Category Archives: Vietnam

Tom Gets Scribd

I’ve just uploaded seven of my greatest hits from my tenure at AsiaLIFE HCMC. (Or at least my mom says they’re my greatest hits.) Check them out at my new Scribd account or click right to the articles below.

Scooter Madness: How American intervention, an underground economy and Cold War politics created the world’s last stockpile of classic Italian scooters. April 2009.

I Want My VNTV: Local audiences remain critical of Vietnamese television, but it’s hard to deny the demand for homegrown content. Industry insiders speak about delivering better programming in Vietnam. June 2010.

Primates on the Rebound: On a small island in Cat Tien National Park, a group of conservationists has big plans to counter the trade in endangered primates through rehabilitation, research and education. April 2010

Work in Progress: Over the past decade, the contemporary art scene in Ho Chi Minh City has quietly flourished. But limited infrastructure, lack of funding, and the enduring challenges of working within the confines of state oversight have presented obstacles to providing services to artists and attracting collectors. An overview of the scene and a look at some of the art being created in the thanh pho. April 2010.

Wildlife in Jeopardy: Vietnam is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet, but it has also suffered from decades of deforestation and habitat loss and remains a hot spot for wildlife trade. Today, conservationists face an uphill battle to save Vietnam’s beleaguered wildlife. March 2010

The Next New Battleground: Local and international businesses have found an alternative to shrinking export markets in the last place anyone expected: rural Vietnam. November 2009

Solving Saigon’s Congestion Question: The way we drive now and a look at the plans and problems that lie ahead for Ho Chi Minh City. November 2009.

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Filed under Art, Conservation, Culture, History, Ho Chi Minh City, Pop Culture, Television, Transportation, Vietnam

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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Filed under Cambodia, Media, New York City, Photography, Vietnam

My [Doi Moi]

One of the things I missed most about New York when I was living in Ho Chi Minh City was theaters like the IFC Center in the West Village. While looking for a Thursday night diversion recently, I discovered that the director of My Perestroika, Robin Hessman, and one of the families she profiled in the documentary, the Meyersons, would be attending a screening of the film that night at IFC.

The film tracks the lives of four subjects, from their childhood in Soviet Russia through their coming of age during perestroika to the present Putin-dominated day. In addition to documenting the day to day of schoolteachers Boris and Lyubov Meyerson and their son, Hessman turns her lens on a French shirt shop franchisee, a hopeless punk rocker, and a wealthy wife cum billiards company saleswoman.

In a film such as this, history and politics are certain to loom large, but Hessman manages throughout to establish Soviet culture as a context rather than a subject. This is a film about people; the tagline, after all, is “A nation’s history is personal.” Still, I was not surprised when, during the Q&A, audience members, both Russian and American alike, either directly questioned Hessman and the Meyersons about politics or paired their comments with statements about the dire situation in Russia.

At one point, an American man asked Hessman if she ever felt compelled to question her subjects directly about politics. She offered an explanation of the relationship between the personal and political in Russia. For many people, politics existed parallel to their everyday lives during the Soviet era, and the two very seldomly intersected. It was only during the 90s that free elections created that intersection. Under Putin, the personal and poltical have since diverged into parallel existences again. The Meyersons’ answers to similar questions seemed to echo this idea; things are not getting better, and they will not at least until Putin is out of the picture. But we’ll keep living our lives.

This idea of a parallel existence between the personal and political, where seldom the two shall meet, seems very much to apply to life in Vietnam, as well. The questions I get about living in Vietnam often imply an overriding idea of the place, one essentially defined by one-party communist rule. But Vietnam is a country of about 88 million people in which membership in the ruling Communist Party stands at 3.6 million. And while the I consider the Vietnamese to be tremendously well-informed–the sight of xe om drivers cracking the morning paper is still fresh in my mind–it also struck me as a fairly apolitical place. Like perestroika, doi moi and subsequent reforms have placed the focus squarely on a now obtainable better future.

