AN HONOR FOR THE SADDEST OF ALL REASONS

68911795_10156822778043369_5347273191628734464_nThis week,  I was presented with an honorary medal for my assistance to the Agent Orange victims of Vietnam, issued by chairman Nguyen Van Rinh from VAVA – Vietnam’s National Organisation for support to the Agent Orange victims.
To be honest, I wish most of all that there would be no reason to issue medals because of assistance to coping with such unbearable and widespread misery, which still burden the Vietnamese so many years after the war ended.

Thousands of people in 3 generations are affected all over the country. In addition, please also note the other thousands of victims among the US, Australian, Canadian and Korean soldiers, who were exposed as well.

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From a visit to a family of 3-generation victims in Thai Binh.


The Agent Orange tragedy was the reason, why I first came to Vietnam in 1984, and I stayed with this cause ever since along with many, many other people, who are trying to help. In case you want to know more, here is a re-run of an essay about it all.

Sometimes you can meeting a beacon of light in all the misery.  Please meet my courageous and amazing friend Le Minh Chau by clicking here.

 

”IF YOU CAN TIE YOUR SHOES, YOU CAN ALSO MAKE A CARPET”

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The story of my beautiful Lao carpet – part 4. 

I have returned to Magic Lao Carpet on another hot Lao summer morning. The workshop is pleasantly cool with just a few big ventilation fans humming among the looms.

I am here for an important milestone.  For three months, I have been following the process right from the feeding of the silk worms. The yarn has been de-glued and dyed, and the spinning is well under way.  The first batches of thread are ready, and the remaining yarn will be spun, as the carpet knotting proceeds.

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The spinning of yarn continues as the carpet itself is manufactured.

The loom has been prepared with the basic white strings, and now the final knotting has begun. I joke with Magic Lao Carpet co-owner, Ismit that I know all their secrets now, and will make my own carpets in the future.

“It is very time consuming to produce the carpets, but it is not difficult. If you can tie your own shoes, you can also make a carpet,” Ismit says with a grin.

He has carried the craft with him from his native Turkmenistan. His home country boasts a 4.000 year long tradition in handmade carpets.

Magic Lao Carpet has become an employment opportunity for young people with various disabilities, which prevents them from finding jobs in the ordinary labor market.  It takes 3-6 months of training, before they can do the job according to the quality standards. Then it takes another 2-3 years to become a master weaver.

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EnKai, Kuan and Xud are working on my carpet.  Their daily effort amounts to 1.5 cm of carpet.

Three young Lao women – Kai, Kuan and Xud, are working together knot by knot with amazing speed. The density of my carpet is very high: 400.000 knots per m2.   Now and again, the women hammer the knots to make sure that the knots are secure and tight.  The three women are progressing with 1.5 cm per day.  

They are working with six strings in three different colors. The base color is Burgundy derived from the roots of the madder plant. The two other yellow colors – Honey and Gold – are both coming from the Dok Chan flower.  The Honey variation is created by increasing the percentage of dye and the PH value during the dyeing process.

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The dazzling yellow colors Golden and Honey are derived from the Dok Chan flower. 

While the three young women are keeping their fingers busy, Ismit’s wife and carpet partner, Lani calculate the details for me: The Burgundy constitutes 62%, the Golden 30% and the Honey 8%.

I run my fingers on the finished part of my carpet. The feeling is amazingly soft like the belly of a kitten.

My carpet will be 114×200 cm, and total production time is estimated at 133 days. I can’t wait for the final day!

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At the same time, other carpets are progressing in the workshop on the looms. Beautiful colors everywhere.  Magic Lao Carpet’s total capacity is around 100 m2 per year.

Stay tuned to see my beautiful carpet completed in just a few more weeks.

 

 

 

 

A CARPET TO DYE FOR

The making of my beautiful Lao carpet – part 3

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Lani: “We use natural dye only from trees and plants. The Burgundy color comes from the roots of the madder plant.”

The yarn for my carpet is completely transformed. The sticky stuff has been washed out, and the stiff and dull looking fibers have now  become soft and shiny.  Now they are ready to be dyed.

The co-owner of Magic Lao Carpets, Lani, shows me some samples of dyed yarn. The beautiful dark red color, called Burgundy, is going to be very prominent in my carpet.

“We use natural dye only from trees and plants. The Burgundy color comes from the roots of the madder plant,” Lani explains to me.

The madder plant has been known since ancient times for its powerful acid in the roots, which are harvested after two years in the ground.  These are the roots, which will deliver the base color of my carpet.

