Review of “It’s a Living: Work and Life in Vietnam Today” by Asad Latif for The Straits Times

Vietnam as a work in progress – New book shows how family anchors the self in ebb and flow of economy, The Straits Times, Saturday 21 September 2013.

THIS book of interviews reveals the raw hunger for a better life, the tremendous personal effort made to achieve it and the entrepreneurial daring that have marked Vietnam since the introduction of market-oriented reforms in the 1980s.

The almost 70 interviews were conducted over two years from 2010 as part of a class that Dr Gerard Sasges, an assistant professor in the department of South-east Asian studies at the National University of Singapore, taught while directing the University of California’s Education Abroad Programme in Vietnam.

The mostly student interviewers, both Vietnamese and Americans, have done a masterly job in capturing the economics of everyday life in post-socialist Vietnam.

The range of characters in this book is truly astonishing. The more recognisable faces of the economy are seen in a farmer, a butcher, a construction worker, an electronics factory worker, a railway crossing guard, a security guard, a bus fee collector, a nurse, a kindergarten teacher, a KFC employee, a hotel receptionist, a karaoke bar owner, a tourism company director and a wedding planner.

The Vietnamese work ethic is conveyed dramatically by a company executive: “I love my job. If I could change anything about it, it would have to be myself.”

But it is the portraits of the informal economy that are the most riveting in the gallery of Vietnamese labour.

That economy is represented by a scrap food collector, a motorcycle parker, an art forger, a bookie, a rat catcher, a knife sharpener, a shoe shiner, a grey hair plucker, an itinerant “scale lady” who makes a living by measuring the weight and height of people, and a man who exhumes bodies to clean the bones.

In spite of this diversity, the refrain running through many of the interviews is that the Vietnamese find their work hard but value it because it enables them to provide for their families, particularly the care of the elderly and education of children.

The quest for an education that will give children better job prospects than their parents have is an obsession that cuts across all occupational groups. Learning English is seen as the passport to that cherished future.

The other motif of the book is the way in which the premium placed on filial ties informs the world of work.

A maker of che, a sweet soupy dessert, in Binh Lieu town in Quang Ninh province remarks: “People here really live with a lot of feeling, you know? Just about everyone in the commune knows each other. And with selling che here, I especially get to know all the other ladies in the market; you get to be really close working side by side every day, we treat each other like we’re all part of one big family.”

The KFC employee in Hanoi fetes her managers for treating employees like brothers and sisters. The manager of a gay bar in Hanoi says: “Here, 10 out of 10 people know each other. It’s like family here.”

In spite of the prospects of being made redundant, the bone cleaner prefers cremation to burial because cemeteries encroach on scarce farmland. His hope is to “find ways that the world of the living and the world of the dead can continue to coexist peacefully in the future”.

Rather than treat the living and the dead as belonging to two spheres, he sees the latter as a generation making space for the next one.

Almost every page of this book bears testimony to how communication, companionship and laughter alleviate the captive drudgery of routine work in the competitive anonymity of the market. The family anchors the self amid the ebb and flow of the economy. Indeed, strong family ties mean that the threat of unemployment is not the existential terror that it is in more economically advanced but also fragmented societies.

The value of this book for a Singapore audience lies in the light that it shines on a receding era of history when the hunger for economic survival and success inaugurated Singapore’s transition from the Third World to the First. Today, many Singaporeans want a new balance to be  struck between the standard of living they enjoy and the quality of life they desire.

The balance reached eventually will reflect Singaporean realities. However, the Vietnamese experience suggests that a strong work ethic combined with sound cultural moorings can enable a people to thrive both economically and socially.

Everyone has to make a living. How one does it makes all the difference.

By Asad Latif for The Straits Times,

The writer, a former Straits Times journalist, is an associate fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. The book will be available in Kinokuniya by early next month at $28 before GST.

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SEAS Alumnus Goh Kok Wee featured in The Straits Times, LIFE!, Saturday 27 October 2012

On a charted journey – They have spent $25,000 on their old maps but Goh Kok Wee and Serene Ng are still buying more, The Straits Times LIFE!, Saturday 27 October 2012.

