Viet Nam News
by Nguyễn Quang Sáng
On the 100th birth anniversary of the painter Foujita of Japan, his works become the most sought after by art fans worldwide. Based on his adventures, art connoisseurs came to the conclusion that a few of them were left in Việt Nam. From the USA, France, Australia, Canada and so many other countries, they contacted Vietnamese galleries in Hà Nội and Sài Gòn, by phone, email and letter, trying to secure the paintings at any cost, especially the one portraying a cat. Every artist has a typical work bearing the stamp of his or her talent for posterity. For Foujita, it is none other than the oil-painting of a cat.
I was lucky enough to witness one of those chases. From Sài Gòn a few men took express trains while others flew to Hà Nội. In the southern megacity a lot of art hunters searched high and low for Foujita’s works in many galleries along Đồng Khởi Avenue, or in a few smaller ones in its side streets. Unfortunately, they all went home empty handed.
“Don’t beat around the bush, Nam. Where is the painting of Foujita’s cat?” I asked my friend, also a well-known businessman in Sài Gòn, one morning.
“In my possession, of course,” he replied with a triumphant smile. “Do you remember my recent trip to Hà Nội?” he added.
Usually, previous to taking a trip, he would tell me its purpose. Then we had a small party to congratulate him for his success after his homecoming. Curiously enough, this time he only knocked at my door while I was just waking up.
“Nam, what’s the matter?”
“I’m going to leave for Hà Nội.”
“Have you already got a flight?”
“Not yet. But it doesn’t matter for the time being.”
“I’ll take you to the airport?”
“Oh no, no need for that! My car’s waiting for me outside.”
I don’t know how he got a seat for the early flight that day. Surprisingly, he always finds a way out easily.
* * *
We have been friends for years. In 1948, three years into the anti-French resistance war, we met each other in a special school for adult classes temporarily set up on the edge of the U Minh Jungle.
“Where are you from?” I asked him.
“The armed forces.”
“Hmm, how many months have you been in the army?”
“What a question! Two years, since 1946.”
“How old are you?”
“Really? You joined for adventure, eh?”
“Oh no; nothing of the kind! Completely out of patriotism.”
“As an errand-boy or a greenhorn fighter?”
“A well-seasoned soldier in the strict sense of the word.”
I observed him carefully but doubtfully: a small boy with blonde hair, high-forehead and small body.
“I know you don’t believe that I’m a real combatant, do you?”
“What else could you do in the army?”
“A liaison boy of the company.”
“What class in the primary school did you finish before joining the army?”
“The 4th grade only.”
“You did well at school?”
“Always ranked fourth or higher.”
It turned out that we were both born in the same Year of the Goat. During our learning period in the woodlands, we shared the same desk, even the same bunk beds. We were never separate from each other.
* * *
“Yet, that day why didn’t you tell me that you were going in search of Foujita’s paintings?”
“Oh, it was secret that I couldn’t disclose at that time.”
Later on, he told me about that trip:
I flew to Hà Nội for an exorbitant airfare. Reaching there, I hired a vehicle with a rent three times higher than usual, not a car but a moped. That morning, I met one of my female assistants to let her know my purpose. I told her that before the Japanese troops’ invasion of Indochina, there had to have been an advance party. But who were they: missionaries, spies, men of letters or sportsmen? Certainly, none other than the worldwide famous painter Foujita! I also told her that when she had arrived in Hà Nội, she had to make acquaintance of some artists and that a few Foujita paintings were surely on display in certain Hanoian galleries.
* * *
Nam also told me something else about his living conditions after leaving the armed forces:
After being demobbed, I came to live in Sài Gòn. I also looked forward to seeing you, but all my efforts came to nothing. Then unexpectedly, I turned up at your place on a rainy afternoon, guided by an ex-soldier of my unit. So, from 1954 to 1975, we both hadn’t seen each other for more than twenty-one years. And now at the age of nearly forty, with hoary hair, we were lucky enough to hug each other tightly.
