Category Archives: New York City

Chaw Ei Thein: Expression and Exile in Burma

Back when I was finding my bearings while writing on contemporory art in Saigon, an artist and RMIT faculty member named Richard Streitmatter-Tran was one of my most informative and generous contacts. During my last interview with Rich, he touched on an aspect of his life we hadn’t spoken about in our previous conversations: his wife, the Burmese artist and political asylee, Chaw Ei Thein.

So when I received an email notification from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop that Chaw Ei would be performing and speaking at their 27th Street space, I marked my calendar.

I arrived to find the chairs arranged around a curious performance space comrpised of a toy motorcycle, a model airplane, a bed of stones, a bowl of rice, and a bucket of water. As the evening began,  Chaw Ei emerged from a back office, her face obscured by a black detention hood, ambling in a rigged, pained march that recalled butoh. At the motorcycle, she raised her arms in front of her and squatted, as if riding an imaginary bike. Then, at the airplane, she stood on one leg with arms stretched out to her side, again seemingly simulating transport. Next, she kneeled on the stones and ate from the bowl of rice, her arms behind her back. As she crawled forward to the bucket, I thought she might drink from it. Instead, she submerged her face, as if being drowned by a phantom assailant.

Performance photos courtesy of Jonathan Hulland

Afterwards, during a discussion led by Todd Lester, founder of event co-sponsor freeDimensional, Chaw Ei spoke about her belief that all Burmese have a responsibility to do what they can to fight for freedom. As a political asylee unable to contribute directly, performance has become Chaw Ei’s contribution.

The performance, in fact, is a quite literal expression of torture in Burmese prions: the motorbike and airplane simulations mirror stress positions prisoners are made to endure, while eating from the rice bowl expresses the humiliation tied to even the most basic human necessity of sustence. The drowning requires no explanation. Through this visceral and disturbing art piece, Chaw Ei raises awareness of the more than 2,000 political prisoners currently being detained and tortured in Burma. In the photos above, you can see representations of them meticulously scrawled on her face, arms, and legs.

Chaw Ei herself has spent time in a Burmese prison. She described a performance in which she and collaborator Htein Lin sold items on the street pegged to the old currency, a means of calling out the rapid inflation caused by the Burmese junta’s devastating monetary policy. The authorities were not amused; they locked up Chaw Ei and Htein for a brief period.

September Sweetness, Chaw Ei Thein & Richard Streitmatter Tran, via http://chaweithein.blogspot.com/

September Sweetness, Chaw Ei Thein & Richard Streitmatter Tran, via http://chaweithein.blogspot.com/

She also touched on September Sweetness, a collaborative project from the 2008 Singapore Biennale that I’d seen in materials Rich had given me. The project encompassed a 5.5-tonnes sculpture of a Buddhist temple, inspired by a photograph of a decaying temple in Burma’s Bagan region. Once completed, the impressive piece, which was completed with the help of more than a dozen volunteers, was left in the humid open air to melt. Chaw Ei mentioned that the project reflected the Buddhist concept of impermanence, but it is also open to interpretation. Among many things, one can read into it the state of decay Burma has long suffered, reflected by the actual decay of its architectural heritage.

In as far as it sought to raise awareness, the event was a success. After Chaw Ei’s performance and Todd Lester’s interview, many in the audience were eager to hear Chaw Ei’s feelings on the current political situation in Burma and find out how they could better inform themselves. I would strongly urge anyone interested in these issues to support the work of freeDimensional and event co-sponsor, the World Policy Institute. Through freeDimensional, Chaw Ei and other artists have been able to secure positions in New York Foundation for the Arts’ Immigrant Artists Program.

More about the artist:

CHAW EI THEIN (b. 1969, Yangon, Myanmar) is a painter and performance artist currently based in New York. Chaw ei was selected for the New York Foundation for the Arts Mentoring Program for Immigrants Artists through a partnership with freeDimensional. Her work has been widely covered in the international arts press including Asian Art Now, Asian Art Achieve, Artforum, Art Asia Pacific, Yishu, C-Arts, The Strait Times and The New York Times. In addition to her work as an artist, she is also co-founder and Director of the Sunflower Art Gallery in Yangon. In this capacity she has developed several initiatives including the organizing of art exhibitions and fairs including special exhibitions for children’s art in Myanmar and Cambodia, and for psychiatric patients. She has been teaching art to children for more than 15 years and served as Editor for a youth magazine in Yangon. As an advocate for art, education, and creative expression, she has been a vocal critic of the restrictive curricula in Burma. Currently living in New York, she has exhibited new works at the Point B Gallery, Da Gallery, Fardom Gallery, Puffin Room, SoapBox Gallery, United Nations Plaza and the International Studio and Curatorial Programme (ISCP) Open Studios, Grace Exhibition Art Space in United States. Her website is www.chaweithein.blogspot.com.

