Monday, January 26, 2009

Chúc Mừng Năm Mới - or Happy New Year in Vietnamese! : Nothing Much Happened in Vietnam Today VI

Toshiba, LG, Samsung, Mitsubishi, Casio, Hitachi, Canon, Sanyo, Mobifone and Budweiser. So began my Lunar New Year in the roundabout before Saigon's Ben Thanh Market, the Vietnamese equivalent of Times Square with the pulsating neon buzz that defines any Asian city - signs. Signs of the times.

The Vietnamese had assembled a stage, worthy of Madonna in stagecraft, lighting, and sound to host the annual bringing in of the Lunar New Year festivities. I call it Lunar New Year, as opposed to Chinese New Year because it's just not fair to give China all the credit for what is an Asia-wide festival - and it's based on the Lunar calendar as opposed to the solar, or western, giving it dates distinctly different from the way the rest of the world counts time. But everywhere I've been in Asia they celebrate both, giving them two holidays for the eternal timely price of one. In Vietnam it's referred to simply as, Tet.

Wandering onto the grounds it was obvious that some seats were just more fly than others - rows of plastic chairs, some draped with fabric, as if for a wedding, militarily arranged before the cameras, and others, rows upon rows, more peasantly distributed in the grass as background. The rows for dignitaries or pop stars de jour were expansive and strategically placed for what HTV (Ho Chi Minh City Television) had decided, or the boys in Hanoi had decided for them, was going to be the show of the year.

Hundreds of plasma screens behind a milky styrene stretch canvas, all run through a processor to form a single image, would backlight the performers in a way that no rear-screen projection could and calculatedly look just absolutely bright and stellar on TV. The HTV guys were running around peeing their pants just thinking about it. Lotus flowers, giant hanging lamps with poetic geometric designs, lit from both interior and exterior, and motorized coloured strobes, choreographed to swing with the bass beat, would be just wallpaper in the light of the calibre of stars they were about to trot out on this gargantuan, multi-tiered stage - or one would think from the vast expanse of premium seating and rock solid security that swarmed the venue.

Showtime folks! This of course is all free. Paid concerts in general have been a novelty in Asia for some time as the governments use the majority of public events as giant movie sets, with thousands of unpaid extras, to grace the TVs of the plebes in the hinterlands who essentially pay for this grand extravagance, thus providing the Asian version of quid pro quo to keep the farmers happy while the skyscrapers go up. The price of technology is never too high in light of the loyalty bourne per pixel or digit. iPhones grace the audience as I enter the seating area. Oh, no - not that one, that silk draped nirvana reserved for those who may float above the common dirt upon which the rest of us tread - but the general seating - a place behind speaker columns and with no really good view of anything except the jumbo-trons set up on the sidelines. We are there, but oh so tactively removed.

I find a place, good enough, in a front row, just behind a patch of grass of where it is, described by placards in Vietnamese, to be no seating. This will be just perfect. I can see the center of the stage and two sides of the plasma-tron background screen, divided by, yes of course, a tall black speaker column, but otherwise, everything is cool. Shit, it's free. What do I want?

As I take a single seat, next to some kids, one of them addresses me in perfect English. "Where are you from?", he queries. "America", of course, I respond. Then in a choreographed chant that I swear I didn't script form my previous "Lunch With Obama" post, the boy and his two sisters sing back, "Obama!". I smile. Yes. Nobody ever choired "Bush" or smiled in return.

We wait for the show and converse. They are so cool. The boy, the best speaker, tells me that his dad is with the show. His father is a truck driver. Dad comes up with his neckchain crewpass during our more than two hours waiting for the big event. I'm doing a bit of babysitting and dad approves. I feel good - for a roundeye. Many parents go out of their way to point me out to their kids and get them to say "Hi". It's a way to teach them that people are people but also a chance for them to get a response out of just a one sylabble word in the English language. You be surprised at the shy blushy grins you will get from kids by just saying "Hi" back, or by being just slightly more expressive and retorting, "Yo mudda fucka - my home boy, main man, dog and brotha dat I don't see for a yea or anotha!"

Just kidding. These kids, no matter who they are, a truckdriver's son or the progeny of captains of industry, are growing up in a bilingual world and their parents are acutely aware of this. It will be interesting to see how America handles this new reality.

