Author Archives: Bao Nguyen

Andrew Cox Interviews Linh Dinh

Andrew Cox has a most thorough interview with Linh Dinh where the frank conversation covers topics from technology to poetry and takes us through Dinh’s perspective on the State of the Union.

[before we begin: have you heard about our subscriber drive? win an iPod and other prizes!]

“I’ve always been interested in so-called losers, because that’s the general human condition, if not now, then soon enough.”

Why did you start State of the Union?

In 2005, I taught a writing course called State of the Union at Naropa University, in Boulder, CO. I’ve also taught this course at the University of Montana and University of Pennsylvania. I wanted the students to address the crises afflicting our nation. It’s certainly not easy to make sense out of what’s going, especially since there’s so much disinformation and propaganda out there.

State of the Union is my attempt to track, through images and words, what’s happening to this country. The project has also forced me to spend much more time in the physical world, as oppose to sitting in front of the computer.

Like most of us, I was living a mediated life, I was living mostly through the computer, but, with this project, I’ll walk for miles though the streets, looking and hearing, and sometimes asking questions. Before I started, I had become alienated from much of my home city. I had forgotten the names of the neighborhoods, places I had known as a housepainter.

I was also tired of being an inhabitant of the poetry ghetto. Poets are entirely invisible and irrelevant in this society. As America collapses, poets have nothing to contribute to the general conversation. Few have anything to say, and the ones who do are ignored in any case.

I was tired of being published in books and literary journals that no one reads. My political essays, then, are my attempt at reaching a bigger audience, a more general audience. I want to use all of my skills as a writer to address people who would not likely read my poems. I’m particularly happy that my latest piece, “Mare Mere,” is being run by both CounterPunch and Dissident Voice, since it has elements of the prose poem. It is 2/3 political essays and 1/3 poetry. I’ll try to write more in this vein.

Why do you think poets are ignored? Is it worldwide or just an American phenomenon?

Conditioned by the car and television, we value speed above all. We want everything to be fluid and accelerated. We don’t care about quality, just quantity. It doesn’t matter what we eat, we just want to stuff ourselves as fast as possible.

Poetry is too slow for this culture. The poets themselves are also to be blamed, however. Dodging life instead of confronting it, most of them are ridiculously feeble. They think the ideal life is to be on campus forever, with a break once a year to go to their much-anticipated convention. There, they can suck up and screw down.

Da Vinci said, “A man who looks forward to spring is looking forward to his own death.” To always look forward, then, is to be forever dissatisfied with the present, but that’s the culture we have, we’re always looking forward to next year, next week, next hour, we can’t stand this present second. Our culture doesn’t just anticipate death, it’s living it!

In short, a people who will not reflect and who can’t stand silence will not read a poem. Though this has become a worldwide phenomenon, it’s much more advanced in certain places, like the U.S., for example, where we’ve reached a psychotic state. We hate our own mind, frankly. We don’t want to hear it speak.

Notice how people must turn on an electronic device soon as they enter a room, be it TV, stereo or computer. Sometimes all three are turned on simultaneously. Without these surrogate voices, we’re lost. What I’m talking about goes way beyond poetry, obviously. What I’m trying to get at is the reverence and courage that allow you to hear yourself and other people not just more clearly, but at all.

A quick observation about Vietnam. I went back in 1995, 1998, then stayed for 2 ½ years starting in 1999. While there, I could observe it shift towards the American model, which is all distraction all the time, where serious thinking is drowned out by nonsense, titillation and trivia. Wearing T-shirts with weird or actual English, many people started to listen to loud, recorded music, watch mindless TV and lust after brand names, though few could afford them.

None of this is necessarily bad in itself. I mean, a stupid T-shirt is just a piece of underwear with some moronic writing on it, and I enjoy a good soccer match as much as the next guy, but this rising pop culture was helping to mask many, many serious problems.

There was prostitution on practically every street. In factories, workers were being abused. Likewise, the servants in middle class households. I’m not even against prostitution in itself, only the poverty that forced many young women to become whores.

Top Communist officials became obscenely rich, bought many properties and sent their kids to Western universities, while the poorest sold their bodies and begged. However, with this loud music, exciting soccer matches, constantly flickering TV and many sexy photos, intimate or blown up, it was no longer necessary to arrest serious writers and thinkers. As in America, the Vietnamese intellectual has become irrelevant.

When you first left the office and computer how did you feel getting out into the physical world?

The office sounds so grand! Well, I have a little room with a desk and a tiny bed. I didn’t snore ten years ago, but now I do, so my wife and I sleep in different beds, in different rooms.

In my so-called office, there’s some food stored in the corner: a case of tuna, one of instant noodles and several bags of rice. We don’t have much room, so every square foot must be stacked with something. Where I work, then, where I’m typing this, is more survival bunker than regular office.

If there’s a nuclear explosion or meltdown, my wife and I could lock ourselves in this rat hole of a room and survive until Jesus, Allah or Buddha, whoever’s truly biggest, meanest or asskickingest, knocks on the door to say, Hey, everything’s OK, you can come out now!

By definition, a writer or artist must work in isolation. He must be removed from the world as he writes, paints or whatever, but a writer must also be among other people so he can have something to write about.

My first book, Fake House, was populated mostly by losers, the types I was surrounded with, and with whom I worked and drank. Of course, some of the characters were more or less me. I was a total loser, financially, socially and erotically. I was an embarrassment. Still am. I couldn’t get any of anything.

You asked about the media. Well, the media is all about getting stuff. It’s about having all of your natural and unnatural appetites fulfilled. It’s about whooping it up, partying, fucking and spending, but real life is not anything like that. Well, you might have a few highlights here and there, fondly remembered, but most of the time, it’s incredibly hard just to get by. Just to maintain your basic dignity, you have to exert yourself like crazy; you have to be a physical and mental athlete just to get by.

My first book, Fake House, was dedicated to “The Unchosen.” I’ve always been interested in so-called losers, because that’s the general human condition, if not now, then soon enough. We will all lose, but there’s also dignity and strength in losing. I came from a losing society, South Vietnam, and I’m experiencing a collapsing culture right now.

Anyway, I’ve always been a wanderer, a walker. As a kid in Saigon, I walked all over. When I lived in Italy and England, I’d go to many strange cities, towns and villages and just walk. This project, then, is an intensification of an impulse I’ve always had.

The only time in my life when I didn’t walk was in high school. I lived in San Jose and Northern Virginia then. These two places are heavily car-dependent. I hate them, frankly.

The computer is very addictive. I have never been addicted to the TV, for many years I didn’t even have a TV, but with the computer, I became sort of a screen addict for the first time.

My site, State of the Union, gives me a clear reason to leave the house, so that’s a good thing. I can walk out without going to the bar. I don’t drink a fraction of what I used to.

When you’re among people, you’re always surprised. You think you already know how they look and talk, but you’d often be wrong. People are always inventive because they’re restless, bored and exhibitionistic. They also like to have fun. Packaging themselves, they’re always refining their acts. They’ll come up with the weirdest way of putting on a hat, for example, or of conveying the simplest message.