While other couples bond over a movie or meal, civil servant Goh Kok Wee and Ms Serene Ng pore over an old map.

In four years, the married couple have amassed almost 200 antique maps and prints of Singapore, South-east Asia and China. These date back as far as the 16th century and are all originals.

“Isn’t is amazing that in the 1500s and 1600s, without satellites, people were still able to map the world so accurately?” says Mr Ng, 41, who holds a doctorate in management and is currently in between jobs.

The collection is stored in archival sleeves and tubes as well as folders with mylar paper in between to prevent the plastic from sticking to the paper. It is kept in an air-conditioned room in the couple’s executive apartment in Jurong East to protect it from humidity.

Most of the maps and prints were made by old European colonial powers such as France, Britain and Portugal, in languages ranging from Latin to German. Their creators include renowned cartographers such as the Flemish Gerardus Mercator and the German Sebastian Munster.

The prints of drawings or sketches document everyday life in 19th-century China, before cameras were invented.

Among the more outstanding items are a five-fold panoramic print titled View Of The Towns and Roads of Singapore From The Government Hill, made by a Captain Robert Elliot of the Royal Navy in 1830. Government Hill is today known as Fort Canning.

There is also a map depicting Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, and British posessions in the Far East in the 1800s.

One item holds particular historical significance: a first-edition Singapore map from 1954, created to mark the island’s ascension to the status of city by King George VI.

The couple rarely take out the archived collection to view, although many of their favourites have been framed and hung on the walls.

Ms Ng says they have spent at least $25,000 on the entire collection. Each map usually costs them hundreds of dollars. The most expensive is a €1,600 (S$2,540) map of South-east Asia dating from 1641, made by Dutch cartographer G. Blaeu. Bought from a dealer in the Czech Republic, it bears colourful illustrations of knights and angels.

Mr Goh estimates that original early maps of Singapore by cartographic engineers from the East India Company can fetch US$800 (S$976) to US$1,200, depending on their condition. Some are as small as an A4-sized sheet of paper.

He says that maps with panoramic views of Singapore from the 19th century can be sold for up to US$3,000, depending on their condition. The 41-year-old adds: “Most people prefer to go on Google to see them but the feeling of holding a 200- to  300-year-old map in your hands is just different.”

Their collecting habit started in 2008 in Canberra. The couple were based in the Australian capital then because Mr Goh had been posted there. They stumbled on some old maps of the region in a vintage shop and realised that there were many affordable maps out there.

That was the spark for Mr Goh, who majored in South-east Asian Studies at university, while Ms Ng was struck at the stories that these old documents had to tell.

“To entice people to buy their maps, map-makers threw in funny monsters and creatures. Only in the 18th and 19th centuries did maps start to resemble the ones we know today,” says Ms Ng on how modern maps are unadorned with such aesthetic flourishes. “These were the things that intrigued us.”

Some pieces in their collection were acquired from overseas galleries on their travels. They are also in touch with dealers and tradesmen in Europe and the US, who alert them when interesting items come on the market.

Items they buy are then shipped to them with a certificate of authenticity.

The couple have two children aged 12 and eight. Mr Goh says: “We encourage them to look and ask questions. It’s very different from the Xbox but I think they are beginning to appreciate it.”

Asked what they will do with the collection in the long term, Ms Ng says they hope to leave it as a historical legacy to a local museum. Mr Goh adds: “I don’t think we will ever be done. We are continuously researching and looking for new editions.”

He adds with a laugh: “We are constantly trying to add to our collection. We save up to buy a piece of paper.”

By Nicholas Yong,

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The New York Times: Glitter That Epitomized an Ancient Culture

By Sylviane Gold, Friday 22 July 2011 for The New York Times.

Gold was so entwined with the ancient culture of Java, the chief island of the Indonesian archipelago, that even its dogs, it was said, wore golden collars.

