Category Archives: Urban/cities

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.

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“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.

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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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San Francisco Diasporic Vietnamese Film Festival – A Preview


At last! The San Francisco Diasporic Vietnamese Film Festival on April 23rd is the first ever Bay Area film festival exclusively featuring Vietnamese filmmakers and performers. Festival director and diaCRITICS managing editor Julie Thi Underhill introduces the festival’s line-up of narrative, experimental, and documentary films—handpicking a few lovely images and featured trailers as a teaser to an amazing selection of back-to-back films. This festival is the latest commitment of the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network, the arts organization that hosts diaCRITICS.


For those who’ve never been blessed by the VIFF in Southern California, or any other Viet-centered film extravaganza, a festival focusing exclusively on the experience of the Vietnamese is beyond exciting. Usually I must search a film festival’s program cover-to-cover before I’m able to find something that even remotely relates to the Vietnamese experience, and even then, that doesn’t guarantee compelling work. So it’s been my long-awaited filmmaker-and-cinephile dream to see diasporic Vietnamese films carefully curated for the big screen here in Northern California. It’s actually a primary motivation for directing the first-ever Bay Area festival centering the works of Vietnamese filmmakers, when the position was offered to me. Foremost I wanted to have the chance to breathe in these filmmakers as inspiration. Inspiration literally means to breathe in. And I’m not the only one anticipating the opportunity to see these works writ large on the screen. As the date grows closer, I’ve even heard that some audience members are flying in from the East Coast just to attend the festival. So it’s not just the local folks desiring to see for themselves how these transnational Vietnamese filmmakers are shaping, in compelling ways, our perceptions of ourselves and each other.

Since 1975, as a result of the upheavals of conflict, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese have emigrated from their homelands to other countries, creating a diaspora of Vietnamese people around the globe. This diaspora’s cultural productions are richly articulated and nuanced—and film is no exception. Meanwhile, in Vietnam, talented filmmakers have emerged to tell complicated and distinct stories. So as the director of the first-ever San Francisco Diasporic Vietnamese Film Festival, I’ve worked hard to help bring a stunning global line-up of films to the Coppola Theater at SFSU on April 23, with the hope of creating a deeper awareness and respect for Vietnamese communities worldwide. The all-day festival features thirteen films from nine diverse directors in the U.S., Australia, Germany, England, and Vietnam. Through narrative, documentary, and experimental genres, the San Francisco Diasporic Vietnamese Film Festival will center the filmed histories, communities, identities, and imaginaries of those in Vietnam and in the diaspora—a transnational vision reflecting a transnational reality.

Our program below offers in-depth synopses alongside trailers and film stills, so that you can truly preview these nine directors’ visions. Because you must try to see how they see, in order to get a sense of how their films nuance our conceptions of Vietnamese history and identity, in Vietnam and in the diaspora. Even if you can’t make it to the festival, please take a moment to admire how these filmmakers articulate themselves. Indeed, the beautiful tensions of their own communities are made symbolic through the struggles and realizations of their characters, as art imitates life.

MORNING

Fading Light (Theo Hướng Đèn Mà Đi)

Thien Do, director | US, Vietnam | 2008 | 23 minutes | narrative short | not rated | 10:30-10:55a

As two young brothers attempt to recover a lost toy from a crack in the worn floor of an attic, their mother called them down. “We’ll get it later,” they said, not knowing it would be a long time before they’d return. Many years pass before a young Vietnamese American man, Nam, revisits this childhood home for the first time since he left by boat. He’d lived much of his life in America, and in returning to Vietnam, he is jarred by feelings of displacement and by memories he’d almost forgotten. Stranded between the strangeness of a new city and the familiarity of his birthplace, Nam falls into a restless sleep during which the past and the present collide in a feverish dream. As he relives his tragic voyage, he is confronted by haunting childhood memories. Concurrent nonlinear images and intersecting flashes of light demonstrate the profound love between siblings and a resulting devastating emptiness. This debut short film by Thien Do portrays a man struggling to make sense of his own personal history, set within the larger plight of the Vietnamese boat people. Shot in present-day Vietnam—with an all Vietnamese cast and an international crew—Fading Light is the ‘film school’ in which the director claims to have learned his strengths and weaknesses, not only as a filmmaker but also as a man coming to terms with his departed homeland.

Mother Fish

Khoa Nguyen, director | Australia | 2009 | 92 minutes | narrative feature | mature audiences (15 and older, by the Australian rating system) | 11:00a-12:30p

Seamstress Kim goes to work every day in a tiny clothing factory in Australia. One evening, after the other workers have left, she is transported back to the fateful journey she undertook years ago. Within the confines of a quiet workroom, Kim recalls taking to the ocean in a leaky river boat with her sister Hanh and two men. Centering the stories of four Vietnamese refugees fleeing in 1980, this film brought awareness to the identities, origins, and motivations of those who arrived from Vietnam by boat. This film was made as a direct response to the increasing fear and hysteria surrounding Vietnamese refugees in Australia.

Mother Fish is ultimately about maintaining one’s humanity in the face of unimaginable turmoil—even as it portrays how survivor’s guilt creates everlasting wounds. The film’s tagline reads, “Behind every headline, every policy, and every queue … is a human face.” This beautifully crafted and ambitious work has won a number of domestic and international awards for Australian director Khoa Nguyen, for whom this is his second film.

AFTERNOON

Unidentified Vietnam No. 18

Lana Lin & H. Thao Lam, directors | US | 2007 | 30 minutes | experimental short | not rated | 12:45-1:15p

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the United States Library of Congress acquired a South Vietnamese embassy collection of seventeen films labeled simply “Unidentified Vietnam, # 1-17.” By incorporating propaganda films made between 1950 and the 1970s, Unidentified Vietnam No. 18 interrogates the layered and contested relationships between Vietnam and the United States, between history and propaganda, and between democracy and nation building. Succeeding the propaganda series yet situated in the present, the film centers an exiled South Vietnamese filmmaker, also an archivist and film scholar. This person inhabits the past, re-enacts propagandistic gestures, and looks through dusty film cans, discolored film labels and outdated catalogue lists. As the archive turns into a mausoleum for spectral images of a now nonexistent republic, the viewer is aware of what will forever remain obscure in the process of recovery. Through acts of retrieval and remembrance, this experimental and personal film reflects upon the failure of the U.S. intervention in Vietnam. It also considers the dangers of its repetition and questions the policies and politics of nation building.

Hanoi Eclipse: The Music of Dai Lam Linh

Barley Norton, director | England | 2010 | 56 minutes | documentary feature | not rated (adult language) | 1:20-2:15p

This debut documentary by Barley Norton features the controversial band Dai Lam Linh, producers of a unique form of popular music with a global outlook and a Vietnamese aesthetic. Dai Lam Linh consists of composer Ngoc Dai, an ex-soldier from the war, and singers Linh Dung and Thanh Lam, whose voices and energy complement Ngoc Dai’s edgy songs. Using sexually explicit vocabulary, experimental sounds, and unconventional performances, the band was rocked by scandals and censorship throughout the recording of their first album, culminating in its launch concert at the Hanoi Opera House in April 2009.

