Đặng Hoành Loan
Chơi Bài chòi, Đánh Bài chòi, Hô Bài chòi, and Hát Bài chòi are the cultural activities for entertainment of the people in Central Vietnam. Chơi Bài chòi and Đánh Bài chòi are the names of games. Hô Bài chòi and Hát Bài chòi are the names of role playing and performance art. The purpose and the information decide what suitable words will be used. The chòi name is added to Chơi bài, Đánh bài, Hô bài, and Hát bài to confirm the specificity of these cultural spaces. It differentiates these activities from Tổ tôm điếm, Xổ cổ nhơn and Tam cúc. The space of these cultural activities follows the rules and especially they include special performance art.
There have been no thorough studies on the history and the emergence of Bài chòi so far. The writings of many authors on magazines and journals introduce different birthdays of Bài chòi. However, most of authors suppose that Bài chòi was born in the 15th century. Those ideas are based on a study of a French musical researchers, called G.L Bovier. He guessed that Bài chòi was formed in the Vietnamese people’s immigration to the South in 1470. We think that G.L Bovier had evidences to support his idea.
If the names of card sets (pho) in Tổ tôm are compared with those in Bài chòi, the identicalness between Tổ tôm and bài chòi will be found. Tổ tôm consists of three card sets, which include Vạn (萬), Văn (文), and Sách (索). In addition, there are special cards (hàng quân) such as Thang thang, Lão, and Chi chi. Bài chòi also has the same card sets and cards.
While Trung quân or quân Xướng in the Tổ tôm điếm game is in charge of calling card names in a game, anh Hiệu is appointed to do this task in Bài chòi. In the Tổ tôm game, people have to make điếm (the hut) and people also have to make chòi (the hut) in the Bài chòi game.
However, in the new land, Tổ tôm điếm of the Central North has been changed into Bài chòi of the Middle and the Central South of Vietnam. The most visible changes is the changes in the pictures on cards, card names, and the number of cards. Nevertheless, these changes are based on the Tổ tôm điếm model.
The identicalness is the credible evidence of the origin of Bài chòi, which was born from the people’s immigration from the Central North (Thanh Hóa and Nghệ An) to the Central South in the 15th century.
2.1. Time and place of organizing Bài chòi
Bài chòi is organized in the lunar New Year Holiday at a large ground, which provides enough space for erecting 9 or 11 huts and for people to participate in the game.
Huts are arranged in the U shape. These huts include 1 owner hut and 8 or 10 guest huts. In some places, huts are called according to the names of 12 animal designations such as Tý, Sửu, Dần, Mão, etc. or the names of trigrams (cung) in the Book of Changes such as Khảm (water), Cấn (mountain), Chấn (thunder), Tốn (wind), Ly (fire), Khôn (earth), Đoài (lake), and Càn (heaven) so that players can choose a hut, appropriate to their age, before deciding to buy cards. The owner hut is for the card seller and 8 or 10 remaining huts are for card buyers. Another set of card, which is called bài nọc, is put in the middle of a big yard. This bài nọc is the second set of cards, which have the same cards and the same number of cards with the bài cái set of cards, which are sold to players. Bài chòi, which can be called Hội chơi bài chòi, happens only from 3 to 4 days.
2.2. Way of erecting huts
“To organize a festival of bài chòi in the lunar new year holiday, villagers have to erect huts some days after seeing off the Kitchen God back to the Heaven. The construction materials mainly include bamboos, straws, or coconut leaves. These huts are similar to those for watching over melon and loofah fields. One hut has 4 legs with the height of over 2m. The front roof is short and the back one is long. The floor is made of bamboo. The floor is about 1.5m distant from the ground so that its height is about at the forehead of the hô hiệu man when he brings cards or rewarding money to that hut.
2.3. Quân bài (cards)
A Tổ tôm điếm set has 120 cards. The role of each card decides the drawing on that card, for example, the drawings of a man, a woman, a animal, or something. In addition, a Hán word will be written on each card so that people can recognize what it is. In the meantime, a Bài chòi set only include 33 cards. On these cards, people draw patterns or Hán words (drawing Hán words is optional). This is the difference in the artistic creation on cards. Many researchers highly evaluate the art of the drawings on Bài chòi cards.
Together with the change in the drawings on cards, the names of cards also change. Pho Sách in the tổ tôm điếm game includes the cards, which have the names with from number 1 number 9 in the Hán Nôm script, for example, Nhất sách, Nhị Sạch, or Cửu Sách. In the meantime, Pho Sách in the Bài chòi game consists of the cards with different names such as Tử Cẳng, Nhứt Nọc, Nhì Nghèo, Ba Gà, Tứ Xách (Sách), Ngũ Dụm (Dít), Lục Hột, Bảy Thưa, Tám Dừng (Dây and Hột), and Cửu Điều.
The changes in the card number, the drawings on cards, and the card names help Bài chòi to gain a position and have a specific style, which is close to the people’s life in the Central South.
2.4. Art of calling cards
Calling cards is the art of lengthening the thrilling of card players, similar to buying a lottery ticket and palpitating to wait for the announcement of lottery results. It may be the reason that people call it Hô Thai.
Regarding music, Hô Thai is a complete musical phrase with its own melody. People cannot find its specific nuance and style in other traditional arts in Vietnam.
