What brought you to Vietnam?
In July 1992 my beloved husband Charley died in Tokyo. I stayed on for another year reluctant to leave years of memory. In September 1993 knowing I had to move on with my life, I went to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Bangkok and Chiang Mai seeking some passion.
Nothing was resonating. Then in November 1993 I read an issue of Cathay Pacific’s in-flight magazine devoted to Vietnam. Upon opening it my eyes fell upon a startlingly beautiful photograph of two very old Vietnamese men, their long, wispy beards trailing to the ground, sipping tea in the soft rain, fading ancient beauty surrounding them in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. The corresponding article showed the current works of a group of five male painters, ‘The Gang of Five’, who with their fresh, figurative abstract expressions of the spirit of the Vietnamese were attracting international attention. The fragile, crumbling beauty, in stark contrast to this bold, wild energy and hope for the future touched my heart.
A month later I arrived in Hanoi.
What was it like living in Hanoi in the 1990s?
It was a little bit of everything… magical moments, great joy, unexpected happenings, great confusion, a roller coaster ride everyday. Definitely not for the faint of heart. But, it was magical, especially at night. No electricity after 9pm, little gaslights on tea stands, cyclo rides around the lake and down to the mausoleum while being quoted poetry by my cyclo driver, a physicist who had studied in Russia; artists coming by to whisk me off at midnight to go to pagodas to watch the sunrise; 5pm drinks at the Metropole where everyone networked since there were no cellphones and few landlines. Wonderful, charming, funny, frustrating, fabulous times.
How have you seen contemporary art develop in the past 20 years?
Vietnamese artists are now frequently exhibiting abroad, attending workshops and residencies. That said the local art scene is still struggling. There are few Vietnamese contemporary art collectors so all of the good work is leaving the country. There is no contemporary art museum and little support for the arts so it is still a huge struggle for the artists to make a living. There is a great need for education in arts management and also in education for the public so that they understand, appreciate and support the arts.
Does Hanoi have the same magic for you now as it did when you first arrived?
I find magic in Hanoi every day — there is always something to discover. I still love the little tea stands, the bun rieu at the Fat Lady’s noodle shop, the wide smiles of the street vendors, the incense wafting from the pagodas, the wailing funeral dirge of the dan bau, the laughter and smiles of the children running about. There is always some kind of magic to be found.
If you could turn back time, what would you change from your time in Vietnam?
I never think about turning back the time. As my friend Pham Quang Vinh said as he was taking off the rear view mirrors of my first motorbike in 1994: “No look back, no have time!”
Have you ever tried to leave?
I have never even contemplated leaving. Can’t quite imagine it really.
Would you classify yourself as an expat? Why or why not?
I don’t think of myself as an ‘expat’. I think that is such a strange word or expression. I don’t feel any strong allegiance to any country. I like to think of myself as a citizen of the world. And anyway, I don’t like labels!
How well do you think you’ve integrated into Vietnamese life and society?
I love this country and have many wonderful Vietnamese friends. However, I am always mindful that I am an outsider. This is not a bad thing. I am always aware of how I must accommodate myself to the country, for I am a guest here.
How difficult has it been working in the art industry in Vietnam?
Difficult, expensive and wonderful. It is the passion of my life and has brought me many gifts. I have received far more than I am able to give.
What are your hopes for the future of Vietnamese contemporary art?
My big dream before I die is to see a contemporary art museum, art education for the masses, compulsory art education in school, trained Vietnamese art professionals working nationally and internationally, professional galleries and art centres, and a more public integration of culture in all its forms — literature, art, music, dance, poetry — that is accessible to all.
Suzanne’s gallery Art Vietnam can be found online at artvietnamgallery.com