East Meets East: The Hà Nội New Music Ensemble and The Ancient Ensemble of Tonkin on November 4


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A handshake contract with my good friend Dam Quang Minh in Bac Ninh.

A handshake contract in Bằc Ninh with my good friend Đàm Quang Minh of the Ancient Music Ensemble of Tonkin.

I am happy to announce an important development for serious music in Việt Nam. On Friday November 4th at the second concert of the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble we will begin a long term collaboration with the Ancient Music Ensemble of Tonkin. As an American arts advisor to new music here, I’m proud to have been a catalyst for this long overdue fraternity of friends, and should you be in Hà Nội, make plans to join us at 8 PM in the Grand Hall of the Việt Nam National Academy of Music in a concert honoring the 60th anniversary of the Academy’s founding.

It’s been quite a busy time since I arrived in early September.  Not to mention the monster crowd that greeting our opening concert at L’espace on Sunday!

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A Circle of Trust: the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble Season Begins Sunday October 23


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Working on every detail with Vu Khanh Linh and Giang Dương.

Working on every detail with Vũ Khánh Linh and Giang Dương.

Being creative is like riding a bicycle: either you keep going forward or you fall off. – Pierre Boulez

Sunday night at 8 PM the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble begins its second season at L’espace, sponsored by the l’Institut français du Việt Nam-Hà Nội. A group whose time is long overdue, I’m honored to be to help these hard working Vietnamese musicians as their artistic advisor and conductor.

A triangle of countries, France, Việt Nam and the United States, blends with a triangle of cities, Paris, Hà Nội and Los Angeles, for this second season opener. The new music world potential for my friends is vast, but much hard work has to come first. Excepting the usual suspects of classical music, you name the 20th century composer and you might be leading a Vietnamese premiere!

Looking over the horizon, I predict you will see a new music wave in the next few years cresting in Southeast Asia with the emergence of the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble!

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A Pilgrimage to Chùa Dâu, the Oldest Buddhist Temple in Việt Nam


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Chua Dau, at 3000 years the oldest Buddhist temple in Viet Nam.

Chùa Dâu, at 3000 years the oldest Buddhist temple in Việt Nam.

It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop. Confucius

Rarely do I experience the guardian angels of my life coming back to Earth, encircling me with love, humility, thankfulness, generosity and, as I acknowledge the unavoidable fate of being human, life memory. As momentous as a baptism, wedding or funeral, these rare moments of spiritual contact leave a new connection, refreshing me for the next chapters of my life.

At Chùa Dâu, the oldest Buddhist temple in Việt Nam, I had one of those spiritual moments finding the guardian angel, the bodhisattva, of my work in Southeast Asia, Loi Trinh Le.

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The House in Bắc Ninh


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Is this Provence or Viet Nam?

What do you think? Provence or Việt Nam?

Culture neither survives nor advances by accident. Decades of violent rupture does not bode well for continuity. In the case of Việt Nam, it takes people dedicated to renaissance to find out about the past after decades of turbulent experience. What our friends here are faced with gives the definition of the word contradiction a whole new vocabulary.

My wife and I weren’t totally clear on the significance of a text from our friends Bông Hoa and Vũ Nhật Tân. “Minh and us want to take you to a village in Bắc Ninh to the oldest ceramics maker area in Việt Nam.” Sounded innocent enough.

I’m not sure if anything is innocent in Việt Nam. There is always a new layer to be uncovered, and for us, never more than on this day.

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The Obama Combo: Bún Chả Hương Liên in Hà Nội’s French Quarter


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Where to order the Obama Combo.

Where to find the Obama Combo in Hà Nội’s French Quarter.

“Jeff,” texted my friend Vũ Nhật Tân, “I want to take you and Jan for Obama bún chả in French Quarter, not far from where you stay. They are now so busy that we should meet at 10:30 AM for early early lunch or 5 PM for early early dinner. OK?”

That’s a text message that was easy to answer!

