These are images taken during the residency for Cung, Dung, Cham co-authoring program when I was welcomed into Ms. Hang Thi Xa's home at Ta Phin village, a quiet place of H'Mong and Yao people 10 kms away from the hubbub of Sapa. While not documenting H'Mong medicinal herbs for my main project, I spent time with the family, their relatives and neighbors as they went about their daily business. I was thinking it was time to get my feet dirty. For a city kid, the experience of doing farm work and trekking in the forest is as novel as it is daunting.
Sapa is known for its graceful terrace fields described in travel magazines as a "staircase to heaven", but their cultivation requires extensive labor. After finishing his final exam, the 8 grader Chu, Ms. Xa's son, helped his cousin Tra to plough the soil with a small tractor. As the normal tractor obviously wouldn't work for slopes and the traditional ploughing method with a water buffalo could not keep up, this handy tractor was invented by a farmer in Yen Bai province who knew a bit about engineering and was too familiar with the difficulties of terracing. This invention soon gained popularity, words travelled quickly to different mountainous areas. Nonetheless, moving the tractor in muddy land and down to another "stair step" is far from easy. Step by step, the otherwise wasted hill sides are transformed into glorious terrace fields that feed the residents and become a photo background for excited visitors.
Besides growing rice, Ms. Xa's family also had another source of income from their artichoke garden. The all year round cool climate of Sapa only allows one rice season each year, but it is ideal for many medicinal plants including artichokes. The leaves are bought by Traphaco Pharmaceutical company to make into artichoke jelly and the buds can be cooked to eat or drink. Before they bloom, artichoke buds are harvested and sold at Sapa market for 40 thousand VND (about 2$) per kilogram. One funny thing is that when I order a glass of artichoke tea in Hanoi, they bring me the very sugary magenta-colored drink. It's actually hibiscus, the bud is much smaller than an artichoke bud and I think they have absolutely nothing in common with each other. I wonder how one drink stall messed it up and now the whole city mistakes hibiscus for artichoke.
After a week, I moved to the nearby village Cat Cat to stay with Ma A Nu, the young boss of an essential oil business who turned out to be Ms. Xa's distant relative (the H'Mong's world is just so small). I googled his name before meeting him in person - sounds creepy, but out of habit I usually check out one's online presence. The results revolve around his success story, how he turned from a poor boy who had to quit school at 15 to support his family after his father's death to a rising entrepreneur producing essential oil from traditional H'Mong herbs.
Once arrived, we went straight to the forest and our conversations took place during the breaks when I was catching my breath. "Are you a journalist?" He asked, suspiciously. "Yeah kind of, you have any problem with them journalists before?". "Most of them talked to me briefly in an hour or two, I don't think they really want to understand me, so I often reject interviews these days". I was thinking to myself, what's cooler than an interview session beside a bubbling stream, among all these birds and bugs? But it wasn't my intention. We trekked and climbed and slipped and laughed. Our conversations went on, from our favorite music to the kind of family we would want to have. I asked him to show me medicinal plants along the way, if he believed souls reside in them, if he planned to preserve traditional remedies that are bound to lose when the elders pass away. It seemed redundant, as Nu is truly knowledgable about herbs and already running a business with essential oil. He answered calmly, "I don't want to commercialize it too much. If people buy these products they should have some knowledge about where they come from, what the ingredients do...not out of pity to support a H'Mong boy." The conversation went on as we went further into the forest. He brought back a bunch of white mushrooms and wild dandelion leaves, happily announcing that our dinner was taken care of.
After a week in Cat Cat and Sapa, I took the night bus to get back to Hanoi just in time to get back to work on Monday. Finalizing the exhibition options for the series has been quite painful since it's my first time, but thank to all the support from my hosts, organizers from Isee and my dear girl friend, it turned out well. I was left with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. For the richness that the earth provided us with, for the generosity with which people welcomed me. I will never forget the joy of walking barefoot, knowing that there can be joy in every step with take and that we all have a place in this life.
7th - 21st May, Sapa, Vietnam./
These images were taken with an Olympus Pen EE3 that I borrowed from my girlfriend Linh. The cheesy letter to the half-frame camera could be viewed on Matca.
Hoa Binh, Mai Chau and Sapa, March - May 2017./
Here went the compulsory rainbow colors, gaudy wigs, artist names containing the word 'Queen' with a capital Q and passionate lipsyncing to Beyonce's songs: the Hanoi Mardi Gras festival, paying tribute to Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, presented itself as a midscale drag show. And I have always had mixed feelings about drag shows. First, it's the fact that the stage is often the only place where queer bodies are accepted after being adorned with concealer and light-reflecting cloths. Second, queer representation is often in the form of a contest which rewards the the ability of trans to pass as straight, the complexity of their 'performance' and tearjerking stories of untold struggles with identity crisis ending with a wish for acceptance from family and society. It's celebratory and necessary, and yet for me it's a tired cliche that enhances gender binary and stereotypes about the LGBTQ community.
A drag queen hastily put on their edgy metallic-like dress to perform Lady Gaga's Telephone, revealing the word (wish?) LOVE on their arm. A pole dancer with ribbon-tattooed butt cheeks was dangling on a stick that contained the weight of their whole body over a longing theme song. Their costumes, handmade for the night, were flapping hysterically in the wind. The audience cheered and the cameramen shot before glamour expired once the light went off.
Hanoi, 25th March 2017./
In Vietnamese culture, the death of someone also means a reunion with their deceased family members. I documented the funeral of my grandpa's younger brother, who died 44 years later than his elder brother whose life claimed by the American war. My grandpa's younger brother, the luckier son of the family, was also a former soldier. On that day, he calmly smiled in his green uniform, his coffin was adorned with a red piece of cloth that said "Determined to win" and his old comrades also came to send him off with the iconic hand gesture.
Sai Son, Quoc Oai, Viet Nam - Monday 7th November 2016./