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D&D Banh Mi in New York

On the corner of Seventh and Heaven

I’ve been looking all over New York City for a proper bánh mì đặc biệt. Or as I call it, a down-and-dirty bánh mì đặc biệt.

Why down and dirty? Because the bánh mì đặc biệt that I’m used to is layered with the type of meat that timid to semi-cautious diners out would avoid: porous white pork meat, fatty pork skin, etc., etc. I’ve had some plenty good bánh mì in New York City, but most of it is dressed up for the health-conscious Manhattan/Brooklyn set. Less marbling, more marinated pork shoulder.

But then I found it. A true D&D bánh mì. In pursuit of a can of ginger ale, I wandered into what looked like a bodega in Chinatown not even noticing the Paris by Night-esque posters plastering the door, and realized this was no ordinary bodega. It was a tiny Vietnamese deli. Behind the sneeze guard was a range of salads, giant tapioca balls and banana leaf-wrapped treats. The rest of the joint was given over to bootleg DVDs, Vietnamese records and other sundry items from the motherland. And tucked away behind the counter, the telltale tin bins stocked with julienned pickled carrot and daikon, sliced cucumbers, and meat. Glorious, dodgy meat.

I forked over four bucks and walked out with what looked like any bánh mì I’d ordered on the streets of Saigon. The first bite confirmed what the looks of this sandwich seemed to promise: a taste of home. The thin-sliced, slightly chewy texture of the meat, the cilantro and lemongrass lovingly tossed atop the fixins, the thin slather of mayo reminding me of Banh Mi Hanoi down in D3.

God bless you, Sau Voi Corp. You and your dodgy D&D bánh mì.

Sau Voi Corp., 101 Lafayette St., corner of Walker, one block south of Canal Street, Chinatown.

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The Queen is Back in Town

Photo courtesy of Eric Isaac, ericisaac.com

One day back in Saigon, I stopped by Bread & Butter for lunch expecting to order from the tiny Pham Ngu Lao joint’s menu of English pub fare. While I wouldn’t have my craving for bangers n mash satisfied that day, I would get a surpise that would sustain me through many a bout of lunchtime homesickness.

On that fateful day, I pulled up a stool and began perusing a new menu that read like a best hits of American comfort food. 

Philly cheesteaks. Grilled cheese with tomato basil soup. Blackened catfish po’ boys. Muffuleta  sandwiches. Mission style burritos.

Who was sprinkling this manna from heaven? None other than Liza Queen.

Residents of Greenpoint may remember Liza from her Brooklyn eatery, The Queen’s Hideaway. The Hideaway closed in 2008 due to some serious New York landlord douchebaggery, but that misfortune sent Liza to Saigon, where she took up residence alongside her long-time buddy and friend to Bread & Butter barflies, Dan Carey. But it turns out Liza wasn’t just schooling B&B’s kitchen staff on the finer points of American classics; she was learning, too.

Liza recently debuted her Vietnamese fare under the banner of Queen’s Dahn Tu at the inaugural Smorgasburg, the Brooklyn Flea’s new food market. After reading about the event on Brooklyn Based, I trekked over to the Williamsburg waterfront to try Liza’s take on banh xeo, banh trang tron, and bun thit nuong. (Bep is also serving bun thit nuong, corn on the cob [i.e., bep], and other Vietnamese staples at Smorgasburg.)

Apparently it was good. By the time I showed up at 2pm, Liza and her crew were slinging their last few servings and getting ready to restock. I got my hands on one of the banh xeo, and though for $8 the portion was a bit smaller than I’d expect, it was certainly tasty, made with more elegant ingredients than you’ll typically find at the smoke-billowing Saigon street stand.

(Plus, 9000 hours in Saigon will make a cheap bastard out of anyone.)

 The experience of noshing on banh xeo while looking out over the Manhattan skyline was surreal, but then, so was tucking into a Mission burrito as roving bicycle vendors squawked their sales pitches in the hem outside Bread & Butter.

Welcome back, Miss Queen.

