Associate Professor, Doctor of History HUNG NGUYEN MANH
Nick name: A baggage horse in the university village
Pen name: Beetle
Xa Xe : If everybody obstinately keeps his chignon like you then, damn it! All barbers would die.
Ly Toet: If everyone has a hair like yours, then, even if he doesn’t keep it obstinately, all barbers would starve all the same.
(Today’s magazine issue No. 54 – Ngay Nay’s [Ngày Nay] humoristic sketch – Sunday April 11, 1937 – P.209)
Ly Toet [Lý Toét] and Xa Xe [Xã Xệ] are a pair of inseparable personages. They have similar characters but are of different statures: Xa Xe [Xã Xệ] is flabby (see image), pot bellied, with a beardless chin, and a head as bald as a coconut, having only a unique coil spring hair on it.
As for Ly Toet [Lý Toét], he’s lanky as a crane and thin as a dry cuttlefish, with his few spiky beards and his bulb of garlic like chignon. Whenever he goes, Ly Toet [Lý Toét] always wears a national costume and never fails to bring his umbrella along.
Caption: Ly Toet Ly Toet [Lý Toét] always wears a national costume
and never fails to bring his umbrella along
Caption : Xa Xe’s [Xã Xệ] figure extracted from Phong Hoa [Phong Hoá] (Manners and Customs) magazine
– issue No. 95 dated April 27, 1934 – Page 1.
Xa Xe [Xã Xệ] (asking the saleslady): Do you have any one-tooth comb for sale? I’ve only one hair. (Extracted from Today magazine – issue No.59 published on May 16, 1937 – page 331).
The readers of the Phong Hoa [Phong Hoá] (Manners and Customs) weekly magazine at that time always met with 2 personages, that were so candid and hare-brained, and that appeared regularly as two uterine brothers, born in the North. The Phong Hoa [Phong Hoá] weekly magazine was a humoristic magazine, published by the Tu Luc Van Doan [Tự Lực Văn Đoàn] (Self-supported Literary Group). Later on, when the weekly magazine Phong Hoa [Phong Hoá] became the Ngay Nay [Ngày Nay] (Today’s magazine), the two said personages still played a main role in that fairly famous magazine. Due to that fact, and with regard to the existence of these two main personages, the readers and even the Tu Luc Van Doan [Tự Lực Văn Đoàn] had made a mistake when referring to the two artists who have fathered them.
Thus, what do we know about the curriculum vitae of these two personages? Searching for their origins seems to be something quite interesting.
About 70 years ago, the Phong Hoa [Phong Hoá] weekly magazine had organized a contest for drawing comical sketches. At that time, author But Son – pen name of Le Minh Duc [Lê Minh Đức] – Mrs. Ai Lan’s [Ái Lan] brother and editor-in-chief of a well-known satirical weekly magazine in the South, who was a very talented caricaturist, had sent a sketch to the North to take part in that competition (*). This sketch shows Ly Toet [Lý Toét] and Xa Xe [Xã Xệ] standing on a weigh bridge and under it, one finds the following caption:
“Xa Xe [Xã Xệ]: Well Bac Ly (Mr. Ly): Were we to weigh then divide by two, there’ll be no problem at all!”
(*) According to TU KENH – Should we rectify the identities of Ly Toet [Lý Toét] and Xa Xe [Xã Xệ]– Binh Minh [Bình Minh] (Down) newspaper – Saigon Mau Than [Sài Gòn Mậu Thân] Spring 1968 – p.12.
The fairly great difference between the weights of these two personages’ bodies constitutes the comic and the laughter of so innocent a nature at that time. How could the common weight be divided into two? The above-mentioned sketch had won the first prize and was published on the Phong Hoa’s front-page (we ignore the number of that issue). From that time on, the fate of these two contrasting personages has been very much bound up in each other – Similar to the comic film “Fatty and Skinny” brought from France into our country in the 30’s or 40’s. And, also from that time on, the two personages Ly [Lý] and Xa [Xã] had been exploited by the Tu Luc Van Doan [Tự Lực Văn Đoàn] literary group, and the child “Xa Xe” [Xã Xệ] upon being born had been given his foster parent’s name instead of his own father’s name.
As a special feature, a number of readers, having some rudiments of painting, also chaffed those two resourceful personages, causing the French Orientalists to consider them as representatives of the Vietnamese commoners.
The jest of that number of “amateur painters” was centred on the original traits of the above-mentioned personages – for example they drew the head of Xa Xe [Xã Xệ] and made it look like the buttocks of a roast pig. And it was quite witty when the unique hair on Xa Xe’s [Xã Xệ] head looks exactly like a pig’s tail.
