Category Archives: Travel

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!

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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.

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A Thousand Pictures Tells One (Epic) Story: An Interview with GB Tran


How to write with pictures and draw with words: GB Tran accomplishes this in his graphic novel, VIETNAMERICA: A Family’s Journey. Last month, diaCRITICS featured a review of the graphic novel. Here, Ky-Phong sits down with GB Tran for an intimate conversation on the process and the creation of his (epic) story.

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Where did your idea to create VIETNAMERICA first come from?

Since visiting Vietnam for the first time in 2001, I knew I wanted to intimately explore my family’s history and how they got from there to here.  But that illuminating trip “back” also occurred when I just moved to Brooklyn from Arizona so the project got put on the back burner as I tried to find my footing in a strange new world. With the exception of a 2004 short comic based on my Mom’s memories of leaving Vietnam, it wasn’t until 2006 that I was able to return to the material and start seriously thinking what I could do with it.

Two of the most interesting themes of the book are self-discovery and reclaiming history.  What spurred you to want to discover your Vietnamese background?   There seemed to be a period in your youth where you were disinterested in your family’s history.   Was that because of teen apathy, a desire to “just be American,” or a lack of your family “talking stories” because maybe those stories were too painful to talk about?  Or maybe a combination of the above?

Definitely a combination of all the above.  On one hand, I repeatedly turned down my parents’ earlier offers to go visit Vietnam before 2001, and on the other hand, they never talked about their past.  It’s one thing to tell your kid they should fly to the other side of the world to meet their family, but another thing when you never talk about this family to your kid in the first place.  It was important that I included my phase of disinterest in the book because it helped ground it more in reality.  I think any adult that denies they ever went through a period in their youth where they couldn’t care less about their family’s roots is lying through their teeth, so it was my attempt to make my journey more relatable to the reader.

How would you describe the visual style of this book?  There seems to be a very conscious effort to elevate this book from a comic book to art and literature.  You use a lot of figurative and experimental single page or double page panels.  What motivated that artistic direction?

As with every comic I do, I just try to tell stories that use the medium’s strengths.  For VIETNAMERICA, I really tried to maintain a balance between the varying visuals and story, hopefully not sacrificing the latter for the former.

After moving past that, actually illustrating it was pretty straightforward.  I think my art leans towards detail and rendering versus a looser, more expressionistic line, so that created an emotional fence that prevented me from getting too wrapped up in what was happening in the scene I was drawing.

I must say one of the biggest challenges wasn’t art-related at all:  it was dealing with the fear of all the potential criticism.  The Vietnam War affected millions of people in countless polarizing ways and to explore it in my own voice opens me to the criticisms of others who have as much, if not more, to say and invested in it than I could ever have.  Are historians going to poo-poo it because I didn’t draw things perfectly accurate?  Are Vietnamese ex-pats going to condemn my portrayal of the war?  Are anti-war protesters going to object to this?  Are veterans going to hate that?  I came to the conclusion it was silly of me to worry about reaction from such a wide range of people, and if any of these people actually read it in the first place then that would be an accomplishment in itself.

GB Tran, VIETNAMERICA

From VIETNAMERICA. Image Courtesy of GB Tran.

When did your family first come to the United States?  Where did you first arrive and where did you grow up?

My parents and siblings migrated to the US in April 1975, and they were the last wave of our family that fled Vietnam.  They landed in Camp Pendleton for a few months, and then found sponsorship in South Carolina, where I was born and raised until 14, after which we relocated to Arizona.

Who makes up your family and where are they now?

My parents are in Arizona; my eldest sister is in Brooklyn just a few blocks away from me, my brother’s in Florida, and my other sister is in Texas.  If you include the next ring of relatives–uncles, aunts, and cousins–that spans anywhere from California to Toronto, Switzerland to Vietnam.

This book is a graphic novel that you wrote and illustrated.  What are the advantages to telling this story—about war, refugees, loss, memory, family, self-discovery—in the graphic novel medium?

I really enjoy a comic’s ability to suspend stories in time.  I think this allows for a unique experience specific to each reader depending on what they were paying attention to, how quickly/slowly they were reading it, and how they processed the constant interplay of words and images.  I don’t think it necessarily has an advantage over exploring these themes in other forms like film or prose, but does make for an audience experience that, when at it’s best, can’t be duplicated in other mediums.

We talked about the disjointed nature of the book and how that is supposed to mirror the experience your family went through and also how you learned this history.  Can you please explain how you wanted to balance the visual and literary storytelling and how it favored the visual and thus the finished product?

