We are still here / Chúng tôi vẫn ở đây / Narito pa rin kami

Hương Ngô

In the 1970s, the conceptual artist On Kawara began sending telegrams to friends with the short message, “I AM STILL ALIVE.” I have thought about these telegrams often during COVID-19, especially during the early, more anxious days of lockdown when so little was known about the disease or the rate of mortality. I would occasionally “check in” on friends whom I knew posted on social media with regularity, particularly those whom I knew still had to venture out for work, were recovering from or lived with family who had the virus. As lockdown started to reveal cases of domestic abuse on the rise [1], covert check-ins took on another layer of complexity and decryption. Those experiencing domestic abuse were offered codes to communicate their situation: “Message me asking if I’m still selling my make up and I’ll know to keep checking in on you. Ask specifically about my eyeliner, tell me where you can ship it, and I’ll contact authorities.”

“Girl code” takes on extra gravity, amplifying the daunting psychological toll that some in our society were forced to take on in addition to the pandemic. In other words, we are not okay and this crisis has amplified and exacerbated the issues already present. What a luxury to be able to say, “I am still alive.” The pandemic also highlighted the strained conditions of incarcerated citizens and refugees detained in the US, whose means of contact with the outside world were already limited when the pandemic was beginning to ravage their densely packed spaces. With an infant of my own, it has been particularly heart-wrenching thinking of children separated from their families – 545 of which still cannot be located at the time of writing this. [2]

manquer, manquée / to miss, to be missed / nhớ thương, được nhớ đến / mamingaw

By March of 2020, when COVID-19 cases began to rise in major metropolitan regions in the US, my son was nine months old and had been attending daycare. As we went into lockdown in the US, my partner and I, like many parents across the world, juggled full-time parenting with our careers, passing baby back and forth between our respective Zoom classes and meetings. It was during this early phase of the lockdown that I was working most intensely on an exhibition Khuất Dạng / Lost from View at The Factory in Ho Chi Minh City, which I had begun to plan with curator Zöe Butt just a few days after my son’s birth. For this exhibition, I had intended to travel to Vietnam as soon as the summer began.

That the exhibition was titled Lost from View and I was not able to travel was sheer coincidence, as the exhibition focuses on research that unpacks the intersectional effects of women operating within a political resistance, based on colonial surveillance documents from France and Vietnam. While Lost from View implies the passive verb, the Vietnamese translation of the title poetically suggests the agency of the one who is disappearing. 

Hương Ngô, Khuất Dạng / Lost from View / Naglaho sa Paningin at The Factory in Ho Chi Minh City, 2020.

The body of work from which the exhibition draws began with primary source material from the French National Archives of Overseas Territories (Les archives nationales d’outre mer), mostly from the police records of Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai (born Nguyễn Thị Vịnh), one of the most well-known women involved in the resistance against French colonization in Vietnam. They included her police profiles, intercepted letters, correspondences between colonial officials in Indochina and Hong Kong about her whereabouts, and confessions from fellow organizers and paid informants. For some time between 1935-38, the documents suggest that she was “lost from view” from colonial authorities, hence the title.

Hương Ngô, Police Photograph of Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai and note from Postal Censor from 1941, regarding her father’s request for clemency in her death sentence (Detail) / Hình cảnh sát chụp Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai và chú thích của Cục Kiểm duyệt Thư tín năm 1941 về việc cha bà xin cho bà được hưởng khoan hồng khỏi án tử hình / Litrato ng pulis kay Nguyễn Thị Minh at kasulatan mula sa Postal Censor mula 1941 tungkol sa kahilingan ng kanyang ama na tawaran ang kanyang hatol na kamatayan (2015). Archive Nationales d’Outre-Mer / Kho lưu trữ Hải ngoại Quốc gia, Aix-en-Provence, France / Pháp.