In terms of the structure, Hô Thai has three phrases . The first phrase is only hư tự Huơ and a line of a six-eight-word-metre poem or a variant of a six-eight-word-metre poem. Followed is calling a name of a card to finish Hô Thai. The following is an example of Hô Thai:
Phrase 1: Huơ……
Phrase 2: Tay bưng đĩa muối, nắm dầm /Vừa đi vừa chấm té ầm xuống mương (Bringing a plate of salt and nắm dầm / Falling down a irrigation canal because of concentrating on eating)
Phrase 3: Ông ầm huớ Ông ầm
In terms of literature, Hô Thai are the lines of a six-eight-word-metre poem or the variants of a six-eight-word-metre poem, reflecting social relations, habits, and ethics in Central Vietnam in the past. However, the requirement in Hô Thai is that the ending word of a poetic line with 8 words has to indicate the card name.
In terms of performance art, the person, playing the roles of a performer and a composer of Hô Thai sentences in the Bài chòi game, is anh Hiệu. Anh hiệu is the only folk artist, creating the artistic atmosphere of the Bài chòi game. He sings, composes lyrics, makes movements to illustrate the lyrics, and play clappers. Rhythmical clappers playing, melodious singing voice, lissome movements, and quick improvisation are the factors, showing the talent of anh Hiệu. The performance art of anh Hiệu is the key point, creating the exciting atmosphere of the Bài chòi game. Only anh hiệu’s performance art can make the “gambling” become a humane game.
2.5. The art of Bài chòi trải chiếu (the art of the Bài chòi on mats)
Three or four days after Bài chòi finishes, many anh Hiệu are invited to perform at private houses by villagers. After the game finishes, people reward anh Hiệu with presents or money.
Since that time, the demand of enjoying art at private houses has increased gradually, which accounts for the appearance of many other Bài chòi performer groups, in addition to the Bài chòi group of anh Hiệu. Later, these groups are called “Bài chòi rong” groups (travelling Bài chòi groups). Each travelling Bài chòi group often includes from 3 to 4 people and every member knows to play instruments, play drums, and sing.
To make a performance be attractive enough, travelling Bài chòi artists have to transform simple Hô Thai sentences into the songs with story telling. These songs include or do not include the names of authors. One song often consists of from 20 to a hundred of lines of a seven-seven-six-eight-word-metre poem. To tell such stories without boring audiences, artists have to improve two basic skills of singing with story teeling, i.e. the melody and the performance with story telling.
i) The melody
From the Hô Thai melodies, artists have developed 6 different melodies, including:
- The ancient Xuân nữ melody (it is the Hô Thai melody)
- The new Xuân Nữ melody (it is the Hô Thai melody with the complement of more ligatures and more melodious singing).
- The Cổ Bản melody
- The Xàng Xê melody (the Cổ Bản and Xàng Xê melodies have the mixture between the Hô Thái melody and the ceremonial music in Southern Vietnam).
- The Hò Quảng melody (it is mixed with the melody of Minh Hương street vendors)
- The Vè Chàng Lía melody (folk singing with story telling)
ii) The solo
Anh Hiệu is a solo artist in the Bài chòi game. He sings, makes gestures, and improvises his singing as well. However, the lyrics is short and do not have the structure of a story with many details and characters. Moving to the performance of Bài chòi on mats, anh Hiệu has to transform himself into the characters in the story. These characters often have different gender, characters, age, and social positions. In addition, dramatic conflicts are different.
For example, although the story “Ông xã đến nhà Bà đội” (Ông xã visits Bà đội at home) includes only about 30 poetic lines, a solo artist has to turn himself into Ông xã and Bà đội at another time for such short time. Ông xã has to clearly demonstrate the powerful and imperious personality. Moreover, he is a philogynist; thus he often flirts with women, specifically Bà đội. Being the role of Bà đội, who has a husband on business far from home, the artist has to cleverly refuse Ông xã.
In addition to the story about Ông xã’s visit to Bà đội, up to now, many other stories of anh Hiệu have been collected such as Thoại Khanh - Châu Tuấn, Lâm Sanh - Xuân Nương, Lang Châu - Lý Ân, Châu Đạt - Ngọc Hà, Phạm Công - Cúc Hoa, Vân Tiên - Nguyệt Nga , Tam hạ nam đàn, Châu Đạt - Ngọc Hà, Phàn Lê Huê - Tiết Đinh San, Tiết Nhơn Quý xuất thế (in story Tiết Nhơn Quý chinh đông), Quan Công Phục Huê Dung, and Cao Quân Bảo phá chi phu. Furthermore, there are the following vè songs such as Vè chàng Lía, Vè bá nghệ, Vè ở mướn, Vè nói láo, Vè các loại cá , Vè nói ngược, Vè các loại hoa, Vè các lái, etc.
In a Bài chòi performance on mats, decoration, backdrops, and stage light are not necessary. Anh Hiệu only needs a yard, a garden, or a wharf as long as many people want to watch his performance. His costumes and props are his daily clothes, a conical hat, a scarf, a face cloth, a nhị two-string fiddle, sênh bamboo clappers, a chiếng drum, and the good ability of improvision. Those simple things have gone with him to create the Bài chòi folk heritage of Central Vietnam.
The transformation from Hô Bài chòi (Hô Thai) into Bài chòi singing on mats is the prominent artistic development of Bài chòi. That development has created a very special performance art of Vietnam - “The Bài chòi solo art”. This solo art has contributed to the appearance of the special cultural art of Central Vietnam. That art deserves a position in the treasure of Vietnamese cultural heritages. Moreover, this art is the origin of the Bài chòi Drama Theatre of the Central South with different names in the second half of the 20th century.