Saturday 30 September 2006

Quote of the Day

"An autistic person is someone who might not have mental problems or intellectual disablities, but who face communication problems. With weird social behaviour, they are resistant to changes and tend to live in their own world." (psychologists' defintion)


Thursday 28 September 2006

I Love Modern Art

Modern art is defined by Claude Cemuschi of Boston College as "painting, sculpture, and other forms of the 20th-century art." "Although scholars disagree as to precisely when the modern period began," added he, "they mostly use the term modern art to refer to art of the 20th century in Europe and the Americas, as well as in other regions under Western influence."

In the dimness of my knowledge of arts, I just devide painting into four periods or so, including realism, romanticism, modern painting, and post-modern painting. Of which I love modern painting best. A particularly innovative period of art, modern painting introduces to us plenty of new techniques and materials, and countless original ideas. Most significantly, modern art is recognized by many as movements that opened to our creative imagination a whole new world. Since these movements began, human mind has no longer been restricted by inflexible principals in arts.

Modern art comprises a remarkable diversity of personal styles and techniques. Just a brief skim through art history shows that we have fauvism, impressionism, expressionism, cubism, dadaism, surrealism, abstractionism, pop art, etc. Although there was only a style called "impressionism", the fact was that all schools of painting left deep impression on us, not just impressionism. Personally, I love expressionism with its harsh combination of complementary colours and distorted forms which are highly symbolic. I like fauvist painting with their large areas of unvaried colour, childish shapes, and heavy contour lines. And I am especially enchanted by colourful works by impressionists which are poured paints like rains of colours that even a rainbow can never think of.

And what I love the most of paintings in modern art period is the artist's limitless creativity hidden behind each drawing. Art critics say modern art is by nature rebellious and that this rebellion is most evident in a quest for originality and a continual desire to shock. It is the rebellious voice of mutinous souls. Innovation is something modern artists must always thirst for. They must never stop refreshing themselves and innovating their works, or else their art is dead.

The childish painting you see above is the work of a genius artist, Henri Matisse. It is "Moroccan Landscape", or "Acanthus", created as oil on canvas round about 1911-1913. I like the way Matisse viewed life with his childlike eyes. The painting is irregistably reminiscent of our childhood when we were still "artists": In fact, all human beings are artist by nature; the sole difference between those who are artists and those who are not is that only a small proportion of people retain their inborn artistic temperament while growing up into adulthood.

Tuesday 26 September 2006

The Spy Who Loved His Enemy (continued and concluded)

“From the Army, intelligence, secret police, I had all kinds of sources,” An says. “The commanders of the military branches, officers of the Special Forces, the Navy, the Air Force-they all helped me.” In exchange for this steady stream of information, An gave his South Vietnamese informants the same thing he gave his Communist employers. “We discussed these documents, as the South Vietnamese tried to figure out what they meant. They had a problem. How were they going to deal with the Americans?” An then turned around and advised the Americans on how to deal with the Vietnamese. It was a high-level confidence game, with death hovering over him should he be discovered photographing the strategic plans and intelligence reports slipped to him by his South Vietnamese and American sources.

An worked through the night photographing these documents. Then his film cannisters were disguised to look like nem ninh hoa, grilled pork wrapped in rice paper, or hidden in the bellies of fish that had begun to rot. More fish or nem would be piled into baskets made to look like offerings being presented at a Buddhist funeral. In the morning, when An walked his German shepherd at the horse-racing track, he would deposit his nem cannisters in an empty bird’s nest high in a tree. For larger shipments, he hid his rolls of film under the stele of what he pretended was a family grave. An’s wife sometimes followed him at a distance. If he was arrested, she could alert his couriers.

Using live drops, dead drops, couriers, and radio transmitters that linked him through C.O.S.V.N. to military headquarters in North Vietnam, An was supported by dozens of military intelligence agents who had been detailed to work on his behalf. Of the forty-five couriers devoted to getting his messages out of Saigon, twenty-seven were captured and killed. “There were times before my departure on a mission when my wife and I agreed, if I were arrested, it would be best if I were killed,” An told Ngoc Hai. “It would be more horrible if they tortured me for information that put other people’s lives at risk. Sometimes it got so dangerous that, while my hands were steady, my legs were shaking uncontrollably. Despite my efforts to keep calm, the automatic reflexes of my body made me shiver with fear.”

“An was of paramount importance to the Communists, not only for getting information to the North but also for corroborating what they were receiving from other sources,” says former C.I.A. interrogator Frank Snepp. Author of “Decent Interval,” about the chaotic collapse of Saigon in 1975, Snepp now works as a television-news producer in Los Angeles. “An had access to strategic intelligence. That’s obvious,” Snepp says. “But no one has ‘walked the cat backward,’ done a postmortem of the damage he did. The agency didn’t have the stomach for it.” Snepp suggests that one source for An’s intelligence was Robert Shaplen, the New Yorker correspondent. Close friends and collaborators, An and Shaplen spent hours closeted in Shaplen’s room on the third floor of the Continental Palace Hotel, occasionally stepping out on the balcony to avoid being overheard. “Shaplen was one of our favorite journalists,” Snepp says. “We had orders from the top to give him unbelievable access to the embassy and high-level intelligence.

“We estimated there were fourteen thousand spies operating in South Vietnam. The Communists infiltrated right to the heart of the enemy. It was a government of Swiss cheese.” Describing turning points in the war, such as Henry Kissinger’s secret negotiations in Paris and the decision by the South Vietnamese government in 1975 to abandon its positions in the Central Highlands, Snepp says, “The Communists knew what was happening before the U.S. Embassy knew.

“We didn’t understand the degree of corruption in the South Vietnamese government,” Snepp goes on. “We didn’t want to look at corruption or morale. We didn’t want to know we were backing the wrong horse. This was true in Iran or Iraq or anywhere else where we’ve supported corrupt governments. An, of course, wanted very much to know these things. He knew under these conditions that Vietnamization would never work.”

… In 1970, An’s fellow Time correspondent Robert Sam Anson was captured by North Vietnamese soldiers and Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, where at least twenty-five other journalists were already dead or unaccounted for. After Anson’s wife pleaded with An to help her, he secretly arranged for Anson’s release. It would be another seventeen years before Anson learned the story of what An had done for him. When Anson saw An again in 1987, he asked him, “Why did you save me, if you were an enemy of my country?” An replied, “Yes, I was an enemy of your country, but you were my friend.” To this day, Anson works with a photo of An on his desk…

This article continues on, brilliantly. I can only suggest that those interested get it from The New Yorker, which owns the copyright.


Monday 25 September 2006

The Spy Who Loved His Enemy (cont.)

Pham Xuan An, the psyops intelligence agent, was beginning to acquire the “reportorial” method that he would later employ so brilliantly as Pham Xuan An the Time correspondent. “People usually have one career, while I had two, the job of following the revolution and the job of being a journalist,” An told the writer Nguyen Thi Ngoc Hai, who has published a Vietnamese monograph about him. “These two professions were very contradictory, but also very similar. The intelligence job involves collecting information, analyzing it, and jealously keeping it secret, like a cat covering its droppings. The journalist, on the other hand, collects information, analyzes it, and then publishes it to the world.”

As a quadruple agent moonlighting for France’s Deuxieme Bureau, working for his cousin’s indigenous Vietnamese intelligence organization and its C.I.A. sponsor, and reporting to his Communist handlers, An was beginning to live along the edge of his own personal nightmare. “I was never relaxed for a minute,” he says. “Sooner or later as a spy, you’ll be captured, like a fish in a pond. I had to prepare myself to be tortured. That was my likely fate.”

It was scant solace that most of An’s colleagues in G5 were in a similar predicament. “When we weren’t spying on each other, we smoked opium and played together as friends,” An says. “That was just the way things worked. I had to compartmentalize.” He acknowledges that it was hard to do. “But you can’t kill all the time. When the war was over, these were the people I would have to live with.”

