And then I get this role and I end up in East Africa. I go out to the forest in Uganda. There's this woman. She brings me deep into the forest, to this cave made from the roots of a tree – the entrance is made from the roots of a tree. You go inside and there's a well in the ground, a little well. This is where they say the first man lived. And I'm sitting there. I've got my shoes off and I'm thinking to myself, Touch the ground, man. Touch the wall, feel your feet, smell it, don't forget it. Let it be inside of you.................... Forest Whitaker, Esquire interview
If you pass 213 Dong Khoi today, you’ll see temporary wooden walls postered with pictures of Reunification Palace, the People’s Committee Building, the Opera House, Ben Thanh Market, a blooming lotus. Many of Saigon’s symbols are accounted for — but not the posthumously famous one whose Art Deco rubble threatens to overwhelm the 3-metres-high walls.
To some it’s natural for buildings like 213 to come down, as Dong Khoi-centred downtown continues its march to skyscraper-dotted prosperity. But nowhere on HCMC House Trade Management Co, Ltd’s banner is there a Vincom Center or Bitexco.
On either side of the temporary wall where 213 used to stand are old constructions. One is a former part of the demolished building — its insides now being gutted, its 213-facing side open to the elements — the other is the People’s Committee Building, a relic of the same era, but with a perfectly maintained facade, floodlit at night. Across the streets that 213 used to corner on are the twin presences of Vincom Centers A and B, threatening to overwhelm them all.
Buildings with Souls
Vincent Scully, one of the US’s leading architectural critics over the past century, wrote in a 1985 New York Times article, “Nothing shows up more definitively in a building than a lack of love, unless it is the love of money.”
He wrote this at a time when New York City was at a crossroads, in the process of leaving behind its checkered past for a more prosperous future. Scully’s worry on seeing the towers of modern New York rise was that they “look[ed] devoid of life; their surfaces are closed and dead”. They were no longer part of the city below, and upon entering one had to leave the atmosphere of the city for a closed-off, air-conditioned world.
Scully felt that an architect’s responsibility was to design “buildings that fit, in a civilized manner, into the man-made environment”. At a different crossroads in New York history, Scully was a vocal critic of the 1963 destruction of the original Beaux-Arts-styled Penn Station rail terminal — whose unconsulted demolition kick-started the modern historic preservation movement nationwide. About the transition to the modern, utilitarian Penn Station, Scully said, “One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat.”
Saigon is at a crossroads now, similar to the one New York faced in 1963. Modern New York was built on the bones of demolished buildings — there wouldn’t be a Times Square without them.
But modern New York was also born of the historic consciousness of its public. Three years after Penn Station fell, the National Historic Preservation Act became law. Such an integral part of New York’s fabric never fell again.
213 Dong Khoi wasn’t the original Penn Station, but it was a building that mattered to many people, a building with 85 years of history and point-of-reference status in cultural touchstones like The Quiet American. And now it’s been excised from the modern city forever. Tim Doling was prominently involved with raising consciousness about 213, and he thinks that its loss might not have been “completely in vain… It has received a great deal of publicity, and many concerned local people (not just expats!) now seem to be questioning the speed at which old buildings are being destroyed in Ho Chi Minh City.”
For the rest of us, there’s a new concern on the horizon. The 126-year-old former Cochinchina government secretariat at 59-61 Ly Tu Trong, directly behind 213 Dong Khoi, has been slated for “renovation”. Recessed from the street, it’s not as immediate a landmark as 213, but it has been a foundational block of the modern city for as long as it has existed. It’s one of those buildings that we won’t miss until it’s gone, until it’s only a fading photograph from old Saigon.
But there might be some hope for compromise here, the kind we’ll need for the modern city to resemble its past. Tim says, “I hear they are commissioning a new competition for designs which retain/incorporate the old building rather than destroy it.“I really hope that the powers that be will recognise the heritage value of that building and find an alter native solution to demolition.”
