aalrtarot

 

News Coverage:

NBC Asian America

Washington Post

UMD Diamondback

Colorlines

Hyphen

 

Public Talks:

TEDx presentation by Mimi Khúc

 

Interviews:

 

Coming Soon:

  • Hyphen interviews with Mimi Khúc, Erin Khue Ninh, Kai Cheng Thom, and Rajiv Mohabir

(Re)Collecting the Vietnam War

Vol. 6, No. 2

 

Curators’ Correspondences


Cartographies, Historiography and Nomenclature, or Forty Years into the Aftermath

Mariam B. Lam

 

You will see the many-headed hydra of commemoration throughout this special issue, a credit to my co-curators. There will be moments of resistance against the urge altogether, and yet the need and the opportunity to continue grappling with such aftermaths continues. It continues because our global capitalist imperialist drive continues, and this addiction, this compulsion, creates ever more aftermaths. Commemoration is both a necessary and an opportunistic urge. So we “(re)collect,” and in doing so, we manifest again all the old hurts, the old traumas, the old discourses, the old offenses. We re-purpose, we perpetuate, we re-perpetrate. And we collect anew. We consume even newer postwar novelty. We perpetrate anew. You will feel this tension throughout the curated collections herein.

I begin with three personal narratives, a day in the life for each thematic of my title, to frame my vision for the work of the artists, activists and writers that follow.

 

1. When colleagues and new acquaintances inquire about my ethnicity, I tell an old familiar story, a story that now feels like a requirement, a license, and a justification of some sort of why I am mostly Vietnamese, a quarter South Asian Indian on my mother’s side, and an eighth Chinese on my father’s side, a reason why I may appear to be Filipina or Malaysian, or even Latina in my more sun-soaked athletic Spanish Club youth. Most are more curious about the Indian connection, deeming the Chinese presence to be de rigueur in Southeast Asia and uninteresting as one in every four persons in the world is statistically Chinese.

It began with the first Indian in the family, my maternal great-grandfather, who left his Indian wife and two daughters in Chennai (then Madras) and took his two sons to settle in the Chợ Lớn Chinatown district of then Sài Gòn, Việt Nam. They opened up a small textiles and imports business bringing in French colonial goods from both French colonial India and France itself to Indochina, and the boys grew up speaking fluent Vietnamese. On the maternal great-grandmother’s side, the great-great-grandmother, who was part Mandarin, decided as Chinese imperial rule waned to employ her daughter in a French household in Huế to work as a seamstress, where the daughter then met her Vietnamese chef/husband, who labored in the same household. When the French colonists migrated south to Sài Gòn, the help moved with them. The great-grandmother would take the daughters into the Indian textiles shop to buy fabrics, and lo and behold, one of the Vietnamese daughters and one of the Indian sons hooked up. The randy teenagers were my maternal grandparents. I have not disappointed them. I leave that last point out.

When folks hear this story, they tell me I should write about it, as if it is somehow unusual or unique, but in fact, it isn’t. Most “natives,” immigrants, refugees, exiles, diasporics, etc. have stories like this one. And when the Vietnam War, or the Cold War, “happened,” it happened to every one of these global migrants across the world, whether in Southeast Asia, in the U.S., Eastern Europe, East Asia, the Middle East, or Africa. Each had and has her/his own perspective and positionality relative to that war, and that War laid the justificatory groundwork and rhetorics for future global injuries elsewhere. So our cartographies, our mental mappings, of “the Vietnam War” must recognize the connections and layovers of itinerant imperial travels that go far beyond Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and the U.S. if we are to wrap our heads around this thicker historiography and all of its global and local aftermaths.

 

2. The network of academics in Viet Nam studies is a motley crew, and they too are global. Every now and then at a conference, a forty-five to sixty-year-old white male historian or anthropologist will approach me after a presentation I have given and speak to me in his best attempt at Vietnamese. Despite knowing the conversation that will ensue after hearing only a sentence or two of his Vietnamese and to nevertheless show positive reinforcement for his efforts, I respond in my Vietnamese native tongue. “Your Vietnamese is strange; you don’t use standard Vietnamese? I learned the proper official Vietnamese,” my composite interlocutor will then proffer, with no hint of self-reflection.