It was Mai Chi Tho and Muoi Huong, An’s case officer, who decided to send him to the United States to be trained as a journalist. Muoi Huong, in an interview with the Vietnamese newspaper Thanh Nien, said that he got the idea to make An a journalist from Ho Chi Minh, who himself had worked as a reporter. It was the perfect cover for a spy, granting him access to obscure places and elevated people. The plan was approved at the highest levels of the Vietnamese Politburo, but it took several years to execute. An’s father was dying. An won a government scholarship which was rescinded and given to someone who was better connected. Then his visa was blocked by French-trained administrators who didn’t like the idea of sending a Vietnamese student to the United States. The Communist Party had a hard time finding enough money. Finally, Mai Chi Tho scraped together eighty thousand dong, which, at the time, was worth about a thousand dollars. This was sufficient to buy An’s airplane ticket to America and four new suits of clothing. An’s father died in his arms in September, 1957. A month later, An arrived in Costa Mesa, California, to enroll as a freshman at the local community college.

An was a thirty-one-year-old Communist spy, a retired customs officer, and a psywar specialist when he began studying at Orange Coast College, which had been recommended to him by an American adviser in Vietnam. He was possibly the first Vietnamese to live in Orange County. (It is now home to a hundred and fifty thousand Vietnamese.) Called Confucius by his classmates, An studied political science, American government, economics, sociology, psychology, Spanish, and journalism. He chaperoned eighteen-year-old coeds to the beach and spent a lot of time working on The Barnacle, the school newspaper, for which he wrote occasional articles, such as a movie review of “The Quiet American”-the first, anti-Communist version of Graham Greene’s book. Finding the movie potentially confusing, An recommended that it “not be shown in Vietnam.”

An describes his two years in the United States, which included internships at the Sacramento Bee and the United Nations, as “the only time in my life when I wasn’t anxious.” (His travels across America were financed by the Asia Foundation, which was later revealed to be a C.I.A. front.) He fell in love with America and he fell in love with an American, Lee Meyer, a lithe blonde who was his editor and writing coach at The Barnacle. “She knew I loved her, but I never told her,” An says. “We Vietnamese never tell what we really feel.” An’s sunny years in California were the darkest time in the history of the southern Vietminh, the Communists who had remained below the seventeenth parallel when Vietnam was divided in 1954. By 1959, as many as eighty-five per cent of these Vietminh fighters, numbering about sixty thousand, would be killed or arrested. An learned in a coded letter from his younger brother that Muoi Huong, his case officer, had been arrested and was being tortured. He also learned that he was being summoned home because the Vietminh-soon to be reborn as the Vietcong-were finally embarking on the armed struggle that would launch the Second Indochina War.

An vividly remembers standing on the Golden Gate Bridge in October, 1959, wondering what he should do next. In his pocket was an airplane ticket to Saigon. Rising below him in the harbor were the solitary tower and concrete walls of Alcatraz, the notorious island prison. He feared this was a sign of the fate that awaited him if he returned to Vietnam-years of prison and torture in the tiger cages of Vietnam’s own Devil’s Island. He had been offered a job teaching Vietnamese at the military language school in Monterey. He could travel to Cuba and try to get back to Vietnam through Russia. He could exile himself to France. Finally, An the loyal patriot, who had in his possession four suits that belonged to the Communist Party of Vietnam and should rightfully be returned to the people, boarded his plane and flew home to Saigon.

“I have two loves, like Josephine Baker,” he says. “I love my country, and I love the United States. When the war was over, I wanted them to get back together.”

On returning to Saigon, An was so frightened that he hid in his house for a month. Then, in a bold stroke, he used family connections to call on Tran Kim Tuyen for help. A former military surgeon, Tuyen was the brilliant, diminutive figure who ran South Vietnam’s intelligence network for President Ngo Dinh Diem and his younger brother Ngo Dinh Nhu. This vast C.I.A.-sponsored network of spies and clandestine military forces operated out of the President’s cabinet under the anodyne name of the Office of Political, Cultural, and Social Research. If Tuyen hired him, An figured he would be safe, at least for the moment, from arrest.

Tuyen put An in charge of the foreign correspondents working for V.T.X., the Viet News Agency. Many of them, with no training in the profession, had never filed a story as a journalist. An ordered them to write a story a week. They complained to Tuyen, saying that doing journalism would get in the way of their work as spies-their real job. Supporting An, Tuyen instructed his foreign agents to get “serious in your work” and start filing stories like the “professional pressman” An.

Tuyen fell out of power, after a failed coup, and An moved from V.T.X. to Reuters and from there to Time. Recognized as one of the most hardworking journalists in town, always ready to help his colleagues with informed opinions or telling anecdotes, An gave information in order to get it. Describing to Ngoc Hai the similarities between journalists and spies, An said, “Their food is information, documents. Just like birds, one has to keep feeding them so they’ll sing.”

(to be continued and concluded. Source: The Spy Who Loved Us, by Howard French)

Sunday 24 September 2006

The Spy Who Loved His Enemy (cont.)

Pham Xuan An was born in the Vietnamese Year of the Cat, at the Hour of the Buffalo, on September 12, 1927, twenty miles northeast of Saigon, in the Bien Hoa psychiatric hospital. At the time, this was the only medical facility in Cochin China open to Vietnamese. As the firstborn son of a cadre superieur, an educated member of the colonial administration, An had the rare honor of receiving a French colonial birth certificate.

Originally from Hai Duong, the heart of North Vietnam, in the densely populated Red River Delta lying between Hanoi and the coast, An’s great-grandfather, a silver- and goldsmith, was recruited by the Nguyen dynasty to make medals for the royal court at Hue, in central Vietnam. An’s grandfather, who rose through the mandarinate to become a teacher and the director of a primary school for girls, wears one of these gold medals on his chest in the photograph which stands as the centerpiece of An’s family altar. Given to him by the Emperor, the large tulip-shaped medal, called the kim khánh, signifies that An’s grandfather held a rank equivalent to that of a secretary in the government. Later, An shows me a picture of himself as a baby with this medal hanging around his neck.  I ask if he still owns it. “It was sent to Ho Chi Minh for the Gold Campaign,” he says, referring to the huge bribe that Ho paid the Chinese occupation forces in 1945 to persuade them to withdraw from North Vietnam after the Second World War.

An’s father, trained as an engineer at the university in Hanoi, worked as a cadastral surveyor, establishing property lines and tax rolls in Vietnam’s southern frontier. He laid out roads in Saigon and canals through the U Minh Forest, along the Gulf of Siam. While surveying in Cambodia, he met An’s mother, another emigrant from the North. She was an industrious woman whose second-grade education allowed her to read and write. The work of a colonial surveyor in what was then the wilds of South Vietnam involved press-ganging peasants into carrying chains through the Mekong marshlands and building towers in the jungle to establish sight lines. “When you do land surveying and build canals and roads, you see the poor Vietnamese workers eking out their living,” An says. “You see the French system of forced labor, beatings, and other abuses. The only way to oppose these abuses is to fight for independence.” He adds, “The Americans did the same thing in 1776. My family was always patriotic in their desire to remove the French from Vietnam.”…

… An fell in love with Saigon, which at the time was a lazy colonial outpost surrounded by rubber plantations. He spent hours along the Saigon River, swinging in the banyan trees and jumping into the water. He made friends with the workers in the Ba Son shipyard, who cast fanciful coins for him to play with. He rode the electric train to Cholon, the Chinese district, and then rode back to the movie theatre near the bridge at Dakao. Here he watched all the films with Johnny Weissmuller swinging through the trees as Tarzan. “It was a beautiful dream of freedom in the jungle,” An says of those movies. “I thought under Communism I would live like Tarzan. I put this dream into the revolution.”