John Miksic reports the rumors just to debunk them in his book “Old Javanese Gold,” which has been revised and expanded as a companion to the Yale University Art Gallery’s revelatory new exhibition of some 200 gold objects from pre-Islamic Indonesia. Part of a collection donated to the museum by Valerie and Hunter E. Thompson, the artifacts in “Old Javanese Gold: The Hunter Thompson Collection” do not, in fact, include a dog collar. But they are so striking in their diversity that it is easy enough to imagine pampered pets whose gilded accouterments would fit right in with the show’s ritual objects, ornaments and everyday items.

No doubt the array of exquisite miniature jewels misnamed “bird rings” contributes to this illusion. Intricate designs studded with tiny gems and mounted on pea-size rings, they do look as if they could adorn the claws of a well-to-do bird. More likely, the labels say, they were a kind of ear ornament, worn along with the more familiar-looking hoops and hooks incised with geometric patterns and scrollwork.

There are other kinds of jewelry here, too — wire bracelets, delicate chains, carved seal rings, embossed anklets and necklaces of pendants shaped like tiger claws, the better to render the wearer as strong and courageous as the beast. There are clasps and finials used for clothing, heavily inscribed and inlaid with stones. Javanese goldsmiths turned out dainty beading and filigree as well as boldly sculptural forms, catering to a multiplicity of tastes and conventions.

Dazzling as the jewelry items are, they seem almost ordinary when compared with the more mysterious objects connected to specifically Indonesian practices. The earliest of these, a burial mask and funerary face covers made of thin sheets of beaten gold, are powerful and moving in their abstract simplicity and evocation of death.

Less cosmic but equally suggestive, a beautiful little container with a carved lid resembling a flower was probably used for lime powder, one of the components necessary for the millenniums-old habit of betel chewing. An ornate sculpture of a leering, hook-nosed demon was once the handle of a kris, the often wavy-bladed dagger revered in Southeast Asia. A crystal-topped, beehive-shaped golden helmet was made to crown either some noble personage or a full-size statue of Buddha.

Smaller sculptures of Buddha and bodhisattvas attest to the religious fervor that also found expression in the vast 10th-century temple complex at Borobodur on Java.

Anyone who has been to Borobodur, or to the nearby Hindu temple at Prambanan, will not be surprised at the 14 centuries of artistry and workmanship on display in “Old Javanese Gold.”

But even knowledgeable visitors may be stopped in their tracks by the display case filled with tools similar to those used by the craftsmen and artists who made the objects on display. Somehow, with nothing more than humble little hammers and awls, these magicians transformed shiny lumps of metal into sophisticated works of art.

“Old Javanese Gold: The Hunter Thompson Collection,” Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel Street, New Haven, through Aug. 14. Information: or (203) 432-0600.

View the original article.

John Miksic is Associate Professor, Southeast Asian Studies Program, at the National University of Singapore. He is the author of the book  ‘Old Javanese Gold: The Hunter Thompson Collection at the Yale University Art Gallery’, 2nd revised edition, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Dr Irving Johnson featured in ‘Hot Profs in NUS’ – The Ridge, August 2007 Issue

Hot Profs in NUS, The Ridge, August 2007 Issue.

Dr. Johnson’s spontaneity and enthusiasm in everything he does could not have been more evident than in how he readily agreed to this interview. Known for spicing up his lectures by performing shadow puppetry, singing and then complaining about how Singapore has no spontaneity, this man strongly believes in discovering your angin. This interview was conducted by email because the Hot Professor was running off to look at paintings in Thailand.

How do you feel about being called a Hot Professor?
It’s great! Finally some credit. Thank you ExpressMen and GO. But then again, it depends on how you say it. 🙂

What is your angin?
Ah … my passions. I really like performing Thai shadow puppetry (NANG TALUNG). I don’t know why. My dream is to one day perform across southern Thailand – buy myself a pickup, and travel from village to village performing at temple festivals, funerals, etc. Can’t do without nang talung. I think if there ever came a day when I couldn’t do puppetry, I’d shrivel up into a dry mass of sadness and depression. I also really enjoy painting in the classical Thai style. I’m working on a painting right now for a wall in my living room. It’s been more than a year now and it’s still far from complete because I only work on it in my spare time.


