Notes on Gentrification: Highland Park, Los Angeles

Recently, I attended a presentation at USC about gentrification in my neighborhood—Highland Park, an area north of downtown that has quickly become valuable because of its new Metro system and the rezoning of downtown for mixed use.   HLP, as the locals call it, began its career at the turn of the century as a red light district. Later it became a bohemian zone, later still a white working class bedroom community of Ozzie & Harriet types.

USC Logo

More recently, it has become an ethnic enclave composed of Asians and Latinos.  The neighborhood has become a refuge for recent immigrants arriving in waves that coincide with each decade’s wars:  Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Vietnamese and Chinese.  Its latest waves are a mix of young professionals—NPR types–who have been priced out of the bidding war that is the LA real estate market.

The Highland Park Theatre Sign was Restored by the new wave of residents.

The Highland Park Theatre Sign was Restored by the new wave of residents.

Gentrification is a fascination of my own writing, because the mystery novel-in-progress is preoccupied with the re-zoning of Los Angeles in general:  the changing downtown, now the stomping ground of yuppies, has shifted the center of the city away from the beach communities of the Westside.  It’s a different downtown from the one I knew in my twenties as a grad student:  one populated by artists who lived like bromeliads—mostly on air.  They have scattered.

My narrator absolutely despises gentrification.  Robert is filled with self-righteous rage at the foul intruders who stink up his stomping grounds with dog piss and upscale boutiques.

But my narrator is not really me.  Yes, I’m an LA native.  Yes, I’m Vietnamese American.  Yes, I can claim some kind of legitimate sense of belonging to the landscape not only because I have friends and family in HLP but, also, I lived there over a decade ago, well before it became a victim of hipsterfication.  In my fiction, I love to channel the fire and brimstone of self-righteousness—it makes for great denunciations and a charismatic voice—but really I can see the good and the bad.

* * *

A huge orange Buddhist temple anchors the main drag—Figueroa Boulevard. It has been around longer than the over-sized Chicken Boy brought to the neighborhood by the first wave of hipster settlers and the Roaring Lions that are part of kitsch of the much-documented streetscape.

Mystic Dharma Buddhist Temple

Chicken Boy

Lion

Vietnamese refugees settled in HLP during the 80s.  You can sense their presence in little things—the front yards (which do not have lawns but vegetable gardens) and the doors (upon which are tacked red and orange banners that ward off bad luck).

I am the youngest boy from a sprawling family of eight and one brother ended up in the neighborhood next door three decades ago:  South Pasadena, which has gone through a warp-speed gentrification upon whose heels Highland Park nips. This is sadly one of the elements that was lost in the presentation at USC—the fact that the transformation of the neighborhood was scripted as a Latino-White problem oversimplified the dynamics and marginalized already marginal residents.

There may be good reason for this oversight: the numbers of Latinos have declined, mainly because many don’t yet own property.  In contrast, my Asian neighbors who live in multi-generational housing have not suffered as much of a decline because they have bought in.

* * *

John Tapia Urquiza–a photographer and the driving force behind the community arts organization Sin Turistas—made the presentation at USC.  He leads workshops in which community members document the disappearing culture of this North East corner of Los Angeles.  John grew up in Highland Park and owns a graphic arts business that once stood on the “hipster strip”—York & 50th—but was forced out when rent tripled.  “I am a refugee of gentrification.”  Mom & Pop bodegas, taco stands, pupserias—these are landmarks that John’s team captures as they fan out into the area.  There is an element of wistful nostalgia in the project:  the documentation of a disappearing world going the way of the last Mohican.

sin turistas

For John, the story of gentrification is black and white: it boils down to a question of outsiders–white outsiders–coming in and changing a neighborhood. “Neighborhoods are always in flux,” his official respondent, a really smart Art History professor with blocky purple glasses, pointed out.

“The first photography project, which began in Paris, was initiated by the need to document a changing urban landscape in the face of gentrification.”  Another such project occurred in Paris in the 1970’s, a century later, ostensibly to capture that which was to be lost to time.  “There is nothing new to your project.  My question to you, as you formalize an understanding of your practice, is how you position yourself in relation to a tradition.  Are you simply documenting?  Or are you doing something else?”

But beyond this important question, the matter of what exactly constitutes an outsider remains (like the spider tending its cobweb) at the center of the gentrification debate.  For instance, the new businesses that John trumpeted as local Latino businesses were initiated by geographical outsiders who arrived with the know-how that came of advanced degrees that the Salvadorans who run the juice stands and pupuserias just do not possess—MA’s, MFA’s, PhD’s.

Those who own these new businesses can successfully navigate commerce because owning a business represents a corporate affair that moves beyond the fact of skin color:  each business owner is a pocket—a network, a flow of ideas, institutions, tastes and orientations.  These newbies bring to bear a keen knowledge of financial products, professional networks, marketing savvy quite alien to commercial practices dominated by pupuserias, liquor stores and bodegas.

One such business, I know quite well because it is on my jogging route:  Elsa’s Bakery, a panaderia owned for thirty years by the Vargas family.  It was bought by Edmundo, a professor at UCLA who learned of it, not from a stroll through the neighborhood, but from a graduate student’s research paper.

Elsas Bakery

Mr. Vargas, the previous owner, had health issues and it showed in the crumbling paint.  The dereliction all seemed a shame.  I even wrote a Yelp review that said that they should renovate and take advantage of their status as a long-time local business to compete with the hipster coffee shops down the street.

Elsa's Before

Elsa’s Before

Within months of my Yelp review, Elsa’s was vastly retrofitted to look like a Disney version of the failing panaderia.  The walls were painted purple.  Day of the Dead memorabilia now is strewn everywhere:  skulls, paper banners.  An oversize painting of Frida Kahlo is the patron saint of the establishment, looming large over the cash register. The effect is a bit over-the-top.

