaces in the imperial city on many occasions, where she met and married the Mandarin Muc Cong.
Although she became a mandarin’s wife, Do never forgot her hometown where people were still poor. When she was given a chance, she and her husband came back and granted fields and money to the people. on the occasion of restoring the temple, she contributed much valuable wood.
The Quang Nguyen Temple still keeps a stone tablet recognising her. It says, “All villagers proclaim Nguyen Thi Do as the god genius of the village.
Annually, when holding rituals, festivals and performance, we have to offer her a tray of xoi (steamed glutinous rice), a cock, a bottle of wine and a betel tray.” To this day, the villagers obey these words.
Nguyen Ngoc Pham, the ninth generation of the family, was a talented and beautiful singer. Two Mandarin brothers, Duong Khue and Duong Lam, who composed excellent tunes for ca tru, wrote poems glorifying her skill.
Nguyen Ngoc Khai was a famous musician. In the 1990s, he and two sisters hosted a theatre on Kham Thien Street, Ha Noi and attracted much audience.
Gradually, dozens of singers and instrumentalists from the Nguyen family gathered and performed at the theater, making it the most famous theater in Ha Noi. Khai became a monk and changed his name to Thich Tam Giac. He built Vinh Nghiem Pagoda, which is still famous in HCM City, and passed away at the pagoda in 1973.
The villagers own a long-standing tradition of ca tru with various famous artists, but today, none of them can sing ca tru or play musical instruments.
Discrimination against it resulted in the death of knowledge and the destruction of many giao phuong (a large community of ca tru performers based on location) including Quang Nguyen Village.
The last artist of the village determinedly refused to teach ca tru to others. She died without any student. The late People’s Artist Chau Loan insisted on being her student but to no avail. Loan was refused with the reason, “singing ca tru is good for nothing,” she said.
“I can understand the miseries she has experienced; the society misunderstood ca tru and caused its decline,” Loan said.
The last instrument of the golden age was dan day (a long-necked lute-like instrument with three silk strings and 10 frets) kept by Nguyen Ngoc Hoan.
“It’s a long time since the last time it was used. My wife didn’t want to keep it so she destroyed it,” Hoan said, sadly.
However, the temple of ca tru’s ancestors is still there as evidence of the art’s prime. Furthermore, stories of talented artists will be handed down to future generations.
Ca tru does not belong to the village only, but it is the heritage of the whole country. Quang Nguyen villagers can only hope that it will find new life in their homeland.