Thursday, December 29, 2011

I Dream of Bollywood

For a hormone-raging country pumpkin, the oversized hand-painted pictures of voluptuous women in midriff- baring saris staring down from movie billboards were all it took.

That was my introduction to Bollywood song-and-dance films – in Woodlands, at the southernmost corner of Singapore, across from Johor Bahru, Malaysia. This was also where I got my first taste of the real Indian curry, roti prata, teh tarik or pulled tea, laksa and many other unique Singapore Indian dishes, as well as the beginning of my discovery of, and love for, world music.


The 90s Screen Siren Madhuri Dixit with Rishi Kapoor 
in Prem Granth (1996)

Laksa is one type of food that one must try before dying. It's a Peranakan's creation, unique to Singapore and Malaysia. One of laksa's variations, the curry coconut soup, is served with rau răm or Vietnamese coriander, also locally known as daun kesum, which until then I thought only the Vienamese ate this sharp-tasting herb.
Though not knowing a word of Hindi, the music, the dancing and, of course, the midriff-baring saris were intoxicating for a country pumpkin from then-isolated Viet Nam. The ridiculous dancing – quite often in the rain, in the water or on the beach that invariably ends with the hero trying to kiss the girl but misses her lips because she manages to get away by loosening her sari. Talk about anticlimax!
One more memorable element about these films is that somehow many of them find the stars frolicking on Edelweiss and buttercup flower-covered Swiss Alps. It’s like Gene Kelly’s "Singin' In the Rain" Don Lockwood had married Julie Andrews’ "The Sound of Music" Maria von Trapp and made a movie called “Dancing on the Alps.”

My love affair with Bollywood ended when I left for America in 1981, or so I had thought. I had all but forgotten about it until I got cable TV some years later. There I was, getting up late on one Saturday morning after a night working at a nightclub in San Francisco – Namaste America!, “the number 1 South Asian Television Network in America.”
Juhi Chawla with Anil Kapoor
in an only-in-Bollywood dance routine (Andaz, 1994)
It’s a cable program, from New York, that beams into almost every South Asian’s household in America. It features a HUGE dose of Bollywood’s news and gossip, interspersed with commercials for local Indian American businesses, and, of course, song-and-dance Hindi music films.
To those who are not South Asians or do not know Hindi, the often-ridiculous dance routines and convoluted story-line, as well as the seemingly-bad acting, it’s not like watching French cinema or chopsocky kung fu movies – they don’t really grow on you. But the music. I love the music from these films.
In the East Bay area of the San Francisco Bay, especially in the cities of Fremont and Berkeley, there are many “sari palaces” that sell both films and soundtracks. There are also numerous outlets online, both free and for purchase, where one can get one’s Bollywood-fix taken care of. There are now even real movie houses that show first-run hits.
However, I was recently surprised to find out that the award-winning Kronos Quartet, the San Francisco-based string quartet, which is better known for contemporary classical music, has recorded an album of Bollywood’s classics featuring the incomparable Asha Bhosle. The album, called You've stolen my heart - Songs From R D Burman's Bollywood, also earned Bhosle a Grammy nomination, a first for an Indian national.
This is a must-have album for not only Hindi film music’s aficionados, but also those who are into world music or just plain curious. The Rough Guide has also put out a number of Bollywood compilations, including one featuring just Asha Bhosle.

Dum Maro Dum -- The Kronos Quarter Featuring Bhosle 
(Footage from the 1971 film,Hare Rama Hare Krishna)

Bollywood’s song-and-dance films are pure kitsch entertainment, but often with a great soundtrack, not to mention the hipnotically gorgeous stars – both female and male. So if you can overlook the convoluted story-line, or the lack thereof, and the fantastically ridiculous choreography, welcome to Bollywood. 

Monday, September 5, 2011

Repost: Witnessing Vietnam’s Deadliest Fire

The recent announcement that the Ho Chi Minh City Fire Department “has got five modern fire engines to fight blazes in high-rise buildings” and the survey about the Vietnamese youth’s attitudes towards corruption prompted me to dig up this old blog post from 2002.

Fighting fire can be improved with new technology and better training, but civic-mindedness and the willingness to intervene or take action against injustice or to help those in need requires an individual to put aside his/own self-interest and be courageous enough to overcome fear of harm that may come one's way. The survey's results do not make Vietnamese youth look good.

