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Photo: Phuong Tâm.
‘I was lucky – I sang every night’: Phuong Tâm on the front cover of Đẹpmagazine, Saigon, 1965.

I first heard this story at Public Radio International’s the World, but decided to use the Guardian version here because it has more details. It tells what a Vietnamese American woman did after discovering that her mother was once a rock star.

Here’s Sheila Ngoc Pham with an interview at the Guardian.

“In early 1960s Saigon, Nguyễn Thi Tâm would appear on stage in the city’s vibrant phòng trà (tearooms) and nightclubs. She embodied quintessential young womanhood, with long, straight black hair and wearing a white áo dài, an elegant Vietnamese dress. But instead of traditional songs, she would belt out music that recalled American hot rods, hip-swinging dance crazes and even teenage abandon: using the stage name Phuong Tâm, she was one of Vietnam’s first rock’n’roll singers. ‘Back then, everyone was singing Vietnamese, some French, but no one else was singing American music,’ says Tâm, now 76. ‘Just me.’

“Lost for decades, 25 of the brilliantly crafted songs she recorded – all rich in verve and atmosphere – can now be found on Magical Nights, a landmark compilation that required an international collective effort to recover a lost era of early Vietnamese rock.

“Tâm and I speak in Vietnamese, logging on from our homes in two of the world’s largest Vietnamese-diaspora communities: she is in San José, California; I am in Sydney, Australia. Given that we are talking about events from more than half a century ago, I’m astonished by her vivid recall. ‘Of course, these are precious memories. I was lucky. I sang every night.’ …

“When she was 12, she started learning music from a mandolin-playing neighbor who suggested she use the more feminine-sounding Phuong Tâm as her stage name. In 1961, at the age of 16, she auditioned for the Biet Doan Van Nghe, the art and culture brigade of South Vietnam: the government scheme enlisted performing artists to be part of the war effort. Her father wanted her to keep studying, but she had made up her mind – ‘I was in love with singing’ – and quit high school.

“During the 1960s, the live music and dance scene in Saigon was flourishing, flush with the injection of capital from American GIs and Vietnamese businessmen. Tâm’s voice was in high demand. During the day she would rehearse and at night she would perform to successive foreign and Vietnamese audiences. ‘I would sing from five in the afternoon until one in the morning. I would start at the airport base, then at 7pm I would sing at the officers’ club. I’d go to another dancing club after that.’ …

“When a position came up for her new husband hundreds of miles north of Saigon in Da Nang, as a flight surgeon in the South Vietnamese air force, she didn’t hesitate to follow him. Although she earned far more as a singer than he did as a physician, she left it all behind. ‘I forgot about all of it,’ Tâm says. ‘I didn’t have time to feel regret because I was soon busy taking care of three kids.’ In April 1975, in the final days of the war, the family fled to the US, where they were accepted as refugees.

“Tâm never divulged her musical past to her children. Only once while browsing in a Vietnamese music store in Orange County did she find a CD with some of her recordings, but she didn’t think to show it to them. …

“Tâm’s eldest daughter, Hannah Hà, joins the two of us on the call from St Louis, Missouri, where she lives and works as a doctor. Growing up in the US, Hà didn’t particularly like Vietnamese music compared with jazz, rock and pop, ‘but now I can’t get enough of it.’

“Hà always knew her mother wasn’t an amateur, thanks to the way she would steal the show at karaoke parties. As she writes in her moving essay in the liner notes: ‘Swaying and singing with her eyes closed, she transported the entire room back to a pre-1975 Saigon nightclub.’ She didn’t give her mother’s singing much thought, however, until the end of 2019, when a producer of the film Mat Biec (Dreamy Eyes) wrote to Tâm to discuss using her music. The approach piqued Hà’s curiosity: did her mother really sing rock’n’roll? Soon she found a 7-in vinyl single for sale on eBay with three tracks. …

“Hà put in a maximum bid of $2,000. ‘I just had this intense desire to have it,’ she says (in the end, she scored it for $167). Hà then sought the help of Mark Gergis, producer of the cult compilation Saigon Rock and Soul (2010), but finding the rest of Tâm’s music seemed impossible, given all they had to go on were three tracks and some incorrectly labelled YouTube videos.

“Gergis drew on his own collection and reached out to his extensive network; Hà messaged strangers on YouTube and Discogs before finding Adam Fargason, an American collector living in Vietnam.