What surprised you the most when you first started documenting the homeless? What surprises you now?

I’ve lived in cities most of my life, so the homeless is nothing new. There is a lot destitution and squalor in Saigon, where I was born and spent my early childhood, and where I returned to live for 2 ½ years as an adult.

When I moved to Philly in 1982, I saw many homeless living in the subway concourse, and I remember seeing hundreds of homeless in Tompkins Square in New York in the mid 80’s.

Before I started my State of the Union project, I never talked to the homeless, however. It is enlightening to hear people’s stories. I don’t want to generalize too much about the homeless, but it is amazing to observe how tough and resilient these people are. On their faces and bodies are evidences of the very difficult lives they’ve endured, even before they became homeless. Many of these people look beaten up, because they have been. In Vietnam, too, you see these types of faces and bodies.

“Home” is such a physical and emotional necessity. While most of us still have roofs over our heads, I’d say that many of us are emotionally homeless. At best, we are dwelling in emotional halfway houses, or emotional bunkers, with many cans of expired tuna in a corner.

Now, I’d like to shoehorn an umbilical cord mooning monologue about home: I was born in Saigon and have lived there as an adult, but to call that home would be a stretch. I’m most familiar with Philadelphia and do identify with it, but I can’t deny feeling elated whenever I could leave it, if only temporarily.

I was calmest and happiest when I lived in Certaldo, Italy, population 16,000, but I could barely speak the language and didn’t have to make a living there. With the exception of San Jose and Northern Virginia, I’m fond of all the places I’ve lived in, including Norwich, England, and Missoula, MT, but, as Camus said, and I’m quoting from memory and probably butchering it, “He loves all women, which means he loves none of them.”

My mother is from Hanoi, so I can still fake a fairly convincing Hanoi accent, and several times I’ve caught myself thinking, while in Hanoi, “It’d be beautiful to die here,” but of course I’m not dying to live there, so that’s not really home either. I’m OK with being home/less. I’m happiest when I’m on a train, though of course, I’m also anxious to get off.

You said many homeless people have been beat up. Who is attacking these people?

Tyrone, a 45-ish black man who was on the streets for nearly a year, told me he was beaten up by three teens. He showed me stitches on his forehead. A thirty-ish white guy was almost stabbed with a box-cutter by a white, drunken girl, walking with a group of friends. She slashed his bag. The story sounded a bit outlandish, but everything else he said was plausible. He said black women treated him the best, and, sure enough, a young black woman gave him a bag of McDonald’s food while we were talking.

In Richmond, a white former nurse, Tony, also said that black women were the kindest to him. As if on cue, again, a black woman gave him an apple not even a minute later. Tony related how a Mexican homeless man was hit with a stick as he washed his clothes in the river. His attacker was some black guy, maybe another homeless dude. This Mexican guy had a big gash on his head but didn’t dare go to the emergency room because he was illegal. Knowing Tony had been a nurse, he asked Tony for help. Tony looked at it and said it would heal eventually, so that was that.

If you’re lying on the sidewalk, you’re going to be vulnerable, obviously. That’s why so many of them sleep during the daytime, because it’s safer that way, with many people walking around. Even when you’re not attacked, it’s impossible to get a good night’s sleep, obviously, because of the weather, the noise and because you’re lying on cardboard.

Some of your pictures feature images of advertising. What do you think about the relationship between marketing and the homeless?

Much of photography is used to seduce. It sells you on a fantasy so you will buy the product. The glamorous advertising images and catchy slogans serve as an obscene contrast to what’s actually on the streets.

The last time I was Vietnam, in 2001, I often saw the slogan, RICH PEOPLE, STRONG COUNTRY, on government billboards, but this was still old style Communist propaganda. With their heroic, broad shoulders and determined figures, always depicted from below, the Communists sought to inspire, but Capitalism is all about seduction.

On American TV, there’s an ad that shows a famous football player, first in uniform, then stripped down to near total nudity. These female hands then dressed him in slacks, shirt and tie. Only at the end would you discover that this is actually a car commercial!

In any case, photography plays a central role in this come-on economy. There’s photographic seduction everywhere you turn. The system will strip you and leave you with a very cool photo, and it won’t even be yours to own, son, you can only look at it! I’m trying to capture this swindle in my photos.

In your writing you are critical of the spread of casinos. Why?

Casinos are perfect emblems of our non-productive economy. A lot of money changes hand in a casino, but it produces absolutely nothing. Factories are being abandoned in cities and towns across America, but casinos are spreading all over. Fools and crooks who support casinos say they bring jobs, but casinos are net losses in every community.

Do you ask for permission before you photograph anyone? Do you explain what you are using the images for and if so, what is a typical reaction?

If I can get away with sneaking a photo, I’ll do that. Generally speaking, I don’t want my subjects to pose or even be aware of my presence, but since I carry a large camera, this is not always possible.

From each photo, you can generally tell whether I’ve engaged my subject. Sometimes I offer people a bit of money, usually just a buck or two, to take their photos. I gave $10 to a Camden woman, however, so she could buy cans of Sterno for her tent.

In Detroit, I also gave an old man 10 bucks because he was in such bad shape. He said he needed this money for a prescription. Whenever I visited the tent city in Camden, New Jersey, I’d bring 24 large cans of beer, though I’d end up drinking three or four myself. I’ve also bought food for the homeless.

When I talk to people on the streets, I do tell them I’m writing about the economy. Most know full well the economy is in horrible shape and will get even worse, and most of them don’t mind talking to me about their dire situations.

Once, I saw a young woman who was raving and extremely dirty, she even smelled of urine, but as soon as I talked to her, she became sane and radiant. Not to exaggerate but she became shockingly beautiful. I bought her something to drink and lent her my cell phone so she could call a friend in Baltimore to pick her up in Philadelphia.

As an artist, you’re always a kind of vulture when you’re around people, you’re always trying to make use of what they say, how they look or who they are, and since art is always subjective, a kind of distortion, you’re always deforming people to suit your purposes. Although art is always, in this sense, an exploitation, it is also a kind of tribute, and hence, of love. Sometimes I can barely stand how magnificent and beautiful people are.

You mentioned bringing beer or food with you sometimes. A common stereotype is the homeless asking for money or holding a sign by the freeway just want it to buy drugs and alcohol. How accurate is this stereotype?

Well, there are soup kitchens. In Camden, I went with a group of homeless to a very clean and dignified soup kitchen. People sat down at these long tables and were served by volunteers. When this homeless couple left a bit early, I asked them, “What happened? Didn’t you like the food?” The woman was a deaf mute, so only the man answered. He said, “Yeah, we liked it fine, but now we’re going to a second soup kitchen!” Another guy told me, “You have to be a moron to starve in Camden.” The problem is, many of the homeless are at least slightly crazy. Though some started out mentally ill or deficient, I’m sure many more became that way from having to live on the streets.

There’s a guy who wandered around the shopping mall in downtown Philadelphia. His pants were falling apart and sagging. You could literally see his crotch. My wife actually tried to give him a belt, but he wouldn’t take it. He wouldn’t even take cash. He never said a word, not one word, so maybe he couldn’t talk at all. Every now and then, you’ll run into a homeless person who won’t even take money.

