The Vietnam Fine Arts Museum in Hanoi is confident and elegant, surrounded by ancient trees, historic villas and a celebrated cultural icon – the Temple of Literature. It puts on display numerous masterpieces of Vietnamese Art, from its earliest days to the revolutionary and Socialist Realism period.
This museum is all that its counterparts in Indonesia, Malaysia or India are not. It is because the artists of Vietnam fought for the survival of their nation during the darkest period of French colonial rule; they called upon the masses onto the battlefields and barricades during the struggle for independence, and they inspired and supported this proud land, when it was thrown into hell on earth – enduring carpet bombings, napalm, agent orange, mass rapes and extermination campaigns during the “American War”.
After victory, hundreds of eminent artists rolled up their sleeves and went to work, inspiring tens of millions in their effort to rebuild their ravaged country, and to create an egalitarian, Socialist society. The great modern art of Vietnam was never decorative. It was as utilitarian as anti-aircraft guns, as cranes, and as classrooms.
I lived for almost three years in this city – not a particularly easy three years, as Hanoi, then, was still recovering from the chain of devastating wars and from the collapse of its closest ally – the Soviet Union – and its East European satellite states. By then, both Vietnam and Cuba were in the middle of an epic struggle for survival, battered by the shameful withdrawal of commitments and obligations of the group of countries that succeeded the USSR.
“Where do we go; what do we do?” I was told many years ago by one of the government officials. “We have to make sure that our people survive”.
‘Reforms’ had to be introduced, the economy became mixed, and foreign companies were allowed to enter and to form joint ventures. Bill Gates came to visit, while LV and Gucci began opening their boutiques all over HCMC and Hanoi.
It was all confusing then, as the ‘Hero Mothers’ – those old and proud women who lost their sons and daughters in the wars fought against the French and US colonialists – were seen walking through Hanoi and HCMC streets to their free honor seats at the opera houses, avoiding the Bentleys of the nouveau riche. ‘New Vietnam’ was suddenly all about symbols – the latest models of mobile phones, then the hippest types of motorbikes, and later Bentleys. It is said that there is more of them in Hanoi now, than in the city of London.
It was confusing then and it is still confusing now.
But what matters, is that this country survived the terror it was put through, that it got on its feet, retained its culture, its creativity and its thirst for social justice… And that it preserved its own form of socialism, no matter how battered the emblems might have appeared from time to time.
But, back to the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum…
I used to come here often, alone – to dream, and to admire those great Vietnamese masters of the past; artists who lived and were creating during the eras when what are today called Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia, were culturally and economically closely connected with Japan, Korea and China. Vietnam was then firmly present on almost all the major trade routes of Asia Pacific. It was influenced by dozens of the great Asian cultures, whilst influencing them in return.
But above all, I used to come here in search of some good, healthy and optimistic shots of Socialist Realism.
This time, in December 2012, I was in the company of my good friend, the Australian artist George Burchett, who had moved to this city almost two years ago. Or more precisely, he didn’t move here; he returned here, as this was the city where he was born.
Now this museum was ‘his’; he knew it much better than I ever did. He now became my guide. This is where he has been searching for inspiration, where he has been connecting the past – his own, that of his family and of this nation – with the present.
We walked side-by-side, admiring ancient Vietnamese art, so closely linked with Buddhism, with the Khmers and with China.
But it was understood that both of us came here anticipating the real joy of being confronted by those powerful images, depicting the struggle of the Vietnamese people against the Western onslaught, and by the tremendous euphoria of building the country afterwards.
“Look at those factories, the trains, and the boats on the river!” shouted my friend George, eventually switching from English to Russian: “Here! This is Hai Phong City: factory, steam engine, people; life!”
“It looks like some utopian paradise”, he continued. “Beautiful, really beautiful: it is all here, right here: nature, the work, and enthusiasm…”
I saw it; I could also stare at those canvases for hours. And when I did, the meaning would return to life. The nihilism of imperialism, of individualism, of religions: all those things that were ruining our beautiful planet would soon be fading away, or at least they would hide for a while, in some dark corners.