‘Adam took me on these Saigon shopping trips which were virtual, because this was during the pandemic,’ Hà says.

” ‘He would visit these mom-and-pop antique shops and they would have these records on the floor in the back. They often had layers and layers of dirt, just naked albums without sleeves. He would put his phone to them so I could see, and we would go through them one by one.’ It was eventually discovered that Tâm recorded 27 tracks in total.

“ ‘When Hannah sent the music to me, I cried listening to every song,’ says Tâm. … ‘The project seemed tiring, but Hannah insisted,’ she says. ‘It’s taken 18 months because of all the scratched records; it’s been like climbing a mountain backwards. She’s very stubborn.’ “

More at the Guardian, here. Listen to the mother and daughter at the World, here.

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Photo: via Songngutaitram,
Vietnamese poet Lê Vĩnh Tài.


Blogger Nguyễn Thị Phương Trâm got a couple of us hooked on Vietnamese poetry with her translation of a long and moving epic by the poet pictured above, Lê Vĩnh Tài.

At the AJAR Press, where Lê Vĩnh Tài’s work is published, Nguyễn Trọng Tạo provides background on the poet, “Lê Vĩnh Tài was born in 1966 in Ban Me Thuot, Daklak. He graduated from Tay Nguyen Medical School but later pursued a career in business and making poetry. Le Vinh Tai’s poetry is rich in intellect but also carries much of tenderness and trembling. He is like a ‘balanced renovator.’ ”

A small sample of his more playful poetry comes from Nguyễn Thị Phương Trâm’s blog, Songngutaitram:

“I want to write a poem

“because the poem will
“because the poem be

“the poem
“will throw itself upon the pages
“with the vigour of a child learning how to talk

“the poem
“the lyrics you’ve forgotten

“I want to turn us into a poem.”

Nguyễn Thị Phương Trâm, herself a poet as well as a translator, reports that she was “born 1971 in Phu Nhuan, Saigon, Vietnam. The pharmacist currently lives and works in Western Sydney, Australia.”

A word on the Vietnamese press called AJAR: “AJAR is dedicated to the discovery of poetry and art in both ordinary and hidden places, providing a space for these works to be exhibited, loved, and challenged. As a bilingual journal and independent small press based in Hanoi, AJAR provides an opening for questions, imaginings, and poetic (im)possibility to be shared across borders, inhabiting language as it moves between worlds and words. In bringing fresh and critical voices of Vietnamese literature and art into English, and welcoming those voices from everywhere into Vietnamese, we focus on quality translations and envision books as artifacts of artistic collaboration. Alongside single author poetry collections, AJAR publishes a bilingual journal of poetry, short fiction, essay, and artwork that revolves around a specific word of choice for each issue. 

“While accepting donations from individuals, AJAR is self-funded and unaffiliated with any outside or inside organization. To be a part of keeping AJAR alive, please buy books or contact us at shop@ajarpress.com.”

To learn more about translation in general, check out This Little Art, by Kate Briggs. Briggs brings up many fascinating points about the decisions that translators must make — points you may never have thought about — and opines that, in fact, the translator is also the author. At least, the author in the second language.

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Photo: SIE / GWC / Leibniz-IZW / NCNP)
Rabbit-sized Silver-backed Chevrotain live in the scrubby forests of Vietnam’s coast. Also known as mouse-deer, they are the world’s smallest ungulates, or hooved animals.

The great environmental radio show Living on Earth covered this hopeful story in early March, and despite the changes happening in our constantly upended world, it’s still good news.

“HOST STEVE CURWOOD: When a species hasn’t been seen for years, we start to worry it might be gone forever, just a ghost from a bountiful past. But in the forests of Vietnam, a team of scientists from Global Wildlife Conservation and its partners have caught just such a ghost on camera: The Vietnamese Fanged Mouse-deer.

“There have been no scientific records of this tiny creature in nearly 30 years, but now, camera traps have identified at least one population of the elusive creature, also known as the Silver-backed Chevrotain. The chevrotain is the first species found as part of Global Wildlife Conservation’s hunt for 25 ‘Most Wanted’ species, which they think may be lost. But the discovery of this particular species doesn’t necessarily mean that it is safe from extinction. Vietnam has a lot of biodiversity, but it also has huge conservation challenges, including a thriving bush meat trade.

