Pham Huy Thong: The Dong Bao Series

by Joyce Fan


 “Whether you go up to the mountains or down to the sea, you shall let one another know if you are in difficulties, and you shall by no means desert one another.”

  • Lac Long Quan instructing his sons before their separation [1]


Born in 1981 then based in Hanoi, Pham Huy Thong is an emerging artist.  He began his career as an artist in 2001 while a student at the Hanoi University of Industrial Fine Art. Although trained in graphics, his entry in the Asia Vision art competition, a painting, received a commendation encouraging him to seriously explore the art form. Since then, he has diligently and single-mindedly pursued art as a career and is now a full-time artist.


Thong keeps himself abreast of local and international artistic developments, and has been resourceful in seeking ways and means to express his commentary on society, a daunting task in an environment where such practices are still not taken very kindly, and where artworks are subjected to censorship before public viewing. While painting remains his main focus, he has explored installation and performance art as a way to challenge societal norms and behaviours.


The same determination and doggedness can be felt in Thong’s current series, Dong Bao (children from the same womb).  Presented in part at the Bui Gallery, it is his second major solo exhibition in Hanoi. Thong toiled for two years to create 23 paintings, and the result is a series that is reflective of his self-confidence and mental adroitness in addressing his observations of Vietnamese society.


Dong Bao is centred on the interconnectedness of the Vietnamese as an ethnic group, a cultural sentiment deeply rooted in their creation myth. Thong integrates this sentiment with his observations of the effects on society of political and economic developments since the last days of the Vietnam War in 1975. Thong also questions what it means to be ‘Vietnamese,” first against the violence Vietnam experienced in the recent past and then positing it in the present economic boom that transformed the closed-door country into a market oriented economy in the last 25 years.


The Creation Myth of Lac Long Quan and Au Co

Affirming his own cultural and ethnic identity when explaining what dong bao means, Thong states that the Vietnamese are connected by kinship based on the belief that they are descended from the union of Lac Long Quan and Au Co:


“Since then the Vietnamese have called each other dong bao, which means children from the same womb. This is how we remember our creation myth. The story also contains a message of unity which reminds us that we are blood brothers and sisters and that we should always love, take good care of, and respect each other.”


Here, Thong calls attention to the creation myth in which 100 sons, a reference to the hundred or so Vietnamese family names extant, were born from the union of the Dragon Lord of Lac, Lac Long Quan and the Mountain Fairy Au Co.[2] Vietnamese history and culture are deeply rooted in an oral tradition that through the ages profoundly evokes a strong sense of belonging and shapes ethnic identity. The tales are verbally passed from one generation to another, and although several versions exist, the fundamentals remain the same. They seek answers to deeply meaningful questions that reveal how the world is viewed culturally and individually.[3] Thong represented this relationship symbolically through the figure of a baby whose umbilical cord is still attached. The infant is then linked with others through the cord giving meaning to the concept of dong bao.


Thong laments that given Vietnam’s violent history through the ages it is not surprising that its myths and legends are often about displacement and separation. Even in the creation myth, the narrative reminds one of the pains of division and severance. Thong wonders wistfully:


“Despite this meaningful creation tale Vietnam has a long history of killing, persecuting and factionalizing and even today discord and discontent between different groups are evident in our society. “


Relevance of the American War

His parents being journalists, Thong grew up in a household where there was much discussion of current affairs. He was aware of socio-political developments in Vietnam from a young age, and even though he did not experience the American War[4] directly, he understood its significance from living it through his parents. He wanted to express the desperation, pain and suffering that resulted from the war:


“The American War is vividly remembered and even immortalised by images published in newspapers and magazines. For example, the photograph by Hugh van Es of the evacuation before the Fall of Saigon showing hordes of people scrambling to get into the helicopter on the rooftop of the American’ CIA Headquarter is just unforgettable.”


Yet, Thong is critically conscious that the war is not his reality. He questions the relevance of his country’s recent history and its impact on his generation. His was one that enjoyed the fruition of an open economy that resulted from the 1986 implementation of the Doi-Moi (renovation) policy. The market reforms that permitted private enterprise were steps taken for the country’s recovery from economic depression of the late 1970s and early 1980s. His reality instead is the social problems brought about by economic progress. But, how different are these issues?