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Filed under Food & Drink, Ho Chi Minh City, New York City

9000 Seconds of Saigon 05.20.11

Introducing your friendly Saigon blogger’s weekly biweekly-ish digest of roughly two and half hours worth of reading and viewing on Saigon, Vietnam, Asia-Pacific, and Asia’s intersection with New York City.

Right here on 9000 Hours in Saigon, Mike from Along the Mekong posted a query about getting your foot in the door at expat magazines to the About section. Check out my lengthy reply if you’re a budding wordsmith in Vietnam.

courtesy of diacritic.org

After a long absence from the blogosphere, contemporary artist and dia/projects founder Richard Streitmatter-Tran has dusted off diacritic.org and logged a breakdown of dia/projects’ activities one year since its opening.

courtesy of diacritics.org

Meanwhile, the folks inspired by the original diacritic have been reliably churning out dispatches from the diaspora. This week, the diacritics (plural) published articles on a surviving warren of Vietnamese refugees in France, contemporary art photography in Phnom Penh, spoken word artist Bao Phi, and Tran Anh Hung’s latest film, Norwegian Wood

courtesy of Asia Society

Being back in New York has its advantages–like getting to visit Ai Wei Wei’s new public sculpture in Grand Army Plaza. The Asia Society has a short post and two-minute video on Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads on its blog.

If that blurry chef in the background of the lead photo for this New York Times article looks vaguely familiar, you were probably a regular at Pham Ngu Lau’s Bread &  Butter during the past couple of years. Liza Queen is back in Brooklyn and serving up the Vietnamese fare she learned to make during her tw0-year stint in Saigon. Look for her bun thit nuong and banh xeo under the banner of Queen’s Dahn Ta at the Brooklyn Flea’s new all-food market, Smorgasburg.

And speaking of Western chefs in Vietnam, you can check out the Phan Thiet/Mui Ne segments of Gordon Ramsay’s Great Escapes on muinebeach.net (for which blogger Adam Bray was a consultant). 

From Tom’s twitter stream this week:

Border Troubles
 
Cambodia refuses to remove troops from #PreahVihear, Thailand responds by blocking Indonesian observers along border. http://t.co/guq6rtZ
 
Soundtrack of Street Life in Vietnam
 
Propaganda or poetry? Vietnam’s iconic loudspeakers punctuate public life with messages from the Party. http://bit.ly/mrFR7s
 
Trouble Among the Hmong
 
Report on #Hmong conflict in northern #Vietnam via @ChristianPost suggests some culpability among messianic leaders http://t.co/A1u4RE8
 
@hrw pressures Vietnam to open investigation into recent unrest among #Hmong hill tribes in Muong Nhe.
 
Guns Blazing
 
ASEAN defence ministers seek to halve weapons spending by coordinating trade among regional industries. http://bit.ly/im9M6r
  
A Message for Canada’s New Conservative Majority
 
Editorial: Canada needs to rethink its commitment to the #EastAsiaSummit. http://bit.ly/mzWUhU

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Four Kitchens, One in Hanoi

A few weeks ago, I journeyed to Sunset Park to meet Village Voice restaurant critic Lauren Shockey at the far-flung Vietnamese restaurant Thanh Da. I’d been introduced to Lauren through a college friend who thought we might get along, as Lauren had spent some time in Vietnam. By spent some time in Vietnam, I thought my friend meant that Lauren had passed through on the backpacking circuit.

But that was not what she meant. Lauren, in fact, had traveled to Hanoi for a residency at La Verticale, the home base of Didier Corlou, a chef who separates his own salt from nuoc mam and plays chemistry with essential oils extracted from local herbs.

I can now only marvel at how pedantic I must have sounded to a woman who’d punched the clock at one of Hanoi’s best kitchens.

Fortunately, Miss Shockey is a kind gourmand who drew no attention to my presumptuousness. She’s also a seriously talented food writer with a new book due out soon: Four Kitchens: My Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris. As the title suggests, the book documents Lauren’s experience as an apprentice at four kitchens around the world. The anecdotes Lauren related over dinner were enough to win my pre-order, but it’s her time in Hanoi that’s really got me curious.

During my stint as managing editor at AsiaLIFE HCMC, I spent a few hours in November 2008 with Didier Corlou, back when he was in residence at On the 6 in downtown Saigon. The man is a hurricane. We had barely finished shaking hands when he hauled me into his kitchen and hoisted uncorked jars of his herbal concoctions to my schnoz while rhapsodizing in a thick French accent about his passions and process. I could barely understand him, but I was rapt. I can only imagine what an extended stay in his world was like, and I’m looking forward to reading Lauren’s chronicles of life with Corlou.

