By Thu Ngo
The trend started in 2013, from my observation, slow and quite subtle.
Perhaps I should wind back the clock to the illustration drawing classes in Work Room Four once located in Zone 9, which was once the so-called hub for artists and young people in Hanoi for a while yet had a very dramatic ending with fire, accidents and even fatalities and bulldozing decision from the city government.
Work Room Four was founded by four expats living in Hanoi; all have arts and/or teaching background. That partly explains the group’s mission which is “provides a space for creatives, learners and educators. […] a workspace and creative hub for people of all ages and walks of life to share and enjoy.” After the abrupt close down of Zone 9 area, the group searched for a new location and finally in mid-May 2014, WR4 opened their new studios in An Duong Vuong Str., where visitors can have one of the best view of sunset on the West Lake.
I first knew about WR4 and their drawing classes by chance when picking up a leaflet in Manzi Coffee House, an art space quite popular in Hanoi. It was late November 2013, and I was totally mentally drained for work and political games among my colleagues and bosses. Drawing has always been something in my blood and a class on illustration for the beginners was indeed an tempting offer. Thus, I decided to attend the class. The learners were quite diverse; some are expats working in Hanoi; some just backpackers staying in Hanoi for a while when looking for a new destination; and some, like me, young Vietnamese self learning arts and in need of an escape from reality.
Inspired by well-loved children’s story Totto-chan – The Little Girl at the Window by Japanese author Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, Chí Đỗ, Thu Thủy and Phương Thủy were determined to establish their own school, Toa Tau, or Railway Car, to give Vietnamese kids a chance to learn and explore the world at their own pace, just as Totto-chan at Tomoe Gakuen, where the classrooms were made inside discarded railroad cars carried to the property.
The soul of Toa Tau, Chí Đỗ is a 2011 Fullbrighter and a well-known author of a number of comics and illustrations in Vietnam. Coming back from Georgia (US) where he did his master degree in comics and art, Bút Chì (Pencil), Chí’s pen-name, opened his first Drawing for Storytellers class in 2013. The course quickly received positive feedback from participants most of whom are twenty-somethings, and later, is organised as a mobile class travelling to different major cities across Vietnam. Toa Tau was a further step of But Chi. Starting with illustration classes, now Toa Tau, however, expands to other areas such as folding papers (origami), ukelele, visual exploration, and more, as well as regular workshops and talks. The learners now range from children as young as five to elders in their seventies.
It would be a big mistake if Tí Toáy is not mentioned. Established in June 2013 by Thùy Trang, a young artist earning her BA in arts in France, Tí Toáy is dedicated to nurturing children’s creativity through arts activities.
Believing children in big cities nowadays have to face numerous stress and pressure from study, achievement, expectation from parents, teachers and society, and that the artist born inside each child is dying out now more quickly than ever because of academically scrammed timetables, Ti Toay wishes to create a world of DREAM and FREEDOM for children. Yet, lately the studio also expands their targeted learners groups to the old with their course named ‘Drawing Memories’.
It is interesting for me to know Ti Toay defines ‘the forty five year olds and above’ as ‘the old’. Perhaps this reflects a social change in Vietnam’s urban areas, where the middle income group is growing at ‘the fastest speed in Southeast Asia (Japan Times 2015).
Two generation families with parents being the 5x, 6x and children the 8x, 9x are increasing. Stable income sources coming from the parents’ salary and savings for years and even stock exchange and miscellaneous investment; available houses – everything is just there and the young no longer need to give themselves a headache thinking of where to live or who to hire as in-house maids. So, why not married? More and more people get married at a very young age (after their graduation 1 or 2 years when both or sometimes the guy gets a job). A number of forty somethings or fifty somethings are thus quickly promoted to be grandfathers and grandmothers. And in Vietnam, once you are called ‘Grandpa, Granny’, you belong to the senior citizen group. And it does make sense for such class like Ti Toay’s ‘Drawing Memories,’ doesn’t it?
Another model of arts space for adults now is VanGo Art Workshop. As a side project of RIO Creative, a dynamic creative agency in Hanoi, the workshop aims at young officers who are billionaires of stress and beggars of creativity and self recreation. The 7 day course slowly takes learners through basic steps and techniques of drawing like still art, composition, different materials, and so on. Moreover, prior to each lesson, learners can join various relaxing activities with meditation, music and oil.
As adult colouring books, one of 2015’s biggest and perhaps most-unexpected art trends, the art workshops and their courses above are widely touted for their stress-relieving benefits. With the tuition ranging from 1,500,000 – 3,500,000 VND, the courses mentioned above undoubtedly are for middle income city dwellers who surrounded with technology and pressure of daily life, and that watching movies, hanging out in shopping malls and chatting at fancy coffee shops for them are simply no longer useful. As But Chi says, “Art is meant to free people from worries, to give people a balance. We’re trying to release the fear in people, and for many, it starts from the fear to draw.”
For me, perhaps another reason to explain the booming creative art class lies in how people view arts here. Arts, here mainly referring to drawing, has been neglected in the national curriculum for a long time (normally students stop learning arts including fine arts and music when entering high school), and considered ‘supplementary subjects’. Being good at drawing is synonymous with being good for nothing; and those who are arts oriented are not so much appreciated as their academically prone peers. Drawing becomes something for fun. And perhaps that’s why arts is always associated with childhood, and thus, innocence, creativity and freedom. This is somehow reflected in the tagline of VanGo Workshop, ‘Please give me a ticket to VanGo,‘ which is apparently inspired by ‘Please give me a ticket to childhood,’ a short novel by Nguyen Nhat Anh, a well-known South Vietnamese writer for children and young adults.
As one among those who doodle to go through haze and daze of days of boredom, I am more than happy seeing the trend going up. Yet, honestly the fee is still a bit high for a low middle-incomer like me: spending half or two-thirds of my salary on healing my soul maybe makes it drain faster.