Tuesday, November 6, 2007


Well now, I'm finally getting up to speed on these blog posts. My room in Hotel Thanh Lien has glorious wireless Internet access (there are no windows, but I'm typing in front of a big mirror, so it actually looks like there's a wide open space over there with a handsome young gentleman I keep trying to cruise).

As said before, I'm in a much springier mood, thanks truckloads to the 8 1/2 hours' sleep I had last night (we're going easier on ourselves in Saigon, plenty of time to what's the word we keep on using again oh yes INTERFACE. Which really means just having time to get to know each other better, talk-talk, brainsquall which is maybe a less combative form of brainstorming, jimmy each other's locks.

And today our programme was relack-relack, listen only, no need to hop: on to Sàn Art Gallery, 23 Lý Tự Trọng, a little whitewalled space which together with Queen will be our centre of ops for the next few days. Here is a mini contemporary arts library which we can use as an office space: power outlets galore. And wireless of course: we all log on, overloading the system.

Dinh Q. Le is here to talk to us about his work, reflecting crucially on his experience as a Viet Q who left his village at the Vietnamese/Cambodian border at the age of something tiny, wandering into Californian libraries with no knowledge of English he began reading books on Renaissance art + memories of basketweaving with his aunt => his art school projects, weaving his orange-yellow face into the crucifixions of the Old Masters: later remembering Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge: a chamber of eyes from S-21 interrogating the tourists for having done nothing, nothing to stop the slaughter; more weaving, of the faces of Angkor Wat, of the faces of Apocalypse Now, of the faces of second-hand photographs he buys by the firkin to search for his lost family portraits. Guerrilla work: a market stall selling frocks and babythings for Siamese twins, whose incidence in births increased by 1000% in Vietnam after the use of Agent Orange. New video work: Viet Q reexpatriates confessing themselves before a projection of clam pickers walking into the sea; the farmers' memories and forgettings of helicopters, attack and rescue, attack and salvage.

Two of the afternoon presentations fall into traps of translation: the professor of architecture buzzes on with the official party line: Hoang Ly, the first-generation feminist installationist charms primarily with simplicity and becomes less coherent once she calls for a translator. (Not to discredit our blessed interpreters, who are volunteer students from the university, Arts/MBA/Language and Literature/Biology.)

Provoking for me however is Hoang Hung, the celebrated poet, jailed for 39 months without trial in 1982 for "distributing counter-revolutionary culture objects", namely the banned poems of a fellow poet; now both are award-winning national cultural heroes and aesthetic poetry is way-okay, but the cultural police still look askance at explicitly political writing including Om Hoang's contributions to the online Vietnamese journal TALAWAS. His daughter tells us that it's still the poets of the 70s who shine brightest; the oldest writers are dying off and she attends their funerals and dreams of collating their forbidden manuscripts for online publication. "You miss my scent like a cow misses its excrement in the garbage," recites Om Hoang, reading from "The Smell of Rain", written for his wife while he sat in his jail cell learning English from the dictionary. This is one of the prevalent themes of Southeast Asia, says Keng Sen: remembering and forgetting, the culture of amnesia.

Parallels, parallels: in Vietnam, they still issue permits for book publications; they watch over music and literature like hell and the people love it to bits. Which makes me wonder: why doesn't Singapore have a culture of political poetry (yes there's the Edwin Thumboo nation-building series and the Lee Tzu Pheng to Alvin Pang architectural-loss series, but aside from Alfian, no-one else is angry, fuckit). Contrariwise, of drama the Vietnamese only love comedies - no political theatre manages to slip through: David Chapman tells me the censors turn up at your final rehearsal and then tell you whether you can send out the publicity or not. He's a charming young Chicagoan drama teacher in the city trying to stage re-contextualised Chekhov.

Tired already: popped out for a nightsnack and got hopelessly lost within two blocks of the hotel; had to run like hell from prostitutes on motor scooters and little girls bearing roses and bubblegum. Also bought some rose apples from the street vendor and they're bloating my stomach something dreadful. Sweet, though. Seeya in the morning.

1 comment:

alf said...

What makes you think no one else is angry -- just because we don't express it as showy rhetoric?