In a momentary pause, I consider if I feel like explaining to him the difference between the version of Socialist Republic of Viet Nam nationalist Vietnamese language form he learned and the pre-1975 Vietnamese nationalist linguistic form I learned in the south, which was different from his northern Vietnamese, and also different from both the pre-1975 northern and central Vietnamese forms, all considered standard and official at that time and most taught by local or regional native primary school teachers, all of whom were gradually replaced by northern teachers after 1975 throughout the country. I consider asking him if he understands what centralization of government means in terms of national language forms, or if he understands the history of Southeast Asian language education in the U.S. and in Vietnam as it relates to the larger history of the military academic industrial complex. I want to tell him that if he were only ten years older, he would have learned my Vietnamese, because of that same military academic industrial complex during an earlier political climate. I ponder pointing out to him that his simplification, his simplistic simple-mindedness, reverberates with the same privilege of the imperial oppressor’s neoliberal re-narrativization of official histories, and that he sounds an awful lot like Homer Simpson without the charm. I wish I had the energy and investment to remind him that only a few years earlier, he and I had engaged in an email flame war on the Vietnam Studies Group (VSG) listserv over his pretentions to speak on behalf of all indigenous native Americans and how he could call them “Indians” if he wanted to, because he was one-eighteenth “Indian,” himself, thanks to his settler colonial ancestors. I repress visions of E. Honda pounding on a little man in a Street Fighter 2 scene. I decide, nah, maybe not today.

 

3. I was born with the name Lâm Thục Uyên, surname first, given to me by both my parents to connote two meanings of a bird that remembers to return to its home and of a depth of profound thought. But by 1976, my father had already been evacuated the year prior and the only way my mother and I could leave Việt Nam was with Indian passports authenticated with the help of my Indian grandfather. My mother already had both Indian and Vietnamese names, but I did not, so she pulled Mariam Beevi out of her proverbial arse, and plastered it onto my newly minted Indian passport. Once we arrived in Madras with no relations or resources, we assumed our refugee status and survived however we could for a year until my father was able to secure asylum passage to the U.S. Throughout childhood, I vacillated between these two names in legal documentation and familial contexts such as Vietnamese language schools or church documents, as well as other names: Ti Ti, Yoda, the Beev, Miriam, Beeverd, mini-B, Blam. I vacillated between a legal birthdate and a biological birthdate. My father was disappointed when I declined to recuperate his surname Lam upon U.S. naturalization at eighteen during a moment of feminist angst and a more nerdy fear that it would disrupt my college applications process. Citizenship, competing nationalisms, and patriarchy do not always align comfortably. By the time I became a faculty member, it was easier to tack the Lam back on to avoid prolonged authenticity discussions with students and colleagues alike.

 

War nomenclature—The Vietnam War, the Second Indochina War, the Cold War, the American War, the American War in Vietnam, the Việt Nam War, etc.—are all similarly tactical instruments, each with their own designs and aspirations, loaded valences, and historiographical specificities. At times it’s fun to play with them; at other times, it’s mortally offensive to get the political historical usage wrong when hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost in the process. It’s even more loathsome when academic play with such significant terminology is only positioned as some act of (regressive) coolness. Asian American studies is not unfamiliar with nomenclature baggage, from hyphenation, virgule or space to hapa issues and mixed race studies. So we need the poets from the undercommons to help us with our stunted, stilted and stillborn vocabularies. We can afford to antagonize our own acts of naming with different titles and hailing, to provoke reconsideration of common “key” words. We need to speak less superficially, less neoliberally. We should yelp wildly and soundly.

barrios-dkc

Eliza O. Barrios, D.K.C. 1, 2013. Graphite on paper, 14” x 9.” From the Sulat sa Pader (Writing on the Wall) Exhibition at MCLA Gallery 51, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. Courtesy of the artist/dedicated to E.R. Barrios.

The invited contributors in this section all tell us new stories, they cover less traveled ground, they bespeak other aftermaths, both global and domestic. Filipina American artist Eliza O. Barrios deploys the text of her family’s letter to the Department of Veterans Affairs requesting support due to her father’s tour of duty in Vietnam. He had lived the majority of his life keeping the secret of his active duty of twenty-five-plus years. It was only after his death that the family discovered he had served five tours in Vietnam and had slowly suffered the effects of Agent Orange and never sought treatment. They realized this personal history most likely contributed to his alcoholism. Along with additional pieces from Barrios’ Writing on the Wall series, we include images of her series of six drawings in graphite on paper, entitled D.K.C., dedicated to E.R. Barrios, which served as a personal homage to her father after his death on February 23, 2013.

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Yong Soon Min, Copter Three. Bleed digital print image, 7” x 9.” Photo images courtesy of Im Heung-soon, THIS WAR, 2009, Achim Media Publishing.

