Monday, September 29, 2014

Thu Bon River Part 1

Have you ever heard of Hoi An in Vietnam (Annan) in relation to the "Red Seal Boats" licensed by the Tokugawa Shogunate in the early 1600s? Probably not. Hoi An was the least known destination as compared to Luzon (Manila), Melacca, Macao, Ayuttaya (Thailand), Pattahi (Indonesia), etc. I heard the name from my Canadian friend who visited Vietnam in the late 1990s. He had lived in Kyushu before and likened Hoi An as the Nagasaki of Vietnam.

Look up the map of Thu Bon River Estuary. Today, the river mouth is clogged with sediment now, but 400 years ago, large boats could easily sail and be towed upstream and dock for unloading and loading along the river town Fafo (Hoi An), trading port for the Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese and Dutch. Most astounding is we can see a well-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port circa 15th to 19th Century with buildings that display a unique blend of local and foreign influences that survived the disastrous Vietnam War.

An introductory book on Hoi An I purchased there was surprisingly published by Showa Women's University in Tokyo. I lived close to that university during my Tokyo days. The book said that Showa Women University compiled the catalog in English and Japanese to commemorate the opening of the World Heritage Hoi An Exhibition in 2000 as well as the 80th Anniversary of the University. Proceeds from the sale of the book were donated to the Hoi An People's Committee & Association of Hoi An Cultural/Agricultural Heritage. What a coincidence and beautiful story between Vietnam and Japan!

This book shows remnants of both Japanese and Chinese quarters, although no physical sign of any ‘Japanese-ness’ remain today, except the tombstone epitaphs and the bridge named "Japanese", which is a unique covered structure, the only known covered bridge with a Buddhist temple annexed to one side. It is associated with a legend that a Japanese sword is buried in the bridge foundation to appease the monster dragon that caused so many ocean shipwrecks. The book also shows picture scroll illustrations in color of tow boats inside the estuary and local administration headquarters. These scrolls are now in the possession of a Japanese temple in Nagoya.

There were an estimated 1,000 Japanese in Hoi An at its peak. The boats departed Japan when wind from the north sent them down south, and returned to Japan when the monsoon sent them up north in the summer - a one way voyage taking about a month. Reportedly the Japanese merchants placed emphasis on time constrained procurements. As soon as the boats left, they placed orders to have goods ready in time for the next boat, and this meticulous business practice often forestalled and antagonized the competition. The voyages proved very profitable, but with risks to lives. So when the Tokugawa enforced a nationwide embargo, it favored the competition, the Dutch in particular, and hastened the decline of the Japanese town.

I strolled Tran Phu Street right after my arrival and ate lunch at the colonial looking Hoi An Hotel, introduced by my Canadian friend. The hotel is a little distance away from Thur Bon and on a narrow street (probably a one-way street) but very conveniently located. Almost all of the "must-see" locations are within walking distance. I first I looked for a post office to buy postage stamps, then bought a coupon to allow five visits to any heritage building, including temples and museums.

Almost 200-year old houses all feature narrow facades and shop fronts and went deep inwards. You can walk through to the open, breezy inner courtyard, which was well decorated, where you face the living quarters of the merchants. They were all renovated with encouragement from the Town Committee mentioned above. The houses are numbered for easy identification.

This post is dedicated to the hotel manager Phuoc and restaurant staff Hue and Trang who made my stay pleasant in Hoi An. Thank you for the special local banana pancake / crepe recipe. It was delicious.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Vietnam War Remembered

Rest well, my child of the yellow race
I'll rock you gently
and heal your gun wounds
You went to war at the age of 20 years
Never returning home
Sleep, my child, sharing my yellow skin
I'll lull you and coax you
I'll do it twice
This body
which used to be so small
that I carried in my womb
that I held in my arms
Why do you rest at the age of 20 years?

"Lullaby" (Ngu Di Con) by Vietnamese Lyricist and Composer Trinh Cong Son (1939 - 2001), about a mother grieving her son who has gone off to war, became a hit in Japan in 1972. When he died at the age 62, he was dubbed the Bob Dylan of Vietnam by American singer Joan Baez. He gained fame in the 1960s for his love ballads and anti-war anthems, and has just been posthumously awarded a 2004 World Peace Music Award (WPMA), alongside other well-known names such as Harry Belafonte, Country Joe McDonald, Peter, Paul & Mary and well, Baez and Dylan.