“We’re both still alive after the war years!” I blurted out.
“At first, I thought that you’d lost your life during a battle somewhere. Luckily, fortune smiled upon both of us,” I said further. “Now, it seems to me that your memory is pretty shot, isn’t it?”
“You know me too well,” he told me.
“Now, I’m merely an ordinary southerner,” he said. “You were one of the men regrouped to the North and then back as a militiaman in the rear. You’re entitled to enjoy most privileges of a soldier, whereas I have nothing because I lost my ID card together with other important documents. What I need is a clean and clear CV notified by such an ex-revolutionary as you, that’s all,” he added.
“OK, no problem!” I confirmed.
“Thanks a lot. I’ll deal with my personal situation later. But now, I must go at once,” he said.
“You’ll leave for Hà Nội by plane?” I asked.
“No no, impossible! Air tickets aren’t available at this hour.”
“Oh no! In my own car. I’ll drive it myself.”
“You’ll go all the way without any assistant?”
“Of course, not! Bye-bye,” saying so, he stood up to set off with a warm smile.
Much later on, he told me a long story about his living conditions in Sài Gòn after leaving the army and about his married life:
We lived in a hired, neglected and empty pigsty, close to a burial ground at Củi shanty town. I began improving it by making earthen walls around and roofing it. Our bed was nothing but a few wooden planks supported by four piles of bricks. One night, a downpour came down for hours and turned the hard ground full of dry pig dung into a filthy, stinking mass of unbearable mud. ‘I must get rich at any cost,’ I whispered softly to myself during a terrible nightmare. ‘People like us can hardly dream of a better life,” added my wife.
* * *
After that homebound trip from Hà Nội, Nam came to me in an excited mood.
“What do you think about the North?” I asked him.
“Words fail me! Worthy of being the origins of the nation,” he observed.
After that he told me lengthily about his short journey:
At first I only regarded it as a simple business trip. Unexpectedly, it was more than a promising one. Fortune smiled on me, indeed. On the Northbound route, I stopped my car midway at the seat of a local administrative committee to have dinner and ask for the shortest way as well. All of a sudden, I saw three antique porcelain flower vases on top of a big cupboard. Observing the colour of their enamel and design carefully, I realized that they were the products made under the Kangxi rule of the Qing Dynasty in China. When I dealt with those items through the office leader, he spoke to me in an indifferent voice.
“What makes you notice these obsolete and valueless things?” he asked.
“Why do you think they are all useless, sir?”
“When American aircraft dropped bombs over the North, they were sent here, far from urban centres, for safety. Upon the restoration of peace, we informed the official owners of their existence at our locality, but they said nothing about them.”
“They are worthless in their mind’s eye, perhaps,” I said to myself.
“Your car looks so splendid. What make is it?”
“May I have a look at it?”
“My God, how cool it is in here!” he said after sitting down next to the wheel. Outside, it was very hot because it was in the middle of summer.
“Well, do you want me to drive you around a bit?”
“For sure!” he answered.
“Do you like this car?” I asked him while I was driving. “If you want, I’ll exchange it for those flower vases in your office.”
“Really? You’re kidding!”
“I give you my word!”
“That sounds good. By the way, where are you staying tonight?”
“Maybe in a hotel or guest house near here.”
“You’d better stay in our guest house. Tomorrow morning, I’ll deal with this matter with my staff.”
“So, you need someone else’s permission?”
“I want them to share responsibility with me.”
Throughout that night, I just thought about the magnificent vases made under the Kanxi sovereignty. The next morning, while I was half awake, I heard many strong knocks on the door. Hardly had I stood up when the door flung open and the establishment head turned up.
“All of them have agreed to exchange the vases for your car,” he said, smiling happily, when he got in.
“In delight, I left my car behind and flew back to Sài Gòn at once,” he disclosed.
“You took them along by yourself,” I asked Nam.
