Lý Toét and Xã Xệ are a pair of inseparable personages. They have similar characters but are of different statures: Xã Xệ is flabby (Fig.1), 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 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, Lý Toét always wears a national costume and never fails to bring his umbrella along.
The readers of the Phong Hóa (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 Hóa weekly magazine (Fig.2) was a humoristic magazine, published by the Tự Lực Văn Đoàn (Self-supported Literary Group). Later on, when the weekly magazine Phong Hóa became the Ngày Nay (Ngày Nay’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 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 Hóa weekly magazine had organized a contest for drawing comical sketches. At that time, author Bút Sơn – pen name of Lê Minh Đức – Mrs. Ái Lan’s 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 Lý Toét and Xã Xệ (Fig.3) standing on a weigh bridge and under it, one finds the following caption: “Xã Xệ: Well Bác Lý (Mr. Lý): Were we to weigh then divide by two, there’ll be no problem at all!”.
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 Hóa’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 Lý and Xã had been exploited by the Tự Lực Văn Đoàn literary group, and the child “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 abovementioned personages – for example they drew the head of Xã Xệ and made it look like the buttocks of a roast pig. And it was quite witty when the unique hair on Xã Xệ’s head looks exactly like a pig’s tail.
Later on, borrowing the aforesaid image, the Song (Live) newpaper in former Saigon had once publicly compared newsman Tô Vân’s head with the buttocks of the beautiful movie star Thẩm Thúy H. This contrasting way of comparing had been used by poet Trần Tế Xương :
“On her seat the French lady raised her duck arse. /Trên ghế bà đầm ngoi đít vịt.
Down in the courtyard, the licensee craned his dragon head. /Dưới sàn ông Cụ ngổng đầu rồng”
Painter Bút Sơn had taken Xã Xệ to Hanoi to make the acquaintance with Lý Toét, so when called back to the South, Xã Xệ had taken Lý Toét along with him. For that reason, Lý Toét and Xã Xệ have appeared on the Trào Phúng (Satirical) magazine and the Cười Xuân (Laughing in Spring) magazine, as they are shown sitting on a mat and drinking together. Lý Toét poured out a drink for Xã Xệ and recited Tản Đà’s poems :
“Is life so disgusted or not so disgusted /Đời đáng chán hay không đáng chán.
Raising the cup of delicious wine I’m asking only my intimate friend about that /Cất chén quỳnh riêng hỏi bạn tri âm.”
The cup of wine was raised high, and by inattention had wetted Xã Xệ’s head. The silliness continued to accompany the two personages who were going downtown, and had caused 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 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 Tú Kênh, but according to our consulting some other people, the version is quite different, as the consulted people believe that Lý Toét and Xã Xệ were created by the late famous painter Nguyễn Gia Trí (?) who signed his illustrations with anagrams such as Rigt or Gtri (from his name Gia Trí).
Among the illustrators for the Phong Hóa magazine, besides painter Nguyễn Gia Trí, there were also painter Tô Ngọc Vân who signed his pen names Ái My and Tô Tử, and another painter who signed Đông Sơn – pen name of writer 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 Lý Toét and 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.
1: According to Tú Kềnh – Should we rectify the identities of Lý Toét and Xã Xệ – Bình Minh (Dawn).
◊ Source: The set of “Four Books of Tết“, Ass. Frof. Doctor in History NGUYỄN MẠNH HÙNG, President of Institute of Vietnam Studies.
BAN TU THU