Sad Mid-Autumn Festival of a person who has been a lion head for 30 years

Quang NamLooking at the pile of colorful unicorn heads lying dormant in the corner of the house, Mr. Nguyen Hung sighed and walked out the door with his fishing rod.

After leaving the house for a while, the 48-year-old man suddenly forgot his phone but did not bother to return. On the afternoon of August 20, the day before the Mid-Autumn Festival, the phone still did not have a missed call.

“Over 30 years as a lion head, I’ve never been as disappointed as this year,” said Mr. Hung, “The whole year didn’t sell much, even closer to the Mid-Autumn Festival, there were no customers”.

Phung Thi Hoa, Mr. Hung’s wife, said that in Hoi An, each family now has a large factory. For the past two years, sometimes I have seen my husband sitting next to the unicorn’s head, helpless.

According to Mr. Mai Thanh Hung, Vice Chairman of Cam Ha Commune, Hoi An City, about 1% of the commune’s population does traditional crafts, but only Mr. Hung’s family makes a full set of unicorn heads and local masks.

“Covid-19 has caused households making lanterns, wooden signs, and unicorn heads to reduce their income significantly. The commune has mobilized these households to temporarily switch to farming and aquaculture to stabilize their lives.” Mr. Hung said.

A week before the Mid-Autumn Festival, the factory that produced the lion’s head and mask from Mr. Nguyen Hung’s house was still quiet, with no workers and no customers to buy. Mr. Hung completed a few rare unicorn heads pre-ordered by customers. Photo: Character provided.

From 2019 onward, Mr. Hung’s family’s unicorn head production facility was often busy with work. Each year, he markets more than 2,000 unicorn heads and about 1,000 local masks, most of which are ordered by customers in bulk. On traditional holidays such as Mid-Autumn Festival, Lunar New Year, 20 workers work continuously from 6 am to 9 pm, even all night, they still cannot deliver to customers. For the whole year, Mr. Hung’s workshop only rests for two months after the full moon of August.

“In the past two years, I have not been able to get a single wholesale application for small unicorn heads. All year, only 40 large unicorn heads have been sold, more than 200 local masks. Now there are only 5-6 people working. On the street, the sound of unicorn drums is heard. Training is also lost, the atmosphere is strangely gloomy,” said the workshop owner.

Normally, the selling price of a large set of unicorns including head, tail and clothes is from 4 to 5 million VND. The small unicorn head is priced from 70,000 to 150,000 VND, and the head is from 50,000 to 250,000 VND/product. Before Covid-19 appeared, the factory had an average revenue of 200 million VND a year.

From his personal hobby, Mr. Hung has developed a famous unicorn head factory in Hoi An.  Photo: Character provided.

When there are no guests, sometimes Mr. Hung pulls out his work in his living room to help him remember his job. Photo: Character provided.

This profession came to Mr. Hung quite by accident. He knew how to be a unicorn head since he was 10 years old, but just for fun. In 1990, during a performance, a guest in Da Nang liked it so much that he ordered him to make a set for 150,000 VND. “After that time, seeing that the demand for buying was so great, I started researching and following the career of making unicorns until now,” he said.

To perfect a large unicorn head “in accordance with Hoi An standards”, it took him a whole week with many different stages. From finishing the rattan frame, to gluing paper, fabric, coating, luminescent paint, decorative textures, gluing fleece, drawing outlines to create accents and finally interior decoration, lights LED for phosphor. Every stage is complicated and requires high precision.

“The unicorn’s head is beautiful, but the eyes without a soul are damaged. The unicorn’s eyes must show the gentle, fierce or arrogant spirit of the unicorn to achieve,” said Mr. Hung.

Setting the frame for the unicorn head requires high precision, making it carefully and firmly.  Photo: Character provided.

The man with more than 30 years as a unicorn head is framing some new models on September 20, ready to hit the market after the epidemic is over. Photo: Character provided.

For more than 30 years with the lion heads, Mr. Hung has a large number of loyal customers, who book once and then return every year. Gradually, Nguyen Hung became the most famous name among the unicorn makers in Hoi An. Vice Chairman of Cam Ha commune revealed that in 2020, Mr. Hung was proposed by the Heritage Center to consider recognizing artisans.

Two years of being affected by Covid-19, the revenue decreased, the cost of raw materials increased, but he never thought about increasing the selling price. For him, credibility is always the top priority.

“Many customers who order unicorn heads just leave it there so they don’t remember, why can’t I raise the price,” Hung said.

Despite the difficulties, Mr. Hung has no intention of quitting his job. “I plan to create many new unicorn heads, wait until the epidemic is over, I will deploy. Now I have to do it, I have to keep it to have the profession handed down to my descendants,” he said, then bowed again with the unicorn head frames, Waiting for a customer call is complete.

Thuy Quynh

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