Near what used to be the Canal Bonard in Ho Chi Minh City’s Cholon area, the family home of a long-gone shipping magnate sits, surrounded by houses with tin roofs and modern structures, rivaling the mansion’s three storeys with their blocky presence. Through the concrete which covers damaged sections of original tile, the original craft is still evident. Contours of elegant wrought iron billow out from concrete walls, which hide the courtyard-wide fence they’d been cast to support. Chicken cages lay scattered.
The patriarch of the nine-member family residing there was named Tiet Tuc. He was part of the Chaozhou Chinese community, whose immigration the French encouraged from the 1860s, the most successful of Cholon’s final wave of settlers. Quach Dam, the builder of Cholon’s magnificent Binh Tay Market, was also from Chaozhou.
80 or 90 years ago, according to Tuc’s granddaughter Mrs. Dinh, her grandfather’s import-export company Thuan Long sent an ill-fated shipment of beans to Hong Kong. When the ship sank, he looked to his insurance company for compensation. The owner of the insurance company was the original inhabitant of the house Tuc’s family still calls home.
It was here that Tuc set about building his legacy. In 62-year-old Dinh’s early years, it was still the only home on its canal-circumscribed block. As what would become Ho Chi Minh City developed and became more prosperous, Tuc contributed to that development — commissioning the building of An Binh Hospital and Nghe An High School. To staff them, he invited doctors and teachers from Chaozhou to work there and train local professionals in Chaozhou-style methods.
The house passed to Tuc’s fourth son, Tiet Que, who also took control of his father’s business — renaming it Soon Long, minus accents, in an effort to Anglicise it. His wife, Dinh’s mother, still lives in the house, although all of his children except for Dinh have moved overseas.
Still possessing many of its original design elements, the house has two residential floors with identical floor plans — three bedrooms and a kitchen on each, one for each of the original owner’s wives. The ground floor was the workers’ quarters, which the authorities took over from 1975 to 1986, forcing the family into the upper levels. To this day, the house is split into two residential addresses.
The 800sqm structure is made of stone, in a style that has held up well over time. Stepping inside, you feel a tangible chill in the air. Although many of the structural elements have fallen into disrepair — to the point that the company in discussions to purchase it intends to tear it down — they still communicate the aura of the house, an aura that has taken inspiration from every part of the last century of its existence.
It’s taken me a while to figure this place out, at least in the way I can enjoy it and not be pushed into dismay by constant honking and random streetside carts full of goat legs. I’ve finally fallen into the hidden currents of Patan (consider it southside Kathmandu, but with a 2300-year history of its own), sometimes bored and a bit uncomfortable, but hey, that’s what I signed up for.
The turning point was Wednesday, the day after I wrote my previous entry and made the decision to leave Patan and, perhaps fatefully, the first day of the chariot pull. This is an important festival here, all of Patan turning out to pull an 80-foot tall, bronze and wood and sapling-laden chariot through tiny streets and alleys, and yell “AISTE!” During the procession I met a Nepali named Bal, who invited me to his house to have coffee, then later surprised me at my guesthouse at 8 am two days later to ask pertinent info for my horoscope.
On the way back from a sunset coffee and awkward conversation on Bal’s rooftop, I saw a small woman walking along in a rough horizontal, pushing a cart with 15 containers holding 10-20 liters of water each (an aside: I don’t understand how women are not allowed to pull the chariot, but this kind of backbreaking work is fine). She turned out to be Dilmaya, and she was so grateful for my help (and, I suspect, my interesting presence) that she invited me for dinner the next night and hasn’t stopped blowing up my phone since. I’m amazed that she does this route on her own, as it took us 15 minutes to get this cart through cracked, unlit streets, and then it was still a walk-up and two flights to her apartment.
When I came back for dinner the next night, they had invited the whole neighborhood out. Iswor, who keeps texting me with the question “How r you bro” was there, as were a steady stream of people staring in from the shared balcony. Awkwardly, I was the only one eating, and the meal I had come out for was of the take-out variety, comprised of the two greasy staples of Tibetan-Nepali fast food cuisine — dumpling-like momos, and 1950s American-Chinese food-like chow mein.