Da Nang in Central Vietnam was my next stop after visiting Hochimin. The distance between Hochimin and Da Nang is about 1000 km. I found Da Nang Airport as unboundedly open and shining, contrary to my preconceptions from the stained image of the Vietnam War. Yes, a modern city with good roads and bridges. I was met by a taxi driver sent from my Hoi An hotel at the airport exit and sped south after clearing city traffic along the beach with luxury hotels and condos and golf courses. The scene looked familiar. This is Southern California!

I've read that the US Marine Corps Battalion Landing Team, wearing full battle gear and carrying M-14s, met Vietnamese girls with leis, South Vietnamese officers, sightseers, carrying a large sign "Welcome, Gallant Marines", and General Westmoreland was appalled. I was similarly baffled with the "Southern Cal scene” in Da Nang, Vietnam.

I am glad that I dropped Hue, the old capital, from my itinerary. Heading north, you have to dash up Hai Van Pass and necessarily touch upon the 1968 Tet Offensive related Hue massacre. Hue is where Trinh Cong Son, the "Lullaby" composer, lived.

Reachable from Hue are many historical US versus NVA battlefields (Khe Sanh, Con Tien, etc) on the 17th Parallel DMZ where the US had tried to block NVA infiltration into the South through Ho Chimi Min Trails, as well as the Vin Moc Tunnel Complex, which was dug deeper than the US bombs could penetrate. More than 400 villagers survived the war and more than 40 new babies were born underground. However, they could have been victims of Agent Orange, the defoliants.

I was stationed, as a Japanese businessman, in the U.S. during the Vietnam War and saw nationwide upheaval, anti-draft hippies and anti-war student marches.

I remember David Halberstam, in Saigon, as a New York Times correspondent. He was among a small group of American reporters who began to question the official optimism about the growing war in Vietnam. The Communist government in the north enjoyed wide spread support in rural Vietnam. The US-backed Saigon Government was quite unpopular. Halberstam saw Vietnam as a moralistic tragedy, with America's pride bringing about the government’s downfall. Although he won a 1964 Pulitzer Prize for reporting, he was transferred to another bureau.

I safely chauffeured David Halberstam to Kearny Mesa when he flew into San Diego Airport. He visited my former employer's plant to interview the company’s founder Kazuo Inamori, who happened to be visiting San Diego at the time. Halberstam was preparing for his 12th book "The Next Century" and found Inamori's nickname Mr. AM quite intriguing.

Halberstam taught that the moment humans lose their modesty, it inevitably leads to hubris and arrogance resulting in the demise of everything. Kazuo Inamori, who later read "The Next Century", warned his employees to "avoid paved ashphalt roads” and not “be afraid to take dirt roads."

I wrote that I drove Halberstam "safely." In 2007, David Halberstam was killed in an unfortunate traffic accident in Menlo Park in a car driven by a Berkeley student.

Jack Langguth (unusual surname so I remember it well) succeeded David Halberstam at the Saigon NY Times Bureau. Jack was sympathetic to David. When I did a search on him, I was surprised to see his obituary a few days ago. It was Sept l, the day I came home from my Vietnam trip. He was 81. We are of the same generation. After retiring from the New York Times, Jack taught journalism at USC in Los Angeles. He not only wrote books about Vietnam, but history and children books as well.

I wish to dedicate this blog entry to all those who perished during the Vietnam War and to David Halberstam, Jack Langguth, and Vietnam pacifist composer Trinh Cong Son.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Brand New "Tung Son Thach" Japanese Garden in Hochimin, Vietnam

"She was crammed in by a boatload of human bodies, thinking of her father and becoming overwhelmed, slowly, with loneliness. As much loneliness as fear. Concentrate, she told herself. And she did ― forcing herself to concentrate, if not ― if she was unable to ― on the thought of her family, then on the contact of flesh pressed against her on every side, the human warmth, feeling every square inch of skin against her body and through it the shared consciousness of ― what? Death? Fear? Surrender? She stayed in that human cocoon, heaving and rolling, concentrating, until it was over."

- from Nam Le's The Boat (2008), which won the Dylan Thomas Prize

Nam Le, as a baby, was smuggled by his parents from war-torn Vietnam on a tiny boat, which landed in Malaysia and then found refuge in Australia. After graduating from the University of Melbourne, Le worked as a corporate lawyer and also started writing stories and sent them to the U.S. In 2004 Le attended Iowa Writers Workshop which taught him to concentrate on creative writing. His first book, The Boat, has 7 short stories, including my favorite "Hiroshima", dealing with a girl orphan named "Little Turnip." Today, Nam Le is a rising star.