“No!” he laughed heartily. “I asked the boss’s men to package the whole lot for me before having them shipped to the Sài Gòn Port. All the shipment costs and the fare for that man went to my bill. The trip together with his stay in a hotel here was free, of course. Moreover, I treated him a few dinners in a luxury hotel,” Nam told me.
“Have your precious and rare goods arrived here?” I asked.
“Yes, they all did, yesterday afternoon.”
“Did you get a good deal then?”
“Frankly speaking, the antiques were dozens of times more valuable than my car. Now I no longer have to maintain or fuel my car or pay VAT, whereas the vases are nothing but dirt cheap pieces of earthenware, untaxable. Well, that was my first successful trip to Hà Nội.”
“So, you’re an antique connoisseur,” I remarked.
“Oh no no, not quite so! You’re kidding.”
I mentioned one famous author in Sài Gòn in the field of antiques, then asked him, “Who is more famous, between you and him?”
“That’s a tough one! His mind creates words while mine makes money. We’re poles apart, you see.”
“When did you first begin this career?”
“During my stay in the detention camp years ago! Do you remember Điền, the guy who shared she same desk as mine in our classroom? One day, while I was taking a stroll along a pavement, I was arrested, for in jail he said a lot of a things about me. Paradoxically, it was in that prison I became a hard-working pupil.”
“Can you tell me about those miserable days in prison in more detail, please?”
“The precious lessons in prison proved very useful for me when my detention came to an end. This is what happened:
One morning, I went to Cầu Ông Market to get a snake-headed fish to cook soup for my better half, who was ill at home. The fish looked twice big compared with my calf. When I passed by the section for pets, I saw lots of market-goers standing around a tiny Siamese fish with two gorgeous fins. It was offered at a hundred đồng while my big fish cost only two. “Oh dear, a pet can fetch much more than a piece of meat, no matter how different their sizes are,” I realised, a concept that I would remember my whole career. After that, I began thinking about books, especially antiques. I strictly follow these basic tenets of business year after year. Now thanks to them I can enjoy a life of plenty, you see.
“OK, Nam, please come back to the story of your stay in jail in detail,” I urged him.
Oh yes, when I was taking a stroll along a large avenue, I found two guys in dark glasses walking close to me, each on one side. Scared, I intended to enter a small alley to stay away from them. Suddenly, one of them placed his hand on my shoulder. Looking back, I saw a special card issued by the Metropolitan Police Department in his hand, as an introductory gesture. Immediately, he urged me to follow him. That was his polite way to arrest me. Then he called a taxi. “Eh, remember that the fare shall be paid by the caller,” I blurted out angrily. He cast a nasty look at me, smiling derisively.
“What have I done wrong?” I asked him.
“You weren’t present at yesterday’s ad-hoc meeting of your comrades-in-arms. So, one of them asked me to look for you then take you back,” he answered.
It turned out that the informant Điền had revealed my secrets to the police.
In jail I was lucky enough to make acquaintance of a scholar good at Chinese language and soon I became his pupil.
Each time I learnt some new words from him, I licked my forefinger then jotted them down with it on the cement floor. As a result, it looked this rough, you see. I learnt his lessons by heart before I left the prison. Outside, I increased my Chinese vocabulary in many ways: on any pieces of antique available and in stories written by modern Chinese authors. I set up a publisher of my own for translated works. I’ve learned a lot.
In addition to the stories he told me I was also aware that he did his business in other genres of art like drawing pictures of animals like horses, birds and monkeys and so on, creating paintings of landscapes, even making juvenile publications. In casual clothes, he drove his Toyota car here and there to gather unmarketable works on display in galleries and shops, as many as possible. Later, when art works proved in great demand, Nam’s products sold like hot cakes. A lot of them became much sought-after among foreign collectors. Several of them fetched ten taels of gold, whereas they cost him next to nothing. Gold was difficult to take out of the country, while paintings in rolls were no problem.