Since then, the prices have tripled.  They stay open late during the Art Walk to draw in the looky-loos who come from all parts of the city, something that the more established coffee shops just won’t do.   They Facebook.  They Tweet.  They write press releases, allowing them to be quickly featured in the newspaper of record, The Los Angeles Times, in a story that trumpeted change in Highland Park need not force out businesses that are “authentic.”

The new owner Edmundo tells me that the couple–Elsy and Manuel–who sold him the business did quite well for themselves:  they may have made a gesture to keep Elsa’s Latino, but the Vargas’s spent a lifetime amassing property throughout Highland Park at rock bottom prices, which they sold at a hefty margin to finance their retirement.

I’m happy for the success of everybody involved.  I see all the changes but cannot feel self-righteous, unlike my narrator Robert, who would have a field day blasting this outsider.  I still frequent the business.  And I do enjoy the improvements, which more than make up for the price increase.  But, of course, I can’t pretend otherwise:  inasmuch as my people have roots in this community, I am still one of the gentrifiers and I bring my own tastes to this zone of contact.  I like craft beer almost as much as I love me a good oversize Frida Kahlo standing guardian over the environs as I sip my half-caf ice capuccino.

 

 

An Open Letter to a Query about Queer Vietnam

 

You may have noticed my inactivity on this blog over the past few weeks.  There is good reason for this:  my academic book has gone to outside reviewers and I was doing all sorts of last-minute fiddling:  proofreading and proofreading and proofreading.  My eyes are kind of dead.  But this morning, I got a reminder of the wonderfulness that this blog brings to my life—a letter from a college student who is actually taking a class with someone I know! She had a question for me, and so I thought responding with an open letter would be a wonderful way to get back into the blogosphere and wash that book out of my hair!

*  *  *

Hello, I am an Asian American studies major at the University of California, Davis. A couple of classmates and I are writing a research paper on Vietnamese queer diaspora and its different levels of acceptance and how policies are affected by it for a class taught by professor Caroline Valverde. So I was just wondering if I could get your opinion on this topic. What are the differences in levels of queer acceptance in Vietnam and in Vietnamese diasporas? How are these differing sentiments reflected in government policies and in the climate of these queer communities? It would be extremely helpful to get your input on this.

Thank you.

 *  *  *

Dear Miss,

Thanks for contacting me with such a thoughtful question.  I’m glad to hear that you are taking classes with Professor Valverde; she is an innovative scholar and all-around awesome individual…and I really do wish that I could pull up a plastic chair in the room and listen to the fountain of her mind spill forth its tinkling secrets.

That said, I am no expert on Queer Vietnam.

But coincidentally, I just attended a screening of Vietnamese short films at the YXine Film Festival, hosted at USC.  Two of the films addressed the topic of queer Vietnamese issues in Vietnam and they may give you a viewfinder into this world.  One was about Vietnamese lesbianism in the city; the other was about Vietnamese gay identity in the countryside.  I’ll give you a run-down of the stories in a second.

But first, I have some good news and bad news.  Both films appear to document hostile environments in Vietnamese contemporary culture.  Whether it’s in the city classroom or the emerald rice paddies of the countryside, Vietnamese gay youth suffer the usual injustices–queer baiting, bashing, bullying, name-calling.

Vietnamese culture often thinks of homosexuality as a Western imposition.  The word for homosexual—bede—is a corruption of the French pederaste.  During my first trip to Vietnam, straight out of college back in 1993, I remember hearing that word for the first time while walking down the alley with some friends.

Up ahead was a girl.

Bede.  Bede.  Bede.  That’s all my crew said, over and over again.  It was a taunt, said quietly under the breath but loud enough to hear in the tenebrous half-light of that dark alley.  These were my friends—a bunch of upper middle class kids—and I was traveling with them in a pack.  And there was that girl, only a silhouette, and I was realizing that she wasn’t a girl.

Bede.  Bede.  Bede.  It must have been scary and lonely to hear a bunch of low clamoring whispers behind you, like moth wings beating at a light bulb.

“You can always tell a bede.  It’s in their shoulders.”  But my eyes had not yet begun to grow accustomed to Vietnamese proportions.  “Look at that V of her back.”  The girl did not dress like drag queens or transvestites in the United States—Rupaul-ish.  She was going for what they call “realness”: those earrings, the frumpy calico dress—so un-flashy. Had it not been for those whispers, had it not been for the taunting, which I was very much a part of, she would have remained a girl in my mind’s eye.

No, I had not said a word.  But I did not doubt that I was a part of the brooding, male presence behind her.  My body had leant its weight to the words that followed her.

I’d like to say things have changed but I’m not sure; I’m not part of the gay scene in Vietnam.  But the short films suggest that it’s still oppressive there.

The short about a gay tailor in the countryside is told in everybody else’s voice except his own.  The frame for the story—a village ferry—allows us to hear all the rumors circulating around this young man:  everybody knows he is gay and there emerge detractors and defenders.  Even the defenses, though, are tailored around gay stereotypes:

They’re so good with their hands.  There’s a gay guy in the other town who knows how to do my hair. 

The central consciousness of the movie—the nephew of the gay man who has been abandoned by his father—hears all this talk.  He sits in the middle of the boat with his book bag clutched to his chest.  But he is too young, too confused to figure things out.  He just wants his uncle to get married, wants him to be normal.

“Why don’t you marry and be normal?”  He asks this, naively.  The uncle will not marry.  He is waiting for an old flame, whose picture is kept locked away in a cabinet we never see.

The woman in the conical hat who runs the ferry—the uncle’s staunchest defender—refuses the kid’s fare. “Tell your uncle that I’ll apply it to a shirt.”  She adds, “your uncle makes such nice shirts.”  And what she means is gay people are “kheo tay”—good with their hands:   precise, mincing, preening

The boy runs away.  Conflicted by all the rumors about his Uncle.  Motivated by the emptiness of abandonment.  He runs off to Saigon.  The uncle follows.