The documentary depicts their creative, political and financial struggles, captured during four months of filmed interviews and performances. In a broader sense, it reveals the resilience of a whole generation who fought and survived the war, only to continue another fight to live and to express their life’s desires. Onstage and in the studio, Dai Lam Linh pushes the limits of aesthetic sensibility in order to challenge the culture of censorship and conformity that regulates not only the works of artists, but also their everyday life. British director Barley Norton is a senior lecturer in the music department at University of London, and a specialist in Vietnamese music and culture. Nora Taylor also reviewed this film in December here on diaCRITICS.

LATE AFTERNOON | Experimental shorts

The Blindness Series (Kore, Eikleipsis, Epilogue: The Palpable Invisibility of Life)

Tran T. Kim Trang, director | US | 1994, 1998, 2006 | 55 minutes | experimental shorts | not rated | 2:30-3:25p

Tran T. Kim Trang created The Blindness Series as an eight-film consideration of physical blindness and its metaphors. She was broadly motivated by a personal fear of vision loss, by the historical significance of blindness in visual art, and by the linkages between perceptual and conceptual processes. Experimenting with multilayered texts, images and sounds from a variety of sources – journalism, fiction, dreams – each film is stylistically distinct. Together they provide a complex examination of body image, sexuality, surveillance, war trauma, language, race, immigration, and motherhood as viewed through the prisms of sight and sightlessness.

Our chronological selection begins with Kore, which explores the relationship between vision, sexual fear, fantasy, and AIDS. We continue with Eikleipsis, an investigation into the condition of hysterical blindness in Cambodian women refugees. Eikleipsis traces the histories of both hysteria and the war in Cambodia. Our screening concludes with Epilogue: The Palpable Invisibility of Life, the final short film of the Blindness Series. Epilogue was inspired by the Memoirs of the Blind exhibition, curated by Jacques Derrida for the Louvre Museum. Shifting the focus from Derrida’s work to her own mother and son, in Epilogue the filmmaker meditates upon the connection between vision and the cycle of life and death, as well as the technologies of seeing the dead and the not-yet-born.

Nguyen Tan Hoang’s shorts (PIRATED! Forever Linda! Forever Bottom!)

Nguyen Tan Hoang, director | US | 2000, 1996, 1999 | 27 minutes | experimental shorts | not rated (explicit sexual content and themes) | 3:30-4:00p

Nguyen Tan Hoang explores the intersection of popular culture, sexual representation, and gay Asian American identity in both his cinematic and academic works, as an experimental filmmaker and as a professor of English and Film Studies at Bryn Mawr. Using a bold and unapologetic approach, his short films use collages of popular images and sounds, pornography, and Vietnamese music videos to examine issues pertaining to sexuality, identity, and stereotypes. Our selection includes PIRATED!, which draws on the filmmaker’s own experience during the escape from Vietnam by boat. Reconstructing encounters with Thai pirates and sailors in the form of a refugee boy’s daydreams and sexual fantasies, this short film addresses how trauma, memory, and imagination impact the formation of sexuality.

The second film, Forever Linda!, portrays an Asian American teenager, on the verge of queerdom, obsessed with the figure of supermodel Linda Evangelista. Through a series of daydreams—cued to a soundtrack of French love songs sang by Vietnamese singer Thanh Lan—the film poses questions about queer childhood narratives and cross-gendered and cross-racial identifications.

Lastly, in Forever Bottom!, Nguyen challenges the negative connotation of being the Bottom in Western gay male culture through a pseudo-instructional videotape, in which he shows the pleasures and desires of full and unrepentant Bottomhood.

EVENING | A Sneak Preview and an Actor Q&A

Touch

Minh Duc Nguyen, director | US | 2011 | 109 minutes | narrative feature | not rated (nudity and adult language) | 4:15-6:10p

At Rosy Nails, a young Vietnamese woman named Tam cleans, buffs, and paints fingernails for as low as $10, while chatting, joking, and fighting with her fellow nail techs. One day, she meets an unusual customer. A shy American mechanic named Brendan has a problem only Tam can solve. No matter how much he washes his hands after his days at work, he cannot remove the grease that accumulates around his fingertips and under his fingernails. Every night, when he tries to get closer to his distant wife, she rejects him with the same excuse, “Your hands are filthy.” As Tam scrubs Brendan’s hands clean every day, he starts sharing his marital problems. In turn, she offers humorous advice to help him regain his wife’s love and save their marriage. Yet the more Brendan follows Tam’s suggestions, the more he finds himself attracted to Tam. Soon he begins to spend more time outside of the nail salon with her.

A meditation upon the sense of touch and its emotional impact, this sneak preview of the feature debut by director Minh Duc Nguyen emphasizes how touch helps us to discover each other’s deepest longings, to share utmost pleasures, and sometimes even to heal wounds.

Touch Q&A with actor Long Nguyen and actress Bety Le

6:15-7:20p

Moderated by author Andrew Lam (Perfume Dreams, East Eats West), this lively discussion features actor Long Nguyen, who plays the father in Touch, and Bety Le, who plays nail tech Hong.

Nguyen is an accomplished visual artist and Hollywood actor with an impressive filmography, including Journey from the Fall, whereas Le is a younger up-and-coming actress.

Please join us for the opportunity to hear firsthand from Nguyen and Le about storytelling, embodiment, character development, performance, and other aspects of their roles in Touch. The Q&A will be prefaced by a brief cultural performance by SFSU student dancers.

NIGHT

Sunday Menu

Liesl Nguyen, director | Germany | 2011 | 24 minutes | narrative short | not rated | 7:35-7:55p

On the outskirts of Berlin, a Vietnamese-German girl, Mi, lives with her mother, her bedridden grandmother Ba, and her upbeat cousin Thai. Unlike Thai, who seems to successfully straddle her Vietnamese and German identities, Mi finds herself feeling dislocated: “Everyone has a place in time, like a picture in a frame. Only I don’t know yet where I fit it. I slip carefully into one frame, and then out into the next. But it never feels like I really belong.”

In a dismal winter landscape filled with gray high-rise apartments, Mi tries to come to terms with not belonging, while her mother struggles with an unsuccessful restaurant where the food is mediocre, at best. After grandmother Ba expresses disappointment with the food Mi brings back from the restaurant—another symptom of Ba’s homesickness becoming more intense with time—Mi decides to learn to cook Ba’s favorite meal. A simple cooking lesson eventually turns into an inner odyssey whereby Mi must confront how the ritualistic power of food creates generational and cross-cultural conflicts.

Loosely based on a same-titled short story by Pham Thi Hoai, a Vietnamese writer residing in Germany, Liesl Nguyen’s debut is the first in a trilogy of narrative short films about Vietnamese people in Europe. Reinterpreting Pham’s story within a diasporic framework, Sunday Menu poetically explores issues of identity, culture, and belonging—at the intersection of personal histories and urban landscapes— to shed new light on the multiplicities within diasporic Vietnamese cultures.

Don’t Be Afraid, Bi! (Bi, Đừng S!)

Phan Dang Do, director | Viet Nam | 2010 | 90 minutes | narrative feature | not rated (sexual content and themes) | 8:00-9:30p

Bi is a six-year-old boy in Vietnam whose favorite playgrounds are an ice factory and the wild grass near a river. While living in an old house in Hanoi with his parents, his unmarried aunt, and a cook, his long-absent grandfather suddenly reappears, seriously ill. As Bi spends more and more time with the reticent old man, he discovers the secrets and the burdens of desire in the other members of their family.

