Sunday, 29 November 2015

Charming Vietnamese Lion dogs

A visit to Phat Thic Pagoda, Bac Ninh

There is a current debate concerning the guardian lions of Vietnam that stand in pairs at the entrances of religious and government buildings.

A pair of guardian lions comprise of one male (yin) and one female (yang). The male has his foot on an embroidered cloth ball that represents power and the whole world. The female has one paw on a reclining lion cub, as if stroking its stomach; this represents nurture and care. They are there to repel invaders and to protect the people within.
In Vietnam there is movement to eject all the fierce-looking, Chinese lions (often called foo dogs by westerners) and replace them with the more traditional, happier-looking Vietnamese variety. 

Experts have been referring to the oldest surviving guardian lions in Vietnam to uphold their claims for change and it seems that the two lions flanking the steps to the Phat Thic pagoda in Bac Ninh Province  in the shade of old hoa dai blossom trees, I expect many visitors just pass by without noticing them.  But these lions are amongst the rarest in South East Asia and may be Vietnam’s oldest examples of the original style of guardian lion

I was taken to see Phat Thic one misty autumn afternoon about two years ago. I was visiting the home of a recently deceased artist and was invited, by his lovely widow, to get on the back of her scooter and visit her local pagoda. I could not possibly have imagined the treat in store as we bumped along country lanes and through a small town to the imposing entrance of a large religious, mountain site.

Ahead of me was a steep climb of steps to a low, wide building altar building. This structure is only 30 years old but it replaced a temple founded in 1057 by the Ly dynasty that was, unfortunately, bombed to ashes by colonising forces in the 1950s.

I was led by hand into the richly decorated interior furnished with large painted statues of all the usual suspects. Somehow they seemed more real, more awe inspiring than others I have spent some time with. This was a special place – there was no doubt.

Deeper into the temple I found something wonderous; a large marble Buddah that has been carefully stitched and pinned back together with iron staples and pins, after being shattered in that bygone disaster. At nearly 2 metres high, this Buddha was once the nation’s most important and is now considered to be a great treasure of Buddhism in Vietnam. It certainly has an unforgettable presence.

The two ancient lions, mentioned in the debate, sit in line with kneeling pairs of four other sacred animals on a terrace. There is a pair of elephants, two horses a couple rhinoceros and two buffalos. These dark, sandstone creatures are beautifully carved and, especially, the fine details of teeth, claws and imperial motifs of the two charming lions are amazingly well preserved. 

I would definitely support the movement to replace the forbidding Chinese- styled lions with the more affable Vietnamese breed. I think they reflect this country’s unique culture and character better.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

My new professional Facebook Page

On a recent visit to Hoi An, I stayed with my charismatic, young French photographer friend Rehahn (Rehahn's web site/) and his lovely family in their quiet house on a strand of land between two rivers and next to the Vegetable gardens of Tra Que. Itis one of the most idyllic places imaginable. 

We talk about all kinds of things. He smokes impossibly large and expensive Cuban cigars which he buys on his frequent visits to the island to record its faded glory. I drink chilled red wine which, straight from the fridge, is as close to European 'room temperature' as we can manage here in the tropics!

Recently, we made a break through. We have resolved to start a self-publishers' cooperative together with Elka Ray ( to help promote and distribute the work of writers, photographers (of course) and artists ( of course!). It looks like I am going to be part of a Vietnamese company - bring it on!

Anyway, he said I have to stop publishing pictures of my work on my personal Facebook and separate business from politics and pleasures. How could I argue with that?

So, I have a new Facebook page and I need all the support I can get. I will no longer be posting pictures of my work on my personal Facebook page .......... that will be reserved for politics, parties, pleasures and photo-opportunities.

Please, please 'like' my new business facebook page. It's anonymous. You will not have to be my friend. You CAN comment on my work and you CAN keep up with new publications, and news of exhibitions and the work of other new, exciting artists who also struggle to capture the light, the heat and the people of the tropics.

Please click here............My new Facebook page

THe name of our new collective is Books 4 Asia. I will keep you posted.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Flying colours - the temple flags of Vietnam

Flying Colours

Traditional flags in Vietnam

Flags have been used to communicate meanings, directions and identities for over 6,000 years. The earliest known is a bronze relic from Iran dated around 4,000bc.

I never thought much about the meanings of flags until I moved to Vietnam where flags are far more common than in my native England.  Neighbourhoods are transformed on festival and national holiday days by the brilliant  red and yellow national flags and are sometimes festooned with striped bunting which is strung from post to post in the vicinity of temples.

The National Flag with its red ground and yellow star takes its styling from the Soviet ‘hammer and sickle’ flag which also includes a yellow star. In Vietnam, the star represents the five sections of society; the farmers, intellectuals, factory workers, businessmen and the military. Yellow is the colour of the Vietnamese people and red is universally used to signify revolution, strength and courage.  In the alleys and narrow streets of Hanoi, a few scarlet and yellow flags projecting from balconies and upper story windows instantly injects a feeling of national pride and celebration.

The large temple flags with the jagged or toothed edges make a bold statement don’t they. These are Buddhist in origin but have been adopted more widely within the special blend of religion and ancestor worship practiced in Vietnam. The flags outside a large temple will each have a different colour for the central square. Blue is the colour of compassion, yellow is balance, red is for the blessings of Buddha’s teaching, orange is for wisdom and white represents purity and liberation. 

The size of the flag will denote the importance of the site, ancient temples display much larger flags than more modern or lesser temples and meeting houses. Sometimes you will see a small flag outside someone’s home – this usually indicates that there is a monk resident within. So, don’t display Buddhist flags at your house unless you want the neighbours to bring offerings to your door!

Triangular flags mark the route to the home of the deceased during the funeral week. Black and white is often used for these flags in Hanoi. In Hoi An and Da Nang I saw maroon and dark blue and ochre to mark these sad occasions.

Small striped and squared flags will lead the way to the temple door. The closer to the temple, the larger the flags become. Once inside the temple enclosure, the positioning of flags around main courtyard convey meanings about festivals or other temple events. Usually, a yellow flag representing the sun occupies a central position, Blue and green flags representing nature and sky will be in the eastern corners. A white flag for the moon and metal will be in the west and black or indigo in the north represent water.

For parades, the flags take on even more meanings. The red flag representing the Phoenix should take the lead. Behind that the dark turtle is flanked by the Blue dragon to the left and the white tiger to the right. These complex messages are easily read by locals, but I just marvel at the spectacle and now I know never to pass a massive temple flag without stopping to explore the ancient temple within.