Honey Gold

The radiant yellow color, called Honey Gold, is made from the flowers of Dok Chan, the climbing plant which is known all over Asia. The Dok Chan is often used for hair dyeing, drinks and as a food ingredient.

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The Dok Chan flowers deliver the beautiful yellow color called Honey Gold for my carpet.

 

COLOR SHADING

Color shading is always a potential risk, when dying yarn and fabrics.

“We avoid color shading by dyeing the yarn for one carpet at a time. The red and blue colors are the most difficult ones to work with,” Lani says.

Her staff takes great care to ensure that nothing goes wrong in the further process. The water is tested for its PH value, and heated gradually to 100 degrees Celsius.

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Tan is dyeing the silk yarn into Burgundy red for my carpet.

Magic Lao Carpet’s own dyeing expert, Tan, brings out of the first batch of yarn and dips it into the steaming red water and then washes it gently to get the excess dye out. It takes lots of water – 40 liters per kilo of yarn – to complete the process. The next day the yarn is being washed again, this time with natural soap, at 60 degrees Celcius to improve fastness and the treatment of eco-friendly fixer to increase fastness ratings.

Same procedure is followed for the yarn to be dyed into honey-gold.  A total of 12 kilos of yarn for my carpet are ready for spinning.

Stay tuned for the next step on the way to producing my very own silk carpet.

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Tan and her colleagues will say goodbye soon to this magnificent carpet, which they have made for a customer in the UK.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

GETTIN’ THE RAW SILK RIGHT

 

The making of my beautiful Lao Carpet – part 2. 

 

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Tan is ready to boil the first batch of yarn for my carpet.

It is a stifling hot morning in Vientiane, as I come back to Magic Lao Carpet.  The worms have delivered their cocoons with about 200 meters of thin silk thread in each cocoon. Today, I will explore the next steps the elaborate techniques in making my carpet.

Tan and Tuk is hanging up somebody else’s yarn, dyed in a dazzling yellow color, called Tuscany.  Tan has been working with silk processing for more than 20 years, she tells me.

After all the dyed yarn is hung up to dry in the sun, Tan turns to a batch of raw silk – the first two kilos for my carpet.  Magic Lao Carpet co-owner Lani explains the procedures to remove the sticky glue-like substance left by the worms:

“First, to do the degumming we boil the yarn with lye from the rice straw ashes  to make it shiny and soft.  This takes about 30 minutes at 80-90c. When the yarn has dried up, we wash it one more time with iron sulfate in the water to remove all the glue. The process is relatively easy but takes time and lots of water – about 60 liters per 2 kilos of yarn,” Lani says.

After the second boiling the yarn is rinsed with a hose, followed by thorough scrubbing in big plastic jars filled with clean cold water.  After the last scrubbing, the water is still sufficiently clean to be used for watering Lani’s garden.

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Rinse, rinse, rinse and then rinse some more.

 

The ambassador drops in

While following the procedures, I meet other people who are taking an interest in Magic Lao Carpets. The Canadian ambassador to Thailand and Laos, Ms. Donica Pottie, drops in to see, what they can do in the little workshop.  The ambassador notes with obvious recognition that Magic Lao Carpets is very much a social enterprise, offering training and jobs to disadvantaged Lao youth.

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Magic Lao Carpets – a social enterprise. 

A designer from the UK, Ms. Sophie Wright, joins us this morning to study the yarn processing and dyeing. She is impressed with the technical skills of the staff.

After half an hour in the sweltering heat of the courtyard,  we all enjoy delicious ice-tea, made by mulberry leaves from the worm farm of Magic Lao Carpets an hour’s drive from the workshop.

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Ismit brought the carpet making craft from Turkmenistan, when he arrived in Laos more than 20 years ago.

The craft of Turkmenistan

Lani’s husband, Ismit takes me to the workshop to show me how the weavers are preparing to set up the ‘skeleton’ of my carpet – soft and very strong white cotton string, imported from Thailand.  Ismit tells me that Magic Lao Carpet build their own looms based on local materials.

Ismit is a native from Turkmenistan, famous for producing handmade carpets for more than 4.000 years. He brought the technique with him to Laos more than twenty years ago.

It does not take long for my yarn to dry in the hot Lao summer sun.

Stay tuned for the next part: The secrets of the dyeing process.