Letters to and from Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai often openly refer to the surveillance of their correspondences and instruct the reader to write in a particular language, clarity, type of invisible ink, or send to a certain new address. In her book Dark Matters, Simone Browne defines “dark sousveillance” as “a way to situate the tactics employed to render one’s self out of sight, and strategies used in the flight to freedom from slavery as necessary ones of undersight… an imaginative place from which to mobilize a critique of racializing surveillance… [that] plots imaginaries that are oppositional and that are hopeful of another way of being.” [3]

Creative means of survival, escape, and mutual aid abound in the archives. While Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai was lost from view from the colonial police, it was one informant in particular (the husband of one of her friends) who was previously imprisoned and subsequently blackmailed or coerced to keep a close eye on her. Whether he truly could not find her or did not care to give the colonial officials the information they desired is left a mystery. 

Hương Ngô, Having Been Lost in Plain View / Sapagkat Naglaho sa Paningin (2017). Digital video, color, sound. 6:00 minutes / Video, màu sắc, âm thanh. 6 phút. Performers / Trình diễn / Tinanghal nina: Hai Yen Nguyen, Van Pham, Hai Duong Nguyen, Linh Ngo. Voiceover / Lồng tiếng: Nhung Walsh, Vu Tran.

I draw parallels to the operatives in the anticolonial movement and an urgency shared by Browne to bring some of their tactics of imagination and struggle to light. Up Against the State, the first piece that I made for this body of work, is a letter written from Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai in the most accessible invisible ink of the time, the starchy water that comes from boiling rice. Decoding the message is done with a careful spray of diluted iodine. Early on in the process of organizing the exhibition, the legal team of The Factory decided that the title would raise red flags with the Ministry of Culture in acquiring a permit for the exhibition. In order for the work to exhibit. I had to change the title. In the spirit of dark sousveillance, I shortened it to Up Against the… , pointing to the censorship occurring, ironically, by absenting the “State” itself.

Hương Ngô, Up Against the State / Aklas Laban sa Estado (2017). Invisible ink on sulphite pulp paper (21 x 31 in.) mounted directly on wall, framed bottle of iodine (5 x 7 x 3 in) / Mực tàng hình trên giấy bột sulfit (21 x 31 in.) gắn trực tiếp lên tường, bên cạnh là lọ i-ốt đóng trong khung (5 x 7 x 3 in).

In the letter, which has been written in invisible ink and loosely pinned to the wall, I am tracing the handwriting, the movement, performance, mark making of the original writer. Each time I trace the same letter or word, I become more and more familiar with the writer’s handwriting, as you would become familiar with a word in another language. Though the meaning is invisible in the final letter, they somehow carry the urgency and history of the writer. 

In this letter and similar ones that were handwritten by anticolonial revolutionary Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai to and from fellow women in the resistance, they are speaking of their lived realities of sex, pregnancy, and generally of being a woman within a male dominated revolution. It is her handwriting which eventually incriminated Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai, so to embody that handwriting is to be so intimately connected with her, our protagonist as well as the colonial authorities who executed her. 

In this letter in particular, she writes about her frustration that her cohort cannot deliver Ho Chi Minh to an important meeting, leaving her in a difficult position as the group’s leader. Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai admonishes her collaborators for questioning her leadership, speculating on whether it is because she is a woman or of the educated, “bourgeois” class.  The exhibition was up from July to September, with the small bottle of iodine on a shelf next to the paper. In two separate incidents, visitors were driven by curiosity and attempted to decrypt the letter with the iodine. 

As Faye Gleisser has pointed out in her essay, “The Archives Within the Archive,” the piece confronts the politics of bureaucratic language, particularly the use of the word sensitive. “The word is a part of a long history of surveillance, but also carries gendered ideas of emotions and empathy. “Sensitive” materials are those concerning highly classified information, while “sensitive” people are quick to react to change or affect and are traditionally labeled as feminine. In both cases, objects or people labeled as sensitive are taken out of circulation; they must be protected and contained. [4]

kiểm duyệt / to censor / ipagbawal – kiểm soát / to control / kontrolin

The effects of racialized surveillance under patriarchy claimed lives even for women who were part of a movement that promoted equality in theory. In a work that was censored by the Ministry of Culture (had to be removed for any public events), I worked with Hanoi-based artist Nguyễn Phương Linh to embroider a uterus encircled by text from the police report about A. Woong, a young woman of Chinese origin who was an active member of the resistance and died from complications of a sexual assault by a fellow party member. Suspicion of women traveling and living alone was a deterrent for many women in the anticolonial movement, leading to partnerships and marriages initiated as a means of cover. These relationships had real consequences such as children, cases of sexual assault, and were often a way to sow discord by infiltrators. 