(And for the record, the bun bo Hue and che ba mau at Thanh Da are well worth the long ride on the N train.)

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Filed under Books, Food & Drink, Hanoi, New York City

Bun Thit Not-So-Nuong

Perhaps one of the biggest adjustments to life after Saigon is lunch. Eating on the street became part of my lifestyle, and it’s something that I’ve tried to incorporate into my routine here in New York. Working days in Midtown, I didn’t think that would be easy. But soon after starting my gig I discovered the Midtown Lunch blog, an indispensible compendium to street stalls, cheap eats, and food happenings in the corporate jungle.

I was intrigued one day to find an anouncement on Midtown Lunch for the opening of Cha Pa Noodles & Grill, a new Vietnamese joint just two avenues from the office. Bun thit nuong, my lunch of choice while living in the Ho, seemed to feature prominently on Cha Pa’s menu. It took me a few weeks to carve out time to try Cha Pa, but last night I needed a quick bite before attending a Granta Magazine reading at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, so I hoofed over to Hell’s Kitchen, fleet footed at the thought of grilled pork slathered in nuoc cham.



And then things went wrong.

The first sign of trouble? No bean sprouts. Whatever. I can deal. I stirred the dish to mingle the rice vermicelli, pork, carrot, daikon, cucumber, and peanuts, and alarm bells went off. A plume of steam wafted from the bowl. “Is this…? Are the noodles…?”

Yes, the noodles were hot. I texted a friend: “Have you ever had hot bun thit nuong?” She inquired as to whether I meant the meat. I did not. She was disturbed. So was I. I tried a few chop stickfuls and gobbled up the pork, which was quite good. But overall, the dish was a big fail. The pickled daikon and carrot were there, but the flavor was MIA. Weak nuoc cham. A miserly dash of peanuts. Disappointment. Regret. Longing.

I left a pile of noodles in protest, ordered the bill, and left my $15 (including tip), feeling like sucker. Suddenly moving back to Saigon for the sake of frequenting my Tran Khac Chan Street bun thit nuong stall didn’t seem such a ridiculous proposition. Yes, New York is the center of the universe. But Saigon has bun thit nuong for 15,000 VND, or $1 (plus cha gio). If you think that’s an uneven trade, you’ve probably never had good bun thit nuong.

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Tiffany Chung Opening at Tyler Rollins Fine Art, New York

If you needed proof that there’s no escape from Saigon…

I’ll be returning to the States next week, with a stopover in New York at the beginning of November. Serendipitously, Tiffany Chung, a Saigon-based artist and co-founder of artist-operated space San Art, will be opening her new solo show, Scratching the Walls of Memory, at Tyler Rollins Fine Art in Chelsea (529 W 20th St.) on November 4 from 6 to 8:30 pm. It will be a two-week reunion of sorts, as another San Art founder, Dinh Q. Le, and a few other folks from the Saigon scene will be in the Big Apple. This will be a great opportunity to speak to some of the people on the forefront of developing contemporary arts infrastructure in Ho Chi Minh City.

For a bit of background, check out my cover story on the contemporary arts in Saigon (issue 25) and my Q&A with Dinh Q. Le (issue 27) in the AsiaLIFE archives. The Q&A is also available for faster viewing at San Art’s press section.

More information on the show from Tyler Rollins Fine Art:

For her second solo exhibition at Tyler Rollins Fine Art, taking place in November and December 2010, Tiffany Chung will present a new series of works inspired by maps of urban regions, featuring embroidery and appliqué works on canvas in addition to a number of drawings on paper. Chung has been fascinated with maps for many years, not only for their graphic possibilities but also for what they say about both our relation to the past and our visions of the future.

Her exhibition, entitled scratching the walls of memory, explores the topographic after-images of some of the past century’s most traumatic conflicts and includes maps of the Berlin Wall, the Korean DMZ, and the atomic bomb blast zones in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The exhibition marks a turning point in her work, as it is the first time she interweaves important historical events with personal and family history.

Chung is considered to be Vietnam’s most prominent female contemporary artist. She is noted for her sculptures, videos, photographs, and performance work that use an exuberantly pop aesthetic to conjure hyperreal visions of contemporary Vietnam, which function as candy-colored counterparts to the more typical “traumatized” representations of Vietnam’s recent history…

Continue reading at Tyler Rollins Fine Art.

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Filed under Art, New York City, Vietnam