“Look at Tarzan!” An exclaims. “What does he have? Only his loincloth.” This is Communism as a pure state of nature, a Rousseauian idyll. It is the high-school-philosophy version of Communism, which An acquired from books sent to students in the colonies by the French Socialist Party. “Yes, I am a Communist,” he says. “Communism is a very beautiful theory, the most human theory. The teaching of God, the Creator, is the same. Communism teaches you to love each other, not kill each other. The only way to do this is for everyone to become brothers, which might take a million years. It is utopian, but it is beautiful.”

An the political analyst knows that Communism was responsible for millions of deaths in the twentieth century, and he knows intimately the limits of the Communist regime under which he lives. But An the patriot made a choice when he was young to fight for an independent Vietnam, and the most effective force in leading this struggle against the Japanese, French, Americans, Chinese, Cambodians, and other invaders of his divided country was the Communists. “Here in Vietnam, which organization did you have to join in order to carry on the fight for your country?” he asks. “You had no other choice but to join the Communist Party.”

An was an eighteen-year-old high-school student at the College de Can Tho, in the Mekong Delta, when he dropped out of school, in 1945, to enlist in a Vietminh training course. For more than a hundred recruits there were only fifty weapons, some left over from the First World War. Trainees had to pick up spent cartridges to make new bullets. Though he was involved in fighting first the Japanese and then the French, An dismisses this experience as little more than running errands. But a government Web site, recounting his activities as a Hero of the People’s Armed Forces, describes An as “a national defense combatant who participated in all battles in the western region of South Vietnam.”

By 1947, An had left his position as a platoon leader, involved mainly in propaganda, and moved back to Saigon to care for his father, who would have a lung removed and spend the next two years in the hospital with tuberculosis. An organized student demonstrations in Saigon, initially against the French and then against the Americans. He worked as a secretary for the Caltex oil company until, in 1950, he passed the exam to become a French customs inspector.

During the Tet New Year celebration in 1952, An was summoned into the jungle north of Saigon to meet the Communist officials who were setting up C.O.S.V.N.-the Central Office for South Vietnam. C.O.S.V.N. would lead the war against the Americans, who, even before the end of the First Indochina War, in 1954, were beginning to replace the French as the primary enemy. An was excited about this call to the war zone, where he hoped to join his sister, who had moved to the jungle three years earlier to become “the Voice of Nam Bo,” a radio broadcaster for the Communist network. An visited her sometimes, taking her food or medicine, and staying overnight in the Vietminh tunnel network, where the cooking fires were vented through termite mounds in order to evade the French spotter planes that flew overhead. (In 1955, An’s sister moved to North Vietnam to work for the state-run coal mines.)

An was disappointed to learn that he wouldn’t be joining his sister in the jungle but, instead, was being recruited to work as a spy in Vietnam’s newly established military intelligence service. “I was the first recruit,” he says. An found his new assignment ignoble. Spying is the work of hunting dogs and birds of prey, he says. “I had been beaten by the riot police during student demonstrations in Saigon, and I had no desire to be a stool pigeon or an informer.”

The first problem An confronted on slipping back into Saigon as a newly recruited spy was how to avoid being drafted into the French colonial forces. To practice the English that he was learning at the United States Information Service, he volunteered his services as a press censor at the central post office. Here he was told to black out the dispatches written for British and French newspapers by Graham Greene, a “troublemaker” who the French assumed was working for British intelligence during his frequent visits to Vietnam.

…This is where Colonel Edward Lansdale found An when he came to offer his services-and money-to Captain Giai. Lansdale, a former advertising man and an expert in psychological warfare, had been sent to run the C.I.A.’s covert operations in Vietnam. Arriving in the country soon after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, Lansdale found G5 and the rest of the old colonial military apparatus in a shambles. They were totally demoralized, with no idea what to do with themselves, until Lansdale and his innocuously titled Saigon Military Mission began turning South Vietnam into a country, complete with an army, a President, and a flag.

Finding a promising student in the young Pham Xuan An, Lansdale and his colleagues began teaching him the tradecraft that he would employ in his next twenty years as a Communist spy. “I am a student of Sherman Kent,” An says, referring to the Yale professor who helped found the C.I.A. Strategic intelligence, Kent wrote in his classic text, “Strategic Intelligence for American World Policy” (1949), is a “reportorial job” based on studying the “personalities” of world leaders. “It must know of their character and ambitions, their opinions, their weaknesses, the influences which they can exert, and the influences before which they are frail. It must know of their friends and relatives, and the political, economic, and social milieu in which they move.”

(to be continued in two more instalments. This article, written by Howard French, is posted here in rememberance of Pham Xuan An, the only Vietnamese military general loved by the American and the best Vietnamese journalist, who died on September 20, 2006, just 8 days after his final birthday. I personally think Pham Xuan An is the best and the only Vietnamese journalist respected by his western colleagues).

Saturday 23 September 2006

The Spy Who Loved His Enemy

“Here is Pham Xuan An now,” Time’s last reporter in Vietnam cabled the magazine’s New York headquarters on April 29, 1975. “All American correspondents evacuated because of emergency. The office of Time is now manned by Pham Xuan An.” An filed three more reports from Saigon as the North Vietnamese Army closed in on the city. Then the line went dead. During the following year, with An serving as Time’s sole correspondent in postwar Vietnam, the magazine ran articles on “The Last Grim Goodbye,” “Winners: The Men Who Made the Victory,” and “Saigon: A Calm Week Under Communism.” An was one of thirty-nine foreign correspondents working for Time when the Saigon bureau was closed and his name disappeared from the masthead, on May 10, 1976.

Recognized as a brilliant political analyst, beginning with his work in the nineteen-sixties for Reuters and then for the New York Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor, and, finally, as a Time correspondent for eleven years, Pham Xuan An seemed to do his best work swapping stories with colleagues in Givral’s cafe, on the old Rue Catinat. Here he presided every afternoon as the best news source in Saigon. He was called “Dean of the Vietnamese Press Corps” and “Voice of Radio Catinat”-the rumor mill. With self-deprecating humor, he preferred other titles for himself, such as “docteur de sexologie,” “professeur coup d’etat,” “Commander of Military Dog Training” (a reference to the German shepherd that always accompanied him), “Ph.D. in revolutions,” or, simply, General Givral.

We now know that this is only half the work An did as a reporter, and not the better half. An sent the North Vietnamese a steady stream of secret military documents and messages written in invisible ink, but it was his typed dispatches, now locked in Vietnam’s intelligence archives and known to us only through secondhand reports, which will undoubtedly rank as his chef d’oeuvre. Using a Hermes typewriter bought specially for him by the North Vietnamese intelligence service, An wrote his dispatches, some as long as a hundred pages, at night. Photographed and transported as undeveloped rolls of film, An’s reports were run by courier out to the Cu Chi tunnel network that served as the Communists’ underground headquarters. Every few weeks, beginning in 1952, An himself would leave his Saigon office, drive twenty miles northwest to the Ho Bo woods, and descend into the tunnels to plan Communist strategy. From Cu Chi, An’s dispatches were hustled under armed guard to Mt. Ba Den, on the Cambodian border, driven to Phnom Penh, flown to Guangzhou (Canton), in southern China, and then rushed to the Politburo in North Vietnam. The writing was so lively and detailed that General Giap and Ho Chi Minh are reported to have rubbed their hands with glee on getting these dispatches from Tran Van Trung-An’s code name. “We are now in the United States’ war room!” they exclaimed, according to members of the Vietnamese Politburo.

As Saigon fell to the Communists, An, like his fellow-correspondents, was hoping to be evacuated to the United States. Vietnam’s military intelligence agency planned to continue his work in America. The Politburo knew there would be a war-after-the-war, a bitter period of political maneuvering in which the United States launched covert military operations and a trade embargo against Vietnam. Who better to report on America’s intentions than Pham Xuan An? In the last days of the war, An’s wife and their four children were airlifted out of Vietnam and resettled in Washington, D.C. An was anxiously awaiting instructions to follow them, when word came from the North Vietnamese Politburo that he would not be allowed to leave the country.