Sitting next to me, carrying his roll of canvas and poetry books under one arm, was the night’s most interesting product, Asim Sagar. He showed me the two books of ghazals (lyrical poems, usually set to music) he’d already published, with another five on the way. He showed me the mountain landscapes he’d painted from postcards, having never been to see them himself. They were simplistic and beautiful, with charmingly naive details like yaks and peasants added to each one. He told me about a poetry contest he’d entered, and come in 6th out of more than a thousand.
At first I waited for the inevitable sell, but as the night progressed I changed my disposition. For some reason or other I was an attraction here, someone to impress and confide in. Most people did this by introducing their wives and cousins, showing me photographs and cell phones. But Asim’s pride was in his artistic creations, and he wanted to show them to someone who understood. In some simple twist of fate, I did.
On my way back home, I stopped off at a “cold store” for a beer. People were hanging out in the courtyard accessible through the other end of the store. I drank beer and raksi, a fermented rice spirit, and partook in some weird raksi-accompaniment, tomato-soaked fish out of a can. With some of the fellas I went for a nighttime inspection of the chariot, housing maybe the same hold man who implored the crowd to “AISTE!” at other times, bathed in the light of devotional candles.
Friday was a wash, but Saturday I bartended Sattya’s one-year anniversary party, which was nice, and gave me some insight into the organization that had lured me all these many miles. I made a green tea-honey-cucumber-mint punch to complement the 6 liters of raksi they’d gotten donated and it went over pretty well. Getting back into a familiar rhythm was also a nice thing, and I was pleased to see Sattya do something exceedingly well — which hadn’t been my experience with the cancelled workshop I had been slated to teach.
Here’s what I wrote on coming home that night:
How fucking gorgeous was tonight? It ended in getting a surprise ride home — a bigger thing than you’d imagine at 10:30 pm, the hour that everything is usually desolate and stray dogs start getting growly ideas — and getting dropped off on the edge of devotional, tea-candled Saturday night in Patan. Among these tea candles were two giant chariots, and they contained all the secrets of the world. The first thing I saw on this round was a guy clearing all the candles off a cross-bar of chariot with a sweep of his hand, and a boy trying to pull the children’s chariot until I told him no, to the delight of his parents.
And that was just the afterglow. What really happened is I got involved with the thing I’d been seeking, the alternative pulse of this regimented city, and was welcomed. I got to fuck off a bit and eat free pasta, and was still appreciated. I forget how much I enjoy being a bartender.
Sunday I went to my favorite cafe here — Higher Ground, get the carrot cake — and ran into a girl I’d met at the Sattya party. We exchanged numbers and some insight struck me — right, this is how things go when they’re going. We tried to meet up at the chariot pull, but I decided last minute not to be a bystander. I pulled the massive thing, along with 300 other able bodies, through a canyon of apartment buildings, one of whose sides the 15˚-bent tip of the chariot got snagged on. From a full stop we would grunt and pull at the three ropes tethered to it, then run in a mad dash for 50 feet or so over uneven streets that spat bricks into our path, trying not to get trampled. In these moments, I leaned on the rope as much as I pulled on it. I had three separate conversations of “Where are you from?… Having fun?” When I eventually broke off, after about 500 feet of this, I was blown away by the level of adrenaline I had coursing through my veins, and the feeling of accomplishment I got from having participated in such an incomprehensible and sacred thing.
Yesterday I went to the hospital for the stomach thing (diarrhea!) that is keeping me off trekking for a few more days. I had one of those utterly alien experiences that I like when I’m not feeling threatened by it, with the same people who were crowding the doctor’s door that I was waiting for excitedly stepping onto a scale, treating it as more a novelty than a diagnostic tool, having their their children bend down to read its scratched-up window. I eventually got some good, compassionate advice, and a $2 booster shot of Hep B immunoglobulin (note to the savvy — getting a rare tropical inoculation like Japanese Encephalitis here instead of in the US would have saved me $500!). I went home and watched some movies.