The message was clear and powerful, and after many long years of circling the globe, of covering wars and the ‘human condition’ in general, I couldn’t agree with it more: ‘It is glorious to fight for real freedom, as it is wonderful to dedicate one’s life to building the nation’.
George and I stood in respectful silence in front of the paintings depicting the Ho Chi Minh Trail and ‘Uncle Ho’ himself; in front of the paintings portraying soldiers and strong, determined women, confronting some beefy and arrogant French soldiers. And we smiled at one of my favorite canvases by Nguyen Sang: ‘Admitting a New Member into the Party’.
Our enchantment with; our love for this optimistic universe full of devoted work for humanity, was very different from the set of dogmatic official Western doctrines (even, or especially, from the ‘new Left’) and we knew it would be extremely difficult to translate and to transmit all this, even to some of the people we cared about a lot: to our colleagues and friends somewhere in faraway Canada or California.
It goes without saying that both George Burchett and I, were melting perfectly into this milieu – we grew up under very similar and very ‘unusual’ circumstances. Those circumstances formed us and convinced us that real art has to be engaged, that it has to be ideological; and no matter what, it has to be about the people and for the people.
George Burchett is not a typical ‘Aussie’, very far from that.
He was born in Hanoi, in Vietnam, almost a decade before I was born in Leningrad.
And he did not come to this earth by landing into some plush realm; into the universe where a kindhearted Australian diplomat would visit the maternal ward where he was born, give him a big smile, pat him on the diaper and whisper: “Welcome to this wonderful world, our friend; you are now our mate, our brand new little Australian fellow citizen.”
Far from that: George Burchett, son of Wilfred Burchett, was born as an exile. His father was considered an enemy of his own nation, and for many years could not even get his hands on an Australian passport. Some called him the “Number one public enemy”.
As quoted by 123HelpMe.com:
“The discontent that was felt towards Burchett by the conservative powers of the US and Australia was so extreme that in an unprecedented move, Burchett’s Australian passport was revoked, leaving him and his children living in exile for seventeen years. The Commonwealth repeatedly refused to renew Burchett’s passport that was lost in North Vietnam in 1955, on the grounds that ‘he was a communist and in 1961 decided that Burchett would not be admitted to the country. This decision was recognised as in conflict with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and was almost certainly unconstitutional’…”
An official doctrine aside, the reason for this charade was very simple: Wilfred Burchett was probably the greatest journalist writing in the English language in the entire 20th Century. He was a giant of letters, a truly independent thinker and reporter, unwilling to follow the rigid rules of the anti-Communist Western propaganda.
Burchett was the first one to cover the Hiroshima nuclear holocaust. In his powerful report, “I write this as a warning to the world”, as all his colleagues stood in line for the official communiqués on Japan’s surrender, he traveled alone by local trains, almost 1.000 kilometers through the devastated country, to the ruins of Hiroshima. He felt he had to do it – in order to witness and to report the impact of what was later described as one of the most awful experiments on human beings in World history.
But there was much more to Burchett’s ‘crimes’ than Hiroshima.
A true internationalist, and a man with a deep understanding of, and love for Asia Pacific, he wrote on the Korean War and on the brutal killing of civilians, by the US and its satellites. He also uncovered several taboo stories: for instance how the released US prisoners of war, who insisted that they were treated humanely by their Chinese and North Koreans captives, had been “disappeared” by their own army, and locked in mental institutions.
A close friend of China’s Premier Chou En-lai, of Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro, Burchett wrote entire books on China, on Cambodia, on Vietnam and on the Soviet Union.
He produced dozens of powerful books of an alternative narrative, all of them written as eyewitness accounts. His range of topics was impressive: from the first man in the space – Yuri Gagarin – to Ho Chi Minh and his struggle for independence, in the books that included “North of the Seventeenth Parallel”.
