Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Christmas is a-comin'

Central Saigon this year

It's Christmas Eve and all around the house
Nothing is stirring; not even a mouse...............

But the chickens, ducks and dogs in our neighbourhood are all calling and barking at the top of their lungs!

Here in our house near the river in Hoi An, Abba is playing on the i-pod, mulled wine is warming in the pan and Santa has put some presents under the Bonsai tree. 

I can hardly believe this is my second Christmas in Vietnam. The first 12 months flew by in a whirl of paintings, publishing, Pecha Kucha, TV interviews, magazine columns, monthly art markets, new friends, delicious food, local wine ( which helped with the blurring) visits from friends, traveling, culture surprises, talking, teaching, sunrise mornings, early bed times, ant bites, street bites, pretty smiles, handsome eyes, poverty shocks, gilded temples, incense and a wonderful discovery of life South-East Asia- style.

In October, I left Saigon and moved 400 km north to Hoi An which is a semi rural small town on the coast just south of Da Nang. The pace of life is slow, pleasures are simple and the bright lights of Saigon with all its convenience and luxuries ( including art materials) have been left behind. The temperature today is 22 degrees and, though I swore I would never say such a thing, we are feeling cold and wish we had brought jumpers with us.  But ABBA is on the i-pod so practicing my moves to 'Dancing Queen' is keeping me warm for now!

Tomorrow we will be sailing down the river Thu Bon on a big old wooden boat with some Swedes and the best cook in all of Hoi An. We had a dream of coming back into town to a soft sunset, but I think it will probably be cloudy and rainy ............. just like England!  Have a great Christmas wherever you are. 

Monday, 11 November 2013

Upcoming Christmas Exhibition

I am taking part in this year's exhibition of 'Small Things' at Vin Gallery; their annual show of smaller works of original art in time for Christmas. 

Published in the May issue of Oi Vietnam, this was my very first magazine column. 
Read the story here

This is still, probably, my favourite postcard and was originally produced to illustrated the Full Moon Festival in my book about Hoi An.

This postcard illustrated my column in the July 2013 issue of Oi Vietnam which tells the story of my first shopping experiences in a local wet market when buying ingredients for a slightly ambitious Vietnamese birthday feast!
I addressed it to Rick Stein, the chef and restauranteur in Padstow, England

Oi Vietnam Magazine

This postcard was published in my book 'A Week in Hoi An' and shows the view of the Cham Islands from An Bang beach on a spring day. This is address to a little friend who likes to visit this beach from time to time.

The story about the magic and mystery of the My Son ruins was published in the June issue of Oi Vietnam Magazine. The memory of this evocative and poignant trip still haunts me.

Oi Vietnam on Facebook

If you take the late overnight sleeper train from Saigon to Da Nang, you are awoken by the breakfast trolley at dawn just before the train arrives in Nha Trang. 

From this point on the train hugs the coastline and you can watch the sun rise over the many islands scattered along the coast of the East Sea. Oi Vietnam Magazine, August 2013 issue.

This is addressed to my friend Robert who loves travelling by train.

Addressed to the late Antoni Gaudi, architect of Barcelona, this postcard illustrates some of the lovely shop houses of Saigon. One day these shops will be as fashionable to live in as their counterparts in Singapore.

Oi Vietnam Magazine - September 2013
Vietnam skies are amazingly beautiful. the colours are off the scale for depth of hue and luminosity. because the land is so flat along Vietnam's coastal, delta and southern regions, you can see weather coming for miles and miles. If you stand on Thu Thiem Bridge on a changeable day, you can see rain storms happening in different districts of the city and feel the rush of wind that preceeds every shower that is going to drench you! Read the article

I addressed this postcard to my sister who loves changeable weather and lives under her own big sky in Lincolnshire in England.

So, pop along to Vin Gallery on Friday evening to see these little gems in the flesh. They are beautifully framed in mahogany with double glass and floating mount. they would make a lovely present to a friend or even to yourself!