“For more about the search for the chevrotain, Andrew Tilker, the Asian Species Officer for Global Wildlife Conservation spoke with Living on Earth’s Aynsley O’Neill. …

“AYNSLEY O’NEILL: How did it feel to see this creature for the first time?

“ANDREW TILKER: It’s a really cool animal. So it looks like a tiny deer.

And when I say tiny, I mean the size of a rabbit. It looks like a small deer that somebody had dipped halfway into a bucket of silver paint and then pulled it out again. …

“I was overjoyed, as was the entire team. We felt confident that we had a good shot at getting photographs of the species because local people said they saw this animal that couldn’t be anything else. … Just highlights the importance of [working] with local people and local ecological knowledge. …

“In two different locations, local people told us they had seen a gray colored chevrotain. And so we went to one of these locations and put out camera traps and obtained the first photos of the species and the first record that the species exists in almost 30 years. So the species wasn’t lost to local people, which is why we try to be very careful to say that silverbacked chevrotain was lost to science. …

“We don’t yet know if there are threats that are specific to the chevrotain. But the species is, without a doubt heavily threatened by rampant indiscriminate snaring because every mammal species in Vietnam is threatened by snaring.

“In Vietnam and in other parts of Southeast Asia, bushmeat is something of a status symbol. So if you’re upper middle class and you want to show off to your friends, an easy way to do that is to go out and go to a bushmeat market and buy bushmeat rather than domestic meat. …

“We’re very intentionally not releasing the name of that site or the location of that site, just to be sure that there is no chance that any poachers who want something different or novel would try to hunt animals from that population. We know that the species is threatened by poaching, there’s no question about it. …

“O’NEILL: What are the next steps? Where do we go from here?

“TILKER: So the work is just beginning. The first step is securing the single known population. The second step, I think, is try to figure out where else the species occurs. If we lose these species from Vietnam, because they’re only found in this country, then that equates to global extinction. …

“[The] story, I think, gives much needed momentum for a positive outlook to conservation in Vietnam. And I’ve seen that in my interactions with local stakeholders, both from NGOs and also from the Vietnamese government. So it’s it’s nice to be part of a story that has such a positive direction because I think that’s often needed when you’re working in such a difficult field.”

To read more or listen to the original episode, click here.

By the way, you can join a free Living on Earth Zoom call with ecologist Carl Safina on Monday at 7 pm. Register here.

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Photo: AP
Before the Australian men’s soccer team’s first World Cup appearance in 1974 (pictured above), the team competed in war-torn Saigon.

Young, ambitious Australians, playing for their country for free in 1967, didn’t know any better when they accepted an invitation to a soccer tournament — in Saigon. I heard this story on WBUR radio’s Only a Game. It is beyond amazing.

James Parkinson reported, ” ‘It was one of these stories that you heard at a bar with colleagues and ex-players, and you thought, “Is this really true? Could this really be a thing? Surely this didn’t actually happen,” ‘ sports journalist Davidde Corran says. ‘Except that it really did actually happen. It really was the way that they told it.’

“It was November 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, when an international football tournament was held in Saigon. Eight nations would compete: New Zealand, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, then South Vietnam and Australia. …

” ‘We were the pawns in the game to win over the South Vietnamese people, so it was a PR exercise,’ says Ray Baartz, a former Australian national team player, from 1967 to 1974. …

“There was little time for the players to think about the potential dangers of sending civilians into a war zone.

” ‘I think it was about a matter of weeks. We’re on the plane off to Vietnam. We didn’t have too many discussions about it,’ says Stan Ackerley, who represented Australia from 1965 to 1969. ‘These days, you would think twice about going.’ …

” ‘Well, the first, biggest shock we got was the amount of armed people we saw — soldiers, sentry points all over the place,”‘ Stan says.

“Bombers here, and fighter planes here, there and everywhere,” Ray says. “You thought, ‘Hello, we are in the middle of a war zone,’ you know? And we got through the airport, and then into the bus to take us to the hotel and had a police escort all the way.” …

” ‘They went to this briefing at the embassy, and one of the things they were told was, “Be careful of people riding on bikes because it might be someone who’s a threat, and they could mistake you for an American or a soldier and attack you and shoot you,” ‘ Davidde says. ‘[These] players, in this completely new surrounding, walk out of the Australian Embassy, and what do they see? Just a city filled with people riding around on bikes.’ …

“The players discovered the proprietor of their hotel had stolen their food vouchers, leaving them with nothing but substitute ham. And Stan received an electric shock, thanks to exposed wires in his room. Even the training pitch was questionable.