Well, the goal was that both would reinforce the other.  That is, the more visual storytelling would liven up the literal stuff, and the literal storytelling would ground the visual stuff.  I tried not to make it a graphic essay with facts and details crammed into every panel and page, nor an experimental pictorial narrative that meandered with no dramatic story arc.  As much as a comic is driven by its interplay of words and images, I think VIETNAMERICA’s storytelling is driven by the interplay of literal and imaginative visuals.

From VIETNAMERICA. Image Courtesy of GB Tran.

What were some challenges that came in the process of making VIETNAMERICA?  Was it hard talking to so many people and then consolidating all that information into one story?  What were the hardest parts to illustrate?

As I sifted through all the stories and details gathered from my family, the advice of “Tell the smallest story possible” kept running through my mind.  Once I decided on what the story’s climax would be, it made the rest fall into place organically, and the editing process pretty easy.

I had to accept that no matter how hard I tried, it wouldn’t be complete. Trying to piece together a single history from family and friends is a very inexact science.  When half the people involved in those stories are already dead, and the other living half each have their own different version of the same experience, getting things “right” is impossible.  Despite all the potential problems that may arise after committing the story to paper, it was the best I could do given the information and resources I had to do it.

How long did it take you to complete the book?

That depends on what you consider what “working” on the book would be.  I can say that after collecting all the interviews and research, it took a year to develop the proposal, and then 2.5 years to illustrate once it found a publisher.

How many people did you interview?  What were some things that you learned in those interviews that surprised you?

I have on tape about six or seven people; then there are random notes and stories scribbled down through the years from more relatives as they caught my ear and family revelations would spring up in the most unexpected situations:  fixing the stereo with my uncle, having dinner with a cousin, etc.  I never knew what would trigger their stroll down memory lane, so I just tried to document it all with whatever means were available at that moment.  Considering how clueless I was, it was really all a surprise–each random anecdote leading to an even more jaw-dropping puzzle piece to my family’s history.

How did you get VIETNAMERICA published?

While it was still on the back burner and I was freelancing in commercial art, a friend showed my work to a literary agent.  Over coffee and tea, the agent asked if I could only tell one more story before I died, what would it be?   My answer was my family’s story of how they got through the Vietnam War and wound up in the US.  He said whenever I was ready to find a publisher, give him a call.  A year later I gave him a proposal and a title on a Friday, and on Monday he had an offer from Villard.

What was the editorial process like?  Did you have a lot of freedom or was there a more hands on approach by the editor/s?

I hope that my methodic work process lends itself to an easy and smooth editorial process.  I roughed out the entire book so my editor could provide feedback before starting the art.  Then I showed her the entire book again after it was inked (but before colors) for another round of edits.  I feel this minimized how much “back tracking” I had to do, which in turn made me very receptive to her suggestions and fixes.  Of course, you’d have to ask her for the other side of that coin–for all I know, I could’ve been the biggest pain-in-the-ass she’s ever had the misfortune of editing.  She still answers my emails, though, so that’s a good sign!

From VIETNAMERICA. Image Courtesy of GB Tran.

What was your first reaction to seeing the first printed editions of the book?  More importantly, what was your family’s first reaction when they saw the book?

Honestly, it was very anti-climatic.  My wife and I were both home when that first copy arrived and she was bouncing off the walls, but I felt very detached.  I had poured so much blood, sweat, and tears into making that book that all the thoughts of what I would’ve fixed or done differently given more time were still swirling in my head.

So far, my parents are the only ones to have received a copy of the finished book, and I think they’re proud in their own way:  my Mom’s telling her friends to pre-order it, and my Dad grunts approvingly.

How did you first become interested in drawing and comics?  When did you know you wanted to illustrate/draw for a living?

I’ve drawn for as long as I can remember, and that probably grew into doing comics when my brother let me read his UNCANNY X-MEN and TRANSFORMERS.  (Their influence seen in this early series I made at the seasoned age of 10.)   As far as when I knew I wanted to do it for a living, that didn’t occur until I graduated college with a BFA and was like, “What the hell do I do now?!”

What is your educational background? Did you study art in school?