Activist artist and academic Yong Soon Min’s conceptual painting, Surfin the Cold War Camouflage, and her three bleed printed images further fan the flames of other war stories of heroisms untold. In the latter works, Min combines the photographs from Im Heung-soon’s THIS WAR (2009) with her own text and installation practices to challenge mainstream perceptions of Korean soldiers or “mercenaries” enlisted to fight in the war with sights and sites of pleasure, pain, passion, and play. These images themselves bleed into the iconic image of the decorated American veteran’s cap, a cap that saw active duty across both Korean and Vietnam Wars. Together with a book like Jorge Mariscal’s Aztlán & Viet Nam: Chicano and Chicana Experiences of the War (1999), Barrios and Min allow us to think of other(ed) players in this ever-expansive war.

Writer Lan Cao, attorney Hoi Trinh, and photojournalist Nick Ut are all individual subjects and direct by-products of this war. Author of two novels, Monkey Bridge and The Lotus and the Storm, Cao re-positions political centrality away from the U.S. and onto its historical allies, President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan. Activist Hoi Trinh takes us on a journey more concrete than critical refugee studies by documenting the history of stateless boat refugees left to linger in camps over the past four decades. The VOICE documentation provides a salient alternative archive to any official nationalist historiographies. These are the liminal figures missing from cartographic borders.

nick-ut

Nick Ut & Phan Thị Kim Phúc at 40 Year Reunion. Vietnam, 2015. Photograph by Raul Roa.

Huỳnh Công Út, known professionally as Nick Ut, is the Associated Press (AP) 1973 Pulitzer Prize winning photographer for “The Terror of War,” depicting children in flight from a napalm bombing. His iconic photo of a naked nine-year-old Phan Thị Kim Phúc running toward the camera from a South Vietnamese napalm attack on North Vietnamese invaders at the Trảng Bàng village during the Vietnam War made him the third person inducted by the Leica Hall of Fame, in September 2012, for his contributions to photojournalism. The five photographs I curated here shift our attention from the spectacle of that iconic photo capture and its media aftermath to the life and work of the media producers during and after that war. Most do not know that Ut rushed the young girl to the hospital before scrambling to submit the photographs to AP on assignment. Most do not know that he had an older brother, Huỳnh Thành Mỹ, also an AP photographer, who died on assignment—shot while awaiting medical evacuation for an earlier gunshot wound—in the Fall of 1965. Most do not imagine him on assignment in Korea during the Vietnam War, but why wouldn’t one think a visit to another demilitarized zone might be effective international pedagogy? Most do not see his intimate friendships and collegiality with more mainstream celebrity war correspondents, such as George Lewis and Peter Arnett, built upon a strong foundation of having shared a long tortured war history together. Most do not see that he himself must participate in the spectacle on commemorative occasions, such as “reconciliation” photo ops with DRVN war photographer Đoàn Công Tính in Việt Nam each time one of them publishes a new book. These are stories Americans don’t hear when they obsess over Kim Phúc.

Poet, teacher, and U.S. Army veteran Soul Vang is one of the most earnest men I have ever met. His poems grapple with what is gained and lost in relations between an ethnic minority within minorities and the mainstream. Lao American writer Bryan Thao Worra is unique in his choice of horror and science fiction genres. Kao Kalia Yang considers the intergenerational debt accumulated by the Hmong who start all the races so far behind the pack. All three of these writers have had to act as institution builders in their respective genres and communities, and this has meant having to create and grow networks, to fight with media outlets, and to nurture what will come after them. These are no small feats.

Finally, Mai Der Vang, Kosal Khiev, and Alexander Ratanapratum represent the next generation of writer/artist/activists that triangulate the complexities of historiography—its failures and its lack—with the future potentials of Asian American literature and arts activist practices with aesthetic panache. Kosal Khiev is a Thai refugee camp-born exiled Khmer American poet, tattoo artist, and survivor of the U.S. prison system deported to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where he currently writes and performs. Through spoken word, he transforms his anger, regrets, and experiences into a poetic art form that calls attention to the plight of these offspring of ludicrous U.S. carceral management and incomprehensible international policies. Hmong American Mai Der Vang and Thai American Alex Ratanapratrum combine their artistic ingenuity and poetic creativity with broader conceptualizations of memory, (dis)identification, the social political, and the everyday.

My hope is that all of these contributions move you, and in so doing, that you will join us in moving the conversations around this war to other spaces and places, to alternatively imagined cartographies.

 


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(Re)Collecting the Vietnam War

Vol. 6, No. 2

 

Curators’ Correspondences


Collateral + Damage

Cathy J. Schlund-Vials

 

My twin brother and I were born on September 2, 1974 in Udon Thani, Thailand. While Thailand may not immediately come to mind as a Vietnam War-era front, the circumstances of our birth make clear a connection to the conflict. We were born right outside Udorn Royal Thai Air Force base, which was a major military hub for American soldiers and Southeast Asian military men during the war. My biological father was a U.S. Air Force man who met my biological mother – a Cambodian woman – at the base. We were a product of that union. Unbeknownst to my mother, my father was married, with four children, and returned to his Massachusetts home and family well before we were born. Abandoned, my mother would eventually befriend an American soldier and his Japanese wife, who were also stationed in Udon Thani. She orchestrated an adoption, and the rest is my personal “history.”

