The artless art of censorship in Vietnam

By Vu Viet Tuan   October 25, 2018 | 06:13 pm PT
Clueless cultural czars are stunting Vietnamese creativity with arbitrary stances on what art should and should not be.
Vu Viet Tuan, a journalist in Hanoi

Vu Viet Tuan, a journalist in Hanoi

A woman with a flower in her mouth and hair blowing in the wind.

This was an attractive illustration that painter Thanh Chuong drew for the cover of a local newspaper in Hanoi for its spring issue.

However, soon after the paper was published, a cultural czar, a bureaucrat tasked with reviewing and censoring art and culture-related products in the country, demanded that all issues be recalled, because, kid thee not, the woman’s hair was too “unkempt.”

The official maintained that such a hairstyle was unbefitting of a “civilized city” like Hanoi. What’s more, the fact that she was holding a flower in her mouth implied that the country was too poor to afford its citizens a decent meal, so they had to resort to chewing on “blades of grass.”

Repeat, kid thee not. This actually happened.

Staying with women and flowers, on Hanoi’s mural street, Phung Hung, one wall section is covered by a painting of women carrying baskets of flowers, walking along a busy street. But one cultural official insisted that this be changed, ideally into one showing women wearing the traditional ao dai from a flower village in the capital city.

Why? Because someone from the “committee” thought that the painting looked like women walking in haste because they were being chased away by the police.

Repeating, yet again – kid thee not. This happened.

Ah. We can shake our heads at what must have happened a long time ago, and assume that such censorship is a thing of the past.

We might just be wrong.

Tinh khiet (Purity) by photographer Duong Quoc Dinh. Photo acquired by VnExpress

'Tinh khiet' (Purity) by photographer Duong Quoc Dinh is exhibited at the Center for Art Exhibition and Exhibitions of Fine Arts in Hanoi in July 2018. Photo acquired by VnExpress

In April last year, five Vietnamese songs were suddenly banned from circulation, despite being approved or licensed earlier. These songs, first recorded before the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, had been tweaked a bit later.

In banning them all of a sudden last year, the Department of Performing Arts came up with the excuse that the songs’ lyrics were untrue to the original and some of the artists’ names were incorrect. This was a violation to Vietnam’s Law on Intellectual Property, and thus the songs had to be verified before they could be circulated again.

Did the songs’ lyrics or the artists’ names fall under the department’s jurisdiction? That’s the question I asked the head of the department. But the answer he gave was anything but clear. He repeated that the songs could only be re-circulated once the verification process is completed. And when would that happen? He didn’t know.

Not satisfied, I decided to contact the musicians directly. It was late at night when I managed to get in touch with Kha Thi Dang, the widow of musician Chau Ky, who co-wrote one of the five banned songs along with musician Ho Dinh Phuong.

Dang said some lyrics of her husband’s song didn’t sit well with the government. 

“Our country has already been unified for over 40 years. Why make each other’s lives harder than it is over some lyrics of a song?” Dang sighed. She insisted that the song was not politically motivated in any way.

Anyway, a month later, the department finally set the five songs free after facing heavy backlash from the public. But the incident was merely one out of many clashes between the administration and artists who only want to share their works with the people.

If you know Vietnamese artist Hua Thanh Binh well, you would know that one of his pet peeves is getting licenses for his art exhibitions. The topic never fails to rile him.

Once, when he was preparing for one of his exhibitions called “Let’s go home,” one official called and said the “Let’s” part was “too sensitive.” Binh had to change the exhibition’s name to “Going home.”

Another time, one of his paintings had a worker sitting without a chair. The artist said the chair didn’t fit well with the whole painting. When he submitted the painting for an exhibition, the organizing committee rejected it, insisting that a worker could not sit without a chair.

With bizarre stories like this in abundance, one can imagine what happens with nascent, experimental art forms, like nude photography.

Vietnamese nude photographer Thai Phien is no stranger to knocking door after door in Hanoi to find someone who would allow his exhibition of nudes to be held. The first time he succeeded was in 2007. But while he did find someone to authorize the exhibition, he could not find a place to actually hold it. After a lot more door-knocking and phone-calling and whatever it took to make his exhibition a reality, one of his friends, who worked for the administration, said: “Don’t bother. Someone from the higher ups has specifically said that your exhibition must never be held.”

Phien didn’t give up though. One year later, he tried to submit the same photos to a different exhibition. This time, he received a much more straightforward answer:

“A bridge has just collapsed, the avian flu is raging, the economy is unstable, inflation is on the rise... We cannot hold an exhibition at such a sensitive time.”

Hmm and more hmm.

In my career as a journalist, I’ve seen many ironic, comedic gold like these stories.

Our artists are suffocating; their necks set in the noose by an administration that arbitrarily and senselessly shoots down any artistic attempt that does not fit with their narrow perspectives.

Vietnamese artists have no space to worry about the quality of authenticity of their work, because they have to worry about whether their works will see the light of day.

Meanwhile, our government expects culture-related industries, such as tourism, to generate 7 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2030. To do that, it has for long touted “innovation” and “cultural breakthroughs,” and even showed willingness to spend a lot of money for this purpose. 

When art and artists and their work and performances need to go through an assessment and approval process managed by clueless cultural czars, what kind of cultural breakthroughs can we expect?

At this time, I don’t want to answer this question.

*Vu Viet Tuan is a journalist in Hanoi. The opinions expressed are his own.

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