The final frame of the movie is like an O. Henry story, with the kind of irony that Vietnamese people love:  a handsome young man sits on the ferry, inquiring after the tailor.  “He ran after his nephew who left in search of his father and the city has swallowed them both up.”  It is only then that we realize that the handsome young man, caught between two shores on a flimsy boat, is the tailor’s old flame—the picture locked in a cabinet—whom he will never know came back for him.

If it sucks to be gay in the countryside, it sucks to be gay in the city.  The next movie documents a dawning lesbianism, which emerges in the form of a schoolgirl crush.  Vietnamese people—men and women—are extremely touchy-feely.

When I was in Vietnam, it was not uncommon for men—straight men—to hold hands walking down the street.

So the emerging lesbianism in these two young girls seems almost natural in the many ways Vietnamese same-sex interaction unfolds:  the necessary embrace on the motorcycle is supposed to be meaningless, isn’t it?

The school is one of those solid structures that makes me nostalgic for colonialism.  The French left  some good-looking buildings behind.  And these kids are the inheritors of all that is both good and bad of the lingering colonial presence; they are the well-to-do of an emerging generation that has smart phones, a generation that never experienced war.

The trick of the film hinges on a moment of intimacy, caught with a camera-phone—a kiss on the ear lobe given by one girl while the other sleeps on the desk.  The image is sent to everybody, including the girls (yes, cyberbullying is international!) and the girls become the butt of a joke.

They break up, never having been technically together.  The kisser—she becomes a victim of the usual hate:  desk graffiti, spitballs, laughter, microaggressions.

But in being ostracized, she finds community.  She takes a stab at normalcy and dates a guy who searches her out because, it turns out, he is gay.  She gets a rainbow bracelet, passed to her secretly in the hallway by two thuggish looking guys.  And then voila:  she puts it on and her friend—that girl who is the apple of her eye—slips it on, too.

They end the movie walking hand in hand down the hallway.

So, what do these movies mean about being gay in Vietnam?  The short answer: it sucks.  Just as it sucks, too, to be a gay Vietnamese person in the United States, where you are not allowed full civic participation in community-building events like the yearly New Years parade (I assume Professor Valverde shared with you my Huffington Post editorial about gays being excluded in the Vietnamese Lunar New Year Parade.  If not, here is the link).

But there is a silver lining:  even as these movies document the marginal status of gays in the Vietnam, their very act of documentation shows that this condition is changing.  That the movies are allowed to be produced, that they have shown up within the context of film festivals means that we are not just walking down a long, dark alley, listening dumbly to the echo of those words—bede bede bede bede bede—but that there is something that we can imagine to be a light at the end of it all:  a place where a small path empties out into a boulevard.

I wish you the very best with your studies.  And please do send my highest regards to Professor Caroline Kieu-Linh Valverde.

Sincerely,

Khanh Ho

Folk Music & Politics: Le Cat Trong Ly, singer-songwriter

I recently came across this singer from Vietnam, while exploring the BBC website.  Le Cat Trong Ly is a classically trained musician—a violinist—who decided to become a singer-songwriter.  Her specialty is music with a folksy feel, music that comes from the heart of the heart of the country.

Here is a link to her singing on BBC.

She’s got an interesting look, too.  There’s a Sinead O’Connor quality about her shaved pate.  The sheered locks, a very dramatic look in Vietnam, also lend her a Buddhist priestess quality, too—especially in the drab grey of her clothes (the color of a holy person).

Le Cat

In the video, there is something anti-fashion about her fashion—something pared down and the drab colors make her appear “of the people.”  There is no decoration, except upon her collar, where there appear embroidered grey-on-grey flowers—flowers that look almost as if they were sewn by peasant fingers.

Le Cat’s been tearing up the charts, putting together some pretty amazing music and she has won some accolades in Vietnam that elevate her to that Grammy-like status of Best New Artist.

Of course, I immediately wondered what folks of my parent’s generation would think.  You see:  for Vietnamese refugees who lost everything, one way to continue to fight—to fight a Cold War–was through culture.  And that is exactly what Vietnamese refugees in the United States did, producing a music industry so big that it overshadows anything in the country they left behind.  “Nobody wants to listen to that depressing Communist crap.”  That’s the consensus among folks of my parent’s generation.

Paris By Night--one of the most popular musical television shows--features the Vietnamese American mega-stars.

Paris By Night–one of the most popular musical television shows–features the Vietnamese American mega-stars.

And for the most part, they are right: musicians of the diaspora are flashy and beautiful; the tunes are poppy and catchy; the productions, extravagant and over-the-top.  Little Saigon is only a short distance from Hollywood and this means there’s a lot of spill-over talent in all those behind-the-scenes workers like hair, make-up, lighting, sound, editing:  the production values are off the charts.  And this means that, even in Vietnam, everybody listens to the big songs from abroad, even if they know that it’s kind of unpatriotic.  Why?  Because the music is as addictive as crack.

Le Cat’s return to the folk form stands in striking contrast to the stuff I’m used to.  But the return to the folk form is something that has a long history in the States; we have seen it recently revived, too.  The recent Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis  documents the Greenwich Village folk music scene where musicians returned to a music of the people, for the people, by the people.

Inside Llewyn

“This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land,” that song composed by the late great Woodie Guthrie, came out of that scene.  And though my family came to the United States well after it was popularized, a mimeographed copy of the lyrics is one of the artifacts I remember my mom dropping onto the dining room table when she came home from one of her language classes.  It is only now with the distance of years that I realize that idealistic young activists were most likely the ones who taught her this ditty.  Galvanized by the music of that scene, they would filter into the workaday world to become teachers, social workers, do-gooders. And so folk music, with all its politics, would wind up on my dining room table in the form of a ballad that would reassure my mother that she, too, had a place in the American landscape.