The father drowns his yearning for his masseuse in a drunken rage every night while the mother turns a blind eye. As a high school teacher who has never touched a man, the aunt must use melting ice cubes to cool her desire for a 16-year-old boy she met on the bus.

In the words of director Phan Dang Di, the movie is an allegory for the three ages of man, where Bi’s restless curiosity and his innocent discoveries contrast sharply with the father’s search for unnamed values and the grandfather’s aimless wanderings. A story about “what’s most ordinary in the life of ordinary people,” through minimal dialogue Don’t Be Afraid, Bi! reveals a world in flux, in which human emotions change from one form to the next, just like the ice cubes which from solid can become liquid, and then disappear into the air.

From the screenwriter of Adrift (2009) comes this feature debut, already a winner of two International Critics Week’s prizes at the Cannes Film Festival. You might also recall Viet Nguyen’s review of the this film from last November.

_

So that’s the line up for the San Francisco Diasporic Vietnamese Film Festival, which will be held at San Francisco State University’s Coppola Theater (1700 Holloway Ave, SF, CA), just a short MUNI ride away from the Daly City BART station.

Besides the gifted filmmakers, performers, and guest panelists, I’ve got so many generous people to thank for bringing these works to the Bay Area—especially Assistant Director and SFSU film committee chair Isabelle Thuy Pelaud, film curators Lan Duong and Viet Nguyen, and staff Thang Dao. The Diasporic Vietnamese Film Festival Committee at SFSU contains Isabelle Pelaud, Jonathan Lee, Valerie Soe, Ben Kobashigawa, Wei Ming Dariotis, Russell Jeung, and Wesley Ueunten. Over fifty SFSU students have donated their time and enthusiasm to the cause. The festival is hosted and sponsored by Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network and the Asian American Studies Department at SFSU, and co-sponsored by the SF Asian American Film Festival (CAAM), Zellerbach Family Foundation, APICC, VASC, and the Vietnamese International Film Festival. Without the help of these individuals and organizations, none of this would be possible.

All we’re missing is you. So please come on April 23, if you can. You may view the complete schedule and program online at DVAN’s website. At the San Francisco Diasporic Vietnamese Film Festival, programming blocks encourage you to attend double features, usually a short film paired with a longer film, with some variation in the schedule. So if you plan to attend one film, please stay for both, to minimize audience disruption, as only a few minutes separate the films in a program block. Tickets for each program are available at the door, for a sliding scale donation ($5-10).

We expect hundreds of attendees throughout the day, but it won’t be a full house without you. And I’m sure there is a potent proverb somewhere, about Vietnamese people and full houses. You know that one already? No, actually, you make a point to never learn proverbs about full houses? Perhaps you can instead suggest one more apropros—something to do with seeing the light as the writing on the wall, something about walls being screens, something about screened memories reflecting ourselves in (re)turn.

Julie Thi Underhill is director of the San Francisco Diasporic Vietnamese Film Festival, managing editor of diaCRITICS, core member of DVAN, doctoral student and ethnic studies instructor at UC Berkeley, artist, filmmaker, photographer, historian, poet, essayist, and alphabetizer of a massive and errant tea collection.

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 seen any of these films? Who is the most exciting filmmaker of Vietnamese descent, in your opinion? Why?

Food bites at The Jonathan Gold Standard 2011


diaCRITIC Cam Vu possesses F*bomb finesse! Even while falling in 5-inch platforms! All to bring to you a review of Vietnamese eats from this year’s Los Angeles food extravaganza, The Jonathan Gold Standard. There the offerings from The Good Girl Dinette and STREET demonstrated Vietnamese cuisine’s continued catapult into the fusion/hybrid world of culinary identity transformation, leading Cam Vu to wonder, “How would the ‘world’ make bánh xèo?”

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One of the greatest perks of living in Los Angeles is that we have access, not just to the best restaurants, ingredients, and culinary magicians around, but we have the labor of dedicated food die-hards (I’ll resist the term “foodie” for now) to guide us into food delirium. We have food bloggers, yelpers, culinary students, restaurateur hopefuls, those annoying adorable  diners with their flashing camera phones picking apart every course and combo.  But the man who may very well be deemed the premiere lothario of food appreciation is LA’s very own Jonathan Gold, food critic extraordinaire who writes for the LA Weekly and has his own KCRW food program.

Gold is esteemed as the only food critic/writer to have won a Pulitzer Prize for his dexterity in pairing the food experience with its best accompanying word.  And his hungry fans, fanning all over the city to search out his latest noteworthy find, are indebted to his distinguishing tastes and gusto for palate hyperbole.  To read a Gold review is akin to being transported into the sizzling back rooms of small taco stands, or to feel one’s tongue viscerally burning with the oily fire of a vivid Szechuan dish.  Szechuan dishes are hot, and in Gold’s estimation, are like a “flaming rabbit punch to the base of your skull.”  What’s a flaming rabbit punch and where do I get me some of that?

For the past three years Gold has hosted “The Jonathan Gold Standard,” a robust collection of his favorite food vendors in the city, corralled together into an eater’s dream swap meet.  If you’re a fan of Top Chef and have envied the crowds that the contestants scurry to serve, you must find your way to the Gold Standard.  Its premise is not unlike that, except here no fabulous $10,000 prizes or glamorous Padma Lakshmi—although Jonathan Gold did look fetching preening about in his sport coat.  Held for its third year on March 6, 2011, at the Petersen Automotive Museum along Museum Row, the Gold Standard featured 40 of Gold’s favorite restaurants including Jar, AOC, Jitlada, The Foundry, Mozza, Slaw Dogs, Little Dom’s, along with a host of equally impressive others.  And did I mention there was a whole aisle dedicated to wines and spirits of the region?  For $60 a ticket (a portion of which went to support Heal the Bay), I arrived with a friend and for just over 3 hours we feasted on all the goodies that Gold had lovingly brought together.

My “review” as it were includes Vietnamese cuisine’s two representations at this year’s Gold Standard.  Both examples showcase the ways in which Vietnamese cuisine is being catapulted into the fusion/hybrid world of culinary identity transformation.  The stall run by The Good Girl Dinette (110 N. Ave. 56, Highland Park) offered a ground pork serving on top of white rice.  It was delish!  I got a douse of freshly ground pepper with some perfectly cooked rice underneath a mound of tender pork.  With a little help from Google, I found out that Good Girl Dinette is run by the same chef who opened The Blue Hen, another Vietnamese themed restaurant in Eagle Rock.  The Good Girl Dinette, though, focuses on the paradigmatic diner experience, so ratchet up the comfort food quotient and throw a side of biscuits under that cà ri.

Good Girl Dinette Stall

A view of Good Girl Dinette's Pork and Rice as I rested atop the Petersen Automotive Museum roof.