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Dragons and typhoons

The Quang Trieu Dragon

This morning I am sitting at my table beside an open window in my studio and that, in itself, is a minor miracle. Let me tell you why.

Five days ago our wonderful girl Friday, Miss Phuong, delivered the drawing board I commissioned last week. It is solid hardwood and is designed to carry the largest sheet of handmade watercolour paper. Since I started concentrating on Watercolour painting, most pieces have been, kind-of, A4 - A3 sized and many are no bigger than a postcard. To progress my work, I bought some A1 sheets of watercolour paper while in Singapore and I have been bursting to start work on them ever since I returned.

Four days ago I prepared the first sheet; first wetting under the shower and, once soaked, laying it down on the virgin board. Next I took a sponge to wet lengths of brown gummed tape with which to fix it to the wood. After that I waited about  6 hours for it to dry, shrink and become taut on the board.  I knew exactly what my first large work would be so I brought it straight to the studio and started work.

The subject is the writhing dragon and his companion carp framed in a shallow pool in the forecourt of the Quang Trieu (pronounced Wong Chuh) Cantonese Assembly Hall on Tran Phu Street in Hoi An. 

This piece of sculpture is full of colour and vigour which reflects the dragons mythical powers to control flow of water, floods and typhoons. The carp is endowed with the traits of Endeavour, Courage and Accomplishment because of its struggles to leap waterfalls. It's Cantonese name also means Abundance and Affluence. These two creatures come from the same mythical clan and the Chinese say that if a carp can leap through the falls known as the Dragon Gate on the Yi River  it can be transformed into a dragon and will fly up into the heavens.

It's rainy season here in Central Vietnam and this year it is accompanied by a parade of typhoons that form in the western pacific, swing through the Philippines and make landfall in Vietnam before dying out over Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. A recent one put the power out for 60 hours and closed all the resorts along the beautiful, 15 mile China Beach that runs south from Da Nang.

Three days ago, we noticed, on the weather chart, a Super Typhoon approaching the Philippines that was already being labelled the biggest typhoon to hit the Philippines since records began. Whilst not wanting to panic, we were watching its track closely and started to make plans to survive the storm of the century.

Meanwhile, I was making progress with my painting and was completely absorbed in my work. The dragon was taking shape and even though it is only two dimensional, I felt with each brush stroke I was almost sculpting this creature on the page. I have visited the dragon many times and always marvel at the artistry and craftsmanship that brought the dragon to life out of concrete and broken china pieces. Some think the dragon is a bit kitch - to me it is a work of genius.

Two days ago I have to take some time out to help my housemate to get in food supplies, beer,  rice, an extra torch, bread for the freezer and more.......and make a plan to survive the storm. Robert was here , alone, during the last storm and spent a miserable three days without electricity, proper food supplies and any companion. So, with his experience we feel sure we have covered all our needs and can face whatever the weather may bring. 

Since the last storm we have also acquired a puppy who wandered into our lives off the street three weeks ago.  While we are waiting for her new family to pick her up, we are trying to keep up with her voracious appetite and although she is not normally allowed in the house, we can't leave her out in a Super typhoon to fend for herself. So Robert's patent, DIY kennel made from two cardboard boxes, 12" black duct tape and a green bin liner was brought in to the garage so that puppy would be safe and dry.

back in the studio, my painting was progressing and I was beginning to feel that I had almost breathed life into this dragon and his carp companion and was now concentrating on the decorative and symbolic details of the temple roof.

Yesterday the storm has driven through the Philippines leaving a trail of destruction and was now approaching across the South China Sea. It was originally forecast to hit Vietnam just north of Da Nang but now they are saying it has swung south and will head straight for Hoi An !!!!!!!!!  The little town leaps into action. There were queues outside every hardwear shack, shop and stall. The air was filled with the sound of hammering, stapling, sawing and occasional public announcements on mobile tannoys. The local army reserves were called in to deliver sandbags and advise people on the best ways to secure their properties.  