This particular history – which brings into focus war-driven rupture and conflict-oriented union – is one that was not easily gathered; indeed, what I have recounted portrays a linearity that obscures the true fragmentary nature of such “recollecting.” Faced with incomplete parental accounts, adoption papers, and no memory, I have spent most of my life collecting facts and details in order to make sense of a war that remains – notwithstanding its hypervisibility in Hollywood film and mainstream media – strategically disremembered and tactically forgotten. This impulse to recollect the vast dimensions of the second Indochina War – which involves multiple communities, generations, and formations – is reiterated, revised, and re-envisioned in this section, titled “Collateral + Damage.” While the very notion of “collateral damage” euphemistically suggests unintentional impact and inadvertent loss, the contributors to this section – who likewise access the personal in order to understand the political and bellicose – make clear the degree to which what’s past remains both prologue and epilogue to the ongoing War on Terror and the geopolitical expansiveness of U.S. war-making.

 

Monique Truong & UuDam Nguyen, MORETHANMYMEMORIESDEFINEME, 2015.

Monique Truong & UuDam Nguyen, MORETHANMYMEMORIESDEFINEME, 2015.

“Collateral + Damage” opens with an evocative collaboration between writer Monique Truong and visual artist UuDam Nguyen, “M O R E T H A N M Y M E M O R I E S D E F I N E M E,” a word search puzzle which carries the following instruction:

The first ten words that you see are what you desire most in your Present, Future, and Past. 

(All three exists at once, elbowing and bruising each other like siblings. We are not the first to tell you this, are we?)

The simultaneity of “present, future, and past” as fixed to refugee-ness, resettlement, and war, is at the forefront of Maya Espiritu’s “Operation Babylift” flipbook; it is also a theme followed up in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s essay, “On True War Stories,” which extends the idea of “war stories” to encompass those displaced bodies who have lost “home, business, family, health, sanity, or country.” These particular bodies are largely forgotten in mainstream accounts of the conflict, which consistently rehearse a familiar U.S. soldier narrative of regret and remorse. At the same time, such war stories focused on the “exceptional” military experiences “over there” distressingly disremember the ubiquity of war in people’s everyday lives. In that vein, Nguyen notes:

…what if we understood that war stories disturb even more when they are not about soldiers, when they show us how normal war is, how war touches and transforms everything and everybody, including, most of all, civilians?

This move to consider “other” stories and bodies presages Yên Lê Espiritu’s “Rethinking ‘Collateral Damage’ in the Vietnam War,” which commences with a definition of “collateral damage” as a mode which denotes “damage to people, property, and ecology that is allegedly incidental to the intended target.” Yet, while those of us in Asian American studies and Southeast Asian American studies have indefatigably endeavored to recollect the experiences of Southeast Asian refugees, we have – as Espiritu observes – failed to

think of … the collateral damage sustained by the other Others in the circuits of U.S. empire.

As “othered” locus, Espiritu considers how the militarized relocation of Vietnamese refugees, who made their way from the country of origin to the United States through Guam, intersects with a larger history of American militarization and occupation in the Pacific.

Anida Youe Ali

Anida Yeou Ali, Living Camp, 2013, mixed media installation. Image courtesy the artist.

These larger histories of militarization – made visible through the optic of “collateral damage” – are at the forefront of Anida Yeou Ali’s “What’s in a Name?”, “Living Memory/Living Absence,” and “In Time of War,” which to varying degrees and related ends poetically evokes the true expansiveness of U.S. war-making in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Iraq. These written contemplations, which vocalize an unreconciled and multi-sited refugee-ness, are analogously reflected and refracted in Ali’s camp-focused photography. As significant context, Ali’s work rehearses, restages, and recollects what most know outside Cambodia as the Killing Fields era. To clarify, between 1975 and 1979, over the course of three years, eight months, and twenty days, under the authoritarian Khmer Rouge, an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians perished as a result of starvation, forced labor, torture, disease, and execution. The rise of the Khmer Rouge was substantively facilitated by the illegal bombings of the Cambodian countryside (1965 – 1973), which profoundly destabilized the nation. This particular genocide history likewise presages artist Sayon Syprasoeuth’s insistence that – in the face of such profound cultural, social, political, and human loss – a re-imagined return to tradition becomes a resistive Cambodian American act.