Later on, borrowing the aforesaid image, the Song [Sống] (Live) newpaper in former Saigon [Sài Gòn] had once publicly compared newsman To Van’s [Tô Vân] head with the buttocks of the beautiful movie star Tham Thuy Hang [Thẩm Thuý Hằng]. This contrasting way of comparing had been used by poet Tran Te Xuong [Trần Tế Xương] :
“Tren ghe ba dam ngoi dit vit
Duoi san ong Cu ngong dau rong”
(On her seat the French lady raised her duck arse.
Down in the courtyard, the licensee craned his dragon head).
– Have you seen any pig running by since this morning?
– No, I only see you now!
(Today magazine – issue No. 58 – Man and Affair – Sunday May 9, 1937 – page 305)
Painter But Son [Bút Sơn] had taken Xa Xe [Xã Xệ] to Hanoi to make the acquaintance with Ly Toet [Lý Toét], so when called back to the South, Xa Xe [Xã Xệ] had taken Ly Toet [Lý Toét] along with him. For that reason, Ly Toet [Lý Toét] and Xa Xe [Xã Xệ] have appeared on the Trao Phung [Trào Phúng] (Satirical) magazine and the Cuoi Xuan [Cười Xuân] (Laughing in Spring) magazine, as they are shown sitting on a mat and drinking together. Ly Toet [Lý Toét] poured out a drink for Xa Xe [Xã Xệ] and recited Tan Da’s [Tản Đà] poems:
“Doi dang chan hay khong dang chan
Cat chen quynh rieng hoi ban tri am”
(Is life so disgusted or not so disgusted
Raising the cup of delicious wine I’m asking only my intimate friend about that).
Xa Xe [Xã Xệ]: Like this, we’re fulfilling our duty
Ly Toet [Lý Toét]: And now we can give orders to our juniors.
(Extracted from Today magazine – issue No. 60 published on May 23, 1937 – page 351).
The cup of wine was raised high, and by inattention had wetted Xa Xe’s [Xã Xệ] head.
The silliness continued to accompany the two personages who were going downtown, and had caused Ly Toet [Lý Toét] to make a mistake as, upon seeing a discarded coat-rack with some hooks springed up from the garbage can, he had mistaken them for mushrooms and wanted to take them home to serve as titbits.
As a special feature, there exists a fairly vulgar comical image, showing a scene in which Ly Toet [Lý Toét] is carrying a bottle along to buy wine. On his way, he suddenly felt like pissing and was looking around for a suitable spot when he found himself facing a “commit no nuisance” sign. He then opened the cap and pissed inside the bottle while speaking to himself: “ How can they forbid me: I’m not pissing wrongly outside at all”.
The ideas and opinions mentioned above belong to author Tu Kenh [Tú Kềnh], but according to our consulting some other people, the version is quite different, as the consulted people believe that Ly Toet [Lý Toét] and Xa Xe [Xã Xệ] were created by the late famous painter Nguyen Gia Tri (?) [Nguyễn Gia Trí] who signed his illustrations with anagrams such as Rigt or GTri (from his name Gia Tri [Gia Trí]).
Among the illustrators for the Phong Hoa [Phong Hoá] Magazine, besides painter Nguyen Gia Tri [Nguyễn Gia Trí], there were also painter To Ngoc Van [Tô Ngọc Vân] who signed his pen names Ai My [Ái My] and To Tu [Tô Tử] , and another painter who signed Dong Son [Đông Sơn] – pen name of writer Nhat Linh [Nhất Linh]. Thus, which version is the most accurate one, and we ought to await for the opinions of newsmen and literary men who concern themselves with those two funny personages.
Being able to trifle with ourselves – to jest with the naivety latent in ourselves in a situation in which our country is changing – does this fact expresses a strength, which is like a secret self-defence weapon which we possess while having to face misfortunes, that’ll permit us never to be subdued. While searching again for a better understanding of the two personages Ly Toet [Lý Toét] and Xa Xe [Xã Xệ], our intention isn’t for slandering these plain and easy people, but we actually aim at mimicking the deportment and the language and tone of dull-witted bourgeois wishing to learn to act in a gentlemanly manner.
Ly Toet [Lý Toét]: – Is that right that were you to learn to swim, you’ll learn real quick?
Xa Xe [Xã Xệ]: – Why?
Ly Toet [Lý Toét]: – Because you’ve a balloon- like belly!
(According to Today Magazine published in 1936-1937- Issue No. 75 – Page 718).
◊ Vietnamese version: Đi tìm “GIA PHẢ” của hai nhân vật ảo LÝ TOÉT và XÃ XỆ