In any case, I bring beer to the tent city in Camden because I figure, why shouldn’t these people have a beer? Also, I’d not be so welcome if I didn’t bring beer!

The tent city in Camden, New Jersey has made headlines in the past but I think many people would be shocked to hear tent cities exist in American. Some news reports said the type of people there would surprise you. What was it like when you went there?

It was orderly and safe. In the summer, you could smell the shit in the honey bucket, but it wasn’t terribly dismal. Sure it was bad, but people were making the best of it. They’d hang out in the center, talk and laugh. Sometimes people would fight, they’d scream at each other, but I was there maybe ten times and never saw any violence. I’d hear about violent episodes, however, but these were very rare.

In any case, the rest of Camden was much more dangerous. Jamaica, the head guy of the tent city, kept everything under control. Later, I’d hear from someone, living in another Camden tent city, that Jamaica would charge people a nominal fee to live in “his” tent city. I don’t know if this was true, but I did notice that Jamaica sometimes hoarded some of the beer I brought. Whatever. He was the “mayor” of that place, and a lot of the people I talked to seemed genuinely grateful to him. Rex, 76 years old, told me Jamaica carried him on his back to the hospital. Hardly anyone had a cell phone there, so it wasn’t like you could easily call 911 if there was an emergency.

One time I went there and it was, like, 5 degree out, and there was a huge snowstorm, and this kid, maybe 22, was freaking out. We were standing around the fire, trying to warm ourselves, and this kid was raving because he couldn’t take it anymore. I lent him my cell phone so he could call his mom. He started to beg her to let him come home. “I’ll do anything you want me to do, Mom! I can’t take this anymore.” Jamaica said he’d put the kid on the Greyhound, and he apparently did, because I never saw that kid again.

That tent city got too much publicity, so the city government finally shut it down. It didn’t do anything but chase the people out and put a chain link fence around that plot. As for all the newly displaced, a private organization did take them to a motel, where they could be cleaned up, groomed then assisted in finding a job or housing.

The official unemployment rate of Camden is 25%, however, so I’m sure many of these folks have ended up on the streets again. As for other tent cities, I’ve seen people living in tents or makeshift dwellings in a few other places besides Camden. There must be dozens across the country.

American cities are outlawing sleeping or camping in public. In many places, dumpster diving is also illegal. One should remember that during the 1929 Depression, much food was destroyed even as the nation starved!

In Hawaii, Santa Cruz and elsewhere, you can’t sleep in your own car, and in San Francisco, you can’t even sit on the sidewalk. These cosmetic measures are designed to mask our accelerating economic collapse. And yet, despite all the evidence, the mainstream media trumpet daily that the recovery is here.

To close, I want to quote Texas Congressman C. Wright Patman, as recorded by the great Studs Terkel in his 1970 oral history of the Great Depression, Hard Times, “A dictatorship could spring up here over night, if this country got so bad. If another Depression came, we’d have a revolution. People wouldn’t take it any more. They have more knowledge. The big ones, they’d be looking for somebody that’d have the power to just kill people, if they didn’t agree. When John Doe begins to get up, they’d just go down and shoot him.”

Well, that depression is here!

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a just released novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment!

Lists of Discovery

Do cars stop for you at intersections? Can you tell when a papaya will ripen? Is Heineken your beer of choice?  These question may seem innocuous but to Nhu Tien Lu, they were huge discoveries about Vietnam.  Read on and learn the varied nuances of Vietnamese life through Nhu Tien Lu’s senses as she has many of her assumptions erased after spending some time in the country.  

[before we begin: have you heard about our subscriber drive? win an iPod and other prizes!]

The most wondrous aspects of living in another country are those learning moments when you realize that things that you just assumed to always exist, unspoken cultural rules that you thought were natural and constant, are in fact neither natural nor constant. So this is my list of several of the common assumptions I had, having been raised in America, that no longer apply to my everyday life in Saigon:

  1. That vehicles will stop, or attempt to stop, for pedestrians, particularly if you’re in a crosswalk.
  2. That there will be a crosswalk.
  3. That if you walk on the sidewalk, you will not have to step aside for motorcycles to pass.
  4. That motorcycles will carry a maximum of two people, and not be used to move furniture, livestock, and other unwieldy objects of great mass.
  5. That buses will come to a complete stop to let you board.
  6. That restaurants will provide paper napkins, and won’t charge you for them.
  7. That prices on basic goods will not rise simply because New Year’s is a month away.
  8. That a dollar bill is worth a full dollar regardless of whether it is new or old looking.
  9. That prices quoted will not vary depending on whether or not you look like you know how much the prices should be.
  10. That people will rely on banks to deposit money instead of finding hiding places for gold.

However, it should be noted that the City, or thành phố, has its own quirks and rhythms as compared to the countryside, so here are a few of the things I’ve learned after  visiting my parents’ quê hương in Vĩnh Long and Quảng Ngãi these past couple of  weeks:

  1. That people can be most easily located by going to the neighborhood where they lived 30 years ago and asking for them by name.
  2. That no one moves, ever.
  3. That street names and addresses are never used to give directions.
  4. That rivers are a viable means of traveling from house to house.
  5. That most everyone has an orchard and a river running through their land behind their house, even if they cannot yet afford a squat toilet or a roof made of something more permanent than coconut leaves.
  6. That everything that I would normally consider to be garbage can be either repaired, re-used, or fed to the chickens, ducks, geese, pigs, cows and dogs in the backyard.
  7. That there are more than just two or three types of coconuts, mangos, durians and pomelos. Many, many more.
  8. That most people can tell, as casual knowledge, when a papaya will ripen, how  to pluck a duck, and if a mai tree will bloom in time for Tết.
  9. That there are more Vietnamese words for “rice” than I may ever be able to learn.
  10. That your parents, upon coming back to where they were born and raised after 30 years away, won’t ever look quite the same to you.

And lastly, on the flip side, there have also been behaviors and assumptions that I’ve never questioned as a part of my Vietnamese culture and upbringing, so the following is a list of the most common things that I take for granted in Việt Nam, but which I understand may come as a surprise to foreign visitors:

  1. That in the Vietnamese language, “you” and “I” cannot be said without knowing how old the person is in relation to you or what your familial relationship is. This is the reason you will be asked, within the first minute of speaking to someone, how old you are. If you are not asked, it’s because they already know.
  2. Additionally, “hello” and “thank you” and any other address to another person requires the use of “you” and hence the knowledge of how old they are in relation to you or what your familial relationship is.
  3. That the question, “When’s your birthday?” is actually asking for your birth year and answered by giving your zodiac animal.
  4. That Vietnamese is a tonal language, so that any slight inflection up, down, up and down, or down and up will mean the phrase Cai nay la bao nhieu could translate to “How much is this?” or “Jailkeeper, now shout ‘bag’ a lot!” Seriously.
  5. That you will be asked, by friends and strangers alike, how much money you make and how much you pay for rent, expenses, and that shirt you just bought. Likewise, you are expected to ask the same of others, which is how you will learn what fair prices are for meals, clothes, groceries, rent, and that shirt you just bought. (Essential when dealing with #9 from List 1.)
  6. That people you’ve just met will say, with great affection and frankness, “You are too fat (or skinny or short or dark-skinned).”
  7. That Heineken is the beer brand of choice for the Vietnamese communities in both Vietnam and the U.S.
  8. That politeness includes taking your shoes off at the door, offering tea with two hands, and waiting for the oldest adult to begin eating before you do.
  9. That families will reunite each year in recognition of the anniversary of their deceased grandparents, but will not celebrate birthdays.
  10. That you will honor your ancestors, and through them, your roots, by an offering of food and drinks. You will call them home on a waft of incense smoke, and it will taste both familiar and strange, and in this way, you will know you’re also coming home.

