Communist Kitsch: More than a look

 

Seriously good Kitsch from a Kitsch Museum in Romania

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).

My not kitschy box collection

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.

Somara at the Cong; notice the cushion underneath her.

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.

Garbage Pickers in Hanoi

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!)

Dispatch from Halifax

I never confirmed what these bulletins boards in the alleyways  of Hanoi are for and I’m still wondering. Anyone?

It’s been four years since Tim, Somara and I changed address to return Halifax and five years since we left to go live and work for a year in Vietnam. I’m not waking up all groggy anymore, thinking I might still be in Hanoi.

This is Halifax, not Hanoi

That year was a crazy awesome adventure we shared with a lot of our family and a few dear friends who also couldn’t resist. We still keep in touch with the Vietnamese friends who welcomed us into their lives; but as time passes, the communication is less frequent and sadly I’ve lost track of a few. On occasion I’ll reach for one of thousands of photos, but they’re still not properly sorted . (But hey, look what I just found under 2014 on my hard drive….)

Not 2014. And not Halifax. This is Hanoi.

Yet something’s changed in the last few months. The pandemic, which has eaten everything in its wake, has tossed us back to the magic of living in that chaotic, polluted, and oh so lovely part of the world.

Classic dipping sauce for Bang Xeo

People who know my family, know we talk about food constantly. Since returning, Tim likes to review our favourite restaurants; the one or two dish street stalls and shops we returned to over and over again. We have sought out some of the more common delicacies here in Halifax, (we love, I Love Pho on the Bedford Highway), but still yearn for the authenticity of plastic tables and stools. We’ve also learned to make a few dishes and frequently visit Tien Phat, the grocer who has pretty much everything we need – who’s also on the Bedford Highway. If Somara’s not with me, I try to speak Vietnamese to the owners, but my pronunciation which was barely acceptable in the thick of Vietnamese lessons, is now pathetic. Back to the food – I’m still contemplating buying a decent hot plate to try Korean/Vietnamese BBQ, but don’t know how to cram another gadget into the cupboard without Tim’s ire. (Like he owns the kitchen.)

Somara and friends trying Tien’s drag outfit from contest at Australian Embassy.

Another strain of conversation is about the kids we met. We know they look substantially different, but wonder how their personalities have changed.

Mai’s son, who was really shy, and who adored plain white sliced bread, was a boy and is now a teenager. I was thinking about the segway he rode up and down the halls of his high rise apartment. Maybe he still does it. If so, I hope it’s in the dead of night while everyone is asleep. (Kind of like the kid Danny, in the movie The Shining; except my movie is on a segway instead of a small trike, and there’s no orange and red carpet, but I’ll keep the music from the original soundtrack). What I really would like to know is what is Mai’s son like now? Does he miss his sister who’s moved to Toronto and hasn’t been home in two years? What video games does he play? 

Several weeks ago, I found the picture Ling’s daughter drew for me when we were on vacation together in Hue. Is she still drawing and taking piano lessons? Or did she rebel like Somara and move on to another instrument? How big are her twin brothers? I know these kids probably don’t remember me, but I feel wistful about them and their parents; they’re people who we started to get to know, they made Vietnam even more meaningful for us, and then we left.  So whether it’s plain old nostalgia or trying to break out of walls that have closed in on us, Vietnam is top of mind these days.

What Tim, Somara and I discuss most are the streets where we rode our motorbikes, and the places where we went to hang out. Most Vietnamese live in small spaces and spent a lot of time in cafes, and parks, and on the sidewalk; parks are their dance studios, fitness clubs, and a place where all ages come to play; sidewalks are where you can find the best restaurants and markets; and like the cafés, they all buzz with the rituals of Vietnamese life. Some of the place and street names don’t come to mind quickly, and our conversation can get a bit ridiculous as we try to get ourselves all situated at the same location, but these memories are precious.

When these conversations occur, it’s as if we’re trying to rebuild a scene in a movie that we all love. Each one of us talks about a sight, sound or smell; something that reminds us of why the memory is special. If I was to sum up my movie about Vietnam and describe how I want it to feel, I would say I want my viewers to feel a sense of adventure and wonder.