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TAKING DOWN THE FLAG

FLAG (3 of 22)On the eve of the 30 April celebrations, I went to record the flag ceremony at Hanoi’s Ba Dinh Square. The square is named after the first three communes, who rebelled against the French.
Every evening at 20:50 the guards will ask the hundreds of people there to stop exercising in front of Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and move to the back of the square to make space for the solemn ceremony.
When all looks neat, the loudspeakers will open up with Vietnam’s hymn “Bac dang cung chung chau hanh quan” (Uncle Ho is still with us when marching into battle). Then 33 soldiers, in crispy white uniforms will emerge to be led by a senior officer to the enormous flag pole at the center of Ba Dinh Square.  

The number of soldiers is a reference to commemorate a famous unit in the People’s army of 30 men and 3 women, who were led by the legendary general Vo Nguyen Giap. Ten years later – in 1954 –  general Giap commanded the Vietnamese forces in the final battle against the French in the Dien Bien Phu valley. The military defeat was a stunning blow, which resonated around the world and led to the collapse of French colonialism in Indochina.

FLAG (6 of 22)Three soldiers will then approach the pole and lower the flag.
During the ceremony last night, I was surrounded by the whispers of grand parents telling their grand children of forgotten battles, decisive victories and lost friends. Their voices was like a persistent wind somehow overpowering the loudspeakers. It was a quiet beauty beyond words.


Then the flag was down to be neatly folded and taken away and stored for the night in the army barracks.

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The simplicity of Vietnams flag – a single yellow star on red – is meant to carry a strong message of nationalism, pride and unity.


For Non-Vietnamese friends: The red symbolises the blood stained sacrifice of the Vietnamese people. The yellow 5-pointed star is showing the almighty power of Dang Cong San – The Communist Party. Each point represents the different contributors to the building of the nation: The farmer, the worker, the artist, the doctor and the soldier.
Whether you agree with the Vietnamese system or not, one thing is certain: Taking down the flag is a beautiful, simple and dignified ceremony, and it is there for you every evening at 21:00.

IT ALL STARTS WITH SOME GREEDY LITTLE BASTARDS

On the creation of my beautiful Lao silk carpet – Part 1

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It will take 20.000 silk worms to produce the yarn for my carpet.

Here is the first update on a nice little project, I just started with Lao Magic Carpet.

I have ordered a hand made silk carpet, and the entire process will take approximately six months.  I will follow the project and visit from time to time to photo/document the creation of this marvelous symbiosis of Lao traditional design and the 5.000 year old tradition of handicraft in Turkmenistan.

My carpet is also a love story – between Lao Magic Carpet owners Lani and her husband Ismit, who came to Laos from Turkmenistan more than 20 years ago. Ismit brought the proud handicraft traditions from his homeland. Lani contributed with the beauty of Lao design. Together they created Lao Magic Carpet, which is also a social enterprise, offering training and employment for disabled Lao youngsters.

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The silk worms will only eat the leaves. The mulberries are used for marmelade and tea.

Of course, the story of my carpet begins with the silk worms.  Greedy little bastards, they are, and ugly too, if you ask me!

Lani has taken over a former government research center and created her own silk farm in Hatxayfong district an hour’s drive down the dirt roads from Vientiane Capital.

The research center was established in the 1960’ies with Japanese development assistance as part of the effort to make Lao farmers abandon the growing of opium poppies in favor of other cash crops.

With expert assistance, Lani is now developing her own production of silk, based on Lao silk worms.

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Dr. Souphanthong Vilaysak has worked with silk worm development his entire career.

Dr. Souphanthong Vilaysak got his education with Japanese assistance more than 30 years ago, and he has devoted his entire career to the development of the worms – which are the basis of  high quality silk.

“The worms are greedy and extremely sensitive. They will only eat mulberry leaves of the finest quality, and they eat an enormous amount during their short life. When the worms are small, they can only eat the fine and soft top leaves of the mulberry tree, because their teeth are not yet developed,” Dr. Souphantong explains to me.

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Lani is plucking mulberries for me. She says that they will be good for my health, supporting a proper sugar balance in the body.

I ask Lani to make a quick calculation, of what it will take to produce the yarn for my carpet. She gets busy on her smart phone calculator. The numbers are staggering: It will take about 100.000 worms to produce the 15-16 kilos of yarn, needed for my carpet. To do so the greedy little bastards will consume 1.500 kilos of mulberry leaves!

“You have to be very careful with the worms in the process. It is very easy to harm them. Just a perfumed hand is enough to kill them.”