Were these young do-gooders pinko commie sympathizers?  I hardly thought to think that at the time.  I’m sure my mom was oblivious, too.  But many people–artists, activists, fellow travelers–who came out of that scene were Left Leaning.  Many were impacted by McCarthyism and its witch hunts.

Of course, this love of the “folk” involves a supreme act of nostalgia.  This is a cryptic way of saying that that “folksiness” was a pure fabrication.  An invention. Let me explain:  the “folk” never thought of themselves as such.  They never had a category for their music as “folksy.”  Rather, the love of “folk” and, especially, the systematic study of “folk culture” arose during the Romantic era when industrialization brought about the realization that traditional ways of living were about to come to an end.

Suddenly, we had to preserve these traditions with an army of trained scholars.  Suddenly, our art looked to the “folk” elements for inspiration.

The most famous book of poetry to come out of the Romantic era in England was William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads—folk poems, told in the plain style.  He would take long walks in the countryside, encountering the rustic simpletons who would people his poems–beautiful young girls whom he often compared to wildflowers, sad old men who told tales of industrialism’s many woes.   Coleridge, Wordsworth’s friend (later his enemy) often accompanied him on these walks and, when their friendship soured, Coleridge mocked him, saying these poems were put in the mouths of men whose necks were so thick that their heads were even closer to their heart.

So here is the paradox of the “folk”:  to think about “folk” meant to already be distant from those simple people in embroidered skirts; to collect folktales, as the Brothers Grimm did, meant to move them from oral to written tradition; it also meant to impose a structure—a taxonomy, a system—that was never a part of the culture among people who simply wiled away the hours singing songs and weaving stories.

Cinderella

So when folks (as they often do) get angry at Disney for changing the original Cinderella story that the Grimm Brothers transcribed, when they pine for the original folktale, they do not know exactly how much is already lost; they are already quite distant—remote–from the original.

There just isn’t an original when it comes to oral traditions.

I suspect my parents would be very wary of Le Cat, because Communists loved the folk traditions, too.  They thought of it as coming from the people, uncorrupted by the colonizations of the West.  And so they favored folk forms, as opposed to corrupt imitations of the West.  And I wonder if this type of music—instrumental ballads inspired by the countryside sung in a non-flashy voice—is part of a neo-conservatism of a generation born in the cradle of Communism, a generation suddenly seeing a country transform into a bastion of Capitalism, a generation that just might be nostalgic for a certain flash of patriotism.

Of course, the irony of the Communist love of the “folk” as a method to return to a pure, untainted past is this:  the ideas about the “folk” was itself a borrowing from Europe.  Only the most educated minds, quite often those minds that themselves spent time in France, were exposed to these very sophisticated ideas about simpletons.  And they returned not only to Vietnam but many parts of Southeast Asia in order to pursue this agenda, which became bound up with Independence movements throughout the region that, at one time, was collectively called Indochine.

We see this return to the “folk” at its most extreme in the Killing Fields of Cambodia.  Anybody seen to be tainted by the West was executed.  If you wore glasses, you were executed.  If you owned a library you were executed.  In fact, if you were going to be executed or tortured, there was a code phrase:  you were going “to school.”

Killing Fields

These are ideas first and foremost on my mind when I hear the beautiful stylings of Le Cat…but they are ideas, too, that I think about a lot when I write.  I am, after all, working within a borrowed form with its own history, with a lineage not my own.  I often wonder if it’s fair on myself or on other artists that I ask of their work these kinds of questions.  Isn’t this a peculiarly Western question?

Goya Bats

And I guess it is a Western question.  But now it is a question that has spent well over a century hanging upside down like bats in the heads of our finest thinkers, so it is no longer a novelty but very much a concept as common as the flower embroidered on the collar of a peasant girl walking by herself, fiddling with a guitar, in the tall, emerald grass of the rice paddies.

 

LA Art Book Fair 2014

The LA Art Book Fair took place in Little Tokyo during a Superbowl Weekend that coincided with the Lunar New Year.  I decided that, since it was literally in my back yard, I would check it out.  It was kind of awesome—a bit of a mixed bag.  The books were slightly less interesting than the people-watching:  everybody was dressed up in their idea of “artistic.”

splash_image

The weather had dipped down to the fifties and this allowed folks in LA the opportunity to wear the dramatic coats and hats they had been saving up all year.  The hall was packed with people who were busy texting, tweeting and sweating.

My pronouncement about the event:  it was a mixed bag.  Some good.  Most mediocre.  Little excellent.

My favorite part was the first exhibit—a curated chronological history of the Queer Zines.  There was care in assembling this material, much of which usually goes uncollected, so it was a rare opportunity to educate myself on these artifacts, which are otherwise so ephemeral.

There were a lot of penises.  Penises everywhere.

When you dump out into the rest of the Festival, it’s mostly vendors:  independents, small publishing houses, retail establishments, local art schools.  Giant Robot, my favorite LA bookstore was there.  They hosted book signings by graphic artists and you could buy pop culture East Asian stuff.

giant robot logo

The Gagosian Gallery did up a space that looked like a miniature gallery.  They did something high-brow.  “It’s a site-specific performance that involved an artist conversation, transcribed and turned into a screen print,” said the smart young woman who manned the desk.  You could buy this souvenir for 200 dollars.  The furniture everywhere was midcentury:   expensive, sleek, modern.

But a lot of the stuff fell into the regrettable category.  I began to pine for all those Queer Zines I left so quickly.  So much more care was taken in the curation.

I’ve been to my fair share of book type events but never to one like the LA Art Book Fair.  Full disclosure:  most of my friends are addicted to books; they are academics and spend their life among them; they haunt archives, usually in not-so-chic draw string sweats and lumpy sweaters that do not show so well as many of the get-ups I saw at the fair.