Birth of the dragon lady

Sayon Syprasoeuth, Birth of the dragon lady, 2011. Found, ready-made and recycled material, house paint & glitter, 5 feet x 4 feet x 4 feet. Image courtesy the artist.

Such re-imaginations of state-authorized violence and excessive military power, which lay bare the extent to which the United States strategically damaged other sites, is at the forefront of Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay’s Kung Fu Zombies vs Cannibals, which is featured via an excerpt. Notwithstanding its imagined future setting (in 2026), Kung Fu Zombies vs Cannibals is very much a “past is present” story that pivots on the cluster bombings of Laos during the second Indochina War. Divergently, Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu’s “What not to Wear in Vietnam” meditates upon the politics and practices of renovation in present-day Vietnam. Such renovation – which encapsulates both the built environment and the beauty industry – is complicated when set adjacent collateral ecological catastrophes like Agent Orange.

WWII Nisei veteran and 442nd Congressional Gold Medal Recipient Susumo Ito with Khmer American, Iraq War U.S. Marine Corps veteran and Asian American Studies alumnus Richard

WWII Nisei veteran and 442nd Congressional Gold Medal Recipient Susumo Ito with Khmer American, Iraq War U.S. Marine Corps veteran and Asian American Studies alumnus Richard at UMass Boston’s 2014 veteran’s day celebration. Photo by Peter Kiang, courtesy of UMass Boston Asian American Studies Program.

In the face of undeniably violent legacies and open-ended aftermaths, “Refugee/Veteran Pedagogies in Asian American Studies,” co-authored by Peter Kiang, Shirley Suet-ling Tang, and Loan Thị Đào, provides a more hopeful look at the possibilities inherent in ongoing dialogues between veterans and refugees. In recounting “generative, inter-generational pedagogies” which connect “veterans and refugees across time and place through sustained relationships in both classroom and community contexts,” Kiang, Tang, and Dao evocatively and productively return us – as students, artists, practitioners, and scholars — to the collaborative practices and pedagogies which brought the field “into being.”

 


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(Re)Collecting the Vietnam War

Vol. 6, No. 2

 

Curators’ Notes


This Side of Now

Võ Hồng Chương-Đài

 

 

In Vientiane, Laos, it is not uncommon for people to speak multiple languages. This several-hundred-year-old city is home to various ethnic minority groups as well as the dominant Lao. There is also a significant presence of Vietnamese as well as French, a legacy not only of the colonial era but of countless invasions that predate the modern nation-state.

As in Luang Prabang, its picturesque rival city to the north, Vientiane is populated with temple complexes whose sculptures and architectural styles tell a complex history shaped by entwined violence and cultural influences. Over hundreds of years, these city states suffered invasions from the Champa, Khmer, and Ayutthaya kingdoms to the south, the Tibetan, Shan, and Chinese to the north, the Lanna to the west, and the Vietnamese to the east. More recent forces include the French, Japanese, and Americans. One sees their traces in the fragmented Buddhist sculptures, the flowing form of the ubiquitous naga, the Japanese glass embedded in the wall mosaics, the mural paintings of battle scenes, the intricately carved wooden doors and screens.[1]

These spaces remind us that Southeast Asia is a confluence of intricately woven histories that cannot be reduced to ethnic and national categories. These spaces also remind us that the aesthetic is never separate from the political and the social. This curated section takes its cue from this intermingling of cultural and political histories, bringing together work made by artists living in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and their diasporas.

As we mark the 40th anniversary of what Americans call the Vietnam War, we remember that the fighting embroiled Cambodia and Laos as well. It resulted in Cambodia and Laos becoming two of the most densely mined and bombed areas in the world. Against its ruler Norodom Sihanouk’s efforts to keep the country neutral, the U.S. dropped an estimated 2,756,941 tons of cluster bombs and landmines on Cambodia during the war; the Khmer Rouge later planted another four million landmines supplied by the Chinese.[2] Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. carried out a secret war in Laos, dropping more than two million tons of bombs on the country, many of which still lie unexploded in the earth until farmers, children, and other civilians accidentally detonate them.[3]

As we remember the past, this section focuses on the present and the future. French colonialism created an imaginary world called Indochine that was stuck in time, simultaneously fossilized and ahistorical. U.S., Cold War, and current tourist rhetoric perpetuate such representations by continually recycling images of the region as a war zone or quaint backwater.

pirozzi-poster

Movie poster for Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten (2014, 107 min), directed by John Pirozzi