— Nhu Tien Lu

Nhu Tien Lu earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan, and an MA in Social Documentation from UC Santa Cruz. Born into the year of the roaming horse, she has lived in 3 countries and 6 states thus far, and has worked in the fields of domestic violence, racial justice, and human trafficking. She likes to call herself a writer and social justice activist, but doesn’t really believe it yet. She is inspired by those who keep their hearts in their mouths, by her truly activist and artistic colleagues, and by writers who write through the darkness.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! Share some of your own assumptions or discoveries about Vietnam.

Poor Richard’s Rise

Linh Dinh argues that it’s time for the United States to be a real democracy again and not a warmongering global superpower. He’s one of our most provocative Vietnamese diasporic writers, and diaCRITICS is not only about what happens in Viet Nam or in the Vietnamese diaspora. diaCRITICS is also about what Vietnamese and Vietnamese diasporic writers and artists think about their world.

[before we begin: have you heard about our subscriber drive? win an iPod and other prizes!]

Linh Dinh

July 4th, I wandered down to Independence Hall. There were soldiers in dress and battle uniforms, a high school marching band, many beefy bikers and a handful of svelte beauty queens, including Miss America, Teresa Scanlan. In front of the National Museum of American Jewish History, more than thirty Falun Dafa drummers, all female, performed a measured dance. Nearby, Sri Chinmoy followers sat under a portrait of their God stand-in, with these words emblazoned on their float:

America, America, America!
Great you are, good you are,
Brave you are, kind you are.
O my America, America,
Your Heaven-Freedom
Is earth’s aspiration-choice.
With you, in you
Is God-Hour’s Victory-Voice 

I saw a fake, many gunned Navy ship and, in front of the Library Company of Philadelphia, a real armored personnel carrier. Over a gorgeous transom, a marble Ben Franklin stood, draped in a toga, but no one gave this eminently sensible man a gander. Native or foreign, everyone was more interested in climbing inside the ass kicking killer transporter for a souvenir photo.

Armored Personnel Carrier

Seen often these days in civilian contexts, on streets, in ballparks and malls, soldiers and military hardware are there to remind us that we are in many wars at once, or, rather, we’re in one open-ended, bankrupting yet somehow necessary mother-of-all-wars, because the enemy is always near. That terrorist could be standing next to you, or maybe he’s you, buddy! That’s why the government must shove its hands into your hair and down your panties, brief or Depend adult diaper. Got a problem with that? Tough shit.

Half a block away, I ran into another Ben Franklin. Standing next to a faux Betsy Ross, this impersonator was being interviewed by a television crew. In an increasingly fake America, where even wood pulp has become an ingredient in pancakes, muffins, salad dressings and fish filets, it’s appropriate that an imposter should dish up mcnuggets of jive wisdom to an audience of post literates.

Ben Franklin being interviewed

What would the real Franklin make of our horrible mess? You can’t say he didn’t warn us. Poor Richard, “Buy what thou hast no need of, and ere long thou shalt sell thy necessaries.” Since over half of our tax revenues goes to service wars past and present, America is worse than broke. Unable to pay her bills or maintain basic infrastructures, she’s leasing her freeways and parking meters to foreigners.

She may even invite China to build a 50-square-mile “technology zone” in Idaho. As Lt. Gov. Brad Little explains, “Idaho’s the last state that should say we don’t want to do business with Asia. Asia’s where the money is.” According to the Idaho Statesman, this complex will be a “fully contained city with all services included,” and the Chinese are attracted by Idaho’s “low cost for doing business,” and “because of the lack of infrastructure here, which means it has more opportunity.” You read that right, an American state is now pitching itself as underdeveloped, cheap and ready for foreign capital and expertise. By selling us everything, including pre-infected, spy ready computers, China has so many of our depreciating dollars, it might as well buy itself a private Idaho. Of course, this will be spun as a great opportunity. As Indigent Dick already warned, “The second vice is lying, the first is running in debt.”

As I write this, Obama and the Republicans are still haggling over whether to tax our wealthiest just a tad more, or to starve and shortchange the rest of us even worse, but what’s not being discussed is America’s monstrous war budget, though this is the main cause of our national bankruptcy, actual and moral. Since endless war fattens our richest, America will continue to commit mass murders on a vast scale, even as she destroys herself in the process.

Americans are planning two mass protests in Washington DC against the military industrial complex. One, Seize DC, will start on September 11th, and the other, organized by, will start on October 6th, the anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan. Unlike all recent American protests, which tend to be no more than sign waving parades lasting but a few hours, weather permitting, these two protests are meant to go on until the authorities yield to their demands. As articulates, “We will NONVIOLENTLY resist the corporate machine by occupying Freedom Plaza until our resources are invested in human needs and environmental protection instead of war and exploitation.”

A precedent comes to mind. In 1932, destitute World War I veterans and their families descended on Washington to demand an early payment, roughly $1,000 per soldier, of a promised bonus. Estimated between 20,000 and 40,000 people, they lived in abandoned buildings, tents and shacks for nearly three months until routed by federal troops. Four marchers were killed and over 1,000 injured. Though these Americans had no radical aims, though they didn’t seek to change or even upset the system, their government responded to their pitiful plea with deadly violence. Four years later, however, the veterans’ demand was met after a similar protest.

A more radical protest was mounted the Poor People Campaign in 1968. According to Marion Wright Edelman, it was Robert Kennedy who had come up with the idea, “I had been working with Robert Kennedy on poverty in Mississippi, and he told me to tell Dr. King to bring the poor to Washington. To make them visible.” Though King organized it, he never saw it to fruition, for he was assassinated a month before Resurrection City was erected in early May on the Washington Mall. On June 5th, Robert Kennedy was also assassinated, then on June 24th, federal bulldozers wiped out this encampment of 5,000 people. Mission accomplished! Who says the United States is not decisive when it comes to dealing with “trouble makers”?

With an “economic bill of rights,” these protestors’ central demand was a $30-billion anti-poverty program. Like many Americans of today, they simply wanted less money for death, more for life, but of course, such a silly sentiment from a pack of nobodies could not be taken seriously by the Washington masters of wars.