The Vietnamese system of neighbourhood guardians, local People's Party reps and family connections swings into action and is working at peak efficiency. We couldn't find any white baguettes anywhere yesterday and were struggling to find out which bakery would have them today and at what time. By chance, we popped in to see the lady who runs our scooter hire / beauty parlour and she was just about to go to collect baguettes herself. We chatted for a while, I booked a pedicure for next week, Robert accepted her fond advances for a few moments and the next thing we were following her across town to her favourite (family?) bakery and were presented with a  little bag of 5 warm baguettes for free!   That's how Vietnam works!

My painting was nearly finished. I spent a few hours working on the reflections in the little pond, putting some extra typhoon-style swirls into the dragon's chariot of bubbling clouds.  To finish, I shared a few thoughts and stories either side of the temple then signed and stamped my chops in red in at the bottom right hand corner.

It suddenly occurred to me that it was a strange coincidence that I should have worked on a painting of the master of water, flood and typhoon at the same time as a super typhoon was brewing in the Pacific and then travelling towards us. 

We went out for a few beers and met some travelers from Kent who feared they may be stuck in Hoi An for the duration of the typhoon. We offered some advice about getting in beers, baguettes and pate and eventually came home to begin the long confinement that was surely imminent.  

When we came home, I took the painting off the board made a cup of green tea and contemplated my endeavours for a while. I then prepared another piece of paper and taped it to the board ready to start a new piece during the storm.

Last night We waited and we waited. I prepared a dinner of prawns in a yellow curry and coconut cream sauce with aubergine slices and fresh noodles from the market. We watched 'Life of Brian, in our studio/cinema and drank some wine.

Robert checked the track of the typhoon (scheduled to strike after midnight) to see that it had suddenly changed track and veered north. It was now due to land closer to Hanoi up in the north but might even die out over the sea before it gets there

This morning soft rain is falling outside my open window and the people of Hoi An are going about their business in a normal, Sunday kind-of way. By some chance, the storm has passed us by. Instead of the devastation and huge loss of life that the Philippines have suffered in the swirling tentacles of Super typhoon Haiyan, we will live to love and laugh another day; our homes intact. 

There are no new typhoons on the tropical storm tracker yet, but Haiyan is unlikely this will be our last

There is more to this life than bread, blood and clay and I wonder if my little homage to the Imperial, Cantonese, five clawed dragon of Quang Trieu had anything to do with our delivery from the typhoon and the miracle of this bright, rainy Sunday morning?

Friday, 1 November 2013

Typhoon Alley

Here we go again. Typhoon Krosa is due to arrive in Hoi An some time on Sunday night. This forecast chart predicts 39-73mph winds which is somewhat less than the previous typhoon on October 15th (below)

Typhoon Nari came thundering through at 95 mph and caused untold damage and many deaths. Electricity was cut for 60 hours and there was no water supply either.

Nari damage in Da Nang (15 miles away)
People in Hoi An did an amazing job of trimming trees, clearing streets of debris, soil and sand and opening their businesses after the flood. The Vietnamese work tirelessly to put everything back in place after each of these massive natural disasters. 

I only heard about the last one (Nari) from the comfortable distance of Singapore but I will be watching the arrival of Krosa hour by hour if I can. I wish I could go out to the beach to see it coming but I guess that's not a very safe thing to do!

I will let you know!

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Seven days in Singapore

The opening page of my Moleskine Japanese Album 

The last time I visited Singapore was on my way to Australia in October 1987. It struck me as a rather dull, over regulated kind of a town -  rather self-conscious and insecure. There were $1,000 fines for anyone dropping litter and there was an uncomfortable contrast between the expensive shops of Orchard Road and the crowded tenements just a few streets away.