I feel like I came late to the game–I didn’t start taking art classes until college.  Even then, I spent the first three years majoring in astrophysics so only could fit one art class per semester… and that was dependent on if I freed up enough room in my course load by taking summer school ever year to get rid of all my gen ed requirements.  When I switched to pursuing a BFA, the program was filled with courses that–at the time–I considered a distraction from what I really wanted to concentrate on which was illustration and comics.  Courses like 3D design, sculpture, typography, graphic design, etc.  On hindsight, I really value those diverse classes in rounding out my art education.  As far as my comics education, it really didn’t began until after I graduated and moved to NYC.

What was your parents’ reaction to your decision to study art and be a professional artist?

Well, their initial reaction is in VIETNAMERICA so I don’t want to spoil it–needless to say, they weren’t receptive.  Back then, I didn’t understand why not, but now after learning more about my father’s past I see why he in particularly was so adamant against it.  They still wonder how the heck I’m able to make a living, but have come to grips with their son scraping by as a deadbeat artist.

What is some advice you would give to a young person out there who wanted to pursue a career in art/illustration/comics?

Well, I’m still trying to find my way so please take whatever I say with a grain of salt.  I don’t remember who said this, but it’s stuck with me for a while:  “Learn from everyone and follow no one.”  More specific to making comics: finish as many stories as possible.  It’s easy to start a comic, but until you actually see it through and finish one, it’s not gonna matter how many bajillion amazing ideas you have.

What do you hope for VIETNAMERICA?  How would you like it affect the reader?

My biggest hope/goal with VIETNAMERICA was to preserve my family’s history, the story of how they got from A to Z, before those details and memories were lost in time.  In that sense, I feel I’ve accomplished that.

As for how it affects the reader, I’d just be happy with it affecting the reader at all in the first place.  Going back to what I said earlier about comics being a unique experience specific to each reader also means I have little say in how they’ll respond.  Just the mere fact that someone invested their time and energy in reading and absorbing my family’s journey is appreciated!

What are five must-read graphic novels?

At this moment in time, I’m gonna go with:

Otomo’s AKIRA

Bechdel’s FUN HOME

Moebius’ 40 DAYS IN THE DESERT

Smith’s BONE

Ellsworth’s CAPACITY

Ky-Phong Tran is a writer based in Long Beach, California.  He holds an MA in Asian American Studies from UCLA and an MFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside.   He has been awarded a New America Media award and scholarships to writing conferences at Bread Loaf, Squaw Valley, Napa Valley, and Voices of Our Nation.   His short story “A Thing Called Exodus” was a finalist in the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Short Story Contest and published in Hyphen Magazine.  His writing has also appeared in the Orange County Register, the OC Weekly, the District Weekly, and the Nguoi Viet Daily News.  For more info, visit www.frequentwind.com.

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Dark Tourism to Pulau Galang


Many will be familiar with the name Pulau Galang, a tiny Indonesian island just south of Singapore that housed an Indochinese refugee camp between 1975 and 1996. The island is in my thoughts because I just finished working on a book chapter, co-authored with Boitran Huynh-Beattie, on the evolution of the forgotten camp into an “accidental museum” of the Indochinese boat people crisis. While the traces of the camps in Malaysia, Hong Kong and elsewhere have virtually disappeared, Pulau Galang is unique in that it has been preserved more or less in the state in which it was left after the last of the 145 000 refugees to pass through there had departed.

For former refugees, especially those who left family members in the disturbingly large cemetery there, or who lost them at sea on the way to landfall in Indonesia, Pulau Galang has become a kind of pilgrimage site. A trickle of curious visitors, mostly coming from Singapore, also passes through the island, which receives about 1200 guests per month. The local business association, including some former camp officials, were quick to grasp the opportunity to encourage refugee visitors and other tourists to come to the island. They represent a rare source of income in this economically stagnant, forgotten corner of the Riau archipelago. Former camp staff have turned the old administration centre into a somewhat weird and wonderful museum of camp life, and have made other small attempts to “script” it as a tourist site, such as pulling rotting boats up into a formation below the old camp centre, and erecting English signs.

Hanoi has reacted in a rather excessive way to the coming into being of this humble museum. The Vietnamese government asked Jakarta to tear down a monument commemorating the “thousands who perished on the way to freedom” which had been erected in 2005 by a group of refugee visitors led by Sydney newspaper editor Luu Dan. Jakarta complied, and local authorities knocked out the inscription, leaving behind the startling image of a centreless monument. More recently, Hanoi has asked that the camp be closed down entirely, and suggested that it be turned into a resort!