The Saigon International Trade Center or InterShop is located at the corner of Nam Ky Khoi Nghia and Nguyen Trung Truc. The fire broke out on Tuesday, 29 October, 2002. To date it was the deadliest fire in Viet Nam in terms of lives lost and the biggest peacetime tragedy.

The version below appeared on various web sites, especially those of overseas Vietnamese. A shorter Vietnamese version was published by Saigon Tiep Thi magazine. I received a flood of responses from both in and outside Viet Nam. The responses from those inside Viet Nam were more of a soul-searching nature, very moving.

Please read it and tell me what you think. Would love to hear how much has or hasn’t changed, especially from those who currently live or work in Viet Nam.

Witnessing Vietnam’s Deadliest Fire
I recently spent the longest forty minutes of my life, witnessing people facing death in Viet Nam’s deadliest peacetime tragedy. I had never felt as helpless before as the fire raged through a Ho Chi Minh City’s shopping center on Tuesday, taking the lives of 60 people, including 4 foreigners.

Had the fire started two days earlier or 30 minutes later, I would have been one of the victims fleeing for his life or one of the unlucky ones who did not make it. Had help arrived within the first fifteen minutes, many of those who perished would have lived to fulfill their dreams and aspirations.

As usual, I had gone for a haircut at a salon right across the Saigon International Trade Center or InterShop, as the locals know it, on my last day in Vietnam. This has been a routine on every trip. Intershop was a labyrinth of retail stalls selling souvenirs, jewelry, shoes and other household goods. The seven-story building also housed a mixture of local and international corporate offices, including the American International Assurance Co., an insurance giant, a restaurant and a nightclub.

I had stopped in two days earlier to pick up a few souvenir items and was going to do some more shopping there with my remaining three hours in Viet Nam right after the haircut.
Looking at the fire from the hair salon. (Sonny Le, 29/10/02)
At around 2:00 P.M. local time, a salon staff ran in to tell everyone that smoke was rising out of the Intershop. My hair was barely done. The salon manager cut the electricity and told everyone to leave the premise. As we stood outside the salon looking at the thick plume of smoke, we began to see people climbing out onto a small landing area at the rear of the building. As more people jostling for space, some began to jump down to the roof of the adjacent building, the distance of about 30 feet or 9 meters.

As the thick black smoke began to engulf the fleeing victims, more slid or jumped down, breaking their legs, arms and bodies in the process. There were no ladders or emergency escapes. Also in their way were the barbed-wire fence and other barriers separating InterShop and the adjacent buildings, which not only slowed them down but also drew their blood. After having landed on the roof of the adjacent building, the victims still had to jump down to the next roof and then another 15 feet or so from the awning to the ground.
People attempting to jump down from a small landing area can be seen at center 
top of picture. Click on photo to enlarge.  (Sonny Le, 29/10/02)
The most tragic of all was the sense of hopelessness felt among the bystanders. However, I was most disturbed by the fact that the crowds were not moved to action. For about two minutes I joined the crowds watching the tragedy unfold. Some women in the crowds cried and yelled out, “Why doesn't someone go help those people down? They are being burned.” I sensed the crowds were stunned into helplessness but there was something else rather macabre was taking place. They were watching enthralled and in silence like spectators at sporting events.

Climbing down make-shift ladders. (Sonny Le, 29/10/02)
I ran across the street to join a group of about seven men, one of whom was a tall white man, who was later identified as a Mr. Gillin, an American and a ten-year resident of the city. We joined hands in a circle trying to catch people as they jumped from the awning to the ground. We caught more than a handful. A few more men brought short metal stepladders and a tall, about 12 feet, bamboo ladder. With these ladders, we tried to make a bridge so we could get up closer to the victims. A good fifteen minutes passed before the first fire engine arrived. The most horrifying specter for me was the firemen did not seem to know what to do. And a few men dressed in security uniforms did not know what to do either. The first group of firemen at the scene had on neither gas masks nor protective gears. They wore knee-high rubber wading boots, the types that one wears to slosh around in the mud, and with no oxygen tanks in sight.

I was at the back end of the building so I was not aware of other fire engines at the front side of the building, or on the other side.
Policemen and firefighters milling about. (Sonny Le, 29/10/02)
Thirty minutes into the inferno, another fire engine arrived with one small ambulance, a refashioned Toyota minivan. The ambulance had no gurney and there was no Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) in sight, who usually is on board in the U.S. The lone driver was all there was. Again, the number of those giving a hand was no more than twenty individuals. At this point, more police was at the scene and began to exercise crowd control. The thick smoke had reached the ground level and the crowds began to withdraw from the area. I began to gag as the smoke was burning up my eyes and nose. It became difficult to breathe as a handful of us tried to catch people and/or holding up the flimsy ladders.