Even if war dominated and disrupted their daily lives, it did not wholly determine how artists saw the world then or now. During the 1960s and 1970s, Cambodia saw a “golden age” of culture that flourished under the patronage of Prince Sihanouk, himself a trained musician. As told in the film Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten, directed by John Pirozzi, singers developed a distinctive rock and roll style that was influenced as much by Cambodian classical music as it was by the latest American and European songs. The singers created another world that offered their audiences respite from the violence and reminded them that they were not helpless to shape their lives. The Khmer Rouge later killed an estimated ninety percent of artists and intellectuals; the musicians’ songs and images live on, as seen in a scattering of beautifully drawn album covers.

pin-cambodian-diaspora

Pete Pin, Three generations of the Duong family view old family photos and documents from the refugee camps in the living room of their Bronx apartment, New York, Sept. 2011. For many families, these documents are their only possessions from Cambodia, 2011, 40 x 50 cm, archival pigment print. Image courtesy the artist.

Artists such as Cambodian American photographer Pete Pin use portraiture and representational modes as a means of reconstructing a history forcibly taken from them and their forebears. As acts of remembering, these projects collectively work to reclaim history and the right to see. In his ongoing series Cambodian Diaspora, Pin documents his subjects in their homes, neighborhoods, dance halls, and temples.

truong-three-figurines

Hồng-Ân Trương, “Description #4 (Three Figurines)” from the series Resistance Can Be Quiet, 2011, archival inkjet print, 20 x 20 in. Image courtesy the artist.

Vietnamese American Hồng-Ân Trương documented the lives of a different community, as part of her research about the impact of French colonialism and Cold War rhetoric on Vietnam. Resistance Can Be Quiet is a photographic series of interior views of churches, chapels, and convents that were built during the French period in northern Vietnam. Trương met nuns and priests who did not identify with simplified, exclusionary categories that equated Catholicism with colonialism, the modern with the West, communism with totalitarianism, and republicanism with freedom.

sanchez-concrete-landscape

Installation view of the exhibition What Delights the Spirits (2012) showing Frédéric Sanchez, Concrete Landscape, 2012. Concrete, concrete iron, spray paint and carved and varnished wood (foreground), and Votive Painting, 2012. Acrylic on canvas, 232 x160.5 cm (background)

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Lionel Descostes, Tapestry Model 2, 2008, single thread hand embroidery on taffeta, 63.5 x 43 cm with frame. Image courtesy the artist.

As French descendants, Frédéric Sanchez and Lionel Descostes negotiate a complicated relationship to Vietnam. A painter and sculptor of French Catalan, Cretan, and Vietnamese heritage, Sanchez travels frequently between France and Vietnam. He uses his training in Neo-Geometric Abstraction to create work informed by cultural practices and street vending displays that he sees throughout Vietnam. Having initially moved to Hanoi for a position as director of The Lacquer Factory in 2000, Descostes became disillusioned with the industrial commodification of art and learned embroidery as a way to reinvent a dying art and to create community.

pham-20

Ấn Ngọc Phạm, Flags Series, 2009-2014, mahogany, maple wood, composite OSB and poplar, 24 x 240 x 4 in each of 22. Image courtesy Topaz Arts and the artist.

Nguyễn Quốc Chánh, Barefoot, 2011. Fired clay, dimensions variable from 25 x 9 cm to 100 x 35 cm.

Nguyễn Quốc Chánh, Barefoot, 2011. Fired clay, dimensions variable from 25 x 9 cm to 100 x 35 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

In the U.S., the Brooklyn-based Ấn Ngọc Phạm deploys minimalism in his meditation on art and craft lineages shaped as much by conquest as by choice and collaboration. Nguyễn Quốc Chánh, a poet and sculptor based in Saigon, is also very much concerned with craft. The war years and economic realities have left a dearth in skilled ceramic makers in Vietnam—master craftsmen have died or are too old, and the younger generation largely makes pottery that caters to the tourist market. Inspired by the beautiful pottery that he would see now and then, Nguyễn taught himself to handle a variety of clay and glazing techniques.

phothyzan-we-live-249

Phothyzan Bounpaul, We Live, 2013, mixed media installation, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist.

phan-mekong-mechanical-person

Phan Thảo-Nguyễn, Mekong Mechanical, 2012, single channel video, 18:33 min. Image courtesy the artist.

Issues of neoliberal globalization inform the work of Phothyzan Bounpaul and Phan Thảo-Nguyễn. Phothyzan’s We Live is a public art project that he created with villagers affected by environmental degradation and development along the Mekong River outside of Vientiane. Phan looks at industrialized labor in her film Mekong Mechanical, which offers a view inside a factory in the southern delta region of Vietnam that processes catfish for export.

vuong-cot-dien

Vương Văn Thạo, Living Fossils, 2007-ongoing, composite resin, oil paint and mixed materials. Image courtesy the artist.