“Coming back to the photograph of the evacuation by helicopter, I could not help but think about how we are now aggressively climbing up the economic ladder. I saw the similarity in both situations – then and now – and how in both situations we are fighting for our survival. This gives me the idea of appropriating the photograph by van Es for my painting.”


Thong produced his first Dong Bao painting, significantly and symbolically completing it on 30 April to coincide with the dating of the photograph of the eve of the Fall of Saigon in 1975.  Entitled The Fall of Sai Gon, the helicopter is replaced by a Rolls Royce with a rotary blade and the CIA HQ building by a large stack of American 100-dollar bills, referencing the two things that society now covets as economic status. Consciously or perhaps subconsciously, Thong’s vehicle is not inviting for it has all its doors shut tight and windows up. Its deceptively pleasant background in pink evokes the interior of the mother’s womb, ascribing the limited space to the selfishness and self-centeredness of such behavior.


Using the same strategy, Thong based other paintings in the series on selected iconic images from the war. Appropriating these iconic war images, Thong saw himself, his generation and the present society as an extension of those who lived through the troubled times:


“I could not get the image out of my mind of a South Vietnamese shooting a suspected Viet Cong in the photograph taken by Eddie Adams during the Tet Offensive in 1968. This photograph turned public opinion against the war and Adams got a Pulitzer Prize. For my painting, I replace the gun with a toy gun where one baby points it to another in a similar pose. I could not help thinking that violence is in all of us, even at a young age.”


Thong went on to paint Purple Sky, based on another famous photograph of a naked young girl running out in the open following a napalm bombing. He empathized with her pain and her vulnerability, and painted her in the famous pose with outstretched hands running. He gave her companions to share in her suffering.


Another unforgettable event that happened in the war was the self-immolation of the monk, Thich Quang Duc:


“I also did a painting based on Thich Quang Duc, the monk who burnt himself in protest against South Vietnamese policy on religion, as well as images of tanks and boat people. Through these images, I wanted to point out that problems and situations in the past are still relevant to us today through the dong bao bond that ties us together as Vietnamese.”


Perhaps by remembering these iconic moments and images of the American War and using them for his paintings, it is Thong’s way of paying tribute to the many who fought, suffered and died for his country. He knows that he can never fully understand what the survivors experienced but he recognizes that the War is an integral part of who he is as a Vietnamese.


The Meaning of “Liberty”

Another set of paintings in the Dong Bao series is based on the Statue of Liberty in New York. This American cultural icon is a universally recognized symbol of freedom and independence:

“I wanted to explore the meaning of liberty in a society like ours, and also what it means to be free. As you know, being free does not necessarily mean that one can do whatever he or she wants. There are always constraints and it is really about knowing these limits. Of course these limits can be challenged.”


Thong’s liberty is a baby that sprouted hands or tentacles on its head, replacing the multiple-spiked crown of the icon. In these paintings, the baby appears to be rallying, commanding, instructing or directing, a reference made to the socialist structure that forms the core of Vietnamese society today. In one particular painting, however, the hands on the central baby are loudspeakers[5]. These were ubiquitous in the past, although are less so these days in Hanoi. Through these speakers, public announcements are broadcasted daily, announcements that concern people’s daily lives such as when and where health checks are carried out, to public campaigns aimed at modifying undesirable social and individual behavior. The baby also holds a loud hailer, and is clearly in command.


In the painting Playing with Kites, the baby is depicted with many hands reminiscent of a multi-armed deity such as the Goddess of Mercy which may at times be represented in such a manner. It even has several pairs of legs and is the central figure from which the umbilical cord splits and links with the other babies. Thong speaks through this potent image, as well as his other ‘liberty’ paintings, of the interconnectedness of the people within a society, and visually represents the complexity and dynamics of the social order.


Let’s Party and Just Do Eat…

For the final phase of the dong bao series, Thong wanted to look deeper into the idea of group dynamics and behavior. Peer pressure, social conditioning and the sense of safety in numbers determine, to a certain extent, how a random collection of people interact and influence each other. These social relationships are important constituents of a society in which processes such as norms, influences, roles, relations and the need to belong affect behavior.