An was named a Hero of the People’s Armed Forces, awarded four military-exploit medals, and elevated to the rank of brigadier general. He was also sent to a reeducation camp and forbidden to meet Western visitors. His family were brought back to Vietnam, returning a year after they left. The problem with Pham Xuan An, from the perspective of the Vietnamese Communist Party, was that he loved America and Americans, democratic values, and objectivity in journalism. He considered America an accidental enemy who would return to being a friend once his people had gained their independence. An was the Quiet Vietnamese, the representative figure who was at once a lifelong revolutionary and an ardent admirer of the United States. He says he never lied to anyone, that he gave the same political analyses to Time that he gave to Ho Chi Minh. He was a divided man of utter integrity, someone who lived a lie and always told the truth.

“An’s story strikes me as something right out of Graham Greene,” says David Halberstam, who was friends with An when he was a Times reporter in Vietnam. “It broaches all the fundamental questions: What is loyalty? What is patriotism? What is the truth? Who are you when you’re telling these truths?” He adds, “There was an ambivalence to An that’s almost impossible for us to imagine. In looking back, I see he was a man split right down the middle.”

In his 1965 book on Vietnam, “The Making of a Quagmire,” Halberstam described An as the linchpin of “a small but first-rate intelligence network” of journalists and writers. An, he wrote, “had the best military contacts in the country.” Now that Halberstam knows An’s story, does he bear him any grudges? “No,” he says, echoing the opinion of almost all of An’s former colleagues. “It’s a story full of intrigue, smoke and mirrors, but I still think fondly of An. I never felt betrayed by An. He had to deal with being Vietnamese at a tragic time in their history, when there was nothing but betrayal in the air.”

Ho Chi Minh City-or Saigon, as it is still commonly called-is a single-mindedly commercial place. Lined with pushcarts and venders selling everything from soup to CDs, the streets are roaring rivers of Chinese two-stroke motorcycles. The exhaust fumes are so thick that Saigon’s famously beautiful women have started covering their faces with scarves. “We are all Muslims now,” says Viet, my Honda man, on the back of whose motorcycle I travel around the city.

Approaching An’s house-a villa in District 3, a densely settled neighborhood near the train station-we pass an intersection full of motorcycle-repair shops and come to a street that specializes in selling tropical fish, including the Siamese fighting fish that An admires. I tug on the bell that hangs on his green metal gate. The dogs start barking, and I peer through the grille to see An shuffling down the driveway. A wispy figure, he wears a striped short-sleeved shirt with a ballpoint pen in the pocket, gray trousers flapping around his legs, and rubber sandals. He arrives winded but smiling, and greets me with a handshake that involves only the tips of his fingers. He was recently admitted to the hospital with a collapsed lung, the result, perhaps, of a lifetime of smoking Lucky Strikes, but General Givral, with his full-toothed grin, looks, at seventy-eight, as puckish as ever.

I had last visited An in the early nineties, while writing a book on Amerasians-the children of American soldiers and their Vietnamese lovers. When it was published, I sent him a copy, and I sent him other books when mutual friends visited Vietnam. An knew that I was interested in hearing his story. He was a gracious host to the visitors who were allowed to see him after Vietnam adopted doi moi, its version of perestroika, in the late eighties. He would spend hours explaining Vietnamese history and culture. But there was one subject on which he was silent: his life as a spy. It looked as if he would be a sphinx to the end, whether out of loyalty to his friends or fear of government reprisals. In January of 2004, though, I received a message that he might finally be willing to talk, not in formal interviews but in friendly conversations…

… An has pendulous ears, a high, square-domed forehead, close-cropped dark hair, and lively brown eyes. His left eye is slightly larger than the right, as if he were simultaneously taking both the long and the short view of the world’s affairs. In the pictures of him from the fifties, showing him wearing narrow suits, white shirts, and black trousers, An looks like one of the nice, clean-cut young men who joined fraternities and mastered social drinking. He was taller than the average Vietnamese, a scrappy young boxer and swimmer, who once thought, after failing his school exams for the second year in a row, that he might have to become a gangster. He doesn’t want to talk about himself, he says-there is too much to remember. “It’s too difficult. And too long. And I am old.” Then, leaning forward, he begins talking about himself, recalling in minute detail scenes from fifty years ago. He gesticulates with his fingers, which are long-boned and nearly translucent with age. He shapes the air in front of him as if it were a doughy ball, taking a punch at it from time to time. He divides his remarks into Confucian triads and pentads or draws a flowing curve that represents one of the deesses, the protective goddesses to whom he credits his success in life. An can talk for hours about world events, drawing parallels, for example, between Vietnam and the Iraq war (he says techniques first developed in Asia have been moved to the desert) or evaluating the world’s intelligence services (“The Americans are masters at gathering intelligence, but they don’t know what to do with it”).

(to be continued. Source: an article by Howard French of A Glimpse of the World. I post it to this blog for you readers to read for fun. Enjoy it, and have a nice weekend.)

Friday 22 September 2006

In Rememberance of Pham Xuan An

I shall not call him 'the great agent'. I would rather call him 'the true patriot, the great art-lover, and the cultured spy'. I got deep impression from and would never forget what he said. "I have two loves, like Josephine Baker," he said. "I love my country, and I love the United States. When the war was over, I wanted them to get back together."

Those words must have come from a heart full of love.

During his time in America, Pham Xuan An fell in love with the 'enemy' country and he too fell in love with an American girl, Lee Meyer, a lithe blonde who helped him much in his double-faced work. "She knew I loved her, but I never told her," he recalled. "We Vietnamese never tell what we really feel." Pham Xuan An's sunny years in California were the darkest time in Vietnam's modern history, but may be they were the happiest time in his life I think.

When the war was over, Pham Xuan An lived (in loneliness I wish) in Hochiminh City like a "retired general". The rest of his life went on in peace, and I think that must be the rare time in life when he lived without anxiety or fear. Despite that all, I prefer thinking to myself that he was all alone, obsessed by the past, sunken in memories of his sunny years in the faraway western country which is now a part of his distant past.

His association with the press was restricted - I am not sure whether it was his intention or someone else's. However, in a very rare talk with Stanley Karnow, the author of 'Vietnam - A History', he spent time expressing his sadness and nostalgia. "You remember that old song by Josephine Baker?" he asked the journalist, and began to softly sing an old verse by the coloured diva, "American idol" of many Vietnamese in the early twentieth century.

There are times when I ask myself how Pham Xuan An could live the way he did. How could he, at the same time, love the United States and act against her? He must have been tormented more than once, I guess, especially when he is an art-lover. He admired western arts. He loved the wonderful singing of Josephine Baker. His heart, full of love for arts, must be that of a sentimental artist. How could he live such a double life? Was it a tragedy for him, after all? The final curtain has been lowered, and he was gone, taking away with him all the secrets in the life of a double agent.

Wednesday 20 September 2006

Haunting Melodies

Art critics have so far discussed much on the so-called “national identity” in arts. It is obvious that developing “an advance culture soaked with national characters” is for long an issue of concern to our leaders and critics. Even me, I mentioned this subject once here in this blog. What I believe after all is that Vietnamese music is actually characterized by several features, and songs and compositions by Pham Duy might be an example.

Pham Duy, born in 1921,  was called by the French as “le poète de la chanson vietnamienne” (the poet who sings Vietnamese songs) for his beautiful melodies and poetic lyrics. And it was not all the credit he got. For his Vietnamese audience, Pham Duy was known to many as one of the composers, songwriters, and founders of a whole new world of music in Vietnam as far back as the late 1930s, the music which would later be named “nouvelle musique”.