Sovan-Moeung-Srun

Sovan Philong, “Moeung Srun, 67, from Sa Ang, Kandal Province” from Old Church Building, 2009. Image courtesy the artist.

Vương Văn Thạo and Sovan Philong contemplate the costs of development on the urban poor and social memory-making. Vương’s resin sculpture series titled Living Fossils is a commentary on what he sees as an unexamined and dubious razing of historical buildings and neighborhoods throughout Hanoi in the name of progress. Sovan’s photographic series Old Church Building is a documentary on the residents of a housing complex in Phnom Penh, many of whom moved there after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. The series depicts life inside one of the few historic buildings left standing amidst the government’s voracious redevelopment of the city, an effort that mostly benefits corrupt bureaucrats and local and foreign investors.

truong-ct-termites

Trương Công-Tùng, Untitled, 2013, canvas eaten by termites, 1.5 x 6 m. Image courtesy the artist.

A roll of canvas eaten by termites, Trương Công-Tùng’s installation Untitled alludes to the journey of thousands of migrants from the countryside to the city who rent cheap places to live as they seek educational and work opportunities. As rural to urban migrations continually reshape life in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, so too do artists in these countries and their diasporic communities create projects that speak to their intertwined histories and overlapping futures.

 

[1] I would like to thank Asian Cultural Council for sponsoring my research on contemporary art in Laos in 2014.

[2] See Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan, “Bombs Over Cambodia,” The Walrus (October 2006, 62-69, Web, 4 September 2014). For more information on the First and Second Indochinese Wars, see Noam Chomsky, At War with Asia (Oakland and Edinburgh: AK Press, 1969/2005).

[3] See Lao Rehabilitation Foundation, “Unexploded Ordnance (Landmines)” (n.d. Web. 1 April 2015).


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(Re)Collecting the Vietnam War

Vol. 6, No. 2

 

Curators’ Correspondences


Ghosts / Specters

Sylvia Shin Huey Chong

 

Some may believe that the specter of the Vietnam War has been buried in the sands of the first Gulf War and, now, the War on Terror. Yet these ghosts still walk among us. It is difficult to even pin down the number of war dead who make up these spectral ranks. By conservative estimates, about a quarter million South Vietnamese and anywhere from 500,000 to over one million North Vietnamese and Vietnamese Communist military personnel perished in the war. Often invisible are the military deaths from other U.S. allies, including over 5,000 South Koreans, over 400 Australians, and 351 Thais. As of 2010, 58,286 U.S. names are listed on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.—a number whose specificity may seem to speak to certainty and closure, yet even these digits shift every year. Yet even these statistics leave out the countless civilian casualties in Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos, not only during the years of armed conflict and bombings during “the American War in Vietnam” from 1964-1975, but also through subsequent upheavals, starvation, genocides, political purges, forced migration, and the war between Cambodia and Vietnam. All told, perhaps three to five million civilians died as a result of this conflict. [1]

But in a less literal sense, the ghosts of the conflict also persist in the form of images, projected onto movie screens, flickering on television sets, even staring out from the pages of newspapers and magazines. If film and photograph are, following André Bazin, akin to embalming, then all visual culture bears a trace of mourning the dead. In their play with light, these two media are themselves spectral substances, broadcasting the elusive presence of bodies and objects, places and histories, that have long since faded. The American mass media has been particularly invested in images of the Vietnam War, from the footage that fed the newly formed nightly TV news broadcast to the photographs that garnered many a photographer accolades and awards to the repetition compulsion that is the Hollywood Vietnam War film. In this final section, we’ve set out to explore the afterlife of the wars in Southeast Asia in these visual forms, as artists of images as well as the written word dwell with and respond to these ghosts of the Vietnam War.

Thi Bui, "Sai Gon, 1968". Excerpt courtesy of the artist.

Thi Bui, “Sai Gon, 1968”. Excerpt courtesy of the artist.

Graphic novelist Thi Bui opens this section with a bang, intertwining her account of her parents’ memories of Sài Gòn in 1968 with the overwhelming cultural memory imposed by the American media, in particular the shocking image of the “Saigon Execution” photographed by Eddie Adams. In a similar fashion, actor and activist Bee Vang and anthropologist Louisa Schein confront the erasure of Hmong lives (and deaths) through a more recent image-ghost, Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino (2008), whose white male savior recalls a number of tragic heroes from Hollywood’s Vietnam vet pantheon, including Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (1979). The flipbook by Sylvia Shin Huey Chong literalizes the links between all of these works by showing the transformation of “Saigon Execution” into Gran Torino, The King and I into Apocalypse Now—blurring the lines between 1968 and 2008, fiction and fact, history and myth.

Indeed, Apocalypse Now appears as an Ur-text of Vietnam fictions throughout this section, featuring in Cathy Linh Che and James Che’s “Extras Commentary” to the film, as well as Bryan Thao Worra’s poem “My Secret War Within.” Che and Che’s mock-DVD extra takes the form of a conversation with their parents, who were among a number of Vietnamese taking refuge in the Philippines when Francis Ford Coppola recruited them to play Vietnamese villagers, soldiers, and guerillas in Apocalypse Now. The conversation, at once mundane and extraordinary, runs counter to the usual breathless auteur-worship of the genre, and reveals as much about the processes of diaspora-making as it does about film-making. Worra’s poetry interpellates the presence and absence of Lao faces in both the history of Hollywood and the history of the war. Searching for himself in this spectral history, Worra is as likely to find refuge in space aliens and sci-fi monsters as he is in the Orientalist shadows of Kurtz’s compound.

nguyen-helicopter

Nguyen Tan Hoang, excerpt from “Brothers: A Pornographic Love Story,” 2015. Image courtesy of artist.

Two screenplay excerpts offer something of an antidote to the mock-epic aspirations of the Vietnam War film, albeit from different angles. Huong Nguyen’s “Is This Trash?” re-envisions the Vietnamese diaspora from Che and Che’s work as a television sitcom family, lovingly sifting through the detritus of both their immigrant dreams and model minority failures. In Nguyen Tan Hoang’sBrothers: A Pornographic Love Story,” a “rediscovered” scene from a gay Japanese American filmmaker Jason Sato (aka Norman Yonemoto) draws a line between Asian America anti-war politics, Third Worldist solidarities, and pornutopic queer desires through the homoeroticism of military and colonial ventures.

Jai Arun Ravine, “I feel as though I already knew Siam”

Jai Arun Ravine, “I feel as though I already knew Siam,” 2015. Mixed media assemblage including letterpress, sticky notes, and a Fodor’s Citypack Bangkok Street Map (2000)

The overlap between Orientalist and queer desires also animates Jai Arun Ravine’s two excerpts from their manuscript, The Romance of Siam: A Pocket Guide. Part love letter to Yul Brenner, part travel guide, Ravine’s prose poems point to a different pre-history of the Vietnam War that draws British colonialism and Thai nationalism together with the French and American neocolonialism and Vietnamese decolonization that typically dominate this narrative. A more elegiac love note arises from Ocean Vuong’s hand-written poem “Aubade with Burning City,” as the lyrics of Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” form the soundtrack to a lovers’ tryst in the midst of the evacuation of Sài Gòn—another scene unseen against the blinding projections of the Fall of Saigon in the news media.

Davis and Kang

(left) Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, Me So Horny 3, 2015, 9” x 11”, woodblock print. Image courtesy of artist. (right) Simi Kang and Bao Phi, “Oriental Flavor,” 2015. Image courtesy of Simi Kang.

While this entire issue has emphasized the intertwined lives and histories of Cambodian, Hmong, Lao, Vietnamese, and other Asian and Asian American groups, the affinities between Southeast Asia and African America are also important to highlight. Sylvia Shin Huey Chong and Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis’ collaboration imagines the co-mingling of black and yellow and brown lives and desires through the collision of Full Metal Jacket (1987) with “Me So Horny” (1989). As with the exploration of sexuality in Jai Arun Ravine and Nguyen Tan Hoang’s works, Chong and Davis posit these U.S. racial overlaps both as moments of revolutionary promise and as sites of racist conflation. Bao Phi and Simi Kang’s collaboration similarly casts a wide net, commenting on Lutheran sponsors of Vietnamese refugees, the maiming of toddler Bounkham Phonesavanh in a DEA raid, the murder of Iraqi immigrant Ahmed Al-Jumaili, and the long history of American racial violence from indigenous conquest to Michael Brown. The sweeping reach of Phi and Kang’s references show that the wars in Southeast Asia, far from being exceptional in U.S. history, are merely variations on a familiar theme. Perhaps these are not the ghost stories usually associated with the Vietnam War, but they are the ones that occupy and haunt those of us gathered here today.

 

[1] Casualty numbers are controversial, and difficult to estimate with much certainty. I offer these rough estimates taken from Wikipedia as a starting point. In addition to the civilian casualties from the Vietnam War (587,000), I have included casualties from the civil wars in Laos and Cambodia (200,000 and 300,000, respectively), as well as between 400,000 and 2 million casualties in Vietnam after the end of the U.S. war. An estimated 2 million people died in the Cambodian genocide.


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