I  visited the island in 2002 when I was living in Singapore. It was an eerie and surreal experience. Walking through the old hospital, I saw one room with beds piled on top of one another to the ceiling. In another, thousands of yellowing medical files sat in teetering piles on the floor. The old protestant church was in ruins, while the Mahayana Buddhist temple and the Catholic church had been beautifully restored. Many of the former barracks were rotting away into the jungle, and Vietnamese signs for hairdressers and cafes were still legible. The cemetery was perhaps the most memorable part of the experience. The “naive” or unprofessional artwork adorning the headstones was powerful and pathetic at the same time. What really reduced me to tears was reading a misspelled inscription to a lost family member roughly scratched by a childish hand into the drying cement.

One of the key questions posed in our paper was around the semiotics and ethics of transforming Pulau Galang into a venue for what is called in the literature “Dark Tourism”, i.e. tourism to sites of death and suffering. All of the refugees we interviewed who had visited Pulau Galang were positive about the way the heritage value of the former camp had been recognised and preserved by the local administrators. They were also positive about the idea of non-refugees being educated in the history of the Vietnamese boat people by the experience of visiting the island. Some did hint however that they felt there was a contradiction between the bullying and exploitation they suffered at the hands of Indonesian officials at the time, and the totally different local attitude (in some cases in the minds of those selfsame bullies) about the value of the former camp as a heritage site today.

For my part, I am concerned at the sensationalisation of aspects of the camp’s history that I feel has gone on in the process of marketing it for dark tourists. Chinese Singaporean and Malaysian visitors, for instance, are treated by tour guides to a gory narrative about the deaths and suicides that occurred on the island. The place has gained something of a reputation for being haunted, and some go there expressly to seek information on winning lottery numbers from the spirits! Others go to the Quan Am temple to pray for boy children.

The “museum” created by the local amateur curators is also, for me, quite chilling in the way it invokes the nightmarish bureaucratic logic of camp life. The display of photographs of former internees and their identification tags shocks more than informs, and at first glance it is troublingly reminiscent of the display in Cambodia’s Tuol Sleng death camp (another example of a dark tourist site that is routinely misinterpreted by visitors because of the strategic way it has been curated). I had to pinch myself to remember that the vast majority of those in the tiny identification photographs on the walls of the old admin centre on Pulau Galang had in fact been happily resettled.

Perhaps most disturbing of all is the way the meaning of the site’s history risks being diluted in the way it is presented to casual or “non purposeful” dark tourists. The Batam business association, who run the site, seeking to placate Hanoi, have proposed removing “Vietnamese” from the signs announcing Pulau Galang as a “Vietnamese Refugee Camp”. The prospect arises here of the island losing its historical meaning, and being presented to visitors merely as a generic site of human suffering, trauma and death.

While it seems hard to imagine the island completely losing its assocation with the war and subsequent events in Vietnam, the fact that the marketing of the site is taking this direction is far from ideal. One suggested antidote would be to negotiate with local Indonesian officials for former camp internees and their children, especially those with some experience in museology, to have more of a formal role in the curating of the site.

Ashley Carruthers

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diaCRITICIZE: One good motherland (re)turn deserves another


Fear of ambivalence, Tây Ninh, 2001

As I typed “This is the second editor’s note for diaCRITICS, which we’ve decided to call diaCRITICIZE: The Stuff Vietnamese People Like,” I began to have some heart palpitations, within a sense of ambivalence. What if I am not “Vietnamese” enough to be talking about Stuff Vietnamese People Like? Or to be talking about whatever other title I might use? And would you care if I am not Vietnamese enough? Should I? And here my mixed race war baby authenticity fear guilt begins to swell like a pufferfish, and I wonder how to convince you that I should be here, writing anything at all. Do you need to see some papers? How about some photos? Archival? Family? Can you give me a sec? And before you run off, know that this trepidation isn’t entirely about you. This actually goes back, way back, to sixth grade, when I was stuck in an Oklahoma suburb in the mid-1980s and overheard the name of a Vietnamese kid in my music class.

If you were surrounded by Vietnamese folks when you were eleven years old, you might have to struggle to understand what this one name might mean to me, then and there. At the time, my white American father had custody of me, and I didn’t live with my Cham-French mother (from Việt Nam) and younger siblings anymore. A couple of years before, I’d moved away from that suburb of Houston and hadn’t seen anything even resembling a Vietnamese part-of-town since leaving Texas at age nine. Or any Asiatown, for that matter. No more lemongrass or bitter melons–what my mom called bitter lemons–in the produce aisle. No more preserved plums, pickled mustard greens, sweetened soy milk, savory phở. And what about my little siblings? Or that country where my older siblings still lived, waiting for that elusive “family reunification”? I wasn’t even unified anymore, with the family. And I was in this new state, where there was no one with whom to talk about these places I’d left behind—as a diasporic daughter separated from her mother and from all references to her mother’s land—when I departed from my family near Houston, Texas, and went to go live with my dad in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.