A few stalls down I found myself standing in front of Susan Feniger’s STREET restaurant (742 N. Highland Ave, Los Angeles), with the lovely Ms. Feniger holding court.  I nearly fell over myself. (I blamed it on the cavalcade of diners filing through, the 5 inch platforms I had on—a foodie [oh well, there goes the F*bomb] must be able to scope out the food beacons from on high– and ok, maybe there was a glass of wine in my hand).  I rooted for Feniger on “Top Chef Masters” and have dined at her restaurant during DineLA; the kaya toast is a must!  To my horror, she had seen me nearly topple and worriedly asked if I was ok.  And then I caught her casting a curious look at that pesky glass of wine after all, but I digress.  I voted against introducing myself right at that moment, ducked back into the crowd, and only later managed to anonymously swipe a serving of their offering.  So the diaCRITIC name is still in good standing!

STREET is an “upscale take on cultural cuisine,” think $16 for a bowl of noodles remotely reminiscent of phở and the like.  On this particular day, Feniger’s team put out a “Vietnamese crepe,” aka bánh xèo, for sampling which already made me a little weary.  It’s hard to serve this dish for a mass crowd, the “crepe” needs to be crispy and hot and made to order.  I cringed at the thought of eating it cut into uniformly apportioned neatly trimmed sections with string beans(?!) inside and nary a mung bean to be found.  But I was pleasantly surprised, this is an interpretation after all.  How would the “world” make bánh xèo? Apparently with string bean, which in this case was cooked well and still crunchy.  I tasted the distinct flavor of nước mắm pha already coating the crepe.  But I would contend that what makes bánh xèo so damn good is that rascally yellow bánh solution which should neither be made too runny nor too starchy.  And this day’s interpretation ran overly starchy for this diner’s tastes.  But I still love you Ms. Feniger and I promise you I will wear those 5-inch heels with more diner finesse and confidence in the future.

Feniger's STREET take on bánh xèo

I am no food writing or reviewing master, I am merely a tastes-good pleasure seeker.  And also one who knows when she is being shown a really good time.  The Gold Standard is a fantastic opportunity to take advantage of the talents of LA’s best food cultural thinkers and shakers all under the master guiding hand of Jonathan Gold.  The atmosphere was one filled with happy gastronomists, bloggers with their Canons and Nikons and smartphones, Gold with his trusty camera crew milling around, bread queen Nancy Silverton in her apron standing in line for a cocktail with the rest of us imbibers, Ilan Hall, winner of Top Chef season 2 manning his station for The Gorbals restaurant (his fried chicken livers was a delight!), and general merriment.  At one point, maybe two hours into the event my companion and I took a requisite too-full to breathe break and sat on the rooftop of the Petersen Automotive Museum, a pack of other like-minded and distended belly diners were lined up along the rooftop with us.  No one wanted to leave; maybe we could just take a reprieve and then make one final push.  I imagine in the coming years this event is going to get bigger, the lines more trenchant, the likelihood of an actual spill in heels more realistic.  As it was, I felt like I had stumbled into some world I had drummed up in a cross-cultural Thanksgiving dream gone wild.  But we are not all made the same after all. While my friend was mesmerized by the car show in the museum and wanted to spend her time looking at a 19seventysomething Fiatta-this-that-or-the-other, I wanted to run back for one more serving of Providence’s pineapple jelly skewer confection before the dream evaporated, the heel broke, or the zipper gave out.

I guess that I am learning, in my love of all things related to food, that I don’t necessarily have to eat everything I love all at one time.  But sometimes your dreams, as ridiculous as they may seem, do actually come true.

A bite of the world from the top of the Petersen Automotive Museum. Just another Sunday in LA.

Thank you Mr. Gold!

Master of ceremonies Jonathan Gold

— Cam Vu earned her doctorate in American Studies and Ethnicity at USC where she focused on cultural work in the Vietnamese diaspora.  Her book project focuses on affects in diasporic communities. Among other things, she loves to write about food.

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! Did all this Vietnamese food talk strike a chord? Any L.A. Viet restaurants you love even better?

San Francisco Diasporic Vietnamese Film Festival – A Preview


At last! The San Francisco Diasporic Vietnamese Film Festival on April 23rd is the first ever Bay Area film festival exclusively featuring Vietnamese filmmakers and performers. Festival director and diaCRITICS managing editor Julie Thi Underhill introduces the festival’s line-up of narrative, experimental, and documentary films—handpicking a few lovely images and featured trailers as a teaser to an amazing selection of back-to-back films. This festival is the latest commitment of the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network, the arts organization that hosts diaCRITICS.


For those who’ve never been blessed by the VIFF in Southern California, or any other Viet-centered film extravaganza, a festival focusing exclusively on the experience of the Vietnamese is beyond exciting. Usually I must search a film festival’s program cover-to-cover before I’m able to find something that evenremotely relates to the Vietnamese experience, and even then, that doesn’t guarantee compelling work. So it’s been my long-awaited filmmaker-and-cinephile dream to see diasporic Vietnamese films carefully curated for the big screen here in Northern California. It’s actually a primary motivation for directing the first-ever Bay Area festival centering the works of Vietnamese filmmakers, when the position was offered to me. Foremost I wanted to have the chance to breathe in these filmmakers as inspiration. Inspiration literally meansto breathe in. And I’m not the only one anticipating the opportunity to see these works writ large on the screen. As the date grows closer, I’ve even heard that some audience members are flying in from the East Coast just to attend the festival. So it’s not just the local folks desiring to see for themselves how these transnational Vietnamese filmmakers are shaping, in compelling ways, our perceptions of ourselves and each other.

Since 1975, as a result of the upheavals of conflict, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese have emigrated from their homelands to other countries, creating a diaspora of Vietnamese people around the globe. This diaspora’s cultural productions are richly articulated and nuanced—and film is no exception. Meanwhile, in Vietnam, talented filmmakers have emerged to tell complicated and distinct stories. So as the director of the first-ever San Francisco Diasporic Vietnamese Film Festival, I’ve worked hard to help bring a stunning global line-up of films to the Coppola Theater at SFSU on April 23, with the hope of creating a deeper awareness and respect for Vietnamese communities worldwide. The all-day festival features thirteen films from nine diverse directors in the U.S., Australia, Germany, England, and Vietnam. Through narrative, documentary, and experimental genres, the San Francisco Diasporic Vietnamese Film Festival will center the filmed histories, communities, identities, and imaginaries of those in Vietnam and in the diaspora—a transnational vision reflecting a transnational reality.

Our program below offers in-depth synopses alongside trailers and film stills, so that you can truly preview these nine directors’ visions. Because you must try to see how they see, in order to get a sense of how their films nuance our conceptions of Vietnamese history and identity, in Vietnam and in the diaspora. Even if you can’t make it to the festival, please take a moment to admire how these filmmakers articulate themselves. Indeed, the beautiful tensions of their own communities are made symbolic through the struggles and realizations of their characters, as art imitates life.