Although to compare music composers is not a good thing to do, I find in the works by Van Cao, Trinh Cong Son, and many other composers of genius, much influence from western modern music. But Pham Duy is just Pham Duy, not anyone else. He is who he is, a composer inspired mostly, if not only, by Vietnamese folk songs, or the musical heritage of his motherland. The inspiration is shown clearly in such songs as “The Romance of Qing Ke”, “Golden Flower Hill”, “My Village”, etc.  Personally I love “My Village” by Pham Duy best of all songs sharing this name, like the “My Village” by Van Cao, or Ho Bac. Every pitch and accord makes up an unmixed vietnamese sound. Unlike songs by Trinh Cong Son, Pham Duy’s works are often hard to perform, and they leave much space for different singers to experiment on performing them differently.

The melodies are haunting, and the lyrics are so beautiful that they challenge any translator who wants to take them across the border between languages.

There is a translation of “The Rain on the Leaves”, however, and I really admire the translator, Steve Addiss. He himself was also an excellent performer of this song in a duet with Pham Duy.

Git mưa trên lá nước mt m già

Lã chã đm đìa trên xác con lnh giá.

Git mưa trên lá nước mt mn mà

Thiếu n mng vì tan chiến tranh chng v

Git mưa trên lá tiếng khóc oa oa

Đa bé chào đi cho chúng ta n cười

Git mưa trên lá tiếng nói bao la

Tóc trng đm đà êm ái ru tình già.

Git mưa trên lá bi ri, bi hi,

Ráo riết, mit mài, anh biết yêu ln cui.

Git mưa trên lá b ng, xôn xao,

Cung quít, dt dào, em biết yêu ln đu

Git mưa trên lá thp thoáng, bơ vơ

Khép nép, đi ch, xa cách nhau vài gi

Git mưa trên lá dĩ vãng xa xôi

m ti bùi ngùi, xa cách nhau mt đi.

English lyrics by Steve Addiss:

The rain on the leaves is the tears of joy

Of the girl whose boy returns from the war.

The rain on the leaves is the bitter tears

When the mother hears her son is no more.

The rain on the leaves is the cry that is torn

From a baby just born as life is begun

The rain on the leaves is an old couple's love

Much greater now than when they were young.

The rain on the leaves is the passionate voice

In a final choice when last love is near.

The rain on the leaves is the voice surprised

As it realizes its first love is here.

The rain on the leaves is the heart's distress

And a loneliness, as life passes by.

The rain on the leaves is the last caress

And a tenderness before love can die.

In the second half of the song, they changed the harmony, and made "The Rain on the Leaves" a gospel accompanied on acoustic guitar with its gentle sounds. Can such a song, with its simple pitch, rhythmn, and harmony, leave such space for the performer's creativeness? The answer, surprisingly, is yes.

Monday 18 September 2006

O Magic Flute

Everybody tends to reach perfection, which includes the truth, the good, and the beauty. But few of the Vietnamese have a true sense of these values, especially sense of beauty. It’s not our fault, though, because it requires of us a good basis of education so as to catch the meaning of a musical piece, to get the message hidden inside a painting. We need educating on arts. We need access to the world of music, of painting, of literature. We need surrounding by arts.

But the Vietnam education system has failed to provide us with such support. As a result, we have become like this - blind to arts, blind to beauty, blind to all humane values. We are not totally responsible for this. We just fall victim to a poor education system of a closed country.

I remember how tormented I was, thinking I had such an absurd taste of beauty, or I had no idea of beauty to be exact. Then one day I met an artist who gave me a good lesson and practice to enhance my sense of beauty.  He told me to practise “the lesson of beauty” , which contains several steps as follows:

  • make a list of 10 things you find beautiful. These may include anything,  a face, a sunset, a landscape, a song, a piece of music, a hand, a smile, a design, a painting, a movie scene, etc;
  • search for common characteristics in these items - what you think makes them beautiful; and from this, you
  • experiment trying to express your own definition of the essence of beauty.

So nice! Although I’ve never followed what he told me to do (I just am too busy to practise depicting beauty), the lesson has gradually built in me a dim concept of how to enhance our taste of beauty. In brief, we have to get ourselves soaked in beauty, everyday. As victims of the Vietnam education system, all the more we have to do this.

“The Flute Magic”, the masterpiece by Mozart, should be one of the many symbols of beauty, after all. Perhaps I will have to seek words to express its beauty, and this is part of the lesson I was taught. Oh… words… “The words will never show the you I’ve come to know.” Words have always failed to express the harmony and the splendour of music. Once more, the words I have in mind are simply not sufficient for me to talk about the magic of “The Magic Flute”.

"Half of what I say is meaningless

But I say it just to reach you, Eternal Shine"


Sunday 17 September 2006

The Magic Flute

It has been such a wonderful night when I was swinging with music. A picture paints one thousand words, and so does a piece of music. With my poor creativity, I cannot find any word to express the beauty of music, and all the more I understand the meaning of what I was told once, "when words fail (to convey feelings), music will do."

Mozart, you are to me the symbol of innocence and brightness. "The Magic Flute" masterpiece must have been written by a spotless mind and heart. Should there be a unit to measure pureness, then the unit would be called "mozart", so I would say "The Magic Flute is 100 mozart degrees," or "the Beatles, with the endless charm in their golden day, is 99 mozart degrees. They are Mozart of Pop."

Such an eternal shine from a spotless mind! It is MAGIC!

Saturday 16 September 2006

Our Musique Nouvelle

In terms of culture, the CP should be credited for being the first to coin the phrase “to build an advanced culture soaked with national identity,” which almost all of its instruction quote. Given the context of Vietnam, such is really a creative idea, or, to borrow their words, “a creative statement”. Why do I say so? Because of the undeniable truth that before the CP, none has ever thought of Vietnam’s national identity. I am strongly convinced that none of the previous reigns, no matter Nguyen, Le, Tran, or Ly, thought of “building an advanced culture soaked with national identity.” Such concept of “national identity” had never entered their mind. They did not, I guess, ever compare Vietnamese culture with its neighbouring one of the north to see whether we had any distinguished characteristics.

So however ridiculous the concept might be, we have to glorify the CP’s merit. No matter what others may say, I will always think of the CP’s reign as the most liberal and progressive dynasty in Vietnam history.

Anyway, when we come to “national identity”, it is a bit hard for us to find some distinguished identity of Vietnam. This is especially true in the case of arts, religion, and philosophy. These, however, are not burning issues, and it takes time to discuss on them, so we will talk about “identity in Vietnam arts” another time. This time, I am in the mood to write on music.

Some will think me mad if I say I believe Vietnam music does have identity.  I believe so and my belief is growing firm with proofs. However, as I said once, all definitions are incomprehensible if they are presented just in words. The best way to catch the meaning of anything should be an access to it through examples. So if any of you does not believe in the identity of Vietnam music, just spend time listening to songs written by Pham Duy, one of the many faces that provide examples of this identity.

(to be continued)

Thursday 14 September 2006

Different Seasons

An artist once told me, "Of Truth, Good, and Beauty, I regard Beauty as the highest value. Only when we Vietnamese understand the true meaning of beauty does our country truly change. Just you wait and see."

Beauty, in his view, has nothing to do with good appearance, say, a good-looking woman. I am not a philosopher, and it's not my intention to become one. I have no idea as per what beauty means. However, I believe that if beauty is "a combination of qualities pleasing to our senses," as some philosopher put it, then music must be a source of beauty as it holds qualities pleasing to the ears.

All definitions are incomprehensible if they are presented just in words. The best way to catch the meaning of anything should be an access to it through examples. A beautiful song by the Johny Hates Jazz band, Different Seasons, will provide a good example of beauty. I am enchanted by its melody and harmony. However the music is unavailable for me to share. So we will have to accept a much worse way of admiring the beauty in music, that is to sense it through lyric, as follows:

There is a face deep in your mind
One that your heart won't leave behind
Memories are cold-empty of laughs
And all that remains are photographs

When she's gone, there are no reasons
Nature's cruel - it's just different seasons
going on and on

There is a voice deep in your soul
Telling you not to lose control
And day after you hold back the tears
'Cos pain is the greatest of your fears

When she's gone, there are no reasons
Nature's cruel - it's just different seasons
going on and on
There are no reasons
Say it's only different seasons...