And that’s why I think, as a journalist, filmmaker, or documentarian of another stripe who lives long term in a country like Russia or Vietnam, one’s attention naturally veers from the overtly political and begins to focus on the ways in which people create paths of self-determination in places where human rights and civil liberties are curtailed. It’s why the topics broached in a soap opera seem as fascinating as the outcome of a party congress, why consumer trends can seem revelatory, and the choice of one motorbike over another is suddenly fascinating.

When you crack open that monolithic idea of a place and start examining the minutiae of everyday life, you realize that you could spend your entire life in a place, and never come close to offering a definitive portrayal of it. You can only ever offer glimpses and impressions–hopefully rendered with respect and discipline (which Hessman certainly does in My Perestroika). There will always be people whose instinct is to boil down a place or a people to an essential truth, but for journalists and documentarians, I think the best possible retort will always remain, “Yeah, but…”

My Perestroika is successful, I believe, because it acknowledges a widely held belief about a certain place in a certain era, but offers plenty of buts.

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Filed under Film, Ideas, Vietnam

Telling Stories in an Adopted Land: Or Why I’m Not a Foreign Correspondant Cowboy

The guy was an old hand–if you’ve practiced journalism in Vietnam, you know the OH type. Within a few minutes of talking, my elder colleague was boasting of being blacklisted, or having suffered some such form of censure by the Vietnamese government. Exactly what offense had invited the attention of the information authorities the OH did not disclose. Or perhaps I simply do not remember–because I was busy eyeing the room for an escape route.

Jesus. I was just here for the press lunch.

Unfortunately, I was unable to elude the OH, and during our lunch,  the conversation cycled around to a topic that I thought I’d discouraged earlier by changing the subject from subversive journalism to something so thoroughly inconsequential I cannot now remember it. The OH complimented my magazine, AsiaLIFE HCMC, but he wanted to know why we hadn’t used our long-form journalism platform to dig deeper, explore the good stuff, the really controversial stories that would get people talking.

Re: the type of stuff that would get me blacklisted, possibly denied my next visa.

In the past, I had been pretty non-confrontational in answering this question. It came up frequently enough. The OH designation isn’t exclusive to august journos. It’s a cowboy mentality inspired by the perception (or projection) of Southeast Asia as the Wild Wild East, a place where one can live out one’s own modern-day Dispatches. The OH credo might be, “If a story doesn’t stir enough shit, it’s not worth telling.” I’ve found that OHs typically assume that you, as a fellow journalist in rollicking Southeast Asia, abide by the same maxim. When you burst their bubble, it can get uncomfortable.

But this time, I don’t know. Maybe I wasn’t feeling so polite. Maybe I just wanted this guy to stop talking so I could enjoy my coffee. I told the OH that I felt it was presumptuous for Western journalists to enter the country and immediately begin writing about what was wrong with it. Although heavily censored, domestic media exists in Vietnam, and institutional criticism is best handled by Vietnamese, the people for whom the end results of that criticism matter the most.

That did the job. I finished my lunch in peace.

This incident came to mind last night while I listened to a panel of journalists and media professionals speak on working in East Asia at the Weatherhead East Asia Institute at Columbia. Among the speakers were Isabel Hilton, founder and editor of the bilingual news site chinadialogue.net and Abi E. Wright, director of Columbia’s DuPont and Chancellor Awards and formerly of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The conversation, perhaps inevitably, led to self censorship and respecting the situation of partner journalists in countries with limited press freedom.

It was particularly refreshing to hear Hilton say that chinadialogue is strategic about what subjects they cover. They do good work, penning stories that many would be surprised they’re allowed to publish. On top of that, they’ve never been censured. I always felt our role at AsiaLIFE was to provide the context and insight necessary for a majority expatriate audience to process Vietnam more thoughtfully and compassionately. Doing so month after month, I believe, was more valuable to our readers than a one-off expose that resulted in our publishing house being shuttered. 