So was Ngo Chanh, Chairman of Shoei Trading Company, the Vietnamese protagonist. His boat headed north for Japan, instead of Malaysia. Chanh, was probably in his late teens then, as he was born reportedly in the zodiac year of the wild boar. He landed in Tokyo and the Tokyo Association of Refugees transferred him to Matsuyama City, Ehimeken, my birthplace, where he got local support and shelter. There he first engaged in shipping secondhand fishing boat engines to Vietnam on a small scale and gradually expanded his business to bigger machines and vessels. As he succeeded, he returned to Hochimin, Vietnam in glory to manage plastic treatment factories in Hochimin, Vietnam. It took him more than 30 years of perseverance and hard work.

What amazed me was the construction of the Japanese Garden "con vien Rin Rin Park" near his plastic plant of about 5 acres (7000 tsubos), which opened early in 2014, 20 km northwest of Hochimin, an area called Hoc Mon District. I have a Japanese friend living in Hochimin who is a Japanese language teacher. She brought me news of the garden since she knew I was involved in the San Diego Japanese Garden. She had been in San Diego before Hochimin. She made an arrangement for me to interview Ngo Chanh on my recent Hochimin visit.

Accompanied by his son Ngo Kim Thuan, sharp-looking and debonair Ngo Chanh appeared before me at about the time Dinh Vuong (student of my friend who guided me to the park) and I finished the tour of his garden. Both father and son are fluent in Japanese.

Ngo wrote down his Matsuyama address in his impeccable Japanese Kanji. Doidacho was his address. We talked about common topics of Matsuyama. Doidacho is southwest of Matsuyama Castle, not so far from Matsuyama Shieiki, once the home of the Iyotetsu "Botchan" trains. Doidacho is the 2nd station on the Iyotetsu Gunchu Line from the Matuyama Shieki. There are sporting facilities for Matsuyama citizens such as a swimming pool, martial arts stadium, cycling track, etc. where the famous Ishite River joins Shigenobu River in southern Doidacho. His son, who graduated from the nearby sports loving Yushin Junior High, must be very familiar with those facilities.

Ngo Chanh was motivated to build the Rin Rin Japanese Park to show gratitude to Japan as well as to introduce the true Japanese culture to fellow Vietnamese. He therefore paid enormous freight, transporting 4000 tons of Japanese stones, including "Iyo" blue stones, "Uwajima" sperm-whale stones, Mikame-cho stone walls, Oshima-made stone Pagoda, drum stone bridge, stepping stones, stone lanterns, sculptured stones; 50 thick needle podocarp trees ( Podocarpus macrophyllus) and 20 pyramidal junipers (Kaizuka-ibuki) and Imabari gravel, per Yasuhito Kido, President of Ehime Kenjinkai in Hochimin.

In addition, he airfreighted 200 varicolored golden carp from Konishi Farm in Hiroshima. He hired Kiyohiro Takahashi, a professional gardener born also in Iyo-shi, Ehime, a year after ground breaking. The park, called "Tungson Thack Pak" (meaning Matsuyama Stone Park) in Vietnamese, officially opened in March with 1000 well-wishers in attendance. Ehime Governor Nakamura visited the park before the official opening and thanked Ngo for his fantastic conception and power of execution.

Looking at a map online, I expected to easily find the park, but in reality it is hard to locate. I circled around the crowded housing area for a quarter of an hour searching for it. The park is further west of Tan Son nhat Airport. I saw the Vietnamese ad pamphlet upon my visit. The "Cong vien da nhat ban" appearing on the pamphlet stands for the Japanese style stone garden. Its notoriety gradually spread by word of mouth. I was quite obsessed with pictures and knew what to expect, but standing in front of the central stone themed landscape, "spirit of stone" and "spirit of tree", I felt quite at home, serene and exhilarated and wanted to congratulate Ngo for his dream-come-true project.

He is planning to open up the park for Japan-Vietnam Friendship, Trade and Exhibition activities, attracting Japanese visitors and I'm sure it will be further developed for fun, leisure and entertainment.


Finishing this Rin Rin Park blog, I found that the pine trees were symbolic trees of the Ngyuen Dynasty, the last ruling family of Vietnam, whose capital was in Hue, near Da Nang, Central Vietnam, from 1802 to1945. The French invaded in 1858. Ngyuen Dynasty lasted until 1945, although it was under French protection and influence. I read that many of the Ngyuen Dynasty pagodas and royal tombs have rows of pine trees. "Matsuyama" (Mountain of Pine Trees) also means special fate and the park symbolizes Ngo Chanh’s second hometown.

Visit the park's facebook page.