No copyright. Feel free to quote any of these lyrics for any purpose, even for showing it to your sweetheart, saying "It's my poem."

We are fools indeed, however, because talking about beauty always leads us to talking about women. The word "beauty", in fact, is used definitely to mean "women's beauty". In a broader sense, it is applied mostly to women, by that it is distorted, making those who talk about beauty without thinking of women become ridiculous.

Summer has come and passed
The innocent can never last
Wake me up when September ends.

Like my fathers come to pass
Seven years has gone so fast
Wake me up when September ends.

Here comes the rain again
falling from the stars
drenched in my pain again
becoming who we are.

As my memory rests
but never forgets what I lost
wake me up when September ends.

Summer has come and passed
The innocent can never last
Wake me up when September ends.

Ring out the bells again
Like we did when spring began
Wake me up when September ends.

Here comes the rain again
falling from the stars
drenched in my pain again
becoming who we are.

As my memory rests
but never forgets what I lost
Wake me up when September ends.

Wednesday 13 September 2006

Wake Me Up When Winter Ends

Although I am a fan of music, I must admit my neglect in seeking new compositions and new songs. Part of the reason is that I do not have much leisure time, and I hate present-day, commercial music for both of its melody and lyric. Out of hundreds of songs I’ve listened recently with much effort, however, there is one song that made deep impression on me as from the first time I heard it, Wake Me Up When September Ends by Green Day.

The song was written by Billie Joe of the Green Day as a memorial anthem about his father, who died of cancer when Joe was a boy of only 10. In the song, he takes us back in time to his painful childhood, in rememberance of the day he lost his innocence when his father departed. Like many faced with the pain of losing parent(s), me included, Joe has never truly recovered. And just like me who associates pain with gloomy winter and February, my father’s death month, the songwriter dislikes to see September coming. He is scared of anything related to September, the death month of his father. He hates anything that may provoke sadness and promt him to write, “As my memory rests but never forgets what I’ve lost, wake me up when September ends.”

Me too, Joe. Winter is now coming, which reminds me of the sorrowful time I had with my father when he was going to leave me forever, and I hate it. I hate winter. I hate gloomy days without sunshine. I hate the leaden winter-time sky, full of dark clouds and sadness. I hate to find memories go back, no matter what kind of memories they are. So let my memory rest, God, and wake me up only when winter ends.

Tuesday 12 September 2006

As Autumn Begins, Vietnam Turns Sorrowful…

“As autumn begins, Vietnam turns sorrowful, darling, with purple clouds rolling high while love feels low…”. These lyrics, coming from a melancholy ballad by Lam Phương, “Lonely Love”, always stir in me a feeling of sadness.

You don’t need to be a sentimental listener to catch the meaning hidden inside the words, “as autumn begins, Vietnam turns sorrowful.” Such, I guess, is the expression of a deep sadness within the songwriter’s heart. Lam Phương, a songwriter from “the other side of the front-line”, was famous in the 1960s-southern Vietnam for many of his classic ballads, among them are “Sad City”, “Lonely Love”, “Dream”, “Decline of Day”, etc. As Vietnam was unified in 1975, Lam Phương, as did many other southerners, escaped to the USA never to return. So Vietnam lost a talented songwriter, and the songwriter himself lost his motherland forever.

Undoubtedly, then, songs written by Lam Phương are filled with regrets, sorrows, and, sometimes, resentment towards his once-motherland. Even a romantic song like “Lonely Love”, the splendid ballad touching the heart of millions of Vietnamese audiences from generation to generation, holds untold feelings:

“The more I look at you, the more I love you darling, forever,
though our romantic memories have now fallen into oblivion.
As autumn begins, Vietnam turns sorrowful, darling,
with purple clouds rolling high and love feels low.

When we were in love,
I did not know our love held lies
So that we would leave
and you’d weep for a lost life in this foreign land…”

Hidden inside the romance is the loss and pain of a generation, and of a nation. I am not sure whether or not autumn, the birth month of Vietnam, is associated by Lam Phương with this loss and pain, but I feel the answer would be yes.

I have no idea about what Lam Phương really thought, and I do not share his melancholy. Yet still the song stirs in me a feeling of sadness. When, I wonder when, this land of Vietnam is unified in reality, meaning a state of unification not just physical but also mental. When will Vietnam get really unseparated, even in the field of music, literature, or arts? When, so that we could freely sing out these beautiful songs without feeling just a touch of resentment? without trying to figure out what the songwriter meant? without fearing censorship? When will the pain finally be eased?

Monday 11 September 2006

Snail-paced, Unrealistic, and Useless

Again, may I lay stress on the reality that development, growth, or progress, whatever you call it, is dominated by politics, and politics itself is based on culture. However, all theories about development are part of social science, henceforth none of them proves to be the only theory suited to the whole world. Even when most of us are convinced that culture, or the presentation of a people’s psychology, holds sway over the people’s progress, how can we explain the difference between the two Koreas?

After all, though, I’ve always been of the opinion that the key to growth lies in the hands of politicians, never economists.  One may argue that when leaders, particularly governments, adopt protectionism, impose a strict tax system, tighten the exchange rates, so on,  meaning they take apparently economic-based decisions, they affect and dominate the nation’s growth with such activities. However, I believe that even what we call “economic policies” is in fact “politic” ones, because which policy is chosen and how it is adopted is merely dominated by the highest-rank heads, which in their turn are affected mostly by their political ideology.

History has seen economists who contributed much to economic growth. Post-war Europe may never forget Keynes, Atlee, Bervin, and a lot more economists who helped recover the continent from the ashes of war. But those we refer to as “economists”, like Atlee, or Bervin, started their career as “politicians”, or “businessmen” first. They would be called “economists” later, when they, as politicians, have done a lot in making the nation prosperous. Almost no one, as a “pure” economist, can contribute something worth mentioning to development. John Maynard Keynes was a prominently successful businessman long before he was known in the west as an outstanding economist. And I feel sure that Keynes, with his business background, would have never tried to act as an economist. He must not have used complex structures in daily conversation, he must not have presented his complex thoughts with much more complex terms. Above all, he was a very rich man with a practical mind. He was not an useless and unrealistic snail working snail-pacedly in his messy writing-cabinet, turning people confused with so many incomprehensible ideas and concepts.

With all my respect for "would-be economists", and those who graduate from economic schools and regard themselves as part of the national economy, may I speak out aloud these words, "Oh, economists, you're such useless snails!"How I hate myself to be among them. Image

Sunday 10 September 2006

The Culture of Tolerance

Islam, down through the years, has thrived when it fostered a culture of tolerance, as in Moorish Spain. But in its modern form, in too many cases Islam has been captured and interpreted by spiritual leaders who do not embrace a culture of tolerance, change, or innovation, and that, Johnson notes, surely has contributed to lagging economic growth in many Muslim lands. Here we come again to the coefficient of flatness. Countries without natural resources are much more likely, through human evolution, to develop the habits of openness to new ideas, because it is the only way they can survive and advance.

The good news, though, is that not only does culture matter, but culture can change. Cultures are not wired into our human DNA. They are a product of the context - geography, education level, leadership, and historical experience - of any society. As those change, so too can culture. Japan and Germany went from highly militarized societies to highly pacifist and staunchly democratic societies in the last fifty years. Bahrain was one of the first Arab countries to discover oil. It was the first Arab country to run out of oil. And it was the first Arab country in the Arab Gulf to hold an election for parliament where women could run and vote. China during the Cultural Revolution seemed like a nation in the grip of a culture of ideological madness. China today is a synonym for pragmatism. Muslim Spain was one of the most tolerant societies in the history of the world. Muslim Saudi Arabia today is one of the most intolerant. Muslim Spain was a trading and merchant culture where people had to live by their wits and therefore learned to live well with others; Saudi Arabia today can get by just selling oil. Yet right next to Saudi Arabia sits Dubai, an Arab city-state that has used its petrodollars to build the trading, tourist, service, and computing center of the Arab Gulf. Dubai is one of the most tolerant, cosmopolitan places in the world, with, it often seems, more sushi bars and golf courses than mosques-and tourists don't even need a visa.