By-stander trying to help. (Sonny Le, 29/10/02)
 I was torn over the decision whether to remain on the scene and help. I contemplated climbing up the ladders so I could get closer to the victims to help break their fall. It was about 2:40 by now and my flight was due to leave Viet Nam for Singapore at 5:30 P.M. I had never felt this helpless before. As I stared at the small crowd of people at the landing of the InterShop building, I saw the terror and desperation in their eyes.

If I had stayed any longer, it would have become impossible to leave the city center, or District 1, for the airport, some 7 kilometers away. Traffic in the surrounding area gradually came to a standstill.

I decided to go home even though my heart wanted to stay. When I reached the hotel to pick up my luggage, the doorman pointed out the blood on my arms that I did not realize was there. It was the blood of the few lucky ones who had escaped the inferno. (Sixty victims have now been confirmed dead; another 100 or so hospitalized with a wide range of injuries, from severe burn to broken legs and arms. A good number of the victims suffered severe internal injuries resulted from their leap to survival. Some of the dead bodies have been burnt beyond recognition, awaiting DNA identification, which could take up to one month, for Viet Nam has only one medical lab capable of DNA testing.)

I walked away from this experience shaken and with an image of the Vietnamese people, however unfair, of being cold and callous in times of tragedies. They seemed to watch the spectacle with amusement as if it’s entertainment. The drivers of taxis and private cars nearby, which there were many, did not volunteer to take the victims to the hospitals. A few victims who had fainted had to wait for the only one ambulance that was shuttling back and forth.

Maybe I am naive but I’ve seen fire and a few earthquakes here in California where neighbors jumped in to help with their buckets, garden hoses and shovels. Maybe the Vietnamese watching the InterShop inferno had no means to help put out that fire, their firefighters were themselves under equipped, but they certainly could have helped break the fleeing victims’ fall. The Vietnamese people sure did look like they needed a crash course in what to do in an emergency, besides having some compassion and courage. Maybe they have been trained to take the nonintervention stand until the authorities arrive.

As I sat shaken in the back of the taxi on the way to the airport, the dispatch radio was crackling with conversations among the taxi drivers telling each other to go to the fire because it was “fun to watch” or in Vietnamese “coi vui lam.”

I did not walk away with a good image of my fellow Vietnamese. As a Vietnamese American, I am both disturbed and confused by what I saw. I can’t help it but keep seeing the faces of many of the victims whom I may have met at the Intershop over the years.

(It is now reported by the State-controlled press that in a city of over 7 million residents, only 20 out of the 600 fire fighters were outfitted with uniforms that include gas masks, oxygen tanks and fireproof gears. There were also problems with the water delivery system, which has not been modernized since 1975. Most fire hydrants nearby did not have water so firefighters had to drive almost 3 miles to the Saigon River to draw water.

One incident illustrated Ho Chi Minh City’s firefighting capability, or the lack of it, was the sadly comical story of one fire engine. On the way to the fire scene this fire engine ran out of gas about three miles away. The driver had to use the telephone of a nearby business to call headquarters to bring gas. Two canisters of gas arrived thirty minutes later. The fire truck still could not move for its engine valve was now gas-flooded.)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

John Cleese Explains the Donald Trump Phenomenon...Back in 2008

The merging of Reality TV and popular politics has altered the American’s political landscape and comedians seem to be the only ones who are able to not only make sense of it, but also help break it down for the rest of us.

And so it takes another funnyman to help explain the Donald Trump phenomenon. However, he did so back in 2008…about another pop-cultural-political phenomenon, Sarah Palin, and the presidential election whose result, in turn, has given us Donald Trump.
John Cleese: Sarah Palin Is A Pretty Parrot...Americans Like Rich, But Not Smart People
John Cleese, who has called America home since the 90s, was interviewed for the blog of  Seesmic, the San Francisco-based social media apps company. The interview, now posted on YouTube, has many wry observations about what has become of the U.S of A., Sarah Palin, George W., among other topical subjects.
But the best part, about 2:40 into the interview, aptly explains the Donald Trump phenomenon. He said, “…the Americans are unenvious about money…they are very generous about rich people…but what they don’t like…is anyone more intelligent than them, more graceful than them and more sophisticated than them.”
I wish we didn’t have to turn to comedians, not that there is anything wrong with that, to help us make sense of the world that we are now stuck with.