• Vietnam!

    Trong landed in Ho Chi Minh City a week before the opening of his exhibition, The Leavers, at Galerie Quynh. It was a welcoming, warm night, and the Tet new year's decorations could be seen in full force on the streets that were lined with lights and flowers. It felt a little like midtown Manhattan during the holidays.  David arrived a few days later from Japan, and we immediately got to work. 

    First on the agenda was visiting Trong's two aunts and cousins, for the first time ever.  The last time that he was here in 2009, Trong couldn't get in contact with any relatives, due to slower communications. This turn, thanks to Viber, he immediately got in touch with Oanh, a first cousin who offered to meet up and take him to see  Bac Loc, the octogenarian aunt who lives in Trong's family's original house. She and her children came to live in the house after the war ended, knowing that her brother's family had left. Bac Loc, old and feeble now, mostly slept when we saw her, but every time she would get up from rest, her silver mane seemed in perfect Elvis order. Now we know where Trong's hair genes come from. Her son Linh dug up a few old photographs that he had stashed away, including one of the house when it was only a single story and still on a dirt road.  They have since built it out to three stories, and the street is paved to neatly connect to the rest of HCMC's urban sprawl. After a short but sweet reunion, Oanh and her sisters invited us back to their house for a family lunch.

    The following evening, it was time for Trong's opening. In Galerie Quynh's perfectly lit space on Dong Khoi street, near the opera house, he showed a number of new paintings that were made in New York over the last six months. The canvases depicted coloring book drawings of old family photographs, with the outlines absent. Emphasizing the blurred edges of memory and forcing the viewer to mentally draw in the lines that define, the series of paintings is one of several offshoot art projects directly inspired by the film. It was a fantastically fun evening, with an array of interesting guests and visitors, including Adriel Luis from the Smithsonian and Tiana Alexandra, the actress and director who made the seminal film From Hollywood to Hanoi. It felt, right at home, like an opening in Chelsea.

    The following day, it was time to visit the other aunt, who lived 2 hours by car just east of HCMC, in the "country." Aunt Ti, the baby sister of Trong's mother, lives in a comfortable house that was built with family support over the years. She was so gracious and kind, having invited all the relatives in the area to come meet Trong and eat a big pre-Tet family lunch. They cleared the living room of all furniture, and as is country custom, the ground was swept and the food laid out directly on the floor. Lucky for him, Trong's oldest sister Hang had phoned Aunt Ti a few days before and told her all his favorite foods, which the lovely aunt sweetly obliged to make. It was a delicious spread - washed down with a lot of beer - and a festive atmosphere for getting to know the relatives, all twenty plus of them. 

    On to Hanoi, the capital. Galerie Quynh had arranged for Trong to give an artist's talk at the Goethe Institut, in collaboration with Manzi, a multi-purpose cafe, exhibition, and performance space ran by the ever energetic Bill Nguyen.  Goethe itself supports numerous cultural and arts events in Vietnam, and we were happy to have them host and introduce us to the small but exciting art scene in the north.   We had an interpreter at the talk, which was great because many of the audience members spoke solely Vietnamese, and it was wonderful to be able and connect with locals and travelers alike. The talk went on, and on, which no one seemed to mind, thank goodness.  

    On a side note, we won't detail any more mouth watering food escapades, but suffice it to say, if you have ever wanted to travel to Vietnam, you will not be disappointed by the culinary offerings. That alone will put a big smile on your weary globetrotting feet.

    The next several days was spent doing touristy things and checking out the local artists and art scene. We visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the amazing Ethnographic Museum, and the Temple of Literature, a millenium-old Confucian compound that hosted the first national university in Vietnam, and thus venerates sages and scholars. Bill gave us a tour at Manzi, where he introduced us to works by a number of emerging artists.  We also interviewed him. Throughout the trip, we sought the driving forces and figures behind contemporary art in Vietnam, hoping to glean another layer of perspective to DONG.  In Hanoi, that meant tracking down the people behind Nha San, Vietnam's legendary art space dedicated to experimental art. Nha San was started by artist Nguyen Manh Duc and artist/curator Tran Luong. It literally translates as "House on Stilts," and was indeed a Muong dwelling transported from the mountains of Hoa Binh and reassembled inside Nguyen’s private home. The space has evolved over time, and currently comprises several spaces. The original location now operates as a cafe and serves as Nha San headquarters. The energy of the space was palpable, and one could easily imagine and rekindle the ghosts of radical performances past. Throughout its history, the space was censored and shut down multiple times by the authorities, but nonetheless continues to adapt and thrive. This is perhaps one of the true harbingers for change, and one often forgets the political underpinnings while traveling Vietnam, as there are many aspects of unadulterated capitalism and consumerism that would make one feel native to any international city.