Washington DC makes absolutely nothing yet eats up everything. With its career politicians, lawyers and lobbyists lurking in every corner, Washington DC has to be, by far, the biggest magnet for crooks, bullies, asskissers and shameless liars in the entire country. Wouldn’t it be perfect if Washington was granted not state but nationhood, so it could be independent from the rest of us? Imagine your life without Bush, Cheney, Rice, Obama, Pelosi and Clinton, etc, inside your wallet, head and pants, and on you back constantly! Elections would not be so pointless as they are now, for Americans could exile their very worst to that squarish lump of land inside the Beltway! Washington DC, where America purges.

Minus that fantasy, our future is indeed grim. Washington DC will likely ignore the upcoming protestors until they voluntarily disperse, but if enough Americans show up and stay to become an eyesore and a nuisance to business as usual, cops and soldiers will come to evict them, without any concessions made whatsoever, but what are these protestors’ demands, exactly? Would they be satisfied if Washington promised to withdraw all American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, or are they demanding more, much more? (I’m evoking the promise, not the actual withdrawal, which would take months.) And what does it mean to say that protestors will occupy Freedom Plaza “until our resources are invested in human needs and environmental protection instead of war and exploitation”? Would the pledge of such a shift be enough to disperse them, or will these protestors stay until actual laws—which, and how many, exactly?—are signed? Compared to the Poor People Campaign, the aims of these upcoming protests are not as clearly articulated, not yet anyway, but perhaps these will come into better focus, soon.

But asking the right questions is still much easier than getting any answers, even wrong ones. We will be reminded, yet again, that the moneyed interest won’t yield us an inch without a savage struggle. They have all the funds and guns. We have our disunity.

For a glimmer of hope, one can perhaps look to Thailand. After seeing their elected leader ousted and their political parties repeatedly banned, the red shirts staged protest after protest and suffered many casualties, nearly a hundred dead in 2010 alone. That year, at least 25,000 of them occupied Bangkok’s central shopping district for six weeks, until the Army came and blasted them away, but before fleeing, they exacted revenge by burning Asia’s biggest shopping center and the stock exchange. Persisting, these red shirts finally gained victory when their candidate, Yingluck Shinawatra, became elected as prime minister.

The red shirts became a force because they dared to disrupt the normalcy of a very corrupt and vicious system. Americans will undoubtedly have to do the same. The stakes and risks are already high.

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a just released novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! What do you think of Linh Dinh’s argument? What is your opinion of the State of the American Union?

Mugged then Shot: Linh Dinh on American Corruption

Linh Dinh doesn’t think the USA is the greatest country on Earth. Here he lays out a powerful critique of American corruption. He’s one of our most provocative Vietnamese diasporic writers, and diaCRITICS is not only about what happens in Viet Nam or in the Vietnamese diaspora. diaCRITICS is also about what Vietnamese and Vietnamese diasporic writers and artists think about their world, so we’re delighted to have a chance to repost his work here. 

[before we begin: have you heard about our subscriber drive? win an iPod and other prizes!]

Linh Dinh

“The United States has been a leader in the multinational effort to end bribery and corruption in international business practices.”
–Website of The U.S. State Department

If absolute power corrupts absolutely, why shouldn’t the United States be the most corrupt (and corrupting) country on earth? We’re number one! In America, each politician can be bought and absurd sums of money are routinely misallocated or missing altogether, with nary a peep from the complicit media. On the foreign front, America’s modus operandi is to bribe every dictator, and the ones she can’t bribe, she’ll undermine, overthrow or bomb back to Jesus. In exchange for this bribe, which can be disguised as loans or “foreign assistance,” said dictator will allow America to loot his country in perpetuity. If you don’t believe me, just strip any tinpot dictator and you’ll surely find “CIA” tattooed on one ass cheek, with a (pretty good) portrait of a recent U.S. president embossed on the other. Lovers always leave a mark, they often say. Sometimes it’s not a dictator, per se, but a dominant party that’s America’s hushed puppy. In any case, rapacious trade deals and unpayable loans are the bane of countless client states orbiting Washington.

Domestically, American corruption has been institutionalized as campaign contributions and lobbying, but that’s only the open, legal part. Perhaps these practices are allowed to trick us into thinking that American corruption only goes so far, but who really knows what goes on in the labyrinthine backrooms, basements and dungeons of Washington? In any case, us lumpen Americans are “represented” by millionaire politicians who are lint deep in the pockets of the fattest banks and corporations. The American politician is thoroughly corrupt, often from grassroots level, but the degree of venality and sanctimonious hypocrisy increase as he approaches Washington DC, that beautiful cesspool of martial madness.

No candidate who’s not heavily pro big business, overtly or covertly, can have any chance of being elected to national office. He won’t be funded, nor will he be seen on television. It’s not a democracy when all candidates are vetted beforehand, and only millionaires can be chosen by other millionaires and billionaires. In this setup, the average citizen doesn’t matter, as his vote or canvassing for a favorite are only charades designed to make him feel good and involved, as if his opinions and advocacy matter, but whatever he does, it won’t prevent the election of yet another tool who’s corrupt, pro war and pro big business, at the expense of all else. But don’t despair, all you earnest partisans, for even when your candidate does lose, the other guy, one who’s hardly different than your favorite man, wins! Those who voted for McCain, for example, got pretty much all of his policies through Obama, so it’s a win, win, lose, lose situation, see? Emblematic of this farce is the fact that American tax payers are even asked to contribute three bucks a year to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. Though stuffed with cash from Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan and Raytheon, etc., our candidates still panhandle from poor schmucks whom they will soon rip off anyway.

American politicians may differ on personal and ethical matters such as school prayer, gay marriage and abortion, but on all the major, lucrative issues affecting the military industrial complex or big business, they are remarkably uniform. Our senators and congressmen also behave like trained seals when it comes to Israel. Witness the 29 standing ovations a packed House gave Netanyahu recently. Whether Democrat or Republican, each was terrified to be caught sitting as his colleagues jumped up and barked.

Your rep sure knows who his daddy is, and it ain’t you, sucker! The primary job of the American politician, from Obama on down, is to spin and disguise an endless series of corporate and military crimes he’s enabling. Which brings us to the Pentagon. No other governmental organ is more gluttonously corrupt. The Pentagon’s main function is not defending America but to bleed this country dry to enrich Halliburton, Lockheed/Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman and the rest. Over and over again, the Pentagon has put hundreds of thousands of Americans in harm’s way, just so its masters can make a handsome profit. To feed these insatiable ogres, the Pentagon is willing to destroy American itself, and it is doing so, right now.

Beside bloody business as usual, billions of dollars often go missing from the Pentagon cash register without any explanation whatsoever, and in 2001, Donald Rumsfeld even admitted that $2.3 trillion had disappeared, which he blamed on sloppy accounting. So it’s not thievery or corruption, but merely inept arithmetic. Tamping down this scandal, the mainstream media seemed to agree.