Ceramic wall started in 2007, Long Bien Bridge above it started in 1899.

This blog started because I wanted to find a way to capture the adventure and wonder that kept coming at me. Hanoi, one thousand years old with a population of close to 10 million (give or take a million) is undergoing massive change as capitalism has made friends with a one party state. You never knew what you’d see in the next metre let alone the next block. Many of my days were spent going just a little bit further, or turning a different direction to peek around a corner. You could never get it all in either…the city is so layered and full of nooks and crannies begging to be seen. Hayao Miyazaki’s movies give me the same feeling. Not all his films, but some, like Spirited Away  summon it perfectly.  Maybe it’s because the unknown felt safe and beguiling; in the unknown, as in many of his films, there is optimism and hope. Hope is a great antidote to fear and trouble. I don’t want it to sound sugary sweet, because it wasn’t that either. There was a gentle tug of mystery, of something that might be a bit sinister, and that might be where the wonder comes in.

I found the same sense of adventure in my consulting work and couldn’t get enough of it. I never imagined I’d have the opportunity to work so closely with ‘journalists’ talking about freedom of information, and objective reporting. I didn’t feel I could write about these topics while I was still living in the country, but I’m going to try in upcoming posts. So while politics was very rarely discussed, the current state of affairs and Vietnam’s complex history created a fascinating backdrop to our experience.

Corn field and building typical in rural North.

We knew the magic of Vietnam would have worn off, we just didn’t know when. It wasn’t all ‘wonderland’; we saw bits of corruption and capitalism singeing the edges of what we found charming and good. Not all our memories are sweet either. Somara recently reminded me of an excruciating long taxi ride through the city during which I kept vomiting into a plastic bag. Delightful, I know.

However almost everything that happened that year fed the desire for adventure and wonder.  You can also say we broadened our horizons, or stepped out of our comfort safe, or that we were foolish or brave. Whatever you call it doesn’t matter, it was privilege that gave us the ability to leave our home, our jobs, Somara’s school, to pursue our desire to go back overseas. It’s wrong not to call it a gift.

 Which is partially why I understand the nostaligia and know it makes perfect sense. Even though the spread of Covid 19 has been minimal in Nova Scotia, (although we are now starting to see signs of community spread), it’s been a really lousy time, personally, professionally and as a human being. In fact, the hardest part is because I’m a human being. But there’s no escape. Yet as so many others have pointed out, there is an antidote to pandemic life. The antidote is ensuring you take the time to summon adventure and wonder wherever you are.

Bay of Fundy
Bay of Fundy near Wolfville

If I step back and really think about it, I can continue on the path. It doesn’t look or feel the same as a year in South East Asia, that’s beyond obvious. However this pandemic has forced me to look around and grab hold of the riches of this life – the one in Nova Scotia, the one that’s also distressing and really hard right now.

This past year has included trips to parts of the province, stunning locations, I haven’t seen for years. I’ve gone hiking on new trails, and made trips back to ones I adore. The summer was full of long leisurely beach walks, ocean and lake swimming and more kayaking than I normally do in a summer. I have spent oodles of times with old friends, commiserating and supporting one another and I’ve made new ones. I’m trying to be a better partner, daughter, sister and mother. Some days, today included, it doesn’t feel better, but there’s been lots of shared moments  and laughs; I marvel at my good fortune. 

As I peer out onto the world, I don’t want to throw this stuff away when the pandemic passes. They are key to living a good life. And I want them to transcend the line that will inevitably be drawn between pandemic and post pandemic life.

I’m returning to VietnamSpam: from Hanoiing Canadians. The title is problematic, and it may be insurmountable but I’m not doing anything dramtic until I finish writing about Vietnam. Instead I’m trying to think of a logline that captures the essence of what I’m writing.  For example no more Hanoiing Canadians…now we’re just plain annoying). And I’ll tell you the story later about the most magnificent title I ever had for a book –  it created quite the buzz, but there just wasn’t any content.  The best I can describe it right now is I’m continuing the adventure and I’m documenting it with words and photographs. It will help, I know it will. 

Small island near Terrence Bay, Nova Scotia