MORNING

Fading Light (Theo Hướng Đèn Mà Đi)

Thien Do, director | US, Vietnam | 2008 | 23 minutes | narrative short | not rated | 10:30-10:55a

As two young brothers attempt to recover a lost toy from a crack in the worn floor of an attic, their mother called them down. “We’ll get it later,” they said, not knowing it would be a long time before they’d return. Many years pass before a young Vietnamese American man, Nam, revisits this childhood home for the first time since he left by boat. He’d lived much of his life in America, and in returning to Vietnam, he is jarred by feelings of displacement and by memories he’d almost forgotten. Stranded between the strangeness of a new city and the familiarity of his birthplace, Nam falls into a restless sleep during which the past and the present collide in a feverish dream. As he relives his tragic voyage, he is confronted by haunting childhood memories. Concurrent nonlinear images and intersecting flashes of light demonstrate the profound love between siblings and a resulting devastating emptiness. This debut short film by Thien Do portrays a man struggling to make sense of his own personal history, set within the larger plight of the Vietnamese boat people. Shot in present-day Vietnam—with an all Vietnamese cast and an international crew—Fading Light is the ‘film school’ in which the director claims to have learned his strengths and weaknesses, not only as a filmmaker but also as a man coming to terms with his departed homeland.

Mother Fish

Khoa Nguyen, director | Australia | 2009 | 92 minutes | narrative feature | mature audiences (15 and older, by the Australian rating system) | 11:00a-12:30p

Seamstress Kim goes to work every day in a tiny clothing factory in Australia. One evening, after the other workers have left, she is transported back to the fateful journey she undertook years ago. Within the confines of a quiet workroom, Kim recalls taking to the ocean in a leaky river boat with her sister Hanh and two men. Centering the stories of four Vietnamese refugees fleeing in 1980, this film brought awareness to the identities, origins, and motivations of those who arrived from Vietnam by boat. This film was made as a direct response to the increasing fear and hysteria surrounding Vietnamese refugees in Australia.

Mother Fish is ultimately about maintaining one’s humanity in the face of unimaginable turmoil—even as it portrays how survivor’s guilt creates everlasting wounds. The film’s tagline reads, “Behind every headline, every policy, and every queue … is a human face.” This beautifully crafted and ambitious work has won a number of domestic and international awards for Australian director Khoa Nguyen, for whom this is his second film.

AFTERNOON

Unidentified Vietnam No. 18

Lana Lin & H. Thao Lam, directors | US | 2007 | 30 minutes | experimental short | not rated | 12:45-1:15p

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the United States Library of Congress acquired a South Vietnamese embassy collection of seventeen films labeled simply “Unidentified Vietnam, # 1-17.” By incorporating propaganda films made between 1950 and the 1970s, Unidentified Vietnam No. 18 interrogates the layered and contested relationships between Vietnam and the United States, between history and propaganda, and between democracy and nation building. Succeeding the propaganda series yet situated in the present, the film centers an exiled South Vietnamese filmmaker, also an archivist and film scholar. This person inhabits the past, re-enacts propagandistic gestures, and looks through dusty film cans, discolored film labels and outdated catalogue lists. As the archive turns into a mausoleum for spectral images of a now nonexistent republic, the viewer is aware of what will forever remain obscure in the process of recovery. Through acts of retrieval and remembrance, this experimental and personal film reflects upon the failure of the U.S. intervention in Vietnam. It also considers the dangers of its repetition and questions the policies and politics of nation building.

Hanoi Eclipse: The Music of Dai Lam Linh

Barley Norton, director | England | 2010 | 56 minutes | documentary feature | not rated (adult language) | 1:20-2:15p

This debut documentary by Barley Norton features the controversial band Dai Lam Linh, producers of a unique form of popular music with a global outlook and a Vietnamese aesthetic. Dai Lam Linh consists of composer Ngoc Dai, an ex-soldier from the war, and singers Linh Dung and Thanh Lam, whose voices and energy complement Ngoc Dai’s edgy songs. Using sexually explicit vocabulary, experimental sounds, and unconventional performances, the band was rocked by scandals and censorship throughout the recording of their first album, culminating in its launch concert at the Hanoi Opera House in April 2009.

The documentary depicts their creative, political and financial struggles, captured during four months of filmed interviews and performances. In a broader sense, it reveals the resilience of a whole generation who fought and survived the war, only to continue another fight to live and to express their life’s desires. Onstage and in the studio, Dai Lam Linh pushes the limits of aesthetic sensibility in order to challenge the culture of censorship and conformity that regulates not only the works of artists, but also their everyday life. British director Barley Norton is a senior lecturer in the music department at University of London, and a specialist in Vietnamese music and culture. Nora Taylor alsoreviewed this film in December here on diaCRITICS.

LATE AFTERNOON | Experimental shorts

The Blindness Series (Kore, Eikleipsis, Epilogue: The Palpable Invisibility of Life)

Tran T. Kim Trang, director | US | 1994, 1998, 2006 | 55 minutes | experimental shorts | not rated | 2:30-3:25p

Tran T. Kim Trang created The Blindness Series as an eight-film consideration of physical blindness and its metaphors. She was broadly motivated by a personal fear of vision loss, by the historical significance of blindness in visual art, and by the linkages between perceptual and conceptual processes. Experimenting with multilayered texts, images and sounds from a variety of sources – journalism, fiction, dreams – each film is stylistically distinct. Together they provide a complex examination of body image, sexuality, surveillance, war trauma, language, race, immigration, and motherhood as viewed through the prisms of sight and sightlessness.

Our chronological selection begins with Kore, which explores the relationship between vision, sexual fear, fantasy, and AIDS. We continue with Eikleipsis, an investigation into the condition of hysterical blindness in Cambodian women refugees. Eikleipsistraces the histories of both hysteria and the war in Cambodia. Our screening concludes with Epilogue: The Palpable Invisibility of Life, the final short film of the Blindness Series. Epilogue was inspired by the Memoirs of the Blind exhibition, curated by Jacques Derrida for the Louvre Museum. Shifting the focus from Derrida’s work to her own mother and son, in Epilogue the filmmaker meditates upon the connection between vision and the cycle of life and death, as well as the technologies of seeing the dead and the not-yet-born.

Nguyen Tan Hoang’s shorts (PIRATED! Forever Linda! Forever Bottom!)

Nguyen Tan Hoang, director | US | 2000, 1996, 1999 | 27 minutes | experimental shorts | not rated (explicit sexual content and themes) | 3:30-4:00p

Nguyen Tan Hoang explores the intersection of popular culture, sexual representation, and gay Asian American identity in both his cinematic and academic works, as an experimental filmmaker and as a professor of English and Film Studies at Bryn Mawr. Using a bold and unapologetic approach, his short films use collages of popular images and sounds, pornography, and Vietnamese music videos to examine issues pertaining to sexuality, identity, and stereotypes. Our selection includes PIRATED!, which draws on the filmmaker’s own experience during the escape from Vietnam by boat. Reconstructing encounters with Thai pirates and sailors in the form of a refugee boy’s daydreams and sexual fantasies, this short film addresses how trauma, memory, and imagination impact the formation of sexuality.

The second film, Forever Linda!, portrays an Asian American teenager, on the verge of queerdom, obsessed with the figure of supermodel Linda Evangelista. Through a series of daydreams—cued to a soundtrack of French love songs sang by Vietnamese singer Thanh Lan—the film poses questions about queer childhood narratives and cross-gendered and cross-racial identifications.

Lastly, in Forever Bottom!, Nguyen challenges the negative connotation of being the Bottom in Western gay male culture through a pseudo-instructional videotape, in which he shows the pleasures and desires of full and unrepentant Bottomhood.