And today, waking up after 11 hours for some guesthouse lobby french-toast-and-internet, I made a new friend. She has a remarkable English vocabulary for a 6-year-old Nepali, but she still was no help with the crossword. So I proceeded to bang my head against the wall while letting her fast-forward her way through How to Train Your Dragon, The Aristocats and Fantastic Mr. Fox. She would rewind certain sections to an extent that made me pull her hand away from the button, and a few times she counted along with the time signature. And still I was pretty amazed whenever she would laugh at something, it would pull me out of my smug little over-the-crossword watch and get me engaged. Kids are pretty magical in that way.
vietnamese shirt that woman initially wouldn’t let me take take pic of because of resultant bad luck of me not buying it…. i convinced her that the pic was to send to my girlfriend to ask her opinion, i do have misgivings about that….
As of about an hour ago, I informed the two founders of the Sattya Media Arts Collective that I won’t be teaching the course I’ve come to Nepal to teach. I did this after considerable soul-searching, I did it via text message (although let it be known I called before sending). I still haven’t received a reply [ED: it took them 24 hours].
It was a lot of things, but mostly a matter of timing. Their timing, with a one-year anniversary party coming this weekend, a $9,000 kickstarter half-fulfilled and entering that 10-day do-or-die period, and some personnel things seemingly in flux (i.e. I was given a flyer advertising the position of the guy who brought me in to stick to bulletin boards alongside my workshop flyer). My timing, with 6 weeks left to make something transcendentally memorable of my time here, which was so far consumed by 2 great weeks with my dad, and 2 more recent boring weeks at a quiet, out-of-the-tourist-district guesthouse. The prospective students’ timing also wasn’t right this week, when I was originally supposed to run the workshop (was told is was exams, maybe), and might not be right in the still-TBD future, while I cooled my budget jets in this strange, early-to-sleep city with no real friends.
And still I could have gutted it through, and it might have been amazing. The workshop still gets me amped — a 5-dayer that demonstrates my quirky methods in the service of idea generation and “honing the tools of curiosity.” This I thought about over another boring weekend, head held down by the kind of depression which indicates: You have a decision to make. And in the end, this city without a coalesced, active art scene (that I’ve seen) can’t compare to a month-long trek through the Himalayas, with stops for random monasteries and burning the leeches off of my feet.
It’s one of those things that isn’t a perfect solution, with the only one of those existing in before-the-fact theory. This week, I’ve been thinking a bit about another difficult — and as it happened, disastrous — decision, made by (of course) my favorite calamity-prone basketball team, the NJ — soon to be Brooklyn — Nets.
At the start of their NBA tenure, they were faced with a difficult situation — as one of 4 teams selected to make the jump from the carnivalesque, always precariously-financed ABA, they had to come up with nearly $5 million 1977 dollars to pay the NY Knicks for metro-area territorial rights, and $3 million to pay the NBA. Their owner, Roy Boe, a vaudeville type who’d bought the team for $1.1 million in 1969, was squarely in over his head. The solution he found has been regretted by generations of Nets fans since — he sold off the team’s best player, Michael Jordan before there was a Michael Jordan, to the Philadelphia 76ers for $3 million. Julius “Dr. J” Erving, the godfather of playing above the rim, won an NBA title with Philadelphia in 1983, after two with the ABA Nets. The NBA Nets never won another.
As New Jersey’s team becomes Brooklyn’s, an era marked by losing, poor decisions, tragedy, bad luck and comical antics comes to an end — and many people trace this right back to the selling of Dr. J (the “curse of”?). Rightly or wrongly, Boe is the godfather of a circus — which they once had to give up their arena and forfeit a play-in game for the playoffs for the literal sort of!
A lot of memories about the team are going around this week, but one is not — the alternate history one where they kept the game’s most exciting player and had an entirely different fate. But if we’re going to construct alternate histories, we have to deal with the facts of the time, the facts which led Boe to find an unconventional solution to a lose-lose situation, and enabled his team to move forward with the pieces that were left.
Just to be clear, I am not in any way equating my decision with one that led to a generation’s worth of failure.