    While at Nha San, we caught up with one of the original founders, Tran Luong, who has become an important international spokesperson for contemporary Vietnamese art. As a very busy artist and curator, Luong's task is neverending, and he gave us much insight into the country's art scene at large.  

    In fact, all of our interviewees in both Hanoi and HCMC were very gracious and generous with their time. Some of those we filmed also included  gallerist Suzanne Lecht, internationally renowned artist Dinh Q. Le, editor of & of Other Things Fabiola Buchele, and others. We couldn't be more thankful. We made new friends everywhere we went and of course, always seemed to enjoy a meal together.

    David went northward from there, to visit the hill tribes. Trong went back to HCMC to continue trying to track down that elusive Renault Dauphine. No luck. Yet. That is for a future chapter.

    On one of his last days in HCMC, Trong went on an excellent outing at the Museum of Fine Arts with Sophie Hughes, a historian who's art tours have opened an important window into the contemporary Vietnam art scene, and in particular connects the dots on how the new art continues to lean on, interface, and counter what came before it. After the tour, we went on a little boat ride along the Saigon River, catching the late afternoon sunset, combining banter and booze, and floating aimlessly for just a brief moment. Soon it's back to work!

  • Red River Crossing

    We had a productive and amazing time on a short four day trip to Texas and Oklahoma the last weekend of September. First stop was visiting Trong's brother Peter MacArthur outside Dallas, a development called Trophy Club. This part of suburban America had construction and architecture harkening early 20th century English family houses. A former priest, Peter and his lovely wife Lisa turned us on to some oversized Texas hospitality. They also have a  number of "kids," who all come from different parents.

    After interviewing Peter, we left early early the next morning and drove three hours north to Oklahoma City, where two more of Trong's brothers and an uncle reside. The latter, Reverend "Tony" Bao, is 95 years old and played an instrumental role in escaping with the family from Vietnam on April 30th. At one time, he spoke perfect English and French, in addition to Vietnamese. A recent teeth extraction left his English less recognizable, but the few words he spoke in that language could have fooled us. Trong remembered him as a well-spoken, tall, noble gentleman - having not seen him for probably 15 plus years -, quite different from his life now, relegated to a wheelchair in a nursing home. He still had his wits about him and could talk on endlessly.

    We interviewed Trong's oldest brother Cuong, one of the most gentle persons you'll ever meet. He lives a relatively simple life, with hopes and dreams of going back to Vietnam one day and being a missionary. The Catholic blood strongly courses through the veins of many members of the Nguyen family.

    After Cuong in age comes Thanh "Joseph," who we had a difficult time tracking down. Trong also hadn't seen this brother in over 10 years. Having implored his parents and siblings to reach out to Thanh, before leaving on the trip, no one could get a hold of him by mail, phone, hook, or crook. We decided to just show up at his house. After two different attempts without anyone answering the door, we luckily saw, in the backyard of his neighbor's house, an older Asian man pruning branches in a tree. Remembering that Thanh's in-laws lived next house over, we asked him if he knew whether Joseph was home. Indeed, Thanh was just sleeping he said. Sure enough, third time knocking, this time the back door, two beautiful girls and the long lost, sleepy brother came to the door and greeted us. We practically forced him into being filmed, and he was a great sport! He remembered a good amount, and also told us that his hobby was collecting Vietnamese music and movies. His daughters were so sweet and well-behaved, and we all went out for pho with them the next evening.