EVENING | A Sneak Preview and an Actor Q&A

Touch

Minh Duc Nguyen, director | US | 2011 | 109 minutes | narrative feature | not rated (nudity and adult language) | 4:15-6:10p

At Rosy Nails, a young Vietnamese woman named Tam cleans, buffs, and paints fingernails for as low as $10, while chatting, joking, and fighting with her fellow nail techs. One day, she meets an unusual customer. A shy American mechanic named Brendan has a problem only Tam can solve. No matter how much he washes his hands after his days at work, he cannot remove the grease that accumulates around his fingertips and under his fingernails. Every night, when he tries to get closer to his distant wife, she rejects him with the same excuse, “Your hands are filthy.” As Tam scrubs Brendan’s hands clean every day, he starts sharing his marital problems. In turn, she offers humorous advice to help him regain his wife’s love and save their marriage. Yet the more Brendan follows Tam’s suggestions, the more he finds himself attracted to Tam. Soon he begins to spend more time outside of the nail salon with her.

A meditation upon the sense of touch and its emotional impact, this sneak preview of the feature debut by director Minh Duc Nguyen emphasizes how touch helps us to discover each other’s deepest longings, to share utmost pleasures, and sometimes even to heal wounds.

Touch Q&A with actor Long Nguyen and actress Bety Le

6:15-7:20p

Moderated by author Andrew Lam (Perfume Dreams, East Eats West), this lively discussion features actor Long Nguyen, who plays the father in Touch, and Bety Le, who plays nail tech Hong.

Nguyen is an accomplished visual artist and Hollywood actor with an impressive filmography, including Journey from the Fall, whereas Le is a younger up-and-coming actress.

Please join us for the opportunity to hear firsthand from Nguyen and Le about storytelling, embodiment, character development, performance, and other aspects of their roles in Touch. The Q&A will be prefaced by a brief cultural performance by SFSU student dancers.

NIGHT

Sunday Menu

Liesl Nguyen, director | Germany | 2011 | 24 minutes | narrative short | not rated | 7:35-7:55p

On the outskirts of Berlin, a Vietnamese-German girl, Mi, lives with her mother, her bedridden grandmother Ba, and her upbeat cousin Thai. Unlike Thai, who seems to successfully straddle her Vietnamese and German identities, Mi finds herself feeling dislocated: “Everyone has a place in time, like a picture in a frame. Only I don’t know yet where I fit it. I slip carefully into one frame, and then out into the next. But it never feels like I really belong.”

In a dismal winter landscape filled with gray high-rise apartments, Mi tries to come to terms with not belonging, while her mother struggles with an unsuccessful restaurant where the food is mediocre, at best. After grandmother Ba expresses disappointment with the food Mi brings back from the restaurant—another symptom of Ba’s homesickness becoming more intense with time—Mi decides to learn to cook Ba’s favorite meal. A simple cooking lesson eventually turns into an inner odyssey whereby Mi must confront how the ritualistic power of food creates generational and cross-cultural conflicts.

Loosely based on a same-titled short story by Pham Thi Hoai, a Vietnamese writer residing in Germany, Liesl Nguyen’s debut is the first in a trilogy of narrative short films about Vietnamese people in Europe. Reinterpreting Pham’s story within a diasporic framework, Sunday Menu poetically explores issues of identity, culture, and belonging—at the intersection of personal histories and urban landscapes— to shed new light on the multiplicities within diasporic Vietnamese cultures.

Don’t Be Afraid, Bi! (Bi, Đừng S!)

Phan Dang Do, director | Viet Nam | 2010 | 90 minutes | narrative feature | not rated (sexual content and themes) | 8:00-9:30p

Bi is a six-year-old boy in Vietnam whose favorite playgrounds are an ice factory and the wild grass near a river. While living in an old house in Hanoi with his parents, his unmarried aunt, and a cook, his long-absent grandfather suddenly reappears, seriously ill. As Bi spends more and more time with the reticent old man, he discovers the secrets and the burdens of desire in the other members of their family.

The father drowns his yearning for his masseuse in a drunken rage every night while the mother turns a blind eye. As a high school teacher who has never touched a man, the aunt must use melting ice cubes to cool her desire for a 16-year-old boy she met on the bus.

In the words of director Phan Dang Di, the movie is an allegory for the three ages of man, where Bi’s restless curiosity and his innocent discoveries contrast sharply with the father’s search for unnamed values and the grandfather’s aimless wanderings. A story about “what’s most ordinary in the life of ordinary people,” through minimal dialogue Don’t Be Afraid, Bi! reveals a world in flux, in which human emotions change from one form to the next, just like the ice cubes which from solid can become liquid, and then disappear into the air.

From the screenwriter of Adrift (2009) comes this feature debut, already a winner of two International Critics Week’s prizes at the Cannes Film Festival. You might also recall Viet Nguyen’s review of the this film from last November.

_

So that’s the line up for the San Francisco Diasporic Vietnamese Film Festival, which will be held at San Francisco State University’s Coppola Theater (1700 Holloway Ave, SF, CA), just a short MUNI ride away from the Daly City BART station.

Besides the gifted filmmakers, performers, and guest panelists, I’ve got so many generous people to thank for bringing these works to the Bay Area—especially Assistant Director and SFSU film committee chair Isabelle Thuy Pelaud, film curators Lan Duong and Viet Nguyen, and staff Thang Dao. The Diasporic Vietnamese Film Festival Committee at SFSU contains Isabelle Pelaud, Jonathan Lee, Valerie Soe, Ben Kobashigawa, Wei Ming Dariotis, Russell Jeung, and Wesley Ueunten. Over fifty SFSU students have donated their time and enthusiasm to the cause. The festival is hosted and sponsored by Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network and the Asian American Studies Department at SFSU, and co-sponsored by the SF Asian American Film Festival (CAAM), Zellerbach Family Foundation, APICC, VASC, and the Vietnamese International Film Festival. Without the help of these individuals and organizations, none of this would be possible.

All we’re missing is you. So please come on April 23, if you can. You may view the complete schedule and program online at DVAN’s website. At the San Francisco Diasporic Vietnamese Film Festival, programming blocks encourage you to attend double features, usually a short film paired with a longer film, with some variation in the schedule. So if you plan to attend one film, please stay for both, to minimize audience disruption, as only a few minutes separate the films in a program block. Tickets for each program are available at the door, for a sliding scale donation ($5-10).

We expect hundreds of attendees throughout the day, but it won’t be a full house without you. And I’m sure there is a potent proverb somewhere, about Vietnamese people and full houses. You know that one already? No, actually, you make a point to never learn proverbs about full houses? Perhaps you can instead suggest one more apropros—something to do with seeing the light as the writing on the wall, something about walls being screens, something about screened memories reflecting ourselves in (re)turn.

Julie Thi Underhill is director of the San Francisco Diasporic Vietnamese Film Festivalmanaging editor of diaCRITICScore member of DVANdoctoral student and ethnic studies instructor at UC Berkeley, artist, filmmaker,photographer, historian, poet, essayist, and alphabetizer of a massive and errant tea collection.

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 seen any of these films? Who is the most exciting filmmaker of Vietnamese descent, in your opinion? Why?