But perhaps we do have a math problem. We are a people who clip 25 cent coupons, drive (an SUV) a mile to save a buck, register with subtle satisfaction the missing penny from a $19.99 price tag, yet these stolen trillions leave us unfazed. One reason for this, I think, is that American corruption is not experienced directly, face to face, as it is in many other countries. Most Americans have never been browbeaten and shaken down by a corrupt cop, clerk or judge, so we can pretend that corruption doesn’t hurt us. Washington has also been waging wars without raising taxes, so it’s no skin off my back, many Americans are thinking, but our bellicose policy overseas is certainly bankrupting the homeland, even as it increases our insecurity in future blowbacks. The constant hike in our money supply, devaluing our dollars, is also a form of hidden taxation.

Another reason for our passivity in the face of widespread corruption is the state of our media, which routinely hype trivial stories while suppressing much greater outrages. Thus, the money John Edwards spent on his mistress, a million dollars provided by two private donors, was discussed for a week by television and newspaper “pundits,” but no one is concerned about the $1.5 million of tax money wasted each time Washington fires a Tomahawk missile at Libya. How many thousands have been launched so far in this three-month war? No one knows, and no one seems to care about the real flesh and bones on the receiving end of those weapons. “Bad guys” deserve to die, and so do “collateral damages.” Even as they mug us, our masters speak to us as if we’re morons. As they gobble up the entire world and everyone’s future, we get to nibble on catch phrases and slogans

Like Pavlov’s dogs, Americans have been conditioned to salivate at the sound of a home run, a Lady Gaga’s burp and the promise of hope and change comes election time, but when that fat, familiar hand reaches into our wallet, yet again, we feel nothing. We’re cool and blasé until it’s our turn to receive the pink slip, be evicted, then having to curl up in our car or on cardboard.

Interviewed by Stud Terkels, retired congressman C. Wright Patman said in 1970, “A dictatorship could spring up here over night, if this country got so bad. If another Depression came, we’d have a revolution. People wouldn’t take it any more. They have more knowledge. The big ones, they’d be looking for somebody that’d have the power to just kill people, if they didn’t agree. When John Doe begins to get up, they’d just go down and shoot him.”

I’m not sure that we have more knowledge, but with a presidency that can wage wars without congress or popular approval, and that can imprison or kill any American citizen without due process, a dictatorship is certainly here. Ditto, that Depression.

In a productive economy, corruption is less glaring because there are so many legitimate ways to enrich oneself, but in an increasingly non-productive one, such as what we have now, corruption becomes the primary means to riches. As we starve and kill each other, the mega corporations and their servants, our politicians, will continue to fatten themselves through their access to power.

In a ghetto with no stores, only drug corners, any bling-bling dude steering a loud Hummer is viewed suspiciously (or with admiration), so in this nation of fewer and fewer factories, save those that make bombs, tanks and high-grade weapons, who are our biggest death pushers and pimps, and what should we do about them?

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a just released novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! What do you think of Linh Dinh’s argument? What is your opinion of the State of the American Union?

Reading the American War: Tatjana Soli’s The Lotus Eaters

To experience history through the lens of combat photographers. Tatjana Soli’s novel The Lotus Eaters explores the trials of being a war photographer during the American-Vietnamese war. Here, guest author and critic Chris Galvin gives us her take on The Lotus Eaters.

[before we begin: have you heard about our subscriber drive? win an iPod and other prizes!]

On the surface, The Lotus Eaters is a war story and a love story. On a deeper level, the book delves into the ethics of journalism, the psychology of why people would want to photograph, write or fight in a war zone, the psychology of crisis, and issues of culture.  Though it is a fictional tale, Soli weaves in so many historical places and events that the novel is realistic and believable.

The central characters are three photojournalists; Helen and Sam (Americans), and Linh (Vietnamese), who work together, covering the conflict in Viet Nam. The book opens with the fall of Sai Gon, then takes us back to twelve years before, progressing until it takes up the thread where the beginning left off.

The title comes from the characters in Homer’s The Odyssey who travel to a far place, eat the fruit of the lotus and lose all desire to do anything but remain and dine on “the honeyed fruit”. The themes of forgetting one’s homeland, of becoming hooked on place, and of love and war as addictive drugs are touched on frequently throughout the novel. Characters each have their preferred fruit of seduction. For some, it is the war itself: “The war doesn’t ever have to end for us.”

Through characters who want to make a difference before they can consider going home, Soli examines the fine line between philanthropy and feeding the ego, and the difficulty of returning to safety and everyday life after living the horrors of war. She looks at problems of choosing between what one wants to do and what one should do; quitting for the good and safety of self and others vs. staying on for what could be the big career break; getting out before it’s too late vs. staying to see the end, pushing it to the limit, and risking everything.

As in real life, some characters become addicted to the fear and adrenaline, the challenge of going out on missions, getting the best photo or story and then one-upping themselves by getting an even better one. They each need to be the first one there on a scene and it’s never enough. Fulfillment comes only briefly when they’ve stared down death and come out alive. The country, the war and this need become synonymous for them. But for a few, the lure of Viet Nam goes much deeper. For Helen, “leaving was like dying”.

Linh is the other side of the coin, his main desire being to get away from the war. However, while the Americans have the option of going home to peace, he cannot escape; the war is in his country.  Linh too, has his lotus, but it is not so immediately obvious as those of the others.

Associated Press photographer Nick Ut looks at his iconic Vietnam war photo. Image Courtesy of the Associated Press.

“…what I came to find

Soli’s characters, like the real foreign soldiers and journalists who went to Viet Nam, have various reasons for being there. Some want to be heroes. Others are just doing a job, or don’t want to be there at all. Helen has layers of interconnected reasons. She arrives hoping to discover the truth about what happened to her brother, who had gone earlier. As a woman in what is considered a man’s place, she also has something to prove, both to herself and to others.  Very few women photographers went into battle zones, and weren’t welcome until they had proven their mettle. (It is interesting that the U.S. view of the war was decidedly macho, with the women who saw active duty mostly serving on the sidelines, while the VC they were fighting against had no trouble with the idea of women carrying heavy guns and slogging through the jungle.)

Some foreign correspondents were there hoping to make a difference, to portray the truth and help to stop the war, while others just dreamt of winning a Pulitzer.  Soli’s photographers represent both types. They risk their lives to be the first at scenes of mortal combat, some to get exclusive photos which might make the cover of Time or Life, others to capture the photo that will change the way people understand war.

Helen is looking for something more.  She is on a constant quest to see beyond the surface of the war and the people involved. She wants to know what drives the soldiers, and looks for those rare people who go deeper, who want to understand the local people and the land, who discover the “secret of place”. In seeking to find herself, she also becomes one of these people, a change from her initial view when she first arrives, of Viet Nam as merely a third-world, war-torn place for an adventure.

Catherine Leroy spent 3 years in Viet Nam as a combat photographer. Image Courtesy of

The ethics of the job

In the first chapter, Helen bats away a woman’s hand in order to get a picture of another who has just died, telling herself she’s earned the right to take the photo. It is here that Soli first introduces the moral problems of being a war photographer.

