The only way to start this twisted adventure is to make a shameful admission about my first thoughts on Kitsch, a german word that made its debut in the English language in the 1920’s. Kitsch and Kitschy have always been a part of my vernacular, perhaps it’s because my grandparents spoke yiddish, but it could just as easily have come from outside. As a teenager I used the words a lot, particularly when describing the things other people bought. I was a snob who believed my family and I had impeccable taste and most others did not. (Those who knew me as a teenager will know of what I speak).
For example, I had a sand collection; it wasn’t kitschy, it was unique. The bright green ‘designer’ sweater with the alligator across the front, the one my dad bought me in Florida, (and would blind you if you looked at it too long), was the height of fashion. And my father’s paint by numbers on velvet, they were too cool for school. Kitsch and kitschy were words I used in reference to others, and I said them with attitude and a slight hint of venom.
So the first time I, the fashionista and decor icon, heard the term Communist Kitsch, I was very confused. I liked the way it sounded, but the idea that kitsch was cool hadn’t occured to me. Besides communism plus kitsch sounds like an oxymoron; I mean how much stuff can a communist have? I didn’t think communists collected sequins and snow globes, not even considering they were responsible for so much of the kitsch being made in this world. To avoid taking you deeper into clearly compromised thinking, just consider this, everything I learned about communism was from watching American movies, and listening to teachers who’d watched the same movies. If they had really known anything about communism they wouldn’t have said so. In other words, we all had indoctrination issues.
So when I arrived in Vietnam in 2016, a communist country, which calls itself a one-party state, where my family and I were going to live for one year, my knowledge of communism was pretty superficial. Which is when I heard Communist Kitsch for the second time.
It started with the Cong Caphe, a coffee shop near our apartment in Hanoi. We went often to escape our small apartment and soak in the hipster vibe. Somara sometimes went alone, to listen to books and draw; and then I’d show up and pretend I didn’t know her, because going to a coffee shop with your mom is NOT hip, even when you’re twelve.
Walking into the Cong felt a bit like I was walking onto a set for the TV series M.A.S.H., just more fashionable with a better selection of drinks. Beneath the whirring metal fans is utilitarian wooden furniture; chairs, benches and tables set with tin dishes and plastic flowers. The staff all wear khaki t-shirts and hats. What stands out most from the earthy palate is the brightly colored fabric that’s used for cushions.
Communist Kitsch and this style of fabric covers a lot of the interior decor we saw in Vietnam; the Cong Caphe, a very successful chain through Southeast Asia has capitalized on it, the way Anthropologie the clothing and decor chain has grabbed hold of shabby chic. And this is where I left my musing on Communist Kitsch, amongst the cool coffee shops, and fabric markets, which I came to adore while living in Vietnam.
That’s until a few weeks back when I wrote my last post, the first in four years, a fumbling manifesto about why I was writing a blog called VietnamSpam, from a desk over looking the Bedford Basin. (You can go back and read it, click here, I’d be grateful.)
What you will see immediately, is this photo. I added it to the last post as a throwaway unrelated to what I was writing, but a genuine and earnest deviation in search of help. I still wanted to know more about the black chalkboards we saw in the alleyways of Hanoi.
These blackboards were all throughout the city, and I took a photo of this one in my neighborhood, thinking it might poetry by the way it was blocked. Poetry has a rich tradition in Vietnamese culture and because I saw other boards with similar blocking, I asked a Vietnamese friend if that’s what it was. ‘Not poetry, just messages from the government,’ she said. She said the messages wouldn’t make sense to me and didn’t seem to think the boards were interesting; I didn’t want to pry, and so the conversation ended.
I tried finding out more when we were still in Vietnam, but felt tentative. Quite a few people had told me to be careful writing about our experience and to avoid criticizing the government. I wasn’t sure where the line between curiousity and criticism was drawn, and since I wanted to stay in Vietnam, I really loved being there, I never used the ‘c’ word or wrote about some of our strange happenings. I tried to do research on the blackboards when we came back to Canada, but all the search engine spit back at me was black, white and green boards for sale. It felt like a dead end.
So when I published the most recent blog entry, I cross promoted the link to one my instagram feeds using this photo of some houses in Halifax. And the very next day, POOF, out of thin air, came a tiny little like that has sent me off on a new adventure.
