My photograph, “The Temple of Confucius, Hoi An, Viet Nam” is part of a group exhibit at the Black Box Gallery in Portland Oregon. Black Box is located at 811 East Burnside St. #212 Portland, Oregon 97214. You can view the full exhibit online here.
The rain season is approaching in Hoi An. During these past few weeks, I’ve been treated to extraordinary lightning and thunderstorms. Perhaps these storms are frequent here, and only remarkable to me. I’m not sure. When a gully washer arrives, I open the drapes, lay beneath the bed covers, and watch the flashes of light explode in my room.
My new home doesn’t offer as good a view of the lightening as my previous one did, but the view is adequate. Down the hall from my room is a skylight that makes a tinkling sound as the rain falls.
When I was young, I sat for hours listening to the rain. Our porch had a fiberglass roof, and the storm created an echo chamber of meditative drum taps, not unlike the sunroof in my home now. I find the sound calming and soothing, not unlike a long walk through the country.
Weeks ago, the morning skies were full of clouds. Now they arrive in the afternoons. After a bright summer, the clouds are a relief. Although I prefer photographing in the mornings, before I even eat breakfast, I’ve shifted to shooting later in the day when the clouds soften the light.
Reading: The Guide by R.K. Narayan
Eating: My favorite French restaurant, whose previous offerings were a touch utilitarian, has revamped their menu. The food and presentation, especially for breakfast, is delightful. I’m still searching for a good lunch restaurant that nails Cau Loa and fried noodles, and I skip dinner to control my weight.
Music: Strauss’s tone poems, especially Metamorphosen, have grabbed my attention recently.
When I was young, I would often walk into the town of Sebastopol after my high school let out. After visiting the book stores, I’d go to a burger joint called Supreme Burger and have, appropriately enough, a burger called a “Supreme Burger” or a deep-fried burrito, which we now call a chimichanga. Sometimes a friend, who was in a bit of a financial bind, would accompany me and I’d buy him a burger too.
After I graduated, I remained loyal to Supreme Burger. It was run by a woman, and her daughter and the mother was amiable. But then something happened. A Burger King opened up the street. I was excited, mainly because I didn’t understand the economics of business. To me, the new Burger King indicated that Sebastopol was entering a period of modernization. But the owner of Supreme Burger, who clearly did understand business economics, knew what was going on. Burger King meant the beginning of local businesses being squeezed out.
That’s not to say that Burger King was the first chain to enter Sebastopol. There was a Safeway, a Sprouse Ritz, a Rexall Drugs, and others that all seemed to cohabitate with the other businesses in Sebastopol. But Burger King was different.
Before long, Supreme Burger was sold, and the food served by the new owner wasn’t as good. And then a chain called Tuttle’s Drugs opened, and Peace Pharmacy closed. The last time I looked, Pease had been replaced by a playhouse. I believe that Rexall also closed. A Whole Foods Market, which is now owned by Amazon, now sits where Tuttle’s used to be.
These chain-stores changed the community of Sebastopol and siphoned money away from the community to where their corporate offices were. Along the way, they also siphoned away Sebastopol’s character, which seems to have ridden out of town along with the “Train Down Main”, and it’s now far more generic than it once was.
I’ve been thinking about what happened to Sebastopol lately because I’m seeing the beginning of something similar in Hoi An. A VinMart, a store similar to a 7/11, has opened a few blocks away from my home. This is the third VinMart that I know of in the city. I shop there, encouraged by a friend who reminds me that they charge westerners the same price as locals, whereas if I buy from locally owned stores, I pay more. (The solution is that I ask my friend to buy things for me, and we get the lower price.)
I’m not alone. Every time that I go into that VinMart, it’s busy. Not just westerners but also locals shop there, apparently a lot. Part of the draw is that VinMart stocks things that I can’t buy at any other stores, such as my razor blades. And part of it is that we as a species love the new and shiny.
But what does VinMart’s success portend for local store owners? Most of the stores that I see here are what I call owner-occupant, meaning that they have a store in the front of their house, and they live in the back or on the second floor. I fear that what I’m witnessing is exactly what I saw three to four decades ago in Sebastopol — the decline of locally owned stores.
Before too long we’ll see a Starbuck’s here, or three. There’s already one about 45 minutes away in Da Nang, and I’m sure that the market here is too enticing to ignore. About the same distance away is a Kentucky Fried Chicken, and far closer is a Burger King. There’s no McDonald’s nearby yet, or Sizzler (I was very surprised to see a Sizzler in Bangkok).
Hoi An is, after all, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and tourism appears to be its central industry. As the big companies move in, what happens to those people running their businesses out of their homes?
That’s not to say that all the locally owned businesses will fail, nor did they in Sebastopol. But the stakes here are rapidly getting higher.
My first experience with Bergger Pancro 400 was a complete disaster. Several years ago I tried a box of 8x10 film, which I developed in BTZS tubes, and all the images were irreparably scratched. That’s because Bergger has two emulsions, one silver-bromide, and the other silver-iodide, coated on each side of the film base. Those two emulsions are said to give Pancro 400 its creamy quality, but, because the emulsions were on different sides of the film base, one of the emulsions came into contact with the inside of the tube, shredding the images when I pulled them out. I swore I’d never use it again.
Never is a long time, and my memory is a bad one. Recently, while visiting the camera store, the salesperson recommended the Bergger Pancro 400 in the 120 size. Since I’m now developing in a Patterson tank on reels, I decided to give the film another try.
My first results, using Kodak’s HC-110 dilution B, were surprisingly grainy. After some research, I learned that a complaint about Pancro 400 is that the grain appears in the highlights, as evident in my high-key images. Bergger's website says that each of the two emulsions gives a different amount of grain, and it appears that the emulsion activated by the higher zones is more pronounced. But I loved the film’s tonality, so instead of giving up, I decided to experiment.
With some adjustments in exposure and development, I no longer find the highlight grain objectionable. In fact, it's hardly noticeable. What I’ve learned is that Pancro 400 isn’t a film that likes to be over-exposed (unless you want a lot of grain), or over-developed, at least not in HC-110. Most other films don’t relish overexposure or overdevelopment either, but Pancro 400 seems particularly averse to either, with such pronounced grain that it looked like I’d photographed with a 35mm camera instead of medium format. Bergger recommends developing the film for 9 minutes at 68 degrees, and I’ve scaled my time back to 8.5 minutes to great benefit, and may pull back further to 8 minutes. While processing, I continuously and softly invert the tank for the first 30 seconds and then perform two gentle inversions every minute, which is less aggressive than my previous agitation. With this new approach, I’m happy with my negatives.
More importantly, I’ve realized that this is a film, again at least when paired with HC-110, that loves the low values. So there’s plenty of rich differentiation in the tones below zone 5. That’s a little different than I’m used to, but I’m coming to love it more and more. In my case, I meter at ISO 400 or even a third to two-thirds of a stop less, which brings the film alive.
Pancro 400’s rendering of those delicious darker zones is what has kept me returning to the film.
I've also returned to this film because of the price. Bergger is more affordable than many other films, such as Rollei, at least in America. People were critical of the cost when Pancro was first released because it was so expensive. That's changed, and this lower price makes Bergger even more enticing to shoot.
Next, I'm going to develop it in Ilford ID-11 to see what happens.
Down the street from where I’m staying, along a route that I ride almost daily, is a Buddhist compound with a large pagoda. It’s not the only Buddhist compound in Hoi An, by any means. Despite its relatively small size, there are many temples, churches, and shrines here. Spirituality is in the air, which is why I’m relishing my stay.
One morning I visited the pagoda. A group of nuns was eating breakfast in silence off to my left. Entering, after removing my shoes, I found one of the most beautiful Buddha in a city of beautiful Buddha. All statues of the Buddha have a presence, but this one was extraordinary.
The golden Buddha sat in the traditional lotus posture with its left palm in its lap facing upwards symbolizing heaven, or spirituality, while the right hand on his right knee to show contact with the earth, or being grounded. This mudra is called the Bhumisparsha mudra, and it symbolizes the moment the Buddha attains enlightenment. Enlightenment is further emphasized by the painted bodhi tree in the background under which he’s sitting. Looking at this mudra I also see the Buddhist path of “the middle way” as it shows a unity of heaven and earth.
This is the first statue of the Buddha that I’ve seen that employs painting the way that this one does. It almost felt like a diorama.
After praying, I took this photograph.
As I was leaving a nun came walking by, looking at the ground, just as the statues of the Buddha do. I stopped to let her pass, but she just stood calmly, choosing to allow me to go first. We never made eye contact or spoke (clearly she was in silence), and I put on my shoes and left.
Had I been rude in visiting their Buddha, I wondered afterward. That wasn’t my sense. Perhaps she was concerned that I wasn't behaving respectfully (many of the temples in Thailand have a watcher sitting with the Buddha to ensure proper behavior), or perhaps she was just curious. Or maybe our encounter was random. Regardless, I found that moment of meeting the silent devotee as moving as meeting the Buddha himself.
Motorbikes cross through the intersection, often nearly colliding, as I pull my gear from my backpack and set up my camera. I’ve been in Saigon almost exactly 24 hours, and the clouds are partially blocking and unblocking the sun, creating a chiaroscuro of light and shadow. These light effects are what has inspired me to stop.
But the light has changed, becoming duller and gray, so after setting up all I can do is wait while watching the motorbikes and cars negotiate who has the right of way through the intersection.
Two different riders pass by and show interest in my camera. The first is a young man who says “wow!” while the second is someone older than me with a gray goatee who looks at the camera, looks at me, smiles and nods a knowing smile. I wonder if he’s previously used a view camera.
During my previous visit to Saigon, a man came up as I was taking pictures with my Mamiya C220 and talked about how his father used a similar camera (I assume he meant a twin-lens reflex) when he worked for a newspaper. Then he suggested that the camera belongs in a museum. The Mamiya is a work of art, and I agree. I wonder if he would say the same about my view camera.
The cloud cover grows heavier. It rained some an hour earlier, though there isn’t any precipitation forecast now. But the signs are ominous. The light shifts, the contrast rises, and I’m able to take my photograph. Afterward, I eat a quick dinner and return to my hotel. Twenty minutes later, a storm lets loose, and the bonsai outside my window heave to and fro in the wind as the rain slams against the building.
Ghosts walk the streets in Hoi An. Recently I was delivered to a friend’s spa early in the morning for a visa run. We arrived to find my friend standing in her doorway with three prayer sticks in hand, praying. Upon finishing she placed two sticks outside her spa, and a third near a building across the street.
I asked her about her placement of the prayer sticks. Usually, I’d seen them set outside of someone’s business or home (here they’re often the same place), but the one across the street confused me.
My friend, I learned, years ago had lived in the mountains, and, desperate for money, came to Hoi An with her two children. They slept on the streets and somehow transitioned into staying in the building that sat across the street from her spa. Although now the building houses shops and is very presentable, back then it was dilapidated and dangerous. Water poured through the roof when it rained. The conditions were so bad that she feared that building might tumble down on her and her children. But it wasn’t always that way.
During the war US troops walked through the streets of Hoi An, shooting the residents. One of those killed was the husband of the family that owned the building. His wife, heartbroken, died soon afterward. Their daughter, who was away studying in private school (they were a wealthy family), returned and, overwhelmed with grief from losing both her parents, took her life. Afterwards the building deteriorated.
But their daughter hasn’t found release. Instead, she haunts the building and the surrounding area. When my friend moved in, she began to pray to the daughter asking that she not reveal herself to her, or her children; that she not frighten them. She makes this request daily, and the girl has left them alone.
As time passed my friend started selling soup and her fortunes improved. Now she’s very successful. And each day she prays to the girl, asking that she not haunt her or her children. Each day her prayers are answered. Others haven’t been so lucky.
At night, across the street from my room, the second floor of the homestay pulses red. All night, and I assume, all day. Because the house has tall slit-like windows that remind me of eyes, I can’t help but feel that the home is somehow angry, a cauldron of pulsing emotion - the haunting of hill house. Likely, though, it’s the shrine to Buddha that I often see in the homes and businesses of Hoi An, pulsing with life.
The Aussie came and sat at my table as I read on my iPhone and sipped peach and lemongrass tea. No names were exchanged, but we spent a fair amount of time talking. He was a doctor, a GP specifically, in his early 70s. Years ago he’d married a woman from Hoi An whom, ironically, he’d met in Australia. She met her first husband, a college professor and also an Aussie, in Hoi An, whom she left him when she grew tired of his escapades with his students. She and her second husband returned periodically to visit friends and family.
During our conversation, we discussed how different Viet Nam is from Australia or America. I mention that I grew up in the country, raising chickens and cows, seeing them beheaded with cleavers, or waiting for the butcher from Bodega to dispatch and slaughter the cows. He worries he says that his children won’t understand where food comes from. Society has distanced itself from nature, or perhaps the negative parts of life. Beef comes from the restaurant kitchen, as does chicken. Or they’re found in the grocery store, and now it’s easy not to think about the conditions of circumstances under which the animals live, and die. He suggests that I eat liver and brain for my fibromyalgia. I politely decline.
Later, I see a motorbike drive by with a caged pig on the back. I point, and we both watch silently, then return to our conversation about something completely unrelated.
The restaurant I was breakfasting in was nothing extraordinary, which is exactly what I like. When visiting a new town, I like to sit in restaurants listening to the locals visit. In the Silicon Valley region, I usually would overhear conversations about technology; website content, marketing plans, ideas for start-ups, etc. The conversations that I overheard in other areas tended to be more personal.
In a Starbuck’s in Northern Santa Rosa, I overheard a a group discuss the Bible, and the participants were honestly and genuinely debating some of the concepts therein. In Eureka, there was talk of fishing and job hunting. (There’s a nameless town in between that I make a point of driving past after I visited their public library and found an official sign in the bathroom asking the patrons not to pee in the floor drain) Perhaps the most unexpected moment occurred in the town of Lone Pine.
I was in a fast food restaurant when one of the patrons, sitting behind his white 12” MacBook said “the n****r,” and continued with his conversation. I was certain I had misheard. Then he repeated it, and again, and I came to realize that he was speaking of President Obama.
Although the conversation was loud, and many must have heard him, no one said anything. Finally, the person he was speaking to saw my face, whispered to the man, who fell silent.
When I finished eating, I walked past him on my way to dump my garbage. He watched from the corner of his eye but didn’t look up. I’m not sure what I would have said if he had. From there I drove to Manzanar, the site where the many Japanese-Americans were imprisoned during WWII, and just sat, reflecting. Cars entered and exited the main gate, and I saw people touring the prison, and visiting the museum. I stepped out walked around, photographed the guard towers, and drove off. I didn’t want to speak to anyone, didn’t want to go inside and see how these Americans were mistreated. The wound was still too raw from breakfast, so I drove off to return another time.
Lone Pine was not my first in-person experience with racism against President Obama. Years before I had been sitting in a gym locker in the city of Petaluma, while the tv on the wall broadcast the President speaking. A person in front of me looked for a moment, growled, and said: “You shouldn’t be allowed to be.” When he saw me looking at him, he became self-aware, regained his composure, and stopped speaking.
Progressives I know wonder how President Trump, a man who brags of being a sexual assailant and someone who traffics in racist and sexist language was elected. We blame the people in the (derisively described) flyover states, such as Kentucky and Louisiana. The answer can be found more closely in the people sitting and standing right next to us.