Soli compares them to vultures, swooping down when there is a kill. They revel in the perfect photo, “an incredible shot…a real tear jerker” then feel ashamed of what they’ve done. They must become jaded, unfeeling in order to get up close in the face of death. But is it possible to become so callous? What happens to those who do? Soli also questions the power a photograph has to enlighten and to create outrage against war. Does constant exposure to horrific images stimulate change or does it just deaden the impact? Is there any redemptive aspect to the capturing of such images?

Truth and lies

The issue of ethics is closely tied in with the question of truth in journalism. Part of the story of war is the belief that photos don’t lie. The author points out that they can and do:  the photographer chooses the subject, the angle, the lighting, and what’s in the frame to express a specific point of view, and to influence the impressions of those who will see the photos.  Photos of innocent villagers shot by scared Americans can appear to be photos of dangerous hostile forces. “Hard facts were difficult to come by.”

During the war in Viet Nam, the lies stretched all the way from the top down. One of the biggest ongoing lies, perpetrated by those in command, was that the US was about to win, even after it was obvious to everyone that it was futile. (Reporters who dared to tell the truth were criticized by the American administration and President Kennedy asked The New York Times to remove David Halberstam from Sai Gon for his truthful but negative reports. Furthermore, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, used to give a legal basis for the war, was built on a lie.)

In the first chapter Soli works in the fact that the Vietnamese who were permitted to leave during the last flights out after the fall of Sai Gon were classified as “dependents of the Americans” and points out that in fact the Americans had been dependent on them in order to survive; all part of the lies of the era. This theme of lies is threaded throughout the book. There are lies to conceal intentions, lies to protect identity, big lies and small lies. Sam and Helen continually pretend to each other and indeed it is necessary, just for them all to make it through.  Sometimes, people know something is a lie, but they want so hard to believe that they ignore the truth.

Cultural issues

Even though the Americans and the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Viet Nam) were supposedly fighting on the same side, they were really two solitudes. Neither understood the other. They didn’t mix for the most part.  Many of the Americans viewed all Vietnamese suspiciously as the “other side”. Soli’s Vietnamese photojournalist, Linh, though he is working with Americans, always moves among them under a shadow of otherness.

Through Linh, Soli illustrates the difficulty of communication between people who don’t understand each others’ ways of thinking. To learn to truly understand a culture one has to see how it is rooted in the history and geography of a people and their land.

Linh sees the other photojournalists from both an insider’s perspective (as a war journalist), and the perspective of an insider looking at outsiders (a local watching the foreigners), which gives him a clarity the others don’t have: “Day after day, I go out with photographers who are tourists of the war.”

Towards the end of the book, one of the journalists muses that “the whole country remained a cipher”. Most of Soli’s Americans never get to know the people or the country. Those who mix in with local people, eat local food, “go native”, are viewed as weird by the majority, who are there only to do a job, or to be heroes for their own country. “Vietnam was nothing more or less than what they purchased during R&R in the bars and the streets of Saigon and Danang.”

American combat photographer Dana Stone was captured by the Viet Cong in 1970; his remains were never found. Photo Courtesy of

A recommendation and a few quibbles

At first, I found myself distracted by a number of errors in the writing, including problems of style and grammar, and some misspelt Vietnamese words. However, Soli has done such a good job of researching, imagining and writing the story that these mostly receded into the background.

The book is written from multiple points of view. In chapter one, the author suddenly jumps to the thoughts of a different character several times, sometimes in the middle of a paragraph. In some cases it takes a few lines before the reader realizes that the author has made this switch. For the most part, the changes in the rest of the book are well handled with new paragraphs or chapters to mark them. Having Linh’s point of view in the story is refreshing, and Soli has written him as a very believable and well-developed character with a complex background, offering a view of the war from a local perspective.

This is a minor quibble, but a glossary might have been nice for the military terms. The book isn’t heavy on them, but still, I found myself flipping back to the beginning, looking for the first mention of LRRP, because when I came across it again two thirds into the book, I’d forgotten that the acronym stands for long range reconnaissance patrol. Some readers might be curious to know that LZ stands for landing zone, or exactly what a Claymore is (and if Soli had researched the definition, she would have known that they are never detonated by the pressure of a footstep, but remotely or with a trip wire).

Overall, I highly recommend this book.  It is accessible for readers who don’t normally care to read war stories, and includes perspectives not usually found together in the literature of the American- Viet Nam war. Soli’s attention to detail gives the story an intense realism. The huge amount of research that went into the novel is evident in these details and in the comprehensive bibliography. She also includes a shorter list of good suggestions for further reading. It would have been nice to see a few more works by Vietnamese authors on the list, especially since one of the three main characters is Vietnamese. There are over forty books included in her bibliography and recommendations, out of which five are by Vietnamese authors. This lack can’t be blamed on a paucity of such works in English, as there are many translations available.

Book Review by Chris Galvin

The Lotus Eaters

Tatjana Soli

Dec 21 2010

Paperback: 416 pages

Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin

ISBN: 978-0-312-67444-1

Chris Galvin divides her time between Canada and Vietnam. Her photos and literary non-fiction have appeared in Room Magazine, Khám phá Du lịch Việt Nam / Vietnam Tourism Review and Dac San Van Lang Boston. Her work is also pending publication in SPLIT Quarterly, Spezzatino, and an anthology, The City We Share. She is currently writing a book of essays about life in Viet Nam.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! How do you feel about war photography being dominated by the Western gaze? Have you read the book? What are your thoughts on  Soli’s narrative through the eyes of combat photographers?

Andrew Lam reads at the Asian American Theater Company

Andrew Lam doesn’t need much of an introduction around here.  His two books, Perfumed Dreams and East Eats West, are widely read and praised.  Here we get to experience not only Andrew reading from his book but even a few seconds of him singing a familiar and very American tune.

[Before we begin: have you heard about our subscriber drive? win an iPod and other prizes!]

This reading took place at the Asian American Theater Company in San Francisco in October 2010.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! What was different about hearing Andrew read from his book?  What did you think of his singing?  Do you and your family karaoke?

The Long Bien Picture Show // Buổi Chiếu Bóng Long Biên

Long Biên is a district in the city of Hà Nội that is home to about 170,000 inhabitants.  For the last year, it has also been under intense scrutiny from a group of photographers and filmmakers who tried to capture the district’s everyday (and night) rhythm of life and now their experience is on display. Welcome to Long Biên!

[before we begin: have you heard about our subscriber drive? win an iPod and other prizes!]

Introduction by Jamie Maxtone-Graham

In 2010 the city of Hanoi observed the anniversary of its founding in the year 1010. A thousand years later, the twelve months of official celebrations, exhibitions, and public entertainments reflected nothing if not unity of message: Hanoi is arrived as a modern, urban Asian capitol. After many decades of political and economic isolation, this was an important message to project even if it only reverberated internally; it is unlikely that the anniversary was noticed much beyond the borders of Vietnam or even the city limits. Hanoi is a far different city than it was both in 1010 and even as recently as a decade ago – and it’s a far more complex urban environment than the state-approved observances would ever indicate.