Stay tuned for chapter 2, once the yarn is ready for dyeing. 

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The small cocoons are heated up to extract the yarn. Each cocoon contains up to 120 meters.

 

THE MURDER OF A NATION IN THE MAKING

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The Cabinet meeting room, where Aung San and his ministers were gunned down 19 Juli 1947

Revisiting the killing of Burma’s Aung San and his dream

Rangoon, March 2019. It is with a chilling feeling that I try to take in all the details of the room in through the dirty glass doors. A rusty padlock prevents me from entering. Dozens of bullit holes can still be seen in the walls.  This is where the four assassins in green army uniforms struck 19 July 1947, at 10:37 a.m., armed with British stenguns.  Seconds later, Burma’s independence hero Aung San’s body was on the floor riddled with specially made dum-dum bullits, designed to ensure a kill.

Around Aung San were the bodies of six cabinet members of the Burmese government and the secretary.  A few meters outside the cabinet meeting room, lay the body of Aung San’s lone bodyguard, who had tried to stop the assassins.  Still today, he is honored with a photo copy of his photo and his name.

Aung San and his cabinet had met that fateful morning to discuss the multitude of challenges facing the new interim government of Burma, only a few months after the British colonial empire had started falling apart. The meeting took place at the enormous Secretariat, built to accommodate the British colonial administration in Burma’s capital Rangoon.   Considering the tensions in post colonial Burma, it is unbelievable that there was virtually no protective measures at the headquarters of the new Government, except for a single body guard.

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Aung San’s body guard honored on the wall on the spot where he was found dead.

The three assassins made their way with no resistance except for the lone bodyguard.  “They just ran up the stairs and stormed into the cabinet room, a few minutes later they left the same way they came in. A jeep was waiting for them downstairs and they just drove away,” I am told by a renovation project manager, who has offered to show us around in the vast building complex.

After decades of neglect and closure to the public,  private investors have been allowed to restore the Secretariat.  From the outside it looks nearly complete, repainted in its original beauty of splendid yellow and red colors.  Workers in flip flops are sweating, while they install an enormous clock (made in Japan) where the original British time piece used to be on the top floor of the entrance building.

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The Secretariat is being restored to former glory by private investors.

The interior tells a different story.  Hundreds and hundreds of bigger and smaller rooms and the connecting hallways look like they are beyond repair. Endless meters of decay.   There must be a two digit billion USD expense waiting for the investors there.  A single staircase is coming close to completion. It gives me some idea, how beautiful the end result will be, if the investment funds do not dry out.

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It is unclear, exactly how the investors plan to ensure their profits.  Cafés, restaurants and shops are mentioned, but there are no real investment prospects, only rumors.

Then again, the Secretariat has been all about rumors, ever since the massacre in 1947.  The presumed assassins were arrested the same day in the villa of U Saw, Aung San’s fierce political rival. U Saw himself was arrested as well, while he was having a whisky in his splendid home at the Inya lake.  Less than a year later, U Saw and his alleged co-conspirators were tried and executed by hanging.

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Aung San and U Saw (with sunglasses) celebrating Burma’s independence, a few months before the massacre.

It has been argued for decades that the massacre in fact was the murder of an entire nation in the making, and that British military intelligence master minded the killings to prevent Aung San and his allies from establishing a socialist Burma.

It is well documented that the assassins were using British weapons, reportedly stolen from a break-in into a British munitions depot.  However, it was soon disclosed that two British senior officers had been involved in large scale supplies of weapons to U Saw and his allies.  It is inconceivable that the officers acted on their own.  They both escaped from Burma along with a senior British diplomat,  who allegedly was involved on the ground as well.

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The last photo of Aung San and his family. Aung San Suu Kyi is in front as a 2 year old. Her foster mother Ma Than E gave the photo to me, when I interviewed her in 1991.

If Burma indeed became a victim of a British destabilisation attempt, it was very succesful.  During the first few months of indepence, Aung San had managed to sign peace treaties with the most important ethnic minorities.  His death plunged Burma into a renewed bloody chaos, which has marred Burma ever since – and sadly enough also now destroying the international reputation of Aung San’s  daughter Aung San Suu Kyi, once a rock star Nobel laureate.

Now Suu Kyi has become a paria being shunned by her former international supporters, who sees her as a silent accomplice to the violent persecution of the muslim Rohingya’s in present day Burma – this tragedy is yet another legacy of the British empire.

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The victims of the massacre in The Secretariat.