Hương Ngô, Her Name Escapes Me / Tên cô ấy đã thoát khỏi tôi / Di Ko Maalala ang Kanyang Pangalan (2017). Hand-Embroidered Pillow / Gối thêu tay / Unan na binurdang-kamay (In collaboration with / Cộng tác với / kasama si Phương Linh Nguyễn), mirror, custom armature / gương, bục thiết kế riêng (18 x 18 x 46 in).

The form of the pillow was inspired by the many pillows that I saw in the Women’s museums in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Often embroidered in prison, the pillows act as poignant stand-ins for the women themselves, who were not sure if they would be able to return to their loved ones. As a woman who has struggled with the health of my own reproductive system in the past, a pillow is an object of comfort, held against the abdomen or placed under the back to ease uterine pain. The scientific diagram of the uterus, however, also evokes the visual language of science. 

Display at the Southern Women’s Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, photographed by Hương Ngô in 2016. / Trưng bày ở Bảo tàng Phụ nữ Nam Bộ (TP. Hồ Chí Minh), Hương Ngô chụp vào năm 2016.

We are confronted by a range of means of visualization, surveillance and control of A. Woong: the police record of the sexual assault and her death as a civic criminal who was part of the communist party and anticolonial movement, the medical examination of her wounds by doctors after the incident, societal surveillance of her as a woman introducing expectations of her to marry and bear children at an early age, and then finally within the resistance, a level of ownership and agency over her body that was enacted by her male comrades. This piece was censored, not because of its mention of sexual assault, but on the basis that the Ministry of Culture thought it inappropriate to have China and the communist party mentioned near the depiction of a women’s reproductive system. 

fugere / to flee / trốn chạy / tumakas – voler / to fly / bay / lumipad, to steal / đánh cắp / magnakaw

When my family arrived in the United States as refugees, we were given two hotel rooms to stay in for the night. The whole family, mẹ bố bốn chị anh con, all eight of us hunkered down in one room together. How we must have felt that night, after moving from refugee camp to refugee camp for almost two years. In the last one, we had settled for long enough that many families had already come and gone, leaving us all of their good stuff – nice pots and pans, a couple of radios, even a 35mm camera that journeyed with us to the US and documented my entire childhood.

Hương Ngô, And the State of Emergency is Also Always A State of Emergence / Và tình trạng khẩn cấp thì luôn là tình trạng hiện lộ (2017). Installation with black poster paper, black gaffer’s tape, cyanotypes, sand, plaster, studio refuse, framed archival pigment prints. / Sắp đặt với giấy bìa đen, băng keo đen, bản in mực xanh, cát, vữa, phế thải trong studio, tranh in màu bằng mực lưu trữ chuyên dụng.

When I returned to Vietnam thirty-five years later for my Fulbright, my husband and I left from Chicago on New Year’s Eve. We were flying coach, but he convinced the flight attendant to smuggle us a mini bottle of Prosecco from first class to toast. But something strange happens when you fly across the international date line at midnight. It suddenly becomes noon and New Year’s somehow just escapes. 

We settled into Sàn Art, which had offered us the perfect housing: a simple room with air conditioner and most importantly, a built-in community of the other artists-in-residence. Soon after my arrival, I ran a workshop where I shared my research on Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai, the most well-known woman in the resistance against French colonization, which then amounted to about 500 documents translated from French from the National Archives of Overseas Territories (Les archives nationales d’outre mer). They included her police records, intercepted letters, correspondences between colonial officials in Indochina and Hong Kong about her whereabouts. 