Until I heard his name, V., in music class. Music to my ears! Finally!!! I rushed up to him and nearly knocked him over, repeating his Vietnamese name twice, first and last. Although there was no mistake, I then asked with anticipation, “Are you Vietnamese?!” He looked around nervously. He’d probably been doing everything he could to fit into this mostly white suburb, and this offwhite girl knows, a little too loudly, where he’s from. He may have quietly stammered, “Yeah,” but the floodgates of opportunity and connection opened for me. “My mom is from Việt Nam!” I announced as I pulled out her old picture. He skeptically looked at me, and at the black-and-white photo of my Cham-French mother that held before him. And he didn’t quite believe any of it. “Sài Gòn 1973,” I repeated loudly, reading the back. “See?” But he looked somewhat blankly at her, at the handwriting, then at me. I don’t blame the kid. We didn’t look like any Vietnamese folks he knew, that’s for sure. Hardly surprising now, but at the time I just didn’t understand why I didn’t seem like a new cousin for him or something. I departed him hoping to gather some more photos, so he could believe that I really do have a connection to what we’d eventually just call the motherland.

Irrefutable evidence of my Cham-French mother in Sài Gòn, 1973

Within a couple of years we were good friends, V. and I, despite our other differences. I was a little rough around the edges, in ways, and he was always very dapper. I teased him for ironing his designer socks, and he teased me for being unkempt. Yet apparently we had a lot more in common—we both got into the advanced art class early, we were both in the gifted/talented program, and we both took challenging literature courses. We ended up together in repeated classrooms at school, and on field trips, over and over. I suppose I grew on him, in time. Eventually he began to let me read his fiction—masterful short stories with complex themes, all set in Việt Nam, which he had escaped from at age five. He’s better than the authors we read in honor’s lit class, I told myself, after reading a huge stack of his stories in exchange for some of my own poems. Wow. I was privileged and blessed to see this deeper side of him, though his own work—there he struggled with the contradictions between religious tradition and the impiety of the young, between history and memory, embodied in these parables set in Sài Gòn, from where my parents had evacuated the year before I was born.

So the first writer I ever met was this preternaturally gifted Vietnamese American kid in Oklahoma who invited me back to the motherland with him, through these stories he’d share somewhat clandestinely, while we were students at Sequoyah Middle School. He let me into what I had never known, as I had been born in Missouri after my mom evacuated with my father, and as I would not visit Việt Nam until my early twenties. And so he was a bit of a culture bearer, for me, as I lived in Broken Arrow away from my Việt family. I read between his lines for the scent of the air in Việt Nam, and for the sound of children’s laughter while playing in the morning, as they left their muddy footprints behind on the tombstones. Through the writings of V., I hadn’t completely lost this connection to the place where my own siblings, grandparents, and extended family still lived. Granted, I still occasionally broke the unknown rules by talking about Vietnamese food at the lunch table in front of our white classmates, who “wouldn’t understand,” V. warned. And he was probably right. We were in middle school, after all. Not exactly known as a bastion of humanity towards anyone. So I hoped to not trespass too conspicuously upon what was sacred to him as a Vietnamese American boy acculturating to the suburbs of Tulsa by day, and writing masterful short stories by night.

•••

Six years after high school graduation, I hoped to return to Việt Nam on a post-war study tour. I wanted V. to come with me on this second trip to Việt Nam, after I’d visited my family two years before. I was sure he’d love the trip, but I also knew to go for the soft spot, for maximum effectiveness. “You always write about the countryside, but you never go there! How do you feel about that?” I asked him, during a phone call from Seattle.

“What?” he replied, from Iowa City.

“When you go back, you always stay in Sài Gòn with your family. But you write about the countryside so much. How do you justify it? Aren’t you worried about authenticity?”

He was perplexed by this line of questioning, as I centered his writing. Since our childhood, he’d continued his work, obtaining a BA and an MA from a private university in Oklahoma before moving on to acquire his MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, which he was then attending. I was hoping to playfully and somewhat sarcastically twist his arm, using that old claim to authenticity, but I chose to twist his plot sequences instead. By this, I urged him to come on the trip, where he would see the rest of Việt Nam with me. Beyond the invite from an old friend, he was soon affirmed by some funding from school. So he relented to my encouragement.