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The Superpower Street Food of Hà Nội and a Home Cooked Meal


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With Tran Thu Thủy, my Vietnamese tutor, upon arriving in Hanoi.

With Trần Thu Thủy, my Vietnamese tutor, the first photo upon arriving in Hà Nội last week.

I didn’t leave my heart in San Francisco, even though the City by the Bay is home to some of my oldest dearest friends on Planet Earth.

When I have to find where I left my heart, I need to get on an airplane, fly 24 hours (via Tokyo, Taipei or Hong Kong) and begin another chapter, what is now the eighth, in my ongoing love for a country that will always lurk in the background of being an American.

I left my heart in Hà Nội, Việt Nam.

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A Malaysian Tropical Spice Garden Party for William Kraft & Friends


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A late summer lunch with Jan and friends Heidi Lesemann, Bill Kraft and Joan Huang.

A late summer beef rendang lunch with Jan, Heidi Lesemann, Bill Kraft and Joan Huang.

You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough. Mae West

If I had to define patriotism, it would be the tastes of your childhood. If I sample a mixture of brown sugar and butter, I can go all Proust on myself and remember my mother’s cookies. And if I had to define maturity, it would be the evolution of taste acquired over time and exposure to many different cuisines.

Which is another way to say that I didn’t grow up on the Malay specialty of beef rendang!

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Climbing the Batu Caves of Lord Murugan in Malaysia


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The imposing Lord Muruga at the Batu Caves.

The imposing Lord Murugan at the Batu Caves.

Cheyon, Senthil, Velan, Kumaran, Svaminatha, Saravanan, Arumugam or Shanumuga, Dandapani, Guruguha, Subrahmanya, Karitikeya, Skanda. Let’s just admit that Lord Murugan, the son of Shiva and the Commander of the Gods and Victory, goes by a lot of names throughout India, Tamilnadu, Kerala, Puducherry, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Phillipines, Indonesia, Singapore, the surfing island of Réunion and Malaysia.

With the inspiration of businessman K. Thamboosamy Pillai, the Batu Caves outside of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia became identified with Lord Murugan in the early 1890s. Since 1892 the Thaipusam Festival in early January/February is celebrated here with endless throngs of worshippers crowding the 272 steps up to the top of the caves. The imposing statue of Lord Murugan was erected in 2006 and is the largest Hindu shrine outside of India.

Climbing the 272 steps? Unforgettable.

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My Journey to the East: In Search of Hermann Hesse, W. Somerset Maugham & The Singapore Sling


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A puppet shop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

A puppet shop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

I do not bring back from a journey quite the same self that I took. W. Somerset Maugham The Gentleman in the Parlour

I can now easily locate my fascination with Asia when I remember certain events and people of my childhood. I’ve already written about Harry Woo of Hong Kong, who worked for my parents, reading to me in Chinese while pointing to his calligraphy. My first memory of a world outside of my family is of being taken to Chinatown for dinner in Los Angeles. I doubt I’ve ever forgotten the blue silk dress and lavish blue mascara of the server. And my pediatrician’s nurse was Japanese and the kindest soul on earth to me whenever I was a sick child.

At least I now recognize that these memories help me piece together those now far away moments of Asian awakenings, creating a map of my life and the new decisions that shape its events.

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Finding the Best Asam Laksa in Georgetown on Penang Island in Malaysia


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A sunset over the Andaman Sea on Penang Island in Malaysia.

A sunset over the Andaman Sea on Penang Island in Malaysia.

Perhaps all of our lives changed 518 long and almost forgotten years ago.

On May 20, 1498, in the waning months of the 15th century, Vasco da Gama became the first European to set foot in India. The world would never be the same again. Food would irrevocably never be the same again. And as if ordered by fate, da Gama would die in Portuguese India’s Cochin on Christmas Eve, 1524. His death, 26 years after his first landing in India, still resonates in the 21st century. The geography of the Portuguese explorer’s passing reminds us that, like us, he would not be able to physically extricate himself from having made contact with the East.

In a global world that’s here to stay, we are all still trying to understand each other.

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