Vietnam: Another version

To those who know the country only for war, a show at the Please Touch Museum will come as a delightful surprise.

Posted: June 23, 2007

The Vietnamese people, folklore tells us, are descendants of a sea dragon, Lac Long Quân, and a mountain fairy, Âu Co, who produced 100 eggs from which hatched 100 sons.

That one sentence probably contains more information about Vietnam than most American adults possess, since in the national consciousness Vietnam is a war more than a place of highly developed culture.

Which is good enough reason for anyone to see the small but smartly conceived show opening today at the Please Touch Museum. Dragons & Fairies: Exploring Viet Nam Through Folktales, created by the Children's Museum of Houston and presented at Please Touch through Sept. 9, leaves visitors with a taste of a Vietnam at once urban and agrarian, forward-looking and worshipful of its past, solemn and riotously fun.

The exhibit is aimed at a child slightly older than the Please Touch's core stroller-bound constituency. Children ages 5 to 12 will probably get the most out of it, and even at the older end of that spectrum, close participation from parents makes the experience better.

To help understand the importance of an ancestor altar in a Vietnamese home, visitors are encouraged to consider their own family by drawing a relative. Explaining all this, let alone getting your son to remember who great-great-Aunt Ida was and how she was related, could require some discussion.

Intended audiences, a museum spokesman said, include Philadelphia's substantial Vietnamese American population - immigrants and adoptees. (Exhibition materials are in both Vietnamese and English.) Americans have been adopting from Vietnam in large numbers since 1993, with Vietnam ranking as the sixth or seventh most popular country for adoption most years since then, according to the U.S. State Department. Given the trend toward inculcating international adoptees with the culture of their place of birth, it was no surprise to see adoptive parents alongside Vietnamese families this week at the exhibition as it was being installed.

The placement of Dragons & Fairies in the Please Touch, however, tucked between the Alice in Wonderland play space and the kid-sized SEPTA bus, all but guarantees a serendipitous Vietnam education to everyone who visits.

The dozen or so displays are designed to appeal on many levels, so your 2-year-old and 7-year-old will each get something out of the act of opening a series of shutters to reveal backlighted images of women selling ducks, girls playing violins, children working in the fields, and young women in white silk suits riding bikes once ubiquitous on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi (today they have been largely replaced by motorbikes).

One station allows children to play Vietnamese musical instruments (cong chieng, a bronze gong; a small version of the t'rung, which looks like a bamboo xylophone).

Another is an "Internet cafe," offering clicks on a computer screen to reveal facts about Vietnam (the north is mountainous and the south flat; the country is densely populated, with 81 million people; 15,500 Vietnamese dong equal one U.S. dollar).

Children can take a virtual motorbike ride through the packed streets of Hanoi, test their chopstick proficiency, reveal the meaning of their Vietnamese names, watch a video of the colorful Mid-Autumn Festival with its masks and costumes and candy, and look through the backpack of a Vietnamese child. (Harry Potter book? Check. Bok choy? Check.)

Of greatest delight regardless of age - to judge from overhearing several grandmothers - is a table that allows visitors to figure out their year-of-birth animal and a fortune. Born in 2000? Step in front of the corresponding section of the table, place a piece of paper over etched black stone, and rub a crayon over it to reveal, like a temple rubbing, an image of a dragon and a short message that you are honest and hard-working.

The folktales that weave their way through Vietnamese life are animated at various stations in different ways - some with text and lighted illustrations, others narrated. One story explains how betel leaves and areca nuts figure in the matrimonial process. Another tells of a young man who finds a tree with magical healing powers. "An Tiem and the Watermelons" is about a boy adopted by a king.

All this, 4,000 years of history and culture, from the unlikely union of a sea dragon and a mountain fairy.


Contact culture writer Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/peterdobrin.


"Dragons & Fairies" is hosted by the Please Touch Museum, 210 N. 21st St., through Sept. 9. The museum will extend its hours to 7 p.m. on July 6, Aug. 3 and Sept. 7, with a special $2 admission after 5 p.m. Please Touch's own 25-minute theater piece, "From the Sea to the Sky," an interpretation of Vietnamese folktales by Alice Gonglewski, is performed twice on weekdays and three times daily on weekends. Information: 215-963-0667 or www.pleasetouchmuseum.org.Exhibition Review

Dragons & Fairies: Exploring Viet Nam Through Folktales

Please Touch Museum,

210 N. 21st St., through Sept. 9. Information: 215-963-0667 or www.

pleasetouchmuseum.org

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