That summer we spent nearly a month in Việt Nam as part of a tour of professors, students, veterans, activists, and Vietnamese Americans hoping to learn more about the war. Along the way, he teased that I had just needed someone to help carry my film equipment. Apparently a fiction writer needs less gear than a filmmaker and photographer. But oh, the things we both carried, as we traveled through parts of Việt Nam learning about the war, from all perspectives, and seeing places we’d never been, since we’d each only stayed with our own families during previous visits. And just as he’d taken me back to Việt Nam through his stories, in middle school, I took him back to Việt Nam, quite literally, in our mid-twenties. He’s since told me that it was the best trip of his life. As far as I see it, one good motherland (re)turn deserves another.

Hội An shore, at dusk, 2001

•••

This childhood friendship with V. began a series of monumental lifelong relationships with Vietnamese American writers and artists, whose accomplishments stunned me in my early youth and whose talents stun me still. V. is achieving everything I expected for him, with his first novel currently under contract, and with many well-deserved writing awards earned. The Vietnamese American diaspora has now published an incredible amount of literature—profound, heartbreaking, unsettling, and affirming. And yet for me, my first taste of this literature was through a boy I was fortunate to have met and befriended, in an unlikely town. These days—especially during the last five years—I’ve also gotten far closer to creating that wider community of Vietnamese Americans that I seemingly lost when I left home as a child. It has helped that I finally moved to California for graduate school, where a high percentage of Vietnamese Americans has settled, alongside existing Asian enclaves. Yet before I moved here in my early thirties, I was struggling with still feeling a sense of disconnect from those who knew and understood Việt Nam. By chance, I didn’t really know any Vietnamese folks in my cities of residence in the Pacific Northwest. And I didn’t even know any other children of refugees, from anywhere.

To alleviate this isolation, during the 30th anniversary of the Fall of Sài Gòn, I began to share my own creative work with Vietnamese American artists, scholars, and activists. At a commemorative conference organized by Fiona Ngo and Mariam Lam, I exhibited and spoke about my own Cham documentary photography, as a debut. However I had initially approached this community as tentatively as I’d learned to approach Vietnamese Americans—and even this diaCRITICIZE post—afraid that the mixed race war baby authenticity guilt would leave me scrambling for paperwork and photographs, for evidence. You could say that I have been a bit scarred by the skeptical looks all people have been giving me, for years, when I say that my mom is from Việt Nam, or even that she is Cham and French. Yet for this anniversary gathering, I was gravely mistaken that I might not be welcome. Even when I voiced the disclaimers about our mixed race family to people I met, some consoled me and admitted things like, “We’re not just Vietnamese, in my family, either.” I could hardly conceal my relief, then or now, to be accepted into the fold—within all the complexity and dynamism of the Vietnamese diasporic community in the United States.

I might not be screaming “Sài Gòn 1973” anymore but I have been given a spot at the table anyway, in ways I’ve never anticipated. And so have you, even if you don’t realize it yet.

Fear of losing what's sacred, Đà Nẵng, 2010

While celebrating the recent 100th post for diaCRITICS, we wish you a few days of holiday hiatus from new material. Instead, savor your friends and family—or your time away from them—whatever is most sacred to you. Get some much-needed sleep and put some delicious food and laughter in your belly. Whether its walking meditation or playing Wii, you know what you need to do. Then at the year’s end, our three managing editors will each feature our own top ten diaCRITICS picks, giving you a chance to revisit the mind-blowing creative works of the Vietnamese homeland and diaspora, with our regular posts resuming bright and early in the new year. We can’t wait. Because Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “Without music, life would be a mistake.” I’ll amend it slightly, away from the fatalism, in the interest of holiday cheer. Without art and culture, we wouldn’t have such deep ways of letting each other in, across time, space, and place. We wouldn’t understand history or politics, nor ourselves or one another. So let’s meet here, over these shared meals, where we’re not afraid to speak our memories and to live out loud.

Julie Thi Underhill, managing editor for diaCRITICS

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There’s something for everyone at the swap meet (chợ trời)


I have been going to swap meets (chợ trời) for as long as I can remember with my family. But in my youth I was never very keen on these sites despite my penchant for bargain hunting. That is, until my partner’s strange enthusiasm for swap meets became a little infectious. He has dragged me to practically every swap meet in the Inland Empire, San Diego, and Orange County. We even make it a point to visit the Honolulu swap meet each time we vacation there. Occasionally, when the time is right, we have peddled our household junk at a few swap meets in Riverside and San Diego. The old adage that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure couldn’t be more spot on than at chợ trời.