As the clock ticks away I don't have any idea of when the show really starts - but I understand the prep of a crew on a clock. And they are busy as bees. Lighting checks, sound checks, camera and director reviews of all the angles on the jumbo-trons to my side. This shit is going down. But the main seating area remains oddly unpopulated. The Hoi Paloi have dutufully filled the cheap seats but there seems to be a distinct lack of papparozi ready subjects for the big cams. Tick-tock. Beautiful girls in Ao Dais (pronounced "ouw yai"), the sleek long Vietnamese dress with silk pants, dispatch to the sides in search of foreigners. Any white dude in a t-shirt and his girlfriend will do. I am spotted and offered a seat in the golden area, but decline. Somehow I don't like the idea of serving this reverse racism, that makes me more valuable to a camera, than a man or his children who live here and have worked for it. It's part of their 15 minutes, not mine. I experienced this in Korea as well, where groups of people would hang out at the drop off of a ski-lift and try to drag me into a photo with their friends - just to show all their friends back in Seoul how international they were. Bullshit. These people would no more buy me a beer in a bar than a buffalo, in any other year, but they wanted my face for a photo. (okay, maybe they'd buy me a buffalo) Fuck em'. With the Ao Dai girls failing to find enough foreigners to fill the seats the pedestrian Vietnamese quickly spotted the vacancies, five minutes ahead of showtime, and stormed the area. Seats filled. In about 30 seconds.

The show began and it was just what I have come to know are the majority of these shows in Asia. Not much. One major star preceded by an hour of beautiful dancing girls and canned music leading up to a lip-sync two song "show". Dreadful. And so made for TV that you get tired of being an audience member pretty quickly. Duh. I left after 20 minutes.

The booms and sparkles of a more than 30 minute long fireworks show were a fitting symphony for my simple walk home. I thought it was splendid.

The previous day my photographer friend, Mads Monson, had wished me a happy new year by involking the words to an old Depeche Mode album, "Enjoy the Silence". This he sent to me by SMS. I understood. After the flurry of activity before the new year in Vietnam, there is a distinct lack of activity for maybe a week or more. Silence in a sense. Shops are closed. People go to their home towns. Ancestors are worshiped and the requisite amount of gambling is done with the "lucky money" they receive as gifts from family members and friends. But it's a generally quiet and reflective time after having worked an entire year to have gotten to where they are today. Peaceful. Serene. At one with the Buddha, so to speak...

Bullshit. Today I was awaken by the pounding of drums and, having donned my shorts and t-shirt to parade out on the balcony of my building, witnessed a Tiger Dance, the likes of what you might have seen to be a Dragon Parade, with one man inside a large paper tiger head and any great number of others trailing behind to hold up the striped body. My motorbike drivers, the lady who runs my convenience store, the neighborhood dwarf hunchback and anybody else who happened to happen by, dragged my sorry ass down to the street for a ritual beer drinking, eating and karaoke ceremony early this morning.

Happy New Year, everyone. Chúc Mừng Năm Mới. I think it will be anything but quiet.

As you may have noticed, we've adopted a festive red as the blog colour du jour, or du week for this New Year. As it turns out, you people are just wildly fickle about colours and so I've decided it just doesn't fucking matter and I'm going to make the blog any colour I want, uhh, depending on my mood. Music has been programmed for the event as well. For those who hate the music...learn to use the Podcast control in the right sidebar.

My thanks also to Rebecca Wolkenstein for her image of the ox/buffalo for this new years post. Rebecca represents Neil Massey, a photographer out of the U.K. who had taken me out for a few pints earlier in the week to help get my new year off to a more than comfortable start. My best to all.

For more in the "Nothing much happened" series, check below:

VIII People Are Just Dieing To Get Out of Here
VII The Hair Job
VI Happy New Year! Chúc Mừng Năm Mới!
V The Vietnam sNews
IV At The Center of Miss Universe
III My Walk in the Park Today
II The Stevie Wonder Post
I Ear Cleaning

For my New Years post for 2010 check here.

blog comments powered by Disqus

The Wild Wild East Dailies

D a v i d E v e r i t t - C a r l s o n
Find me on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. Read my blog: The Wild Wild East Dailies and keep up on our efforts with aSaigon/CreativeMorning.