Raffles hotel was very shabby. The crumbling courtyards were scattered with rotting cane  armchairs and while it had a certain air of faded elegance and was evocative of a former age of prosperity, it was a bit down at heel and sad.

Jim Thompson restaurant 
Twenty-six years later Singapore has grown up into a modern, clean, exciting city that is dripping with bougainvillea from every balcony, bridge and flyover. The streets throng with people of every nationality and the avenues are lined with the most beautiful rain forest trees. The variety of modern architecture in this 21st century city is remarkable. There are acres of polished granite and green tinted glass.

Dancing girl a Thai recipe
Buffalo Road fruit and veg
We ate at local food courts that are so typical of Singapore. You can get all the best flavours of China, Hong Kong, Malaysia,  Thailand, Hainan, Singapore and Vietnam and all for very little money.  We dined at great restaurants like Jim Thompson and the courtyard at Raffles and enjoyed old fashioned Dim Sum in China Town where ladies still vend food from their steel trollies. Hiu-yen cooked (of course) and her family brought enough dishes to feed a small army when they gathered at the Changi Bungalow.

a section of the city map showing the route we took
Singapore has managed to conserve large pockets of its less fashionable districts and allowed the communities to stamp their own personalities on it. Little India is quite a large neighbourhood of old shop houses that have been painted in bright colours reflecting the culture of the residents and shop keepers. It is a bustling, noisy chaotic district that was supercharged by the Deepavali street lights and seasonal decorations available in the jam-packed shops and markets.   
Emerald Hill
Emerald Hill is a more upmarket remnant of the wealthy merchants who were trading goods around SE Asia. This area first started as a nutmeg plantation and began to be developed for housing in the 1890s. most of the existing terraces were built in the 1930s but seem to be styled from an earlier age. 

Rain Tree and the Ubin Island ferry
We left the beautiful home of friends in Holland Village and moved east to Changi Point to spend a fews days at Aloha Changi resort in one of the disused RAF officers' houses; built in the 1960,70 and 80s. They are set amid unspoilt grounds of rainforest  trees and other plants and the morning air is filled with the shrieks of tropical birds and the constant
Our bungalow
trill of cicadas. This huge Rain Tree, with its Bird Nets Ferns and creepers. I got the distinct feeling that if the gardeners didn't turn up for a few weeks, the rainforest would quickly take over again and the few buildings would be lost from sight.

Singapore Changi airport is situated close to the point and that whole district is still littered with the military and trading remnants of British occupation that was started by Sir Stamford Raffles back in 1816. 

Old Changi Prison
At the top of this post, I include a picture and drawing of Jim Thompson Thai restaurant that is housed in  one of the many listed military barracks and mess buildings on the island.

Another poignant relic is part of the original wall of the infamous Changi Prison which still stands as a memorial to all those who lost their lives at the hands of the Japanese army that occupied the island for three years during WW2

Map showing the route from Holland Village to Fairy Point
This view is from the beach below our bungalow at 7am one morning. You can see what a busy place it still is. huge container ships and all manner of small craft criss cross through these straits  24 hours a day and approaching aircraft glide over the waters in their final approaches to the airport. The land in the distance is Indonesia.

Geoff and Hui-yen wander through the mangroves

We took a trip across the straits to Ubin Island and took a tour on foot and in a little van around this nature reserve. The most enjoyable part was the walk we took along a raised boardwalk through mangrove swamp, water coconut groves and out onto the sea where we could look down upon coral beds. It was so beautiful.

For another perspective on life in Singapore, I spent Friday 18th October 2013  in a doctor's surgery followed by a trip to A&E and the Opthamological Dept of Changi  General Hospital. I was taken there by a taxi driver who has definitely missed his calling as a tour guide. 