” ‘The training field was a real quagmire at the best of times, so you couldn’t train there all the time because of the conditions and that,’ Ray says. ‘It was really a cow paddock. You know, quite often we’d train on the roof of the hotel, just to keep the body moving a little bit. We weren’t allowed to train on the main stadium.’

” ‘There would have been this surreal sight during this short period of the Vietnam War, where footballs were just falling off the top of this building, this hotel, every day during training,’ Davidde says. …

“The tournament began with a group stage. Australia was drawn into Group A alongside New Zealand, Singapore and hosts South Vietnam.

” ‘The army was going around the stadium with mine detectors and so forth, and then you think, “Oh, hello,” ‘ Ray says. …

” ‘You gotta bear in mind that these players — a lot of these players were playing for the national team unpaid,’ Davidde says. ‘You’re taking annual leave to go and play for the national team — you’re sacrificing to play for the national team.’ …

“The Australian team’s PR mission had, in some ways, managed to work. The Vietnamese people had just seen their own team eliminated in the other semifinal. They also loathed the South Korean soldiers. So they began cheering for the Australians. …

” ‘To be part of the first tournament that we ever won was fantastic,’ Ray says. ‘You know, we were all so thrilled and so proud to be a part of it.’

“The magnitude of Australia’s performance in the Friendship Tournament cannot be overstated. Not only did they perform on the pitch, but they did it in remarkable circumstances, and all for the honor of representing their country.

” ‘To play for your country, you have to sacrifice a lot,’ Stan says. ‘So we sacrificed a lot, you know?’ ”

Wow. More at Only a Game, here.

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Here’s an interesting start-up by a couple of entrepreneurs who love to eat. The two women decided to build a business around helping travelers find truly authentic cooking.

According to Aashi Vel and Steph Lawrence’s website, “Traveling Spoon believes in creating meaningful travel. We are passionate about food, and believe that by connecting people with authentic food experiences in people’s homes around the world we can help facilitate meaningful travel experiences for travelers and hosts worldwide.

“To help you experience local cuisine while traveling, Traveling Spoon offers in-home meals with our hosts. In addition, we also offer in-home cooking classes as well as market tours as an extra add-on to many of the meal experiences. All of our hosts have been vetted to ensure a safe and delightful culinary experience.

“Traveling Spoon currently offers home dining experiences in over 35 cities throughout Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam, and more countries are coming soon!” More here.

I have no doubt that Traveling Spoon is also boosting international understanding. What a good way to use an MBA! Business school is not all about becoming an investment banker, as Suzanne and Erik would tell you.

Photo: Traveling Spoon
Traveling Spoon founders Aashi Vel and Steph Lawrence met at the Haas School of Business.

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Here is a business that is in the business of innovating to solve problems in poor countries.

The latest initiative at Design that Matters has been to find a low-cost way to treat babies in the developing world who have jaundice. This week the group tested Firefly, an easily transportable phototherapy bassinet specially designed for Vietnam. The doctors in Vietnam were ecstatic.

“Currently infants born with jaundice in Vietnam will first travel to a district hospital in their search for treatment, which are usually not equipped with the proper tools to treat any newborn health issues and are referred on to a provincial or national hospital. Due to this lack of equipment at the rural and district level, infants’ conditions worsen as they travel for multiple days, risking the development of permanent brain damage. …

“In response, Design that Matters (DtM), the East Meets West Foundation (EMW) and Vietnamese manufacturer MTTS have launched a collaboration to develop a new infant care device that will treat newborn jaundice during the critical first days of life.” Read more about Firefly here.

“Design that Matters (DtM), a 501c3 nonprofit based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, creates new products that allow social enterprises in developing countries to offer improved services and scale more quickly. DtM has built a collaborative design process through which hundreds of volunteers in academia and industry donate their skills and expertise to the creation of breakthrough products for communities in need. Our goal is to deliver a better quality of service, and a better quality of life, to millions of beneficiaries through products designed for our clients.”

John’s company, Optics for Hire played a role.

 

 

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