Wright also brought up a great point in response to my question about partnering with foreign journalists. Sensation sells, especially a sensational story from a place widely perceived as repressive, and for someone who will be leaving the country behind, it can be tempting to snag that big byline. But when you leave the country, your contacts and partners are still there. To breeze over this reality is a pretty clear breach of journalistic ethics.

On a similar note, moderator Robert Barnett, director of Columbia’s Modern Tibetan Studies Program, spoke to the importance of writing on the issues rather than the event. One runs the risk of getting an editor (and oneself) hooked on sensational event pieces, when in fact an investigation into issues is more valuable to the reader. 

For me, the speakers’ insights reinforced that foreign journalists and media professionals working in countries with established, albeit controlled media need to listen to and learn from local journalists. If I decided not to write or assign a story at AsiaLIFE, it wasn’t always because I knew the censor would contort it into a misleading jumble of non-information; it was just as often because I felt that I or the writer did not have a sufficiently nuanced understanding of the culture or underlying issues to achieve what the story sought to achieve. In forming partnerships with local journalists, I’m convinced that the foreigner should more often than not play a supporting role.

It was serendipitous that just before the event, I was reading a chapter entitled The Newspaperman from former Washington Post Beijing Bureau Chief Philip P. Pan’s Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the New Soul of China. This chapter of Pan’s excellent book follows the role of Guangdong Province’s Southern Metropolis Daily and its editor in chief, Cheng Yizhong, in exposing government dishonesty during the SARS epidemic and closing down the brutal shourong detention system. Cheng and his staff took on these fights at tremendous personal risk, and were only able to accomplish what they accomplished thanks to a cunning rooted in their deep understanding of the context in which they were working.

Out of Mao’s Shadow is full of stories such as this, stories in which ordinary people rise above fear and champion the truth. I wondered as I finished the chapter on the train home whether telling their stories might have been just as rewarding as any byline Pan ever earned in his eight years in China.

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Filed under Ideas, Media, Uncategorized, Vietnam

A New Home, Full of Smiles

This past Sunday was a special one for Smile Group, a grassroots organization that supports disadvantaged HIV/AIDS-affected families in Ho Chi Minh City.  After operating out of the Thao Danh drop-in center for more than a year, Smile Group has found its own house in a beautiful building with an enclosed courtyard shaded by a mango tree. You can tell by the photos how excited the families are to have this new space for their meetings and activities.

What will they do with that new space? Lots. One of the best things about Smile Group is their focus on enrichment. Documentarian and social worker Leslie Wiener’s photographs never fail to express the ability of Smile Group’s activities to foster community-building among HIV-affected families, some of whom face deep stigmas in their physical communities. With ample accommodations, Elisabeth Nguyen will make yoga sessions more sustainable by enrolling in a course on teaching yoga for children (with her costs covered by the Global Fund for Children). Leslie is also seeking opportunities to have Macs supplied to the house to teach the kids practical computer skills. And of course, the dancing, singing and musical performances will continue, not to mention invaluable workshops on living with HIV/AIDS.

Thomas Maresca’s “Living Positive” cover story that follows the lives of three Smile Group families is no longer in the AsiaLIFE archives, but you can read the profile of Leslie that I contributed to the July 2009 People Issue (issue 28), still available in the online archives.

Here are some more photos from the day, courtesy of Leslie:

A bit of new school…

And a bit of old school

Crashing the dance floor

The gang’s all here

Enjoying the new house

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Filed under Causes, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

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

AsiaLIFE Shouted Out by Expletive-Rich Website

Three things I love: typography, Saigon and the f-word.

A new website called What To Fucking Do in Saigon distills many of expatriates’ pet loves and hates about Ho Chi Minh City into tidy little bits of advice for what to do in the thanh pho, all featuring the grande dame of curse words. The schtick often breaks down though, offering declaratives rather than imperatives. One such entry shouts out the Spotlight pages of AsiaLIFE HCMC, where we feature snapshots from night spots around town.

Does this mean we’ve arrived?

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Filed under Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam