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.

 

BRINGING THE WAR TO AN END?

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Here is an upcoming event in my hometown Copenhagen that I am really sorry to miss.  My long time friend Tri Minh and my new friend Linh has something to tell us. You guys back in Denmark will have the first chance to be there, when Tri Minh and Linh face the darkness.    Next, I am going to push them to come to Hanoi and share their project with us in Vietnam, and meet their roots together.  For now, please check their announcement below. 

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Face the Darkness: When a child of Vietnamese boat refugees meets a child of Viet Cong

More than 40 years after the Vietnam War, the ghosts of the past are still passing through the country and dragging the border between north and south. Between the South Vietnamese government with support from the US and the North with support from the Soviet Union and China. The war ended in 1975 with the fall of Saigon when the North Vietnamese army conquered the capital city. North Vietnam / the Viet Congs won. South Vietnam lost. After the war, the South Vietnamese fled and in the period 1975-1985 Denmark received a total of 3,700 Vietnamese boat refugees.

In 2018, the dancer Linh and the musician Minh meet randomly in Denmark. One is a child of Vietnamese boat refugees, the other of Viet Cong. Without even having been there during the war, they discover how many prejudices they face. Together, they decide to confront the prejudices and battle in an alternative way. To get it out of the body – to see and feel if they can get on the other side and reconcile the two oppositions.

Face the Darkness: When a child of Vietnamese boat refugees meets a child of Viet Cong is a performance battle between live music and dancing. The dancer Linh and the musician Minh are fighting each other through their art form and are confronted with the past and their knowledge that their families have fought each other in the Vietnam War. The question is whether they can understand each other through art or whether they will continue to fight their parents’ struggles?

The performance revolves around the collision of different backgrounds, the encounter with the other, and the complex process of dealing with past, memories, repressed anger, and grief. It can be experienced at Teaterhuset’s scene Vox from March 13th.

Duration: 45 min. incl. 15 min. artist talk.

PURE MAGIC BY LAO HANDS

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Ancient handicraft from Turkmenistan and the best of Lao design traditions join hands in MAGIC LAO CARPETS.  

The little workshop is so quiet that you can almost hear the fingers knotting the fine silk threads with amazing speed.  The young women are sitting there two by two or four by four focusing intently on transforming the colorful flower photos into handmade silk carpets of the highest quality.

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We are at Magic Lao Carpets a small workshop and a showroom in a Vientiane alley. Slowly, slowly the most beautiful and unique carpets are emerging to be sold to affluent customers in Laos and abroad.

“The carpets are made by up to 700.000 knots per square meter.  This means that two girls can do approx. 2 cm. per day,” owner Souvita Phaseuth tells me. She goes by the name of Lani in the local community.

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Magic Lao Carpets has been set up by Lani and her husband Ismit, who immigrated to Laos from his native Turkmenistan 30 years ago.  He brought the 4.000 year old carpet making craft of Central Asia with him to his new country. Lani on her part has brought the Lao traditional designs into Magic Lao Carpets.

Surely, you cannot fly on these carpets, but their amazing beauty does make you want to.

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“Just use your hand and feel the quality.” Lani and her husband have developed some real magic in Vientiane.

In the courtyard, two young women are giving the finishing touch to a stunningly colorful carpet made to order by a boutique in the UK.

Behind them two other women are busy spinning the fine silk thread, which is mostly produced by the company’s own silk farm. MagCarp-3.jpg

Magic Lao Carpet is not merely a business, but also an important opportunity for young disabled Laotians to develop skills and make a living.

Souvita Phaseuth: “We offer training and accommodation to our workers, who would otherwise have great difficult in making a living, being dumb, deaf or suffering from other physical disabilities.  Some choose to return to their villages and set up their own small businesses, while others continue to stay with us.”

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Magic Lao Carpet is located at Ban Nongdouang Tai in Vientiane’s Sikhottabong district.  Opening hours: 9:00-17:00 Mon-Sat.

 

 

 

 

“TO REMEMBER THEIR NAMES”

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A day at Yad Vasem, the Holocaust Memorial on Jerusalem’s Mountain of Remembrance is meant to be an unforgettable experience, and that is exactly what it is.

Israeli architect Moshe Safdie has created the sombre structures, which in their austerity amplify the bone chilling walk through the greatest tragedy in the history of mankind: The extermination of 6 million jews during the Nazi occupation of Europe.

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David (our 75 year old guide) walked us through the history from the early anti-Jewish propaganda campaigns of the 1930es, through their incarceration in ghettos and work camps, and finally the ENDLOSUNG – the systematic extermination of men, women and children in the gas chambers of Auschwitz Birkenau and other killing factories.

Now sitting in my cozy room at The American Colony Hotel, where Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen used to hang out, I realize that the strongest impact of Yad Vasem does not come from the horrible photo displays of human cruelty.

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What is still with me tonight is the dome of portraits, symbolizing the ongoing documentation efforts. Thousands and thousands of names have been entered in books, with dozens of volumes standing on black shelves under the dome. A third of the shelves are still empty, waiting for new names to be registered properly. In a small room next to the dome sits a kind elder lady with her computer. After so many decades she is still receiving incoming documentation on victims and survivors.

What is also still with me is a crude sculptural structure of broken concrete pillars, symbolizing that the lives of 1.5 million children were torn in half by the Nazi killing machine.

What is still with me most of all: David’s low voice statement that the Holocaust happened, because ordinary men and woman from all walks of life contributed to the persecution and killing of six mlllion fellow human beings. In all fairness, Yad Vasem has also registered the names of those people, who risked their own lives to assist the jews: This register of heroes totals 26.000 names.

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SURVIVING THE TRUTH

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Duong with Self-portrait, 2018

There is something about Vietnamese artist Duong Thuy Duong that makes you want to explore – to find out more about what is inside this quiet painter and her enigmatic works of uncanny self-portraits, kitchen-tableaux’s, railway stations and hovercrafts, all in the most beautiful colors – often a more enchanting blue than any blue I have seen before.

Duong does offer a key to her door in the form of a famous Nietzsche quote: “Wir haben die Kunst, damit wir nicht auf der Wahrheit zu Grunde gehen.” (We have art so that we do not perish because of the truth).

Duong’s website  leaves it to her paintings to speak for themselves. A brief CV gives you an insight in her educational background in Germany and the most important exhibitions. That’s it.

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Now we know a bit more in Hanoi, because her (and my) friend Ly Truong curated Duong’s present exhibition in Hanoi. After working with Duong, Ly shared her thoughts in her beautiful handwriting and pinned her observations on the entrance door to the exhibition premises in Dang Thai Mai:

There is a “black hole” in Duong Thuy Duong’s universe and you will feel its strong magnetic field when you look at her paintings. The journey might begin in her kitchen – a mother of two daily space’s, and end up on a highway where you might ask yourself “What is this? Is this the end of the world or is this the Eternity, where am I?
In my situation, I was lured by her stunning self- portraits that looked like old photos turning yellow and green. They make me curious about what’s inside this woman’s head. In her paintings, every object is moving and vanishing. They are so lively, they seem so catchable, they are so real, but also so distant. They make me want to cry…

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Duong with Self-portrait, 2018

On a chilly Hanoi morning Duong offers me a few more clues to what inspires her: Mozart’s Requiem is among her favorite music along with the Russian composer Rachmaninov and his Concerto no. 2 for Violin.

The Danish movie director Lars Von Trier is on top of her movie list with Dogville and Melancholia.

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Lunar Eclipse, 2018

Duong’s eyes light up, when I ask her about Berlin, where she lives with her two children (of 9 and 8) and her boyfriend:

“I am longing to go back to Berlin tomorrow. I love that place. The Germans are warmer than they may seem to be at first. I do not feel like a foreigner in Berlin. There are so many nationalities living there, so foreigners are just a natural thing.”

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No name, 2007

Born in 1979, Duong does remember the bad old days in Hanoi’s extreme postwar poverty.  She recalls days with very little food and plain sugar as the only luxury. Playing alone in a small courtyard, which served as a playground.

“We were poor, but we had things others did not, because my father’s younger brother had gone to Germany. He sent home pacakages from time to time.”

Duong has no plans to move back to her native country:

“My beloved Hanoi does not really exist anymore.”

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The Duong Thy Duong exhibition venue: Dang Thai Mai, House 19B, Lane 12.