Tales From My Grandfather: Hoa Huynh’s Vietnam – Photo Essay – The Guardian | Episode Movies

Grandparents are a mystery, and when you superimpose cultural and language barriers, can we ever say we know who they really were?

Hoa Huynh – my Yeye or Grandpa – was born in 1928 in a small town in the central highlands of what was then the French colony of Indochina. His Yeye had brought his family south from China, fleeing the crumbling Qing Dynasty. And so Yeye grew up in Vietnam with dirt roads, oil lamps and cattle on the streets. Many of his friends and family had never heard of photography, but by the time he was 17, he was teaching himself how to make and process film.

A boy rummages through a garbage dump looking for valuables to sell

His work in the following decades in Vietnam and later in Australia focuses on human warmth and determination in the face of suffering.

Yeye’s photography career in Vietnam spanned decades. In the 1950s, he opened Lucky Photography, his town’s photo studio specializing in portraits. Back then it was mostly wealthy people who posed for her, but my yeye was interested in capturing a different class of people.

A man with a young child, both from one of the indigenous tribes of the central highlands of Vietnam
Yeye loved focusing on lived faces

Stern faces populated the homes of his five children throughout my childhood—although their stories were lost when we lost Yeye. Most of these portraits are of indigenous people from the highland tribes of Vietnam.

Differing in ethnicity and language, these people have preserved a culture that predates the modern Vietnamese state.

This culture fascinated Yeye – he traveled extensively to document the tribes and their way of life. He called her see gwái – literally “snake spirit” – and unlike other Chinese of his generation, he was interested in their cultures.

His skills as a studio portrait photographer came in handy as he encountered people on his travels.

At home, it was said, he was a master of post-production – a technical skill he acquired when he began experimenting in his kitchen-turned-darkroom. Armed with brushes, cotton swabs, and cardboard, he dodged, burned, and blurred to play with focus and light.

One of my biggest regrets is that I never sat down with Yeye to ask him about the faces in these images – or paid much attention as he worked on his art. Now we have only half-remembered stories and skills that have been lost over time.

In the picture above, a brightly lit child’s face. His mother stands behind him, her hands crossed over his chest and her arms around his face. In the picture below, a baby is being breastfed by its mother
Members of the highland tribes of Vietnam

Yeye got his first camera in 1945 when he was 17. A nearby French school had books on photography that he read to teach himself everything from photography to mixing chemicals and setting up a darkroom. I never heard him speak a word of French.

He was considered extravagant for his generation and pursued an art as his craft. If pursuing the arts is difficult today, it was far more difficult amid the turmoil of war and civil unrest. It made him enough to make ends meet, but not enough to be considered rich.

In 1962 my father was born, Yeye’s third son. That year, Yeye won his first photo exhibition (or his first competition – nobody remembers) and that’s what my father’s name was, Triển. that comes from the word for exhibition, triển lam.

As US troops invaded Vietnam and the war between the North and South escalated, Yeye’s time and energy focused on protecting his family.

Our family cites the case of Saigon giải phong – or “liberation” – even though we were on the losing side. It marked a pause in Yeye’s photographic career and a turning point in our family history. Like his own eye before him, he sent his children away to find a better life.

Four figures walk through sand dunes
Mui Ne sand dunes near Phan Thiet. Yeye took his youngest son Kien on trips to carry movie bags, beginning when Kien turned 10

Yeye moved to Australia in 1982, supported by his children, who had traveled by boat and on foot to a refugee camp in Thailand and then on to Australia. He marveled at the multiculturalism he found here and it inspired him to get back to the camera. This time he taught himself color and digital photography. Despite being retired, he dove headfirst into his art and even taught himself Photoshop.

Three men are on a boat on a lake, one is casting a net to go fishing
Men fish in a lake. Yeye looked at life’s mundane tasks and saw beauty in their struggle

Just before he died last month, he gave me his German-made Rolleiflex SLR camera – a working relic. It was one of his first cameras found in Saigon’s underground markets.

Yeye leaves behind five children, ten grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

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