You Must Learn: Bao Phi Dropping Science at San Francisco State University


Bao Phi: Speaking out and speaking the word. Bao Phi, a spoken word poet and community activist, was previously featured in diaCRITICS. Here, Valerie Soe, from her blog Beyond Asiaphilia, reviews Bao Phi’s most recent performance at SFSU and looks into how he speaks out about injustice and works for justice.

And head’s up for those in Southern California.  Bao Phi will be speaking at USC’s State of the Word: Spoken Word by Asian American Artists, Saturday, April 2, 2011.

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

Bao Phi speaks truth.

Last week I had the pleasure and privilege of witnessing the phenomenal spoken word artist Bao Phi reading at my homebase, San Francisco State, and his singular blend of brilliant wordsmithing and sharp political commentary was completely awesome. Bao was the capstone presentation at the two-day long Re-SEAing Southeast Asian American Studies conference, hosted by the Asian American Studies Department at SFSU where I work, and he rocked the house with his funny, smart, sensitive, and deeply moving work.

Phi is the author of one of my favorite spoken word pieces, “Reverse Racism,” which I teach in all of my Asian American culture classes, but prior to last week I’d never heard him read in person so I was really looking forward to his presentation. He didn’t disappoint, reading mostly from his ongoing series, The Nguyens, in which he inhabits and articulates the experiences of various Vietnamese American characters surnamed Nguyen, from waitresses to artists to Prince impersonators.

But the showstopper of the afternoon was 8 (9), was his elegy to Fong Lee, a Hmong American teenager shot and killed by the police in Minneapolis under very suspicious circumstances. As the poem’s introduction notes:

In 2006, Minneapolis Police Officer Jason Andersen shot and killed Fong Lee, a 19-year old Hmong American.  Andersen was awarded a Medal of Valor, though the Lee family and community members allege that Fong Lee was unarmed and the gun found on the scene was planted by police.  During a foot chase in North Minneapolis, Andersen shot at Lee 9 times, 1 bullet missing, the other 8 hitting Fong Lee as he ran and as he lay dying on the ground.

8 (9) embeds significant parenthetic phrases  (gang member for Lee; hero and peace officer for Anderson) to suggest the moral panic evoked by the police department in smearing Lee in court.  The poem captures the irony of Hmong Americans who fled persecution in their home country only to find more violence as well as flagrant racism once in the U.S. It also links Lee’s experience with other egregious cases of police brutality, invoking among others Oakland’s Oscar Grant, whose killer, Johannes Mehserle, has already been released from prison after serving just 24 months.

Fong Lee's mother Youa Vang Lee, 2010.

Bao Phi has active in the fight to bring Lee’s killer to justice, using his poetry and spoken word pieces as well as numerous blogs posts and articles to illuminate this grave miscarriage of justice. Unfortunately the fight has thus far been a futile one, with the Supreme Court recently declining to review the case, but it has galvanized an outraged Minneapolis Asian American community. Phi has been at the forefront of the struggle, and by using poetry as a means of memorializing the injustices in Lee’s death, his work offers hope for preventing future cases of unchecked police brutality. It’s great to see an artist passionately engaged with important social issues–I’m counting the days to the release of his first book, due out in the fall from Coffeehouse Press.

Here and here are a couple nice blog entries by Bao Phi outlining the Fong Lee case and Phi’s involvement in it. As usual the comments section is instructive in itself.

With many thanks to Bao Phi, here in its entirety is 8 (9).

8 (9)

In memory of Fong Lee

And for the Lee family, and the Justice for Fong Lee committee

In 2006, Minneapolis Police Officer Jason Andersen shot and killed Fong Lee, a 19-year old Hmong American.  Andersen was awarded a Medal of Valor, though the Lee family and community members allege that Fong Lee was unarmed and the gun found on the scene was planted by police.  During a foot chase in North Minneapolis, Andersen shot at Lee 9 times, 1 bullet missing, the other 8 hitting Fong Lee as he ran and as he lay dying on the ground.

1.

Community members point out that accusations about Fong Lee’s history and character, specifically allegations that he was in a gang, were allowed in court and written about in the press.   But Officer Andersen’s alleged dislike of Asians and history of derogatory remarks against Asians was neither allowed in court nor written about in the press.

One of the devil’s greatest powers

Is to force you to take a deal

That he himself would never take.

2.

Fong Lee was 19 (gang member). I can imagine him (gang member) and his (gang member) family. They are eating (gang member) something that steams and it does not steam like food from this (gang member) country, the smell lingers (gang member) like home.  It is Minnesota so (gang member) the lights inside no matter how dim somehow makes (gang member) all indoor rooms feel warm.  Now its summer and he’s fishing with his (gang member) friends.  They (gang member) get on bikes and their (gang member) legs drape low, (gang member), arms lazy crosses on the handlebars.   Their heads lean as they debate the Minnesota Vikings (gang member) and the Minnesota Twins, slapping absently at the logos (gang member) on their caps and (gang member) shirts.

3.

Officer Jason Andersen (hero) shot Hmong American teenager Fong Lee eight times (to serve and protect). A bullet wound in Fong Lee’s hand suggests the teenager may have held his hands up in surrender (decorated officer) as Officer Andersen (white) shot (Medal of Valor) him.  Andersen was also charged with domestic assault (peace officer) by his girlfriend though charges were later dropped (officer of the law).  Officer Andersen (police officer) was also accused of kicking (hero) an African American teenager who was on the ground in handcuffs in 2008.

4.

An all-white jury found Officer Anderson not guilty of using excessive force.

Put a blindfold on me

Tell me who you fear

And I will tell you

Your skin.

5.

I’m wondering when people will care.

If we made your story into a movie about killing dolphins, perhaps.

6.

I’m 18 and the brutal cold holsters my hands into the warm solace of my jacket pockets.  The police officer snaps his hand to his gun.  My pockets are empty.  My hands open.  Still.  My story would have ended in smoke and red snow.  If my body lay there, perforated, would I bleed through holes in his story?

7.

Lost, you turn the car around and see trees stretching up like greenbrown fencing up to the blue skies.  For a moment you think that woods stretch forever, somewhere close a bubbling stream whispers white kisses across worn rocks, a deer leans its neck down to drink, the velvet moss of a hushed secret world here in your city.  But just beyond the neck of scrub trees is the hint of chain-link, the distant ghost silhouette of strip mall, just one step past the shadows of those leaves are railroad tracks running like stitches over broken glass and gravel.

Minnesota Nice: this city hides its scars so well.

8.

All our lives, men with guns.

Chased, in the womb, in the arms

Of our parents.

Our parents

Chased, all our lives,

By men with guns.

In the womb, in our parent’s arms

We’ve run

Chased by men with guns.

(9).

Michael Cho.  Cau Thi Bich Tran.  John T. Williams.

Tycel Nelson.  Oscar Grant.  Fong Lee.

May your names be the hymn

wind that sways

police bullets to miss.

Bao Phi

November 25, 2010


Bao Phi has been a performance poet since 1991. A two-time Minnesota Grand Slam champion and a National Poetry Slam finalist, Bao Phi has appeared on HBO Presents Russell Simmons Def Poetry, and a poem of his appeared in the 2006 Best American Poetry anthology.