He drove past the Changi museum , the massive gun built to defend the island from invasion from the sea ( the Japanese came overland from behind!), the prison, the army barracks and so on. He was full of personal memories and urban myths. It was he who told me uncomfortable stories about the Prison wall and then revealed that the Japanese high school's proximity to the prison was no planning error and so on!  He certainly kept me amused. But then he revealed the local name for Changi General Hospital......... CGH .... which stands for 'Can't Go Home'!!!!!!  It seems the Singaporeans love to use the initials of   the big institutions on the island to make up new names! 

Well, I was very well looked after by the doctors and staff there. It was a super modern facility where the A&E department felt more like a shopping mall than a medical facility. The lovely receptionists all wear pink outfits, the same colours as the beautiful bougainvillea that decorates the whole city. 

I had a wonderful week with some remarkable people who I will never forget. Thank you all for your generous hospitality, delightful company and for sharing your city with me. I will be back soon.

Thursday, 22 August 2013


This painting is from my forthcoming exhibition '365' at Vin in Gallery, 6 Le Van Mien, District 2. The private view is on September 6th, exactly one year since I arrived. The exhibition opens to the public on the first day of my second year. 

If you can come and join the celebrations - you will be very welcome. there will be wine and canapes, a traditional Vietnamese musician and.......... of course........ cake!

I captured this scene on a visit to Ba Chieu Market in District 3. So far, this is my favourite covered market in Saigon because it's not overwhelmingly huge, tight packed or crowded and the gaps between stalls are wide enough for the average westerner to walk through without turning sideways. 

This is a locals market ;not for the tourist. I found all manner of things I had never seen before which reassured me that I really am half way round the globe in a strange and foreign land where none of the rules of home apply. Outside, an elegant and slightly stern looking lady was selling betel leaves wrapped around areca nuts. the older generations like to chew these to enjoy a mild stimulant effect. The addition of white or pink limestone powder can enhance the flavour and stain the teeth an attractive shade of Dracula red!

It was also near the market that I found the Chinese herbalist from whom I bought my precious ginseng stash. Here he is heating the root (straight from his ice box) to slice it into translucent wafer which I can nicely tuck in the corner of my mouth, for 30 minutes,and wait for the pungent  enzymes to slip into my bloodstream. 
I must g back form some of his brain numbing Ginseng wine!

As we walked through the market a colony of bats was pointed out to me - suspended in the rafters of the market roof away from the light of day and directly above a narrow passage where roosters and hens roamed free!

So, back to my painting. I stood in this covered alley adjacent to the market building for a long time watching the people come and go through the shadows and shards of brilliant light that penetrated the patchwork of awnings above. The iridescent glow of this scene was completely captivating to me.

Young women, these days, seem to do all their daily chores with their motorcycle helmets on. Since the wearing of helmets was made law in December 2007, women have, in some cases, forsaken the traditional conical hat. It simply isn't practical to carry a straw hat around on a motorbike and, since the wearing of hats is a necessary protection form the sun, they have taken to wearing their helmets as they go about their business,when out of doors.  Even fishermen's wives can be seen wearing their helmets on the beach when helping to bring in the boats and sort the fish to take to market. 

So, this scene shows those very same young women buying their fruit and vegetables while wearing their helmets.

On the left, a young man is cycling through the market in his designer shorts and tee-shirt. probably picking up some supplies for his grandmother on his way home for lunch.

In the centre, a women walking to collect lunch from her favourite food stall, bowl in hand. She was wearing the most exquisite silk suit that you only see on older women. Her conical hat is protected by a modern polythene cover but she has a traditional silk scarf knotted in each side to secure it in place.

The motorbike, the bicycle and the pedestrian each bearing the symbols of their age and generation. The boy is too young for a motorbike license. The young women must have good jobs to be able to afford smart modern scooters. The older woman wearing all the traditional accoutrements of her generation and probably those of her mother's as well.