After my presentation, the artist Nguyễn Quốc Dũng respectfully noted, “you have 500 pages of documents, but you have not found her at all.” 

to lose / mất / mawalan – to be lost / bị lạc / mawala

I mulled on this every morning, as we walked into district one on the way to the University where I was hosted. We literally walked on Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai street, which like many streets, was named after a revolutionary hero. In fact, most large cities in Vietnam have a street or a school or both named after her. While ever present on maps and schools, the conspicuous absence of Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai in the archive is an ellipse, waiting to be encountered again and again, not as a source of knowledge retrieval, as Lisa Lowe would say, “but as a site of knowledge production” where my goal is not to fill a gap, but to understand “the politics of our lack of knowledge.” [5]

Ho Chi Minh City, Screenshot of Google Maps by Hương Ngô in 2017. / TP. Hồ Chí Minh, Hình chụp từ Google Maps, Hương Ngô chụp vào năm 2017.

I looked for her in museums and found displays like the one here from the Women’s Museum in Hanoi, where a large piece of wood and a ring stand in for her body. The piece of wood is described as “Mâm gỗ của chị Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai dùng để in tài liệu truyền đơn cùng đồng chí Võ Văn Tần tại gia đình bà Lê Thị Mừng / A wooden tray used by Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai to print posters with comrade Võ Văn Tần in the house of Lê Thị Mừng.” As an artist with a history of printmaking, I was intrigued, but had no idea what kind of printmaking this piece of wood would be associated. 

Mâm gỗ của chị Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai dùng để in tài liệu truyền đơn cùng đồng chí Võ Văn Tần tại gia đình bà Lê Thị Mừng, Women’s Museum, Hanoi. Sent to Hương Ngô in 2016.

Eventually, I pieced together the process through finding reproductions of the final prints in the Vietnamese National Archives II (Trung tâm Lưu trữ quốc gia II). Hectography, the type of printmaking used by Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai and others in the resistance to print and distribute political leaflets, begins by slowly boiling agar until it melts into the water and forms a nice smooth mix that can be poured into a mold to cool and solidify into a solid, gelatinous form. An alinine ink, one of the earliest synthetic inks to be invented and used widely, is applied directly to the gelatin plate and immediately begins to soak into the agar. Paper applied to the surface will draw the ink back out through capillary action. When the ink sits on the plate for long, it sinks into the plate and will come back only as a blurred version of its past self or simply get absorbed and distributed into the gelatin for good. 

Agar, or agar-agar, is derived from a wild seaweed and is most well known for its use in desserts as a jelly or stiffener. It is via the Dutch colonial roots of Indonesia and many kitchens along the way that it eventually found its use for petri dishes and eventually gel electrophoresis for DNA sequencing. The journey of this humble ingredient to its uses for industry and science, and in this case, its role in a political movement, revolves around its presence in domestic spaces, an intimacy which is doubled through origins in colonial entanglement. Using the material to print today is still a kitchen affair.

Hương Ngô, We Are Here Because You Were There / Chúng tôi ở đây vì quý vị ở đó / Narito Kami Dahil Naroon Kayo (2017). Installation of hectograph prints and hand-cut paper with custom typeface, theater lights. / Sắp đặt các bản in keo và giấy cắt tay với phông chữ tự thiết kế, chiếu sáng bằng đèn sân khấu.

Through this process of hectography, I created a series of prints mobilizing and varying the phrase, “We are here because you were there” in English, Vietnamese and French. The original phrase was written by the Sri Lankan writer Ambalavaner Sivanandan, who came to understand race in the context of postcolonial UK. The use of the phrase by immigrant protesters from countries that the UK had colonized brings home the power of language by so succinctly encapsulating the stories of colonial violence across time and space and its resulting waves of migration. Simultaneously, the phrase can also be interpreted as an homage to those who came before us and fought for the rights that we enjoy. Language as mélange is a common result of such migrant histories, so the use of three languages gestures towards imagined speakers, audience, but also the creative use of language by immigrants.