Present-day Vietnam is a product of the post-Cold War Era, a result of the dismantling of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. This turn of events gave rise to the development of the so called “socialist market-oriented economies” where communist countries that once restricted outside access and also physical movement opened their doors to the world, inviting economic investment and promoting private enterprise. Despite rapid changes in both the political and social spheres that more or less benefited Vietnam in the past two decades, there are limits to the freedom of expression and speech. Thong wanted reminders of this duality. Through his paintings, he attempts to unearth the extent of ambivalence on the one hand and blind allegiance on the other.


The starting point for this final group of paintings was the idea of propaganda in Socialist Realist paintings. Socialist paintings are state approved works, generally commissioned for the glorification of the regime. They are often based on the idea of cult worship in which a reverent public figure is the motivator. As in group dynamics, there is always a person who influences, motivates and controls. Using this idea in The Celebrity, he painted an image of a celebrated personality addressing the public. While admiration and respect are publicly displayed, the burden shouldered by celebrity is unknown, perhaps even purposely ignored. Thong depicted the baby whose hands are shackled by the podium as one whose disposition is controlled and measured despite the circumstances that he may find himself in. In other paintings, the group members are seen following the leader in the direction that he has pointed out and in others, copying the leader’s behavior.


As in many socialist realist paintings, such works were meant for public consumption and often overwhelm the viewer with their monumentality, their sheer size or the images portrayed. Thong uses these ideas in his large canvases that mimic this monumentality, particularly the last painting of the series, The Last Party. This triptych is based on The Last Supper, and portrays an atmosphere of feasting and merrymaking. In his signature style, Thong injects his humor and cynicism into the painting through the various dishes placed on the long table. He draws the viewer’s attention to the ongoing erosion of the physical and cultural environment that is carried out in the name of progress:


“I wanted to conclude the dong bao series with a large painting. I want it to be a sort of climax, a culmination of my thoughts, views and observations of the society that I am living in. I decided to make it monumental in size, being the last painting I am doing for dong bao.


“I use the idea of Last Supper because first of all it is about a group of people gathering in one place. Of course the idea of food is important, especially to Asians who love their food. We are always talking about food, what to eat next, where to eat the best and so on. The idea of putting dishes on the table gave me the possibilities of summarizing my observations, so I painted the destruction, the ugliness and the undesirability of food being consumed.”


Thong’s journey over the last two years concluded with The Last Party.  It has been a rewarding and focused task for him as he thinks about the idea of kinship with his people, and among the Vietnamese, as well as the idea of ethnicity as an identity and how history has an impact and influences his and their mental makeup. We will certainly look forward to his next journey…


[1] Durand, Maurice and Nguyen Tran Huan, An Introduction to Vietnamese Literature, New York: Columbia University Press, 1985, 5.

[2] Legend has it that Lac Long Quan came to the Hong River Plain, known as northern Vietnam today, and subdued the evil demons that plagued the land. He civilized its inhabitants and taught them to cultivate rice. Before returning to the sea, he benevolently told the people to call upon him whenever they encountered troubles.  Trouble did come when a Chinese monarch seeing that the Plains were unclaimed, instituted himself as the ruler. Lac Long Quan in a strategic maneuver outwitted the monarch and captured his wife, Au Co, taking her to Mount Tan Vien. Unable to rescue her, the defeated monarch departed in despair. Living with Lac Long Quan, Au Co eventually gave birth to a hundred sons. Unfortunately for the couple, Lac Long Quan is from the Sea while Au Co is a mountain fairy. They were unable to resolve their differences, and soon separated with 50 sons each. Before they went on their way, Lac Long Quan made his sons promise that they would never abandoned each other.

[3] Leeming, David A., The World of Myth: An Anthology, New York: Oxford University Press, 1990, 16.

[4] What is commonly known to the rest of the world as the Vietnam War.

[5] These loudspeakers are mounted on top of electrical towers through the city and can still be seen in the some quarters of Hanoi.