Distinct from all this, in July 2010 the British Council in Hanoi funded my proposal to commission several photographers and filmmakers to make a loosely structured visual document of the Long Bien neighborhood, an area I have photographed in often during the last several years. Long Bien is the kind of community every large or small city has – marginalized, poor, and filled with people who have either always been there or have nowhere else to go. It’s at the edge of the Red River and is bisected by the French-built Long Bien Bridge, heavily damaged by American jets decades ago. For many who live in Long Bien, the year of celebratory concerts, the new lights around the city, the infrastructure improvements – these things happened somewhere else in the city. Not in Long Bien. Whose thousand, then?

I called the culminating four-month long project – in the form of four portfolios of photographs and four short films – The Long Bien Picture Show // Buổi Chiếu Bóng Long Biên. I set out to produce something simple and open ended. With no question to answer or theme to impose, I chose three other photographers besides myself whose past work I admired and whose commitment to making their own work meshed with my own. This was the central conceit of the project – each photographer (and filmmaker) would simply make the work they wanted, respond to the idea and the area in the way they wanted, with the thought being that the confusion of perspectives might better reflect the place. The place simply is and the people are simply there; it is enough to set out to show this without trying to create meaning. Whose Long Bien anyway?

Boris Zuliani is a French commercial and fashion photographer who has lived in Hanoi as long as I have – since 2007 – and makes a great deal of his personal work on Polaroid film. I met Khanh Xiu Tran, a young Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) woman in late 2009 shortly after she moved to Hanoi and, after seeing her quiet and devastating images of the unrest in Bangkok in early 2010, I knew I wanted to involve her. Barnaby Churchill Steel made a remarkable series of panoramas in Hanoi for a separate British Council project in 2008 and it took little to convince him to return to Vietnam to make more. The four filmmakers (whose incredible contribution to the project cannot be spoken of enough) were Trần Thị Ánh Phượng, Phạm Thu Hằng, Đỗ Văn Hoàng and Trần Thanh Hiên, all young Vietnamese from Hanoi DocLab – a documentary and experimental film center.

Two further ideas were at play – the first was to show the work in a popular context. The notion of producing a ‘picture show’ – with all the relevance of a Saturday matinee – appealed to me as a context for exhibition. And then too, at one time in Vietnam, there were ‘buổi chiếu bóng’ – literally, projected shadow session; mobile film units would travel to rural towns and villages where no cinema existed and project films outdoors. These two ideas sat well with my interest in not initially exhibiting the finished works in a gallery context, in a stark white box, as seemed customary, expected even. Instead, all of the portfolios and films were shown in a public, outdoor projected exhibition on five large screens made of sheets of cheap graphics plastic, in the heart of the Long Bien neighborhood in a single, Saturday evening show in December, 2010.

(Click on thumbnails for the full-sized version.)

Khanh Xiu Tran



The first image of the top of a man’s head was originally censored from the public exhibition of Xiu’s portfolio. By law, all work shown publicly within Vietnam must first be vetted by government censors, and we were informed that this and two other similarly framed images of Xiu’s couldn’t be shown because “they would make Vietnamese people feel uncomfortable” in the way the incomplete human figure was portrayed. After an appeal, all her images were eventually permitted to be shown.

Xiu’s parents are originally from Hue in central Vietnam and she grew up in Minnesota. She was living in Long Bien while she worked on this project.

Of this series Xiu wrote: I am interested in photography as a medium for this kind of self-expression where years of collected moments could form a whole and make a quiet statement without ever using words. I used to say that the content of my work was random. It was interesting, then, to see the pattern that formed in what I chose to photograph. I saw that the photos reflected my relationship with the neighborhood, and feelings about being isolated in my parents’ native land.

Do Van Hoang

The quiet island in the middle of the Red River is a place where swimmer’s bodies are cooled in the waters rushing by and lives mingle in unexpected ways. A community of men finds a natural place away from the city’s pressures to swim and exercise in the nude, a young couple celebrate an anniversary in a unique way and a woman seeks redemption through the filmmaker’s lens. In Vietnamese with English subtitles.

Jamie Maxtone-Graham



I have been making portraits at night in the streets of Long Bien for over a year. When I began, I was interested in making work that required creating some kind of relationship and collaboration to produce an image. As a westerner living in a very homogeneous Asian society, I am very distinct and very noticed wherever I am. As a photographer here, there is only the illusion and rarely the actual possibility of being an invisible observer. In making these portraits I’ve endeavored to work noticed.

Given my background as a cinematographer, it seemed natural to bring in lighting as an element in this work – a studio in the streets. I also had in mind to embrace a middle distance with the camera while at the same time looking for some small nuance of the person, the place and the time within the frame.

Tran Thi Anh Phuong

In the streets beneath the Long Bien train station, in one small intersection, four people labor in small sidewalk businesses to make a daily living. Some leave at sundown, others arrive in the evening to take the vacated patch of sidewalk and set up shop. Each shares a small history both unique and too familiar. And through it all, the trains arrive and the trains leave. In Vietnamese with English subtitles.

Barnaby Churchill Steel



With a technical background in high-end animation and digital visual effects, Barney wouldn’t seem like an obvious choice for a social documentary project. Even so, his technically brilliant and aesthetically remarkable panoramas belie their simple appearance. Each long image is constructed of dozens of individual photographs which are seamlessly stitched together. The resulting photographs are endlessly unfolding dramas of the ordinary which are both wide and deep.

Time is also an essential, though less obvious element of these wide slices of space. Each of the individual frames of the completed final image was photographed numerous times; selected elements were then combined with other selected, final elements to create a clarified whole from a confusing assortment of possible choices. Clues to his process are visible to the careful observer when, at times, a person will appear more than once within the same photograph.

Tran Thanh Hien

Eyes open, I listen to stories told by the people living beneath the bridge.
Eyes open, I look for the shadows rushing across the bridge into the city.
Eyes closed, I try to remember them.

Hien’s short experimental film is vigorously observational – both pushing the viewer to reconsider the everyday and pulling us into the unfamiliar.

Boris Zuliani



The death of Polaroid as a format has been foretold often. But it persists. Boris makes nearly all of his personal photography with any Polaroid film he can obtain. For this series he made light paintings using outdated Polaroid film. With an unpredictably shifted color spectrum, his images seem at once slyly commercial and instantly antique.

Boris photographed young couples who regularly gather at night by the dozens, sometimes hundreds, on the Long Bien Bridge where the air is cooler in the summer. With exposure times of typically one minute, the people in Boris’s photographs had to hold completely motionless as he stepped into the frame with a Xenon flashlight to place the light precisely where he chose. The original, one-of-a-kind Polaroids are scanned and exhibited with the border intact.

Pham Thu Hang

Minh is a bridge guard stationed on the Hanoi side of the Long Bien Bridge. His official responsibility ends halfway across the river at section number 8. But his personal responsibility extends beyond to the lives he and the filmmaker encounter next to the tracks, the people who come to get away or because there’s nowhere else to go.

–The Long Bien Show is curated by Jamie Maxtone-Graham, on display at Trans Asia Photography Review and published by Hampshire College.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! Have you ever been to Long Biên? Do you know anyone there? What are your thoughts on the lives of its residents?