With an ethnographer’s eye, I have observed the social interactions at swap meets in curious wonder and become quite appreciative of the multi-lingual banter  I overhear between vendors and their patrons and among the throngs of bargain-seeking shoppers. A Vietnamese man selling used housewares might declare the price of an item to his Spanish-speaking shopper just so, “Cincuenta centavos, Amigo. Barato!” Hand gestures also assist much of the cross-cultural exchange that occur there.

So when we moved to Orange County recently, we were sure there would be a fabulous swap meet or two to explore given the demographics in the area. What we didn’t expect was a FREE swap meet experience at the Goldenwest Swap Meet (15744 Golden West Street, Huntington Beach, California 92647). No charge for parking. No charge to get in. Not that the swap meets we frequented before were expensive, but $1 per person might seem a waste if you don’t come home with anything at the end of the day. If you are in San Diego or plan to visit, definitely check out Kobey’s Swap Meet at the Sports Arena (3350 Sports Arena Boulevard
San Diego, CA 92110). It will cost you $1 to get in but well worth it for the size and scope.

In Orange County, however, I am a fan of Goldenwest. It has the usual swap meet fare of new and used housewares, clothes, electronics, etc. My partner likes this one for the used handyman tools. If you are hungry the swap meet menu includes tacos, churros, and other fried fatty foods. However, Goldenwest offers boba drinks, smoothies, roasted corn and sometimes even bánh mì! There’s a vendor who has a large selection of old records and books for 50 cents a piece. Take that, Amazon.com!

I especially loved Goldenwest’s produce stalls where you can buy in-season fruits and veggies for dirt cheap. I think of these stalls as farmers markets for the working class because their fruits and produce are locally grown and distributed but the price is about half what you would spend at your average farmer’s market. As I was in line to buy my week’s worth of fruits his past Sunday (blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, cherries, cherry tomotoes, sweet black grapes, and manila mangos–all for $6!) the elderly Vietnamese woman behind me gave the lady in front of me her personal tip on washing fruit:  a little dish soap (!) followed by two rinses of warm water.  The man behind her raised his eyebrows in bewilderment. And the lady in front answered with, “Tôi để chức muối thôi! (I just use a little salt).” These are the conversations I am privy to all over Orange County, but they are so much more concentrated in small stalls of immigrants speaking either Spanish or Vietnamese at the swap meet. Chợ trời is to the immigrant elder what the mall is to an American teenager–a playground where you put your best social self forward. If you are working on your garden and need plants or trees, you can buy them here as well. There is truly something for everyone at chợ trời.

~Thúy Võ Đặng

~

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Vietnamese Epic & The Budget Traveler


Kim Van Kieu is one of those stories that is so famous that The Lonely Planet Guidebook will advise enterprising tourists to read it if they really want to move beyond the superficial world of noodles stalls, trinkets and bar-hopping. Supposedly, its influence is so immense that even illiterate peasants, working the emerald rice paddies, will recite a few lines, as they bend their backs in the kind of primordial labor that also makes great postcards.

Through this literary endeavor, any budget traveler can truly begin to understand the Vietnamese people.  But don’t just listen to me or The Lonely Planet; I’ve had this point corroborated on the good authority of several drunken German tourists at that delightful watering hole in Saigon—Apocalypse Now—who swear by its merits as a touchstone of culture:  “Kim Van Kieu is a part of your literary DNA.”  Short of dating a local girl, reading a bootlegged photocopy book of the story of Kieu is the best way to distinguish yourself from the crowd at the youth hostel.

Front Entrance of Apocalypse Now

Kim Van Kieu is a narrative poem that serves as an allegory of resistance.  Put in layman’s terms: the poem tells a story and we can read from the story how it is trying to tell, quite indirectly, another story.  The other story is about a beset Vietnam as it has attempted to resist a thousand years of invasion.

The backdrop of the story is the imprisonment of Kieu’s brother and father.  In order to save them, she marries herself off to a rich man who tricks her, turning her into a prostitute.  Her virtuous self-sacrifice is paradoxical, for she becomes that which is diametrically opposed to the very essence of virtue.  She becomes a whore.