For me, the defining book lover event is quasi-professional—the hallway of the Modern Language Association’s annual meeting, which is big as a football stadium.  There, most people come to find their own books or their friend’s books.  Then they take pictures next to them and post on Facebook.  Hardly anybody reads anything.  They are there to bump into people they know and pitch their ideas to editors.

Anybody could possibly put in an order for a few hundred books through their university.   They could possibly put the book on a library list and be single-handedly responsible for its dissemination to thousands of libraries across the United States, so the MLA book hall is almost like a trade show:  lots of freebies, books steeply discounted, extremely knowledgeable and serious booksellers.  You are assured of leaving with too many free tote bags.

At the LA Art Book Fair, you must buy your tote bag.  The tote bag was the defining fashion item at the Fair and it was probably the biggest seller, too.

In fact, though this was a book lover event, there was something not-so-book-loverly about it. There was the feeling in which book loving was put on display as spectacle.  People tried to jockey for position to immerse themselves in actually reading books, despite the jostling crowd.  You could even buy this sign to put in your living room to remind people of your commitment to literacy.

tumblr_mzoipamSvY1r1wsq3o1_500

“Look at me.  I’m artistic, reading an artistic book.”  That was the understated message in the dramatic Gothic Steampunk blocky eyeglass squint.  For me, though, the last thing I wanted to do was read a book in such a cluster fuck.

Art books are supposed to be fundamentally different from ordinary books.  They not only have many more pictures but they grapple with the materiality of the book as form.  They self-consciously investigate the book as an artifact.

But so many of the attempts at Art Book-i-ness were caught between being (unsuccessfully) commercial and (unsuccessfully) artistic that they were simply pretentious.  For me, one image summed up the entire show.  It was a book of photographs about Cuba–leather bound, embossed with swirling calligraphy–set in a presentation box made to resemble a cigar box with a tiny stamp: Hecho en Mexico.

cuba

Why Do American Mysteries Suck?

My wife is Korean and she knows all the best Korean movies, so it’s fun to get under the sheets of our big, soft bed…and binge-watch Korean movies with her.  I don’t need to think too hard about what flick to choose.  I also get to ask her all sorts of invasive questions I would never ask a stranger.

I’m politically correct but, lurking inside me, is a secret wooly monster.  It wants to ask all sorts of questions that could be offensive. I’m just curious and I have to know.  Yes:  I was the kid who tugged at a stranger’s pant leg and asked very personal questions about their prosthetic limbs in the elevator.

index

I’ve been binge-watching Korean mysteries.  This is pretty much date night for me and my wife— a cardboard box of steaming pizza and a stream of Netflix.  Gone are the days when we cruised around the city, looking for trouble.

Korean mysteries are interesting because they remain true to the form:  they are fascinated with the exploration of social ills—serious issues that, like termites, gnaw at the soul of society.

American detective fiction has strayed from this key aspect of the genre.  We can now see material that is simply based around the detective as a quirky and interesting character—a central consciousness—that we find adorable and compelling.

Or we see material that depends upon ratiocination—the solving of a mystery, the unraveling of wildly knotted thread.

We see material that is basically realistic, our interest coming from the pleasure of verisimilitude—a realism developed over two centuries of literary history—that is intensely rewarding because we are addicted to it.

But we see less the probing of social ills that, say, a movie like Yellow Sea explores…which is funny because we used to see stuff like that more in American Detective Movies.  Yellow Sea examines the problem of Korea’s immigration policy—one that has created major rifts in a country that modernized through industrialization but, now, relies not on its own citizens but on transnational immigrant populations.

The_Yellow_Sea-p3

At any airport in Korea, you will witness the magnitude of this spectacle, as “guest workers”—often arriving in uniforms—are rounded up in groups by their minders.  Those Samsung phones, those LG Washing Machines,  those Hyundai cars—they are all made by “guest workers,” not workaday Koreans.

20121018132205_labour-exp

The largest group of guest workers are ethnic Koreans from China.  These people are technically Chinese nationals, who live on the borderlands between North Korea and the Middle Kingdom.  They look like Koreans.  They still speak Korean, but with a distinct accent.   And they maintain enough of the basic customs that they are seen as more desirable than the hordes of Pakastani, Mongolians, Vietnamese.

Like America’s Mexicans, they have become vital to the nation’s infrastructure; they arrive illegally and do all the drudge jobs in the service sector:  everything from busing tables to massage to prostitution.  And there’s a lot of prejudice.  Everybody thinks they are involved in crime.

Yellow Sea—a masterpiece—follows one such worker, named Gunam.  We find Gunam disconsolate, alcoholic, bereft at the beginning of the movie; his wife has left him to find work in South Korea. He has mounted such crazy debts, smuggling his wife to Korea, that he is hounded by the local gangster.

Gunam is presented with a golden opportunity that will allow him to make good on his debts and find his wife:  he is smuggled to Korea where he will kill a mob boss and search for his wayward wife.

Do you see the racism in the premise?  Gunam, just an Average Joe, becomes a deadly contract killer upon immigration.  All the Chinese are gangsters in this movie.  They all carry hatchets and meat cleavers and they know how to use them.

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This is not to accuse the movie of racism but to show how the movie is enmeshed in it–troubled, trapped, prey to it–while simultaneously trying to unravel the racial puzzle that is modern Korea.  I won’t spoil the movie by telling you about what happens to the wife:  suffice it to say that she is indeed involved in the sex trade.  I suspect this is taken for granted by the Korean audience, as several characters tell Gunam to forget his wife who has undoubtedly run off with another man.

Yellow Sea is a stunning movie, beautifully shot in a way that even makes housing projects a thing of romantic beauty.   It boasts riveting action sequences.  It’s gritty, grimy.  The man who plays Gunam—Ha Jung Woo—is famous for his acting chops.  And he is well-cast as a sensitive, tormented thug.  Definitely a date night movie for a certain kind of sicko.  I left the movie wanting more…and more is what I got…in the form of a binge-marathon of Korean movies.