He put into his reports and books his own experience; what he saw with his own eyes, heard with his ears, felt with his entire being; on the battlefields and in all those places that were devastated by Western imperialism. He wrote and he photographed: he documented what was not supposed to reach the eyes of the people inhabiting the US, Australia and Western Europe.
That could not be allowed to go on forever.
Not only was Wilfred Burchett stripped of his passport, he was demonized in the complacent Australian media; called a Communist (a terrible crime!), he was also described as an agent of the Soviet Union, and finally, as someone who was involved in interrogating Western prisoners of war in Korea, taking down their testimonies about the West and its engaging in chemical warfare.
Jamie Miller wrote for the prestigious academic journal “Asia Pacific Journal: Japan Focus” (‘The Forgotten History War: Wilfred Burchett, Australia and the Cold War in the Asia Pacific’):
“Wilfred Burchett was one of the twentieth-century’s most important journalists. Amid official denials and conventional reports to the contrary, his were the first accurate accounts of nuclear fallout in Hiroshima and American use of chemical warfare in Vietnam, among many other scoops… Consequently, he was reviled in Australia’s anti-communist circles… Ideological antipathy towards Burchett took root easily in a specific factual basis; the classic anti-communist fear of subversion from within found an intriguing counterpoint in Burchett’s subversion from without. From the Korean War until his death in 1983, he was, as the title of David Bradbury’s film aptly put it, the nation’s Public Enemy Number One. Every aspect of his life was painstakingly recorded by ASIO. And from 1955, a succession of Coalition Governments refused to issue Burchett with an Australian passport for seventeen years – it would take the accession of the Whitlam Labor Government in 1972 to reverse the policy – and even refused to register his children as Australian citizens for fifteen.”
It often appeared that the entire Western propaganda machine went into overdrive on one single character assassination project.
Burchett’s case clearly demonstrated how ‘dangerous’ the truth is, how vindictive the Western regime is, and how powerful one single person can be, if armed with talent, courage and integrity.
George and I met several years ago. He and Ilza, his Bulgarian wife who is also a well-accomplished artist, were then still living in Sydney, while I was based, among other places, in Samoa, writing on the devastating impact of Western imperialism on Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia. My political novel about war correspondents – Point of No Return – was already out.
I think it was the great Australian historian Gavan McCormack (professor at ANU), who suggested that George reads my novel: “He writes like your father”. Which made me swell with pride.
We began corresponding; then we met and became good friends. It turned out to be a habit of ours to take long strolls together, and to discuss politics and history, whenever I flew through Sydney.
Then we embarked on an enormous journey together – all over Indonesia – from Jakarta to the terribly poor and isolated island of Sumba, in the eastern part of the archipelago. We traveled and talked about the past, about our families, but also about the enormous US and European propaganda machine, and the distortion of world history. But even then, above all, we were discussing revolutionary art.
All around us was the wasteland called Indonesia, a country that fell the victim of savage capitalism and neo-colonialism. It had no zeal and no revolutionary spirit left in its veins and decaying flesh, and all the way as we drove it was frightening us with its open wounds and smell of decay.
I wanted to know all about Wilfred Burchett. To me his work was like a multi-faceted inspiration: it had both the firmness of a rock, and the pioneering spirit and mobility of a rocket, taking off towards the stars.
Now I needed to understand the man – what was behind all that great work? To put it metaphorically: I comprehended, I loved the song; but I also desired to understand the singer.
I read what the regime did to him when he was still alive; I read it as a powerful warning, a message: that those holding the reigns of power of the Empire would not stop at anything. They were ready to go all the way to prevent people from writing the truth.
I was not scared. For years I have been trying to do what Wilfred did so long before me. And like him, I was determined not to stop.
But I wanted to know the consequences of my actions; I had to be prepared.
George was generous: he was always willing to supply me with stories; sharing the struggle and pain of his father, as well as his own.
Thanks to him, I often felt as if I was part of the family. I never met his father – we were generations apart. But thanks to the stories I heard from his son, I often felt that I did – that we met; and that Wilfred Burchett managed to pass something essential on to me.
“Wilfred loved Hanoi”. George often referred to his father by his first name. “But wherever we were living, he never stayed in one place for long. He always traveled. He came and went. He wrote beautifully about the city, especially in his book ‘Vietnam North’. The way he wrote; it was not always verbally lyrical… however the lyricism could be seen in his photos… But then, it was Hanoi of 1966.”
Now we were in Hanoi of 2012, sitting in one of those subdued but unmistakably elegant and artsy cafes, called Cong Caphe. The walls were decorated with paintings – some sort of mild parody on Socialist Realism. The humor was kind, it was not full of the brutality that many Western galleries love to import from China; the comrade-girls with military hats, leather boots and exposed nipples and pubic hair spreading their legs in front of the portraits of legendary leaders.
In Hanoi things were soft, the past respected. We were drinking a delicious yoghurt coffee, a local specialty.
“I saw several Western teenagers skateboarding at the bottom of the Lenin statue”, I said. “That’s 2012… Nobody tried to stop them. You can imagine what they would do to them in London if they were banging the legs of Generalissimo Churchill with their boards…”
“Of course, things have changed”, replied George. “But the city is still beautiful and the essence is still there. Now I want to bring back the reality that my dad reported and to combine it with what exists now.”
“I went back to Hanoi in 2011, to organize my dad’s exhibition at Ho Chi Minh Museum. To have it, the exhibition, there; it is as prestigious as it gets in Vietnam. It turned out to be a very big event. At the end, I was received by the President and he told me that I am always welcomed in Vietnam.”
I recalled the email George wrote to me right after the exhibition. The words of the President unleashed emotions and they led to the dramatic decision: “I am going back.”
In a way, it was like saying, “I am coming home”. And sure, in so many ways Vietnam and the city of Hanoi were that real home that George carried in his heart for decades. When referring to Vietnamese men and women, he always calls them ‘my people’.
“When I was born, Wilfred tried to register me as an Australian citizen, but they refused me. The Prime Minister personally decided that I’m not to be an Aussie”, George told me on several occasions. “I only became Australian citizen in 1969, when my dad got his passport back.“
Before that, Wilfred Burchett had to travel on Vietnamese laissez-passer and later on a Cuban passport that was given to him by Fidel Castro.
George tried to live in Australia, with his family, for more than a decade. “I tried to love it”, he told me. “I tried to be a real Aussie.”
He went from one extreme of that vast country to another, living and working in the Aboriginal communities of the Northern Territories and later in the most cosmopolitan city of the nation – Sydney. “I made an effort, but I never felt at home there. It all felt pretentious and empty.”
And so he spoke to the President of Vietnam, and then he went home, in 2011.
“This is my Hanoi” he smiled. Now we were sitting at a table at a small restaurant, in the historic center of the city. There were bird cages, small flower pots, ancient trees and yellow facades of old houses, everything arranged elegantly, as if it was a set on one of Tran Anh Hung’s films.
Except that this was for real, it was real life, not a film.
And I felt happy that my friend George Burchett had finally returned home. At least one of us knew where he belongs.
One day during my visit, we went to the notorious Hoa Lo Prison, a place where French colonizers tortured and executed hundreds of Vietnamese patriots. During American War, this place was nicknamed Hanoi Hilton by several US pilots who were held here as prisoners of war, after being shot down.
This area was my home for three years; the building where I lived was literally growing from the prison premises, and from my windows I could clearly see an old French guillotine.
This time I had to film for my movie/dialogue with Noam Chomsky. I filmed the prison, now a museum, and then George filmed me, for yet another film I was working on.
Then we went to a local beer pub, ate mountains of roast pork and did some serious drinking. Life was good.
At one point, he exclaimed: “So many people don’t understand what this country went through! They had to fight the French to gain their independence. Then they were attacked, ravaged by the Americans. The West and China supported the Khmer Rouge, which was continuously attacking Vietnam. Then Vietnam liberated Cambodia, stopped the genocide and deposed the Khmer Rouge. The US protested. China invaded in a punitive excursion. Years later the Soviet Union collapsed.”
He snapped at the Western Left: “After 1975, Vietnam suddenly became the ‘bad guy’. It was not a hero anymore, after it liberated Cambodia. Some people even claimed that it occupied Phnom Penh. A chunk of the Left began singing that old tune about the human rights… until Vietnam had to open itself to Western money and to multi-nationals. And then Hanoi was once again wrong for doing so… What alternatives did it have? Only Cuba stood by it.”
By then we had a few beers in our stomachs. “The Western Left, or at least substantial part of it, hates all Left-wing countries and movements that ever managed to come to power,” I clarified. “It hates China and Vietnam, it hates Cuba and Venezuela. It wants to stay pure: doesn’t want to govern, and it probably doesn’t even want any Left wing country to exist… When one governs, one makes errors, but how else to move forward? Big chunk of the Left in Western countries only wants to cry about how it is being marginalized, it hates taking risks…”
On that we patently agreed.
The night was young. At one point, my old friend Dzung joined us in one of the cafes facing the lake.
“Your motorbike is beautiful”, I offered, a good old Hanoi compliment.
“It is actually much cheaper than the one that is parked next to it” she smiled, politely. She used to study in Moscow, during the ‘good old days’.
We went on talking about Doi Moi and about the growing army of nouveau riche.
Suddenly I did not want to leave either.
Jamie Miller continued in her report:
“One of the pillars of Warner’s depiction of Burchett was his seeming monopoly on the facts. When a large amount of government material on Burchett was declassified in the mid-1980s and released into the hands of maverick academic Gavan McCormack, that pillar collapsed forever. In his ground-breaking ‘An Australian Dreyfus?’ and subsequent forays over the next two years, McCormack systematically deconstructed the evidence underpinning Warner’s articles, the testimony given in court against Burchett, ASIO’s files, and the staple rumours on which the Australian press relied. The reverberations were so profound because the facts supporting each of these, due to Warner’s involvement at every turn, were much the same.
Some of the blows McCormack landed were devastating. His analysis of the declassified ASIO affidavits of Australian POWs, which Warner had been privileged to for years, revealed that the allegations that Burchett had interrogated Australian soldiers in Korea were unfounded. The affidavits in fact showed that Burchett had deliberately sought out Australian POWs, discussed the war with them (even if they rarely saw eye to eye), wrote home to their families on their behalf, and even drank whisky with them. As for British POWs, McCormack embarrassed Warner by revealing that the 1953 British Ministry of Defense report which Warner had cited as confirming that Burchett was involved in brainwashing, was actually published in 1955 and contained no such allegation, let alone the supporting quote that Burchett was ‘actively involved in brainwashing procedures’.”
Before I boarded my taxi to the airport, George told me the most essential: “When I went to Australia, I heard them calling my father ‘a traitor’, ‘a Communist’, ‘a torturer of POW’s’, all that nonsense. I had enough, and that is when I turned to painting seriously… I have done it for my father and for humanity. For all those people who still believe in a dream… That great dream called internationalism.”
“Vietnam represents the history that my family shares… And it is a truly heroic country.”
“Your dad…” I said. “What was really the chemistry between him and Vietnam?”
“My dad was formed by that great moment when Ho liberated the country. It was all enormous then: the Soviet Union, China…”
He waved as I was leaving.
I looked at his slender figure disappearing in the thick fog coming from West Lake.
There was one only thought on my mind: Australia fucked up endlessly: It produced and then pushed away the greatest journalist of the 20th century, a man so big that even a criminal like Henry Kissinger could not do without him when negotiating the peace agreement with North Vietnam; a man who single-handedly wrote an alternative narrative of the entire continent.
And then it lost his son, a great artist, one of the very few genuine internationalists that I met.
Vietnam, quietly but with strength and affection, embraced them both.
Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His book on Western imperialism in the South Pacific – Oceania – is published by Lulu. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear” (Pluto). After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website.
George Burchett, Australian artist living in Hanoi, Vietnam http://georgeburchett.com/