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SEAS Alumnus Wang Zineng featured in NUS Centre for the Arts (CFA) Artzone Magazine Issue 2, Aug – Oct 2007

One Cool Guy – Wang Zineng has chosen a route less followed by his peers in opting for a life dedicated to the arts, Artzone Issue 2, August – October 2007.

While others are busy climbing their way up the career ladder in the private or public sector, Zineng chose a subtler route.

What differentiates him from the rest of the recent crop of graduants is his eye for detail and an infinite appreciation of the arts, especially visual arts.

For Zineng, the arts scene is not about the glitz and the glam. The passion for art in him overpowers the conventional path material success.

Zineng has recently completed his honours thesis on Malayan batik painting in the Southeast Asian Studies Programme, NUS. Presently an adjunct assistant curator at NUS Museum, he is in charge of four projects: one involves setting up the second installation of NUS Museum’s exhibition on their permanent collection known as Highlights: Modern Southeast Asian Art Collection, which will run until 2008. In this project, Zineng helped to finalise the selection of artworks, identify the overarching themes of these works, and decide where within the NUS Museum to place these artworks. He also contributed to the exhibition brochure.

Unlike the movie Night at the Museum where dinosaurs were seen chasing humans and working at the museum seems like an exciting adventure, Zineng’s job requires more than just surface action. Besides having to do thorough research in preparation for exhibitions, he constantly needs to preserve a healthy rapport with the  staff, artists and other professionals.

When asked about his future plans, he spoke of studying textilemaking in Indonesia in August and will continue to develop theoretical and context-based bodies of knowiedge in Southeast Asian art and culture.

His interests are not confined to modern art. Instead he gets pleasure from firsthand research and keeping abreast with developments in the study of the ethnographic arts.

“My plans are simple; they revolve around only one requisite – that I believe what I do bears relevance and interest to people around me. If I ever stop believing, that is the day I discontinue making plans.”

Zineng shared his heartwarming memories of an encounter which took place at the end of an afternoon touring Bodies and Relationships: Selected Works of Lee Sik Khoon before it opened.

“Lee Sik Khoon’s wife came up to me and thanked me for putting into words what she has always lett about her husband’s art but could never express. Quite naturally, I felt a great sense of pride at that point.”

By Hanizah Abdullah, Artzone Contributor

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Thai Princess performed with the NUS Thai Music Ensemble

Thai princess ends fruitful visit to S’pore, The Straits Times, Thursday 26 April 2007.

PRINCESS Maha Chakri Sirindhom of Thailand wrapped up a three-day visit to Singapore yesterday.

She made four stops on her last day here, which started at 9.30am and included a visit to the Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) in Buona Vista.

Touring the institute’s research facilities, the princess showed”, “good grasp and great interest” in genetic sciences, said GIS’ deputy director, Associate Professor Lawrence Stanton.

Her three-day visit began, with the launch of the International Convention for Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology.

The inaugural conference and exhibition, which ends today, showcases devices and technology designed to rehabilitate people with disabilities:

Known for her involvement in community and social development projects, the princess’
interest in health care stems from the influence of her grandparents, who were trained medical personnel.

In addition to her visits, she also made personal donations of $5,000 each to three centres for the disabled – the Rainbow Centre and Margaret Drive Special School, SIA-Minds Employment Development Centre, and the Tan Tock Seng Hospital Rehabilitation Centre.

On the diplomatic front” she met Singapore’s leaders, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong who hosted a lunch for her at the Istana.

The warm hospitality shown her left the princess “extremely pleased” with her visit, said the Thai Ambassador to Singapore, Mr Chalermpol Thanchitt.

It was not all work, though. She found time to attend a concert at the University Cultural Centre in Kent Ridge on Monday.

The Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO) performed two songs composed, by the princess.

She gamely agreed to join the orchestra on stage, playing a tune on the sor duang (a
two-string violin-like Thai instrument) with the National University of Singapore Thai Music Ensemble and SCO.

The rare royal performance received a standing ovation.

Said Mr Chalermpol: “It was a great show of friendship and unity.”

View the original article.