But I also left these Korean movies with this question:  why has American Detective Fiction moved so far away from this?  Is it political correctness?  Are we now afraid to offend people?  Are we wary of protest marches and law suits?  Is this good?  Is it bad?

Happy Lunar New Year!!!!

 

I’ve been getting wound up for the Lunar New Year, which is the biggest event in the Vietnamese calendar.  Most people in the States call it Chinese New Year.  This has always been a mystery to me…because I grew up celebrating the big event of firecrackers and dragon dances without thinking there was anything Chinese about it.

Me:  I’m most definitely not Chinese.

Vietnam was a vassal to China—beholden—and Lunar New Year is probably one of the influences that came from that sprawling kingdom, which also donated a whole bunch of other stuff, including its ideograms.  But like all things that Vietnamese have come to borrow, we have tweaked the Lunar New Year.

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Take the Chinese zodiac.  They have twelve animals and so do we.  But they have the rabbit; we have the cat.  The cat is actually a pun that plays off the similarity in sound that the word cat and rabbit have in Vietnamese…and so we have evolved our own peculiar zodiac.

This is the essence of Vietnamese spirit.  If I could package it in gleaming little tins and sell it at a farmer’s market, I would name it Adaptability.  “Come and get your Adaptability.”  You can use it for anything.  “Sauces.  Juices.  Preserves.”

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Vietnamese Lunar New Year traditionally is a one-month wind-up, so it has a fever pitch that reminds me of Mardi Gras, Christmas, New Years—all rolled into one.  It is also everybody’s official birthday…the moment all folks, no matter their true birth date, technically age by an additional year.

This is when we kill a big fat pig, settle scores, clean house.  All debts come due.

When I first revisited Vietnam, I came back as an illegal immigrant at the ripe age of 21.  The United States had had a twenty year embargo.  And this meant that I never got to meet friends and family.

My grandparents were simply pictures to me.

So I knew what I had to do:  as soon as I graduated from college, I took my savings and went on a four month trip to Vietnam—to see the alien birthplace that was so much a part of me.  Of course, my parents objected.  “It’s illegal,” my mom pointed out.  “You could be sent to prison.”

This was not paranoia, either.  My father was a high ranking officer in the Vietnamese Army and his name was still on lists.  Both of my Uncles had been in reeducation camps—prisons—for almost two decades.  And they were nowhere near as important as my father.

But I went anyway and, in the eyes of a young man, it made the journey seem even more adventurous, romantic.  I imagined myself in a trench coat like in those black and white World War I movies.  I took up smoking because I thought a match held close to the face made for great lighting in the camera that is the mind’s eye.

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I planned the trip to coincide with the Vietnamese New Year—Tet—because I knew it was a big deal.  And it was.  It was such a big deal that Bill Clinton chose that exact event to announce that America would finally end the embargo—that we would begin full diplomatic relations with the United States—and just like that:  I was no longer an illegal immigrant.  I was made legitimate.

And this legitimacy was announced by the pop of fireworks that did not end for days.  Happy New Year!

Prime Suspect: Mystery, Murder, Binge-watching

I’m a binger—a binger of just about everything:  books, movies, television.  You can’t leave me alone with a box of chocolates.  I have been known to buy every color of a sweater than has gone on sale.

Sweater Every Color

With books, I’ll read through an entire series by one author and, immediately, read their entire oeuvre.  With TV, I’m even worse.  I usually won’t follow a show until it’s on its last legs. Then, I’ll watch it straight-through.

Of course, this kind of binge and bust cycle also makes me sad and moody when I’m done.  I’ve been a little bit mopey since my Game of Thrones tear.  So the other day, I was so happy to find a show that will allow me to marry my two passions:  detective fiction and binge-watching.

Prime Suspect is a British show that stars Helen Mirren as a shrewd, feisty detective trying to make her way in the all-male world of the precinct.  A tall no-nonsense, short-cropped blonde, the protagonist is in middle-age and mid-stride in a career that has left little stress lines of faint, but attractive, wrinkles around her mouth.

Prime Suspect

When we first meet her, Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison has just transferred departments on the force.  She is supposedly a figure of some authority, but really only a marginal presence in the testosterone-charged world where men still drink and smoke and cuss indiscriminately in the workplace.

Prime Suspect is a police procedural and is a working class counterpoint to the smooth, elegant world of Mad Men.  This world is a holdover from a time when men behaved like monkeys.  This is a chauvinist world—one that hardly bothers to hide this fact under the fig leaf of political correctness—and Detective Tennison has to literally wedge her way into the investigation of a murder that turns out to be one of six serial killings.

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Immediately, everybody hates her and perhaps for good and bad reasons:  the lead detective kicks the bucket while questioning the main suspect.  Tennison strikes while the iron is hot and demands that she be put in charge of the investigation.  It’s a ballsy move and she finds herself in the middle of an investigation, leading a group of detectives who are already inclined to despise her.  Top of the list is the ex-partner to the recently deceased–her nemesis who will stop at nothing to humiliate her.

Meanwhile, she’s got a family life to contend with—a commonlaw husband whose business is floundering, a stepchild who is soon to become a regular fixture on the domestic scene.  There are some great role reversals.  The husband whines, mouthing the usual complaint reserved for the stereotypical female:  you’re never around for me…all you think about is your work…I always feel like I’m playing second fiddle…why is it always about you, never me.  It’s funny to watch a paunchy, jowly middle-aged man mouth the kind of lopsided dialog usually reserved for the marginal female character that everybody hates.  It revivifies that cliché of dialog, injecting parody and satire—all the while humanizing what otherwise is drivel.

This is no mean feat.