The story can be read as a tale of the individual caught up within the machinations of the state, compelled to make sacrifices under unusual circumstances for the cause of nationalism.  The heroine Kieu is the archetypal Vietnamese, forced into terribly unnatural acts out of desperation.  The father and brother are the patriarchal authority, thwarted by injustice.  The middle-aged man can be any of a series of imperial powers–China, France, Japan and the United States—who have interfered with a nubile young country’s natural development.

Vietnamese people appreciate the pathos of this type of irony, even if they do not tolerate it in real life.  Prostitution is a growth industry in my old homeland and the statistics are staggering.   In my various visits to Vietnam during two years of traveling, I often saw the young sex workers come out at night and stand, backlit, at the doorways as pimps piss-pissed their wonders and virtues.  Girls of this kind could usually be found lurking somewhere near that bar Apocalypse Now, which is a hotspot for tourists who seek a certain kind of adventure.

I often wonder how many young girls, sold into prostitution in Vietnam are choosing to do so for heroic reasons.  I often wonder how many people actually think that what they are doing is patriotic and self-sacrificing—that it might serve a greater cause that will shake the very fabric of Vietnamese civilization to its core. But it doesn’t seem like an appropriate question to ask.

One night, I got drunk on Tiger Beer at Apocalypse Now and then wandered around the tourist quarter, looking for people to buttonhole.  I asked this forbidden question to a nice, middle-aged man at a coffee shop.  Set before him on an aluminum tray was a tall glass of ice coffee, an ashtray, a pack of Jet cigarettes and the daily newspaper.  He was dressed in that classic Vietnamese style that always makes me feel immediately at ease:  white button-down shirt, high-water black slacks and plastic flip flops.  His hair, severely side-parted and blackly impeccable, glinted against the luminescence of the naked bulbs strung like gargantuan Christmas lights on steroids.  He told me two things that immediately made me feel better.  “Kim Van Kieu, she’s not a real person.”  The other thing:  “Those girls, most of them we get from Laos.”  I guess I should have been relieved that the bulk of our prostitutes are not really of consequence because they come from across the border.  Perhaps I was.

It took me several days to get a dawning sense of the true injustice that lay behind this new knowledge.  For what of the predicament of the many Western sex tourists who had been assiduously plugging away at Kim Van Kieu and waiting for the moment when they could graduate to a real Vietnamese?  Did they know they were getting the switcher-oo?  All that work, all that intellectual development, all laid waste. The injustice of that was terrible.

—–Khanh Ho

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Paradise and Prisons: New York Times on the Con Dao Islands


The beach at Con Son Island

Vietnam is apparently going the way of Thailand. The New York Times wrote recently about the Con Dao Islands, once the site of horrific prisons run by the French, the South Vietnamese, and the Americans. Now these islands, particularly Con Son, the main island, are being developed as tourist hotspots. The island really is beautiful, as the Times slideshow makes evident, and also relatively under-developed.

I visited last summer and stayed at a beachside hotel, one of only a handful of westerners. Most everyone was a Vietnamese tourist, which, on the one hand, was refreshing to see. On the other hand, I had the feeling these folks were all really rich and patriotic Party members, as they all flew to the island, and went on the packaged tour of the prisons. In contrast, the very nice hotel employee who drove me to the airport has to take the ferry back and forth from mainland Vietnam when he wants to visit his family.

Vietnamese tourist looks at exhibit of torture

All the usual anxieties about tourism apply here about the tensions between tourism and preservation, amusement and history, forgetting the past and pleasure-seeking in the present. Some people want to keep the pristine parts of Vietnam pristine, but  we won’t be able to get away from these problems by longing to keep places pure and tourist free (and the people who usually seem to long for this kind of purity are the western tourists who first get to a place and want to ruin it just for themselves).

The difference is between tourist places overrun by wealthy foreigners and tourist places where locals can afford to visit and behave in just as ugly or beautiful a fashion as international tourists. What will hopefully happen is that Vietnamese middle-class tourists will get more of a chance to see places like Con Dao and experience their own joys and anxieties about tourism, in conjunction with the Vietnamese who will have to service them, some of whom must also travel quite far from home to get to their place of work but by much less glamorous means than Vietnam Air.

If you plan to visit, though, be forewarned. I had a great time, zipping around on the back of my hired motorbike taxi, who I could barely understand because he was a migrant laborer who spoke with an accent from deep in the mainland south. Then I told a friend in Saigon about the island. She visited a week after me and contracted dengue fever, which only sounds cool when it’s the name of a band.

Viet Thanh Nguyen

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