So yes, culture matters, but culture is nested in contexts, not genes, and as those contexts, and local leaders, change and adapt, so too can culture.

(excerpt from "The World Is Flat" by Thomas L.Friedman, US Pulitzer-winner)

Saturday 9 September 2006

Quote of the day

"Nature has never read the Declaration of Independance. It continues to make us unequal."

(Will Durant, American historian)



Imagine There's No Religion...

The Arab-Muslim world's resistance to glocalization is something that some liberal Arab commentators are now focusing on. Consider a May 5, 2004, article in the Saudi English-language daily Arab News by liberal Saudi journalist Raid Qusti, titled "How Long Before the First Step?"

"Terrorist incidents in Saudi Arabia are more or less becoming everyday news. Every time I hope and pray that it ends, it only seems to get worse," Qusti wrote. "One explanation to why all of this is happening was brought up by the editor in chief of Al-Riyadh newspaper, Turki Al-Sudairi, on a program about determining the roots of the terrorist acts. He said that the people carrying out these attacks shared the ideology of the Juhaiman movement that seized the Grand Mosque in the seventies. They had an ideology of accusing others of being infidels and giving themselves a free hand to kill them, be it Westerners-who, according to them, ought to be kicked out of the Arabian Peninsula-or the Muslim believer who does not follow their path. They disappeared in the eighties and nineties from the public eye and have again emerged with their destructive ideology. The question Al-Sudairi forgot to bring up was: What are we Saudis going to do about it? If we as a nation decline to look at the root causes, as we have for the past two decades, it will only be a matter of time before another group of people with the same ideology spring up. Have we helped create these monsters? Our education system, which does not stress tolerance of other faiths-let alone tolerance of followers of other Islamic schools of thought-is one thing that needs to be re-evaluated from top to bottom. Saudi culture itself and the fact that the majority of us do not accept other lifestyles and impose our own on other people is another. And the fact that from fourth to 12th grade we do not teach our children that there are other civilizations in the world and that we are part of the global community and only stress the Islamic empires over and over is also worth re-evaluating."

It is simply too easily forgotten that when it comes to economic activities, one of the greatest virtues a country or community can have is a culture of tolerance. When tolerance is the norm, everyone flourishes- because tolerance breeds trust, and trust is the foundation of innovation and entrepreneurship. Increase the level of trust in any group, company, or society, and only good things happen. “China began its astounding commercial and industrial take-off only when Mao Zedong’s odiously intolerant form of communism was scrapped in favour of what might be called totalitarian laissez-faire,” wrote British historian Paul Johnson in a June 21, 2004, essay in Forbes. "India is another example. It is the nature of the Hindu religion to be tolerant and, in its own curious way, permissive . . . When left to themselves, Indians (like the Chinese) always prosper as a community. Take the case of Uganda's Indian population, which was expelled by the horrific dictator Idi Amin and received into the tolerant society of Britain. There are now more millionaires in this group than in any other recent immigrant community in Britain. They are a striking example of how far hard work, strong family bonds and devotion to education can carry a people who have been stripped of all their worldly assets."

(excerpt from "The World Is Flat" by Thomas L.Friedman; to be continued)

Friday 8 September 2006

Back on Cultural Matters

Think about the whole mind-set of bin Ladenism. It is to “purge” Saudi Arabia of all foreigners and foreign influences. That is exactly the opposite of glocalizing and collaborating. Tribal culture and thinking still dominate in many Arab countries, and the tribal mind-set is also anathema to collaboration. What is the motto of the tribalists? “Me and my brother against my cousin; me, my brother, and my cousin against the outsider.” And what is the motto of the globalists, those who build collaborative supply chains? “Me and my brother and my cousin, three friends from childhood, four people in Australia, two in Beijing, six in Bangalore, three from Germany, and four people we’ve met only over the Internet all make up a supply chain.”

In the flat world, the division of labour is steadily becoming more and more complex, with a lot more people interacting with a lot of other people they don’t know and may never meet. If you want to have a modern complex division of labour, you have to be able to put more trust in strangers.

In the Arab-Muslim world, argues David Landes, certain cultural attitudes have in many way become a barrier to development, particularly the tendency to still treat women as a source of danger or pollution to be cut off from the public space and denied entry into economic activities. When a culture believes that, it loses a large portion of potential productivity of the society.  A system that previleges the men from birth on, Landes also argues, simply because they are male, and gives them power over their sisters and other female members of the society, is bad for the men. It builds in them a sense of entitlement that discourages what it takes to improve, to advance, and to achieve. This sort of discrimination, he notes, is not something limited to Arab Middle East, of course. Indeed, strains of it are found in different degrees around the world, even in so-called advanced industrial societies.

(Excerpt from "The World Is Flat" by Thomas L.Friedman. To be continued)

May I lay stress here on what scholar David Landes said, "A system that previleges the men from birth on, simply because they are male, and gives them power over their sisters and other female members of the society, is bad for the men." This is especially true of the men in Vietnam. Do you see that they are absent in contributions to the advancement of the world? What they need from the past until now is a slap in the face to awake to their timid role in development.


Thursday 7 September 2006

When Fly the Stork

I have watched lots of films, and like many of them. Below is just a short list of my favourite movies and TV dramas. Share with me your list of “must-watch” films, if you have any.

I find it surprising that nearly all my favourite movies, except XiYouJi, are about wartime. Ain’t I so warlike? I probably am, but the fact I find is that all the best films revolve around conflicts and struggles of any form. If that’s true, then even XiYouJi is a ballad on struggling, the struggle between Sun Wo Kong, the rebellious Monkey King, against the mythical world of Buddha, lords of heaven and hell, fairies, and demons.

The Cranes Are Flying (1957), or Quando Voam as Cegonhas (Portugese title in Brazil, meaning When Fly the Stork). Tagline: Can war kill love, or vice versa? US audiences view it as a heartbreaking romance in times of war. Quotes:

“Boris, are you alive?” ~ “I can’t live.” (dying Boris to his comrade)

Ballad of A Soldier (1959). Tagline: The dead heroes are forever young. There is hardly any other statement so powerful against war as the one this film conveyed. Quotes:

“Kiev, my hometown is Kiev. Can you hear me darling?” ~ “No, I can’t.” (Alyosha to Shura as she was chasing the train that took him away from her forever into war.”

“Is she your woman?” ~ “Yes. But I have lost her forever.” (Alyosha to a strange passenger on his train who had seen his farewell to Shura)

Escape to Victory (1981). Tagline: Their goal was freedom. I rate it the best film on international football and sportsmanship. Quotes:

“We will win.”

“Hatch, don’t go. If you leave us now, we all will fail.” (Péle to goal-keeper Robert Hatch)

“Where should I stand for a corner kick?” (worried and embarrassed Hatch, the amateur goal-keeper, to his companion before their life-and-death match)

The Journey to the West (XiYouJi), a TV-serial by CCTV, version 1986 and 2000. Tagline: Yes, you’re the hero in our childhood dream. I rate it the best film on mythical world, a powerful and positive statement in favour of rebellion and freedom, and a presentation of limitless imagination and creativeness. The film keeps us smiling every time we watch it, or just think of it. Quotes:

“Oh, my day is gone. When will you get me free, life?”

“Who brought you to me? Was it the sparkling stream of water? Was it the bright full moon?

Who made me blue? Loving you, the way I do.”

The End of the Affair (1999). Tagline: Only Death, or God, can take them apart. I find in it a sorrowful and bitter statement against God and fate. Happy time is so short as a moment in life. In any struggle against God and fate, human beings will lose in the end, but they keep unbowed. Quotes:

“Pain is easy to write. In pain we're all drapply individual. But what can one write about happiness?”