The genius in all this is that the domestic element is not just a side-note but a component of suspense.  Things get dramatic precisely because Detective Tennison has to balance the business of mothering and wifing with the smack-down that is detectiving.  When she chooses to question a far-flung suspect–possibly missing the last evening train—she knows that she will not be home in time to make her famous avocado dip for her husband’s client.  This charges the interview with several layers of consequence.  When she does indeed make it home in the nick of time with a bag full of groceries (that her man-assistant has purchased), she is shattered to find out her husband has canceled the dinner party.

Avocado Dip

He knew she would be late…as always.

Prime Suspect aired in the nineties, so it also the perfect show to binge-watch because it has stood the test of time and won numerous awards.  It is widely available, streaming on Netflix.   And another bonus:  it looks back to the recent past and so this nineties show has the feel of the eighties:  clothes, hair, make-up—these elements are back in style with a vengeance nowadays but there is no affectation in all this display.  In this show, there is no attempt to glamorize that period in the way that young folks evoke nostalgia for an era they never lived in.  The trousers, overcoats, jackets have all been stained and rumpled.  Like the detectives, they are not any worse for the wear.  Indeed, they are improved.

 

Tiny Desk Concert: Van-Anh Vanessa Vo

I still get excited when I hear about a Vietnamese artist who gets a shot at the spotlight in these United States of America.  You see:  I grew up in a time when Vietnamese people were simply refugees, boat people—ciphers—the latest wretched of the earth to pile up on the clammy, bronze-blue feet of the Statue of Liberty.

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Not so long ago, the appearance of Vietnamese in the mainstream press was a rarity—usually occasioned by a high-profiled murder or some equally sad incident that you would rather disclaim.   But this has begun to change; and in this time, as we cross the threshold of a new millennium into a brave new world of dazzle and bright, Vietnamese artists doing cool, spectacular things have become more of a commonplace.

(Also, we have had many more wars and many more refugees to take our place on the evening new.)

So this morning, I was so excited to see that a Vietnamese artist has been featured on one of my favorite programs—Tiny Desk Concert—on NPR.  For those who haven’t checked it out, Tiny Desk Concert is a program that features artists performing, live, in the offices of National Public Radio.  Usually, these artists are true craftsmen, virtuosos.  Usually, they’re little-known but on the rise.

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That’s what I love about NPR—they’re always giving you a taste of some real interestingness—like those hair-netted buskers at Costco that give you a bite of good, nutritional deliciousness.  I often make a special trip to Costco, just to sample:  to wander around like a nomad and take bites of everything and then leave satisfied.

I can skip a meal.

A visit to Costco is a whole paragraph in a dense and learned tome.

This is how I am, too, with Tiny Desk Concerts.

NPR usually favors musical selections that are poppy and much more mainstream—accessible music that is only “alternative” in the way that Rolling Stone might define it:  palatable music for the liberal suburban set that isn’t so much into Billboard Magazine hits.  Van-Anh Vanessa Vo—the featured artist—is an outlier in this regard.  She plays traditional Vietnamese instruments and, though she has won many awards (even an Emmy!), she is not accessible in the way that Britney Spears is.

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Vanessa Vo comes from a musical family, is the Vietnamese National Champion (of what, I don’t know…but her website mentions this!) and is notable because she has become a master of traditional Vietnamese folk instruments in a world dominated by males.  She plays a menagerie of instruments on NPR but the 16-string zither is the one that she is known for…and what fascinates me is that, though she sounds traditional and plays traditional instruments, she is actively trying to be modern.

Here is a link to her, playing the Tiny Desk Concert.

I think this is what is at the center of the creative dilemma for most writers but, especially, for writers of Asian descent.  So many forms—the novel, for instance—are simply borrowings, which must be revitalized and made relevant.  Otherwise, their use is the worst form of imitation.  The great Japanese novelists—Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima, Kenzaburo Oe–had to make the novel something completely their own…or else their attempts at the form would have simply created pale imitations:  moths that only remind us that butterflies are more beautiful.

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The Japanese novelists, like all Asian writers, also had to reinvent traditions that they inherited.  Take the haiku:  the haiku is an especially modern form that rips off the senryu form—a series of linked poems—and leaves us with a fragment of the very best part.  So while Americans think of the haiku as an old and venerable form, it is as modern as a horseless carriage:  all steel and girders.  What the Nobel Prize-winning writer, Yasunari Kawabata, does with the haiku in adapting it to his novels is a high wire act that fuses the traditional with the relentlessly modern.

Vietnamese writers are now grappling, too, with how to work within forms that only a few decades ago, they knew nothing about.  They are learning to adapt a language that is not entirely their own.  For me, waking up this morning, Vanessa Vo was particularly instructive because she takes the question from a different angle that few Vietnamese artists in the United States are thinking about:   how to make traditional stuff new, shiny, bright—worthy of a spot in the spotlight.

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year.  The last few weeks have been so busy—so many little projects that I have had to neglect the blog.  But I’ve been always thinking of this blog, which has been a little diary of sorts, a way to open the book of my heart to virtual strangers.

Busy Bees

New Years is a time for things to come full circle and I would like to share my biggest circle with you:  a while back, my friend Thomas tried to commit suicide, checked into rehab and began the arduous climb to sobriety. Part of that climb across the glacier of addiction involved fulfilling his life’s ambition:  writing a mystery novel.

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Thomas is a really smart guy–an Ivy League grad with a soft-spoken manner.  And he’s rare, too:  one of those Ivy League guys who doesn’t try to remind you every few minutes that they went to an Ivy-League school.  I’ve never seen him wear a T-shirt with some collegiate logo on it.  He doesn’t have a Volvo with one of those discreetly obnoxious stickers on the back window.

Ivy Leagues

He’s a bookish, no-nonsense guy:  steel-rimmed glasses, thoughtful NPR tone of voice, shaved head because it’s cheaper that way and he’s balding.  I always see him with a pile of books—library books—and it shames me the amount of reading that guy does.