The exhibition is on until September 14th at Vin Gallery

Postcard from Vietnam 5

One of the greatest benefits of travelling by train in Vietnam is that it provides an excellent opportunity to view the beautiful landscape at a leisurely pace.  Trains in Europe are designed to get you from one place to another as soon as possible but to journey by rail in Vietnam fulfils the Chinese proverb which says ‘the journey is the reward’

Departing from Ga Saigon (from the French word for railway station – Gare) I was amazed at how close people live, work, play, eat and sleep to the single track that carves a narrow corridor through the tightly packed neighbourhoods of north western Saigon. One more metre to left or right and we would have been travelling through their living rooms, barber shops and bars.

After a while, the scenery opens out and we are in a watery landscape of rice paddies, lakes and small towns. Our train starts to climb to higher ground and the scenery and the light changes. This region reminds me of the Highlands of Scotland in many ways. The hills rise steeply both sides of our train and the lush green of the lowlands has given way to a starker landscape with fewer trees and villages and dusty roads that are less travelled I think. But the best is yet to come.

From the comfort of my sleeper carriage on Vietnam Railways, the landscape gently rolls past the window like a documentary film. In this seemingly idyllic land every view is worth painting and the fields and villages, themselves, seem to have been touched by the artist’s brush. 

If you take the midnight train from Saigon, you will arrive at the coastal town of Nha Trang at dawn. From here the single train track hugs the beautiful coastline which is dotted with romantic islands and purple peninsulas backlit by the rising sun. The views of the East Sea shimmering in the low light of a fresh morning are breath-taking.

On one of my journeys, this hour was marked by the arrival of the breakfast trolley carrying a large bucket of fresh, hard boiled, eggs. These delicious treats are served with a pinch of the ubiquitous chilli salt presented in a little recycled paper wrapper. Mine was part of page of an old train timetable – how apt!

As Vietnam wakes to another day, you can see people tending their gardens and allotments beside the train track. A cowherd takes his cattle and calves to pasture. A lone motorcyclist spins down a country road easily keeping pace with the train. Workers make an early start in the green and gold fields at the coolest time of day. Teams of women, in their conical hats, are gathering in the hay to make haystacks reminiscent of those in Monet’s paintings of rural France in the late 1800s.

Travelling along the single track railway that runs the length of Vietnam is truly one of this country’s hidden delights. It may be slow but I cannot think of any good reason to rush through this fascinating and varied landscape.

Published in OI Vietnam - July 2013 click here

Friday, 16 August 2013

Contemporary art in Saigon

Last night I spoke at a Pecha Kucha event at the Ly Club near the Reunification Palace. It. was quite a swanky event in the garden of a large villa. 

The garden was furnished with modern white furniture and automatically adjusting cantilevered sun shades. My platform was sheet glass laid over an uplit pool. I had better make a good job of this presentation!

My subject was '10 good reasons to buy contemporary art in Vietnam today'

Bui Quang Anh - Tu Do Gallery
According to the Pecha Kucha format each speaker has 20 PowerPoint slides and each slide is shown for 20 seconds. So, I have just over  six and a half minutes to state my case.

Eamonn O'Callaghan - Vin Gallery
The images for my slides were taken from gallery websites of current, recent or upcoming exhibitions in Siagon and, by popular request, here are the details of the artists and galleries.

Do Thi Kim Doan - Lac Hong Gallery

Dang Xuan Hoa - Apricot Gallery

Ignacio De Grado - Vin Gallery

Bui Suoi Hoa - Vin Gallery
Doan Chi Hieu - Vin Gallery
Sandrine Llouquet - Gallery Quynh
Nguyen Thi Ngoc Lan - Vin Gallery

Do Hoang Toang - Gallery Qyunh

Ha Man Thang - Gallery Qyunh
Le Hoang Bich Phuong - San Art

Phuong My with San Art

Bui Tam Thanh - Craig Thomas Gallery

Do Hoang Tuong - Gallery Qyunh

Nguyen The Hung - Craig Thomas Gallery
If you find some work you like, you should subscribe to the gallery's newsletter if they have one. Vin Gallery and Gallery Qyunh certainly do.