“Love doesn’t end just because we don’t see each other.” ~ “Doesn’t it?” ~ “People go on loving God, don’t they? All their lives. Without seeing him.” ~ “That’s not my kind of love.” ~ “Maybe there is no other kind.” (Sarah and Bendrix, on a rainy day in war time London)

“I call this diary the diary of hatred. I am tired now of a life full of hatred. But I hate you, God. I hate you as though you existed. Take care of Sarah and Henry.  And let me alone forever.” (Bendrix to himself in loneliness when his beloved Sarah is departed)

Enemy at the Gate (2001). Tagline: They are born to be heroes, and all of them are. I regard it as the best film on heroism in war time. Quotes:

“Here the men have only choices between German bullets and ours, but there's another way; a way of courage, a way of love of the Motherland. We must publish the army newspaper again, we must tell magnificent stories, stories that exalt sacrifice and bravery. We must make them believe in a victory. We must give them hope, pride, a desire to fight. Yes. We need to make examples but examples to follow. What we need are heroes.”

“Man will always be a man. There is no new man. We tried so hard to create a society that was equal, where there'd be nothing to envy your neighbour. But there's always something to envy. A smile, a friendship, something you don't have and want to appropriate. In this world, even a Soviet one, there will always be rich and poor. Rich in gifts, poor in gifts. Rich in love, poor in love.” (Commissar Danilov to Vassili and himself before his death)

The Pianist (2002). Tagline: Music was his passion. Survival was his masterpiece.

I view the film as the triumph of music and humanism over war. A thousand words cannot express the beauty of music. Not many quote are worthy to mention, but the music and the pianist’s eyes play upon our heart-strings.

Up Rises the Farmer, and Robin Hood (year of production unknown). Tagline: Freedom is the highest value of all, even for a child. I don’t really like these two films although Jacquou is a handsome little boy indeed, and Robin Hood is a romantic guy whose face you can’t forget. They’re just a reminder of my distant childhood. Quotes:

“Take revenge on the count! Say, ‘take revenge on the count!’ And never forget what we’ve lost.”

Anyway, it is a long time since I last had the chance to watch a memorable film. So long, so long... I loved cinema once. Now I can't fight the feeling I have after watching a new film, that is I have been such a fool wasting time on a boring movie which I get nothing from. When can I be moved by a film again?

Wednesday 6 September 2006

More on Cultural Matters

The more you have a culture that naturally glocalizes - that is, the more your culture easily absorbs foreign ideas and best practices and meld those with its own traditions - the greater advantage you will have in a flat world. The natural ability to glocalize has been one of the strengths of Indian culture, American culture, Japanese culture, and, lately, Chinese culture. The Indians, for instance, take the view that the Moguls come, the Moguls go, the British come, the British go, we take the best and leave the rest - but we still eat curry, our women still wear saris, and we still live in tightly bound extended family units. That’s glo-calizing at its best.

"Cultures that are open and willing to change have a huge advantage in this world," said Jerry Rao, the MphasiS CEO who heads the Indian high-tech trade association.

"My great-grandmother was illiterate. My grandmother went to grade two. My mother did not go to college. My sister has a master's degree in economics, and my daughter is at the University of Chicago. We have done all this in living memory, but we have been willing to change . . . You have to have a strong culture, but also the openness to adapt and adopt from others. The cultural exclusivists have a real disadvantage. Think about it, think about the time when the emperor in China threw out the British ambassador. Who did it hurt? It hurt the Chinese. Exclusivity is a dangerous thing."

"Openness is critical," added Rao, "because you start tending to respect people for their talent and abilities. When you are chatting with another developer in another part of the world, you don't know what his or her color is. You are dealing with people on the basis of talent-not race or ethnicity-and that changes, subtly, over time your whole view of human beings, if you are in this talent-based and performance-based world rather than the background-based world."

This helps explain why so many Muslim countries have been struggling as the world goes flat. For complicated cultural and historical reasons, many of them do not glocalize well, although there are plenty of exceptions-namely, Turkey, Lebanon, Bahrain, Dubai, Indonesia, and Malaysia. All of these latter countries, though, tend to be the more secular Muslim nations. In a world where the single greatest advantage a culture can have is the ability to foster adaptability and adoptability, the Muslim world today is dominated by a religious clergy that literally bans ijtihad, reinterpretation of the principles of Islam in light of current circumstances.

(excerpt from US best-seller "The World Is Flat")

Tuesday 5 September 2006

Culture Matters: Globalization

May I resume what I said around one week ago? Where did I leave off? Ah, I said growth is the matter of politics rather than economics. Politics itself is based on national culture. And culture, in its turn, is the product of national psychology. National characters, instead of those snails’ job, hold sway over growth and decline of a nation, even progress and decay of a civilization.

To add more weight to what I am arguing, I’d like to excerpt a piece from the US best-seller “The World is Flat”, written by Thomas Friedman:

Culture Matters: Globalization

Why does one country get over this reform retail hump, with leaders able to mobilize the bureaucracy and the public behind these more painful, more exacting micro-reforms, and another country gets tripped up?

Our answer is culture. To reduce a country’s economic performance to culture alone is ridiculous, but to analyze a country’s economic performance without reference to culture is equally ridiculous, although that is what many economists and political scientists want to do. This subject is highly controversial and is viewed as politically incorrect to introduce. So it is often the elephant in the room that no one wants to speak about. But I am going to speak about it here, for a very simple reason: As the world goes flat, and more and more of the tools of collboration get distributed and com-moditized, the gap between cultures that have the will, the way, and the focus to quickly adopt these new tools and apply them and those that do not will matter more. The difference between the two will become amplified.

One of the most important books on this subject is The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by the economist David Landes. He argues that although climate, natural resources, and geography all play roles in explaining why some countries are able to make the leap to industrialization and others are not, the key factor is actually a country’s cultural endowments, particularly the degree to which it has internalized the values of hard work, thrift, honesty, patience, and tenacity, as well as the degree to which it is open to change, new technology, and equality for women.

One can agree or disagree with the balance Landes strikes between these cultural mores and other factors shaping economic performance. But I find refreshing his insistence on elevating the culture question, and his refusal to buy into arguments that the continued stagnation of some countries is simply about Western colonialism, geography, or historical legacy.

In my own travels, two aspects of culture have struck me as particularly relevant in the flat world. One is how outward your culture is: To what degree is it open to foreign influences and ideas? How well does it "glocalize"? The other, more intangible, is how inward your culture is. By that I mean, to what degree is there a sense of national solidarity and a focus on development, to what degree is there trust within the society for strangers to collaborate together, and to what degree are the elites in the country concerned with the masses and ready to invest at home, or are they indifferent to their own poor and more interested in investing abroad?

(to be continued)


Monday 4 September 2006

A painting by Jasper John?

This is not a painting by well-known modern artist Jasper John, who I admire a lot for his limitless creativity. This is a photo by me, Trang the Ridiculous, after a short trip abroad. Image

Does any of you like the works of Jasper John? Some say he's creative, many regard him as a crazy artist whose creativeness has run dry. With little knowledge about arts, I have no idea of Jasper's works. However, I enjoy his paintings out of curiousity and out of my interest in colours and creative work.  

Jasper John is one of the 20th-century modern artists. He sought inspiration in modern technology and its embrace of mechanical methods of reproduction (mass production), and more broadly, modern life in industrial countries under Western influence. Many of his works exhibited mass-produced products, like tinned food, fast food, cartoons, and notably, he focused on exhibiting number one (1) in a variety of colours, and titled his paintings "Number One". If you seek something great behind these works, you will feel disappointed, because the fact is that they contain nothing. There is nothing behind (or inside) a drawing of number one by Jasper John. It's just an image of number one and that is all. What more do we expect from it?

The photo I've attached is taken in Thailand, and I like it because it reminds me of Jasper John. I won't say what is in the image, I prefer to let imagination flow and define it as whatever you want.