Crated and climate controlled, the artwork for this exhibition traveled to Ho Chi Minh City across borders, across oceans rather effortlessly, worrying neither about passports nor viruses. Most works that might raise suspicions in customs (which I would have hand-carried were I able to travel to Vietnam) were preemptively removed and reproduced there using local materials and technologies. Many works had been eliminated from the beginning of our planning, as we were concerned that we could not obtain an exhibition license with them. Censorship in Vietnam operates on these many levels, leading those affected to factor in every possible scenario of past censorship into present and future decisions. As many censorship decisions in the past have been at the whim of the Ministers of Culture and local culture police, the resulting logic reflects a rather Foucaultian model of discipline, a self-censorship that can reach a scope that is far greater and more effective than anything that the state can do, regardless of its power through eyes on the ground. 

Disguised as “Decoration Gifts” on the waybill, I was instructed not to write “Art” or “The Factory” or even my name anywhere on the packaging of the work I was shipping. This strategy of disguising artwork as merchandise has its roots back in Đổi Mới, the period of shifting Vietnam towards a market economy. Inventive artists used this blindspot to evade government oversight by spinning their exhibitions as stores or entrepreneurial ventures. In my case, the legal team at The Factory and customs agents in Vietnam were worried that We are here because you were there in particular might evoke a critical perspective of Việt Kiều history. Ironically, this work is perhaps one of the most celebratory of Vietnam’s efforts towards decolonization and independence. The uncertainty of customs’ interpretation points to a contradiction that I often saw in Vietnam – the mythologizing and celebration of the collective efforts towards its independence from France and its simultaneous suspicion and control of present day political movements, particularly those critical of the state and its own colonization of ethnic minority lands within the country’s borders. Efforts to become visible can indeed erase the visibility of others.

We are here – We are still here / Narito kami – Narito pa rin kami / Chúng tôi vẫn ở đây
We want to be heard and seen. / Chúng tôi muốn được lắng nghe và nhìn nhận. / Pakinggan kami at tingnan. 

When speaking of revolution, we often forget to mention the many moments of waiting and merely surviving. Experiencing the mundane means that you have survived another day – there is nothing to report because you have evaded surveillance. One can see how the droning banality of colonial administration succeeds in hiding colonial violence. On the side of the resistance, the mundane summaries of life might be carefully coded messages or simply “I AM STILL ALIVE,” sent out to whomever will bear witness. I play back scenes from my own childhood examining them for clues of what was happening between my parents – the struggle of leaving their home country and raising six children as refugees regularly strained on their relationship. I rewind to moments when my mother might have been speaking to me in code and I was too absorbed in being a teenager to listen to the undertones of our conversation. 

In her essay war in Translation, Syrian refugee, writer, and translator Lina Mounzer writes that language is the best form of resistance in a world scarred by borders: “The only way to make borders meaningless is to keep insisting on crossing them: like a refugee, without papers, without waiting to be given permission, without regard for what might be waiting on the other side. For when you cross a border, you are not only affirming its permeability, but also changing the landscape on both sides. You cross carrying what you can carry, you cross bearing your witness, you cross knowing that you are damageable, that you are mortal and finite, but that language is memory and memory lives on.” [6]

At some point, my siblings realized that our accent when speaking Vietnamese is different from others, even those from the area where my mother spent the first half of her life. We are lazy with certain letters, sometimes use an ‘l’ sound for ‘n,’ so a word like nuốc mắm sounds like luốc mắm. Contemporary Vietnamese speakers would call our accent nhà quê, or “country,” even though my mother grew up in Hanoi. Like illicit documents, or currency now outdated, we smuggled our accent with us when we fled. Our own time capsule, our voices conjure a Vietnam of my mother’s youth. 

If censorship is a border that inhibits the easy travel of words or images, then accented speech is a potential form of subterfuge not unlike nói lái or verlan. A light sensitive hectograph, while it can fade to the shade of the paper, cannot be undone as the paper retains the impression of the water like a blind embossing. Invisible letters stubbornly sit on the edge of visibility, claiming curiosity as a right like the inevitable crest of a wave. Absence by way of gaps and ellipses are a presence that sings, “we are here – we are still here – we are still alive” for those who are listening. 

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