    During the interviews with the brothers, a man named Raymond Hendrie came up several times. He was always mentioned with the deepest respect and gratitude. Hendrie was a restaurateur who was instrumental in helping the Nguyen family get on their feet when first arriving to America, by giving Trong's parents and four siblings jobs at his buffet restaurant Hendrie House. Having already planned on visiting Enid, Oklahoma, where the family first lived in the states, we agreed that it was important to also interview Mr. Hendrie. Peter had come on the little road trip with us, and was able to get in touch with Raymond, who kindly granted our wish.

    On the way out to Enid, another 80 miles north of Oklahoma City, we stopped by a few antique stores and flea markets, hoping to find some vintage cowboy boots (David) or old school Air Jordans (Trong). We drove along, passing a number of fracking rigs along the way. Entering Enid, our initial stop was the first house Trong's family lived in, on Pine Street, a few blocks from the Lincoln elementary and Emerson junior high schools where the children attended.

    The house was gone, and only an empty lot remained. Flanked on the right side was a new bed and breakfast, and to the right a nursing home - the same one that oldest sisten Hang "Ann" worked at during her teenage years. It felt a bit strange being in the town, 31 years later. Everything looked familiar and yet nothing seemed to carry any overbearing emotional weight, as might be expected. We drove a few streets further to West Oak street, to the brick house the family bought later on. It was still there.

    The house number was no longer visible on the gabled facade, but it was instantly recognized by Trong. The brick seemed a brighter red and a white picket fence had been erected to the side, apparently the cottage next door had been purchased by the present owners and torn down to make extra yard. Trong could remember hanging out on the porch with childhood friends, and seeking shelter in the house's basement during tornado warnings.

    Before seeing Mr. Hendrie, we took a random detour to the railroad tracks, having seen a large mill and terminal building from a distance. It was a fantastic abandoned area, with way too many Kodak moments and spots to speak of - and too little time to linger at. But a nice little break, nonetheless.

    Mr. Hendrie no longer owned Hendrie House, which during the 1980s oil boom was a big thriving restaurant. Now he managed a more modest eatery that was attached to the Ramada Inn. Named Raymie's, the restaurant is still a family business where his wife Patty and daughter Jennifer continue to help out. The chef Elizabeth had been working for Raymond for 44 years. She and the family still keep in touch with Peter, and they fondly remember working with the Nguyen family. Raymond was exactly as everyone described, giving, honest, generous, and just an A+ human being. Among other things, he recounted how the restaurant lost some business in the mid 70's, whereby a few patrons complained of Vietnamese people working at Hendrie House. Keep in mind the war had recently ended...

  • 3 Days to Go with IndieGoGo!

    Dear Friends,

    We're rounding that corner! Just 3 more days to go with our IndieGoGo campaign. Check it out! We're excited and thankful for all your contributions so far, and looking forward to giving it a final push. Push Push Push!

    We're just back from our recent trip to Florida and Georgia, where we filmed  Trong's parents and three of his siblings. We got some strong footage that will provide us with plenty of material to sort through in the coming weeks, in preparation for our next travel leg in the fall.

    Check out a tiny clip from some of our footage above!

    In Florida, we interviewed Trong's brother John and their parents De and Sang. In Daytona Beach, we sat down with their sister Mary Nguyen Sittnick and then in Norcross, Georgia we caught up with Ann Nguyen – who Trong hadn't seen in over ten years! There was some great home cooking along the way, evidenced by this  picture of a bowl of pho. Damn that's good.

    Trong's parents, who have never been back to Vietnam since leaving, are seriously considering making the long trip to visit in February 2015, overlapping with Trong's exhibition. After a touching, thoughtful interview with them together and separate, the memories inevitably come flooding back. Theirs is a life of survival, perseverance, and triumph, having lived through multiple conflicts and fleeing their homes twice, first in 1954 when the communists took over the north. Originally from north Vietnam, they fled to the south to escape persecution, as they were part of the minority catholics. Needless to say, it would be amazing to go with them!!!

    Lest we forget, a big hug and heartfelt gratitude to all of you!

    xo Team DONG

  • Silkscreens Printed!

    Wow! The DONG silkscreens are finished!

    Trong spent the last two weekends producing them at Bushwick Print Lab. Time to snatch yourself one.

    We hope you're happy with the way they turned out. We LOVE them!