Here are some of the photos I saw when I clicked on the like from an account by the name of @HanoiMinitrue.
I was pretty darn excited.
The first thing Trang, the author and photographer behind HanoiMinitrue taught me, is the blackboards are called Public Notice Boards. As my Vietnamese friend said, the boards communicate things the government wants people to know. Not ‘foreigner’ people, Vietnamese people.
Most of what Trang’s put on instagram in the last month shows blackboards with the words Chúc Mừng Năm Mới, which is the greeting used for lunar new year. According to Trang, Minitrue is a reference to George Orwell’s 1984 and the Ministry of Truth; now that’s intriguing. Her logline on her website is The Vanishing Beauties of Communist Kitsch, and even though I was a bit surprized to see that phrase again, I understood immediately.
Trang’s instagram and website look perfunctory on first glance. But linger and go back, as there’s lots of layers. She’s been following individual boards for several years, documenting change, and is always posting new boards discovered by her and her followers. One instagram post about ‘general clean-up’ has an explanation beneath the photo, saying it’s a reminder that Saturday is the day to attend to the area outside their building. I share a driveway with my neighbor and wonder what would happen if I put up a sign telling them Saturday is when we clean. No, I lied, I don’t wonder. This is one reason I’m so happy to have her site. Trang’s providing the small details of daily life which were out of my grasp when we lived in Hanoi.
In another blog post Trang interviews a 25 year old artist, named Thang, who takes care of five boards in the coastal city of Hai Phong, which is near the Unesco World Heritage Site, Ha Long Bay. I’ve read her interview with him several times now, and you can read it here too. The reason I keep going back is because it reminds me of the consulting work I was doing in Hanoi with journalists at VTV, the National Broadcaster. One of the things I was asked to do was to help staff improve their interviewing skills. It was not easy; how do you teach people how to probe for information in a place that has censors?
When I read the interview with Thang the artist, I wanted to know more. I wondered why it’s such an honour for him to do this work, and why he’s committed himself to five boards when he has a full time job. Does he get paid? What happens if there’s a message he’s being asked to convey that he doesn’t agree with? I would ask the same questions in Canada, but still don’t know if they’re inappropriate in Vietnam.
I recognize that the layer that’s missing may be because I’m a foreigner, but it’s similar to the gap I couldn’t bridge when I was working with VTV. The work was fantastic and I still think about that job and how sad I was to leave the challenge behind.
I know the gap exists in North America as well. It may be born of other things, but the quality of journalism and most certainly the quantity, has been washed out to sea as of late.
So questions aside, because I always have those, Trang has taken me deeper into the place I was so sad to leave. I don’t believe she’s writing for some-one like me, or that her intent is political. She’s sentimental, and appreciative of the artistry which has gone in to creating the chalk messages. Worried the Public Notice Board will soon be a thing of the past, she’s building a community of people who have her sense of nostalgia and this is a database, which will have even more value going forward. It has value to me right now.
Trang’s work has inspired me to go further in my exploration of Communist Kitsch, and I’m going to write more about it in my next post because kitsch saves lives.
What I want to acknowledge after having found Trang’s website is the common space between the two of us, a space that’s held between women all around the world. Last week she had a photo on her instagram feed, showing a Public Notice Board celebrating International Women’s Day. The photo is a blurry image of a women driving by the board on her bike. According to Trang, she is a garbage picker, like the two women in the photo below. The job is exactly what you think, going through garbage to find items of value to recyle and sell. Trang says she waited some time to take the picture and I appreciate her perseverence.
I’m not sure what we’re celebrating on International Women’s Day, and I’m pretty sure Trang agrees. All it does is remind how poorly women are treated everywhere. Forever frustrated and angry about the misogyny, inequality and abuse of women in my own country, the irony of her image stung. When I got over that, I was able to find my way to the feelings of warmth and solidarity I have felt with women from all around the world. I remembered conversations, even when there was very little common language, where we understood one another, and shared a moment. It happened to me often in Vietnam. That’s the part of this adventure I don’t want to forget. And those are the stories I want to keep telling.
I’d love to know if you’ve ever heard the words Communist Kitsh and even better if you have photos. You can comment on anything, I’m interested. And while you’re still here…do you think this stuffed cat from Mexico is kitschy? (Some-one in this house thinks so!)