Valerie Soe is a San Francisco filmmaker and artist and her productions include art/film/revolution (2007); Carefully Taught (2002); Picturing Oriental Girls: A (Re) Educational Videotape, (1992, Best Bay Area Short, Golden Gate Awards, San Francisco International Film Festival)  and “ALL ORIENTALS LOOK THE SAME, (1986, Best Foreign Video, Festival Internazionale Cinema Giovani). She has recently screened at the Getty Center’s exhibition California Video and at the New Museum of Art in New York City, and her most recent video, Snapshot: Six Months of the Korean American Male, has screened extensively at film festivals across the country. She is also a professor in San Francisco State University’s Asian American Studies Department.

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 did you think of Bao Phi’s 8(9)? How can  spoken word poetry voice injustices and call out for justice?


Work, life, farming, family and food—An interdisciplinary immersion into Vietnam


diaCRITIC and Australian National University lecturer Ashley Carruthers reflects here upon the contours and successes of the ANU Field School in Vietnam, a fully immersive model which offers Australian students local Vietnamese perspectives on everything from environmental sustainability to the cultural impact of tourism and the rewards of karaoke, despite one’s potential (in)ability to carry a tune.

I teach a number of courses at the Australian National University, but the Vietnam Field School is by far my most valued and enjoyable yearly teaching experience. Back at the campus I sometimes find it hard to compete with Facebook for my students’ attention in the lecture theatre. When we get to Vietnam, suddenly I am a valued repository of knowledge on this amazing place in which they find themselves. It’s very gratifying.

The school’s counterpart in Vietnam is Danang University, and we base our activities in Danang city, Hoi An and the Quang Nam countryside. On the trip, teaching staff have the chance to work closely with a  group of 25 undergraduate students. The school is deliberately interdisciplinary, but the majority of students come from environment and anthropology backgrounds, and the core focus is on the nexus between environmental and social science. Food is a popular research topic, with approaches varying from tracing food commodity chains to investigating the social, cultural and gendered meanings of the food consumed in the diverse locations the school visits. Globalisation and consumer culture are also popular foci, as is tourism, both in terms of sustainability and around issues of commodification and authenticity. The more hardcore environmental scientists have in the past pursued questions of waste disposal, water access and purity. The threat of contamination of the water table by recently introduced chemical pesticides and fertilisers is something that villagers are becoming increasingly aware of.

In the Quang Nam countryside

With guidance from lecturers and tutors, students conceptualise their own group and individual research topics and strategies, and then pursue them in the field by means of interview, survey and participant observation.  At the end of the trip they present the results of their research with the help of powerpoint back in Danang University’s beautiful new classrooms. Field translation help is provided by the ANU staff, as well as by students from Danang University. The Danang U students are an invaluable resource, and we rely on them to introduce our students to the city and help them understand some of the key issues facing it. (The relocation of poor fishing and farming communities from the waterfront and the gentrification of this area are current hot topics, as is the construction of an ultramodern “new town” on reclaimed land to the north of the city.) And of course the Danang students are diligent in teaching our ANU students where to eat, and in acquainting them with the fact that it’s OK to sing karaoke even if you have a terrible voice.

ANU students meeting DNU students who will host them for the homestay in Danang

Homestays are an major aspect of the course, and these encounters are important in so many ways. The Australian students have the chance of a precious insight into the everyday lifestyles of both rural and urban people in Vietnam, enabling them to make comparisons across what is arguably the greatest social divide in contemporary Vietnam. They are also able to appreciate that university students in Danang come from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds. One year, a student was denied permission to stay with her host overnight when registering with the Ward police because they deemed her counterpart’s family “too poor” to be appropriate hosts for a foreign student. Meanwhile, a student billeted with another Danang family was picked up from the hotel not by Honda but in the family’s gleaming new SUV.

The homestays are always a crash course in cultural difference. The ANU students are often surprised find that they are to share a bed with their (same sex) student host, and a bed with a hard bamboo mat instead of a mattress at that. The next surprise is that sleep is usually considered a lesser priority to the important business of becoming friends and sharing confidences late into the night. This year one student took a “2 minutes before bedtime” photograph in her billet’s room in which there were fully twenty people present—family, friends and neighbours enjoying the novelty of her visit and eager to ask questions about her life in Australia.

More homestay students meeting one another in Danang

Our students are always impressed and fascinated by how serious, hard-working and globally focused their Vietnamese counterparts are. They are also amazed by how these dynamic young women (the vast majority of our students are female) negotiate tradition, gender norms, paternal authority and family expectations while also being strikingly independent. For their part, the Danang students are eager to compare themselves to their international counterparts, and to find out about their home lives, study habits, aspirations and ideas about romance. Friendships forged in Danang continue via Facebook and sometimes beyond.

Other aspects of the course include Vietnamese language tuition and lectures from local academics, business people and members of government departments. Every year we have an engaging  discussion with the Party General Secretary of Hoi An on the problems of environmental sustainability and the cultural impact of tourism in the town. He takes thorny questions from our students with equanimity and his answers never fail to be both eloquent and frank. Every year our students come away with a keen appreciation of how the questions of environment, development and sustainability look from a Vietnamese perspective—or rather from a range of situated local perspectives. Indeed, our students find themselves parting with their textbook assumptions about these issues almost immediately on arriving in Danang.

Students learning about irrigation, land tenure and use and agricultural practices at the village where we stay in Quang Nam

The highlight of the trip is always the stay in the village in Quang Nam. We spend three nights in this subsistence rice farming village, and every year we manage to observe and learn a little more, and to find ways of helping the village a little more effectively. Last year we established a modest “cow bank”, and one of the cows obliged by calving during our visit in January, a year to the day it was inducted into the ANU revolving bovine development fund. This year we funded the building of a volleyball and badminton court, and donated an oxygen cylinder to the local clinic. We are also looking at encouraging the purchase and installation of biogas units that run on animal waste and provide a free source of cooking gas. We are extraordinarily privileged in being allowed to stay in the villagers’ houses, and to crawl all over the place asking questions of all and sundry about water quality, pesticides, fertilisers, food chains, kinship systems, land tenure, tree plantations, graves, mobile phones and dreams of life in the city. In turn the local residents counter-interview us about work, life, farming, family and food back in Australia. It’s quite an exchange.

Players on the volleyball court funded by ANU

ANU donating an oxygen cylinder to the local clinic

We have now run the ANU Vietnam Field School five times. Naturally there were teething troubles at the start, but by now it runs incredibly smoothly, in large part thanks to the professionalism and good faith of the International Co-operation Department of Danang University. A number of summer schools are held by international institutions in Vietnam, but I believe ours is the only one that makes use of a fully immersive field model. The news I want to share with this blog is that this kind of teaching is now feasible in Vietnam. It requires some institutional relationship building and negotiation, but it is doable, and it is very rewarding indeed. One of the payoffs we are already beginning to see is that students who have done the course are pursuing their interest in Vietnam through their graduate studies, or by returning there to work with environmental NGOs and other organisations.

ANU students listening to headphones at the computers that ANU donated to the Danang Blind Association

Ashley Carruthers is a cultural anthropologist who lectures in the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at the Australian National University

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