It was my 30th and Ruth’s Hanoi leaving party and somehow she & I thought it was a good idea if theme of our joint party was ‘Structural Realism’.
The vague idea that I had was that structural realism was an art genre. Vietnamese currency – the Dong – throughout the 1990s had pictures of things like tractors, workers; a port, dockside, ships; offshore oil rigs; there were women in a textile factory & the Hoa Binh hydroelectric dam.
In fact the correct name socialist realism. The primarily Soviet socialist thinkers said that the only valid subject for art was industry and the State and the achievements thereof. Images of youths, soldiers, students, factories & large scale infrastructure are ok, images of landscapes, fruit, beauties or animals are out, and of course any sort of abstract work completely unacceptable and time wasting.
Not only the art, but also the architecture favoured the Soviet style. The Hanoi train station, and the Viet Nam Soviet Cultural Friendship Palace (Viet Xo for short) have a certain Brutalist Stalinist Socialist Classicist look about them . Even Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum was built along severe grey concrete lines. Most of these were built to replace others that were damaged during the American War in the time of Soviet influence. The Hoa Binh Dam that featured on the 5000 Dong note is extremely imposing. It seems as if the main thought behind the design is to appear powerful and of course functional.
The style exists in other cities that came under the Soviet influence in the 70’s and 80’s. Take a look at Frederic Chaubin’s ‘Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed’ (2011) if you don’t believe me, featuring buildings from Tashkent (Uzbekistan), Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) and others.
Despite our fairly hazy philosophical grasp, the party theme was a good intention. We were living in Hanoi at a time of notable transition. Outside of Vietnam in 1995, Gangsta’s Paradise was the biggest song of the year, and Oasis were starting to creep up the UK charts. The biggest movies were Clueless, Braveheart and Toy Story. In Vietnam, we did have MTV on the cable STAR network from Hong Kong, but the only live music was a Boney M tour and cultural propagandists organised by the Embassies such as Patricia Kaas, or an aboriginal rock band from Australia (both great acts). John Denver was the first US act to tour as the embargo was lifting (!).
We were still seeing hand painted murals exhorting people to work harder, and hours of marching on the Army channel on Vietnamese TV. In the newspapers there was more exhorting and more army and industrial propaganda in both the Vietnamese and English language press. All media was totally controlled by government and heavily censored. For a long time, the Army Guest House was the best option for the Australian Embassy to house its guests.
Some of the Western movie hits were shown in cinemas, but these were more likely to be again film festivals showcasing a nation’s best films. Fairly comedically they were dubbed into Vietnamese by one person standing at the front of the cinema who did all the voices.
So this is why I went to my 30th birthday party dressed as a railway line, the costume just a little something that I had crocheted myself, out of strips of rubber. Obviously it sounds a lot more impressive than it was in reality.
Admittedly it was a difficult theme, but it was embraced. Honours go to Ms Canada and Ms California who came jointly as a power station; Austrians Andrea and Nico who came as a satellite dish plus repair man; UK Giles as a worker on Highway #1 (incidentally one of the worst jobs I have ever seen in my life, where women pour tar by hand); and Kiwi Jonathan who in rather abstract form was dressed as the North-South reunification power line. And of course Charles who came draped in paper clips, and with an explanation along the lines of ‘we should all be humble and useful like a paper clip’. Ruth insists that she was dressed as the Hoa Binh Dam, because she was suffering from water retention.
Oh and today is my 50th birthday – a suitable time to remember my 30th.
Do you have any party themes that succeeded more than others? Or have you seen these Soviet style buildings in other cities? Or were you at the party !?
Thanks to Ruth & Phoebe for images