 

But Thomas has never seemed to get his act together and make the letter of his promise deliver. Why?  Because he was a serious, secret addict.   Whenever he could, he would drink, snort speed and pop prescription pills.  I never suspected it, because he was the quiet one but, as the saying goes, “it’s always the quiet ones.”

 

The past year was a humiliating one for Thomas—an odyssey through rehab, half-way houses, sober living facilities.  He joined AA and slowly began to rebuild the trust between himself and his wife.  She wouldn’t let him move back in.  Not until he was in a good place.

 

Thomas is the reason I started writing this blog and this mystery novel:  I was trying to help a friend.  The main character was about an alcoholic who graduated from Columbia University who works in the Fashion District as a driver, frittering his talent away.  Guess what Thomas did for a living?

 

This may sound creepy, using your friend’s illness as a launching point for a writing project but, in my defense, I had Thomas’s permission:  much of this was to help Thomas along in his recovery.  We were writing partners and my writing helped his writing.  Sometimes we wrote in the same room, the sound of the clock keeping time to the symphony of our typing

 

Thomas, meanwhile, was writing what he calls “supernatural addiction fiction.”  It’s a potboiler noir mystery set in LA with an unusual protagonist:  a vampire.  The premise is also very original:  you see, in this world, AA is populated by supernatural creatures—vampires are alcoholics, fairies are meth dealers.  Jack Strayhorn, the central character of the book, introduces the series, is a vampire detective who was killed while investigating the infamous Black Dahlia case.  He’s back in Los Angeles tracking down the supernatural killer who took out a prominent city councilman and his girlfriend.  The councilman happens to be the eldest son of a powerful fairie clan and the girl has a mysterious past of her own.

The series is called Twelve Stakes, based around the Twelve Steps in AA.  There are to be 13 books in the series—one step, additionally.  Thomas tells me that addicts live in fantastical fantasy worlds—multi-faceted Walter Mitty lives cut in the Swarovski crystals of their cracked consciousness—and it is the lush carpet of this imaginative world that they really spend their time in.  In this world, they are supernatural creatures of the night!

12 Stakes

Happy New Year.  I hope you all your creative energies find release. I hope that you scale that sheer cliff of despair and stand triumphantly on the precipice, looking down upon the panorama of the world as if you were the first man at such a height.  I hope you are surrounded by friends, not monsters, who will help you along your path.

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What Happens When You Get A Fan Letter?

I wrote a story a while back and found out it was published over a month ago. It was a fictionalization of a major Vietnamese poet, Nguyen Chi Thien. He was a dissident poet and lead the kind of life that scholars idealize but actually would never wish upon their worst enemy–resistance, imprisonment, exile, penury.  I never met the man but I did spend an evening editing his obituary.

His editor and assistant wrote me this comment:

“This story may be fiction, but it rings very true to my knowledge and association with the poet Nguyen Chi Thien. I was his English language assistant, and editor. Voluntary, of course. He was his work. And as a true genius, he cultivated mystery about himself. When I pestered him with too many questions for his published Autobiography he told me “Read my work.”

I see the poet/man in your story very clearly. Thank you, diaCRITICS, for publishing it.”

So here’s the story.  It’s not a mystery, though inside it contains the elements of one.  It totally lifted my spirits to see that something I entirely forgot was appreciated by someone who should know.

*  *  *

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He was an acclaimed artist, a master of words and he wrote in spare, rich prose on the transience of small things—a teacup, a leaf, a skillet—all in a style that was long-gone.  It was the height of the war and there was a market for this kind of material, because ladies of breeding, of culture—those women who could claim they had been to Paris or at least as far as Hong Kong–these ladies, they wanted to forget.  So beside the usual catalog of patriotic mumbo jumbo and discussions of shipping news, the wild guesses about the latest turn in American policy and advertisements for housekeepers of high moral character, his verses appeared as phantoms.

Short.  Small. Polished.

I write this for my wife of seventeen years—and nobody knew if she was just seventeen or if they had been together for that length of time.  He wrote anonymously and nobody could really know what he looked like, what his true age could be.  Some said that he was really a woman in man-disguise, someone who wrote under what folks so inelegantly call in the West, a “pen name.”

“Nobody understands the smallness, the transience of the world lived inside a postage stamp like a woman.”  So my mother told me.  She kept a yellowed clipping of his story and showed it to me, sounding out the words in an elegant way that I could never emulate.  It was only many years later that I realized this was a language lesson of sorts.

That clipping must have traveled far and wide and long for it to finally find a home inside that plastic Liz Claiborne purse.  My mother was always afraid of thieves.  She believed that a plastic purse kept you safe from robbery.  This paranoia stayed with her, always.

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Towards the end of her life, I was the one who nursed her.  She was almost crazy then.  They call it “dementia” in this country and nobody among my siblings wanted much to care for her.  That is the way in the West.  She would walk from room to room and mutter that cryptic phrase at paintings, photographs, vases.  I was finishing up a pharmacy degree at a school close enough so that I was persuaded to eventually move in and support both of us on my stipend.

Oh, how she raved about things, then.  It was all unpleasant to hear.  Past affairs.  The way she looked, ripe in a long white dress, at the tender age of fifteen when she took her first outing to Phnom Penh.  The estate in the highlands where the indigenous people are as much a part of the landscape as the trees themselves.

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Did I believe her?  Not really.  I had read about this disease in a medical textbook and knew that her mind was unreliable.  And then she told me that this man, this poet, was her lover–her lover when she was but seventeen years old—that she met him one day, many years later, in a gleaming mall in the United States and that he was exactly as she remembered him, dignified with that great mop of poet’s hair.  And he did not acknowledge her even though she knew he recognized her, just as if it were yesterday.