“Some said I was mad, but I thought otherwise,” said Nam. “In my view, with the withdrawal of American troops from Việt Nam, the Sai Gon administration would soon fall. In that case, its banknotes would soon become worthless. That’s why I spent my Sai Gon banknotes on antiques,” he went on.
“What about Foujita’s cat picture?” I asked Nam.
“His full name is Foujita Tsuguhara. He was born in Tokyo in 1886 and died in Switzerland, in 1968. He’s a well-known Japanese-born French painter and sculptor. He is called a Picasso of the Orient. In 1941 he travelled to Indochina and resided in Hà Nội for a long time. It was there he opened a gallery first. Then together with some other Japanese painters he held an exhibition with a little catalogue whose first cover bears the figure of a multi-coloured picture of a big cat; on the fourth, there appears a sample of the Indochinese piastre under his signature. One copy of this catalogue is in the Tokyo Museum of Arts. The pet is done in a vivid style that until now no painter has been able to produce a similar work.”
“Why a cat and not other pets?” I asked.
“That’s a secret that only Foujita knew, I think,” he replied. “Sometimes, I also put such a question to myself. But on second thoughts, I realised that among domestic pets, the cat is the most original of all. It stays indifferent to your return home, it lies in wait for its prey motionless, and then suddenly it prances to attack a poor mouse. In addition to these features, the cat drawn by Foujita looked very lovely. Its grace seemed unnoticed to others. I went to Hà Nội when the BBC stated that this year his 100th birth anniversary would be marked all over the world. Reaching the capital I went in search of the address of an artist that Foujita had known. Of course, this Vietnamese painter died a long time ago. Thanks to the introduction of one of my friends, I paid a visit to the first-born son of that deceased Hanoian artist. Unexpectedly, this guy recognised me at once. ‘Bad luck!’ I whispered to myself.”
“I was known to be a wealthy man, who always gets and sells things at a very high price. That means that they must be very precious objects. Therefore, I tried to trick him. I told him that on this trip to Hà Nội, I wanted to get a few little fine things, say, sauces and cups or teapots and the like to take home as a souvenir of the capital,” replied Nam.
“Those things are unavailable in our shop for the time being. What I’ve got here are only a few old paintings,” he said to me.
“Frankly speaking, I don’t know much about art. Besides, in my opinion, the better-known pictures by talented painters are, the more difficult for us to understand,” I told him.
“Actually, I have some easy to understand works of a master on display here.”
“No no no, I don’t need them. If you know any other shops with small valuable old earthenware items, please tell me.”
“For those things, I can’t help you at all. Yet, I have beautiful paintings to show you.”
“Thanks a lot, but not now,” I shook my head. “Back in Sài Gòn, I’ll introduce a few art collectors to your place,” I said after making him believe that I’d leave right away.
“If you say so.”
“Quickly, please take me to the painting galleries so that I may have a look at them first, then I’ll recommend them to others.”
“Yes, certainly, sir,” he said in a joyful voice.
Looking at three paintings by Foujita on the wall, I heard my heart going pit-a-pat. One of them described a Hanoian girl, another one dealt with a European young lady and the rest portrayed a cat that the art circles had been looking for the most. “Why don’t you keep a few of them all as your own souvenirs, instead of selling them?” I asked him in an indifferent voice.
“We’re badly in need of money to improve our house to make it more spacious for our family to lead a more comfortable life, sir.”
“The next morning I flew back to Sài Gòn without any further promises. I chose out of my close assistants, a girl, who was clever but not smartly dressed, neither luxurious and elegant nor plain and rustic, but honest, to fly to Hà Nội early next morning.”
Entering that painting gallery, my representative cast a fast look at few Japanese paintings, which were just simple copies, after she greeted its owner. One of these works shows a pretty Japanese girl by a tea set, another depicts a beautiful Japanese lady with a guitar. She said that she agreed to buy both at the prices twice as much the one offered by the seller. Getting a noticeable profit, all the members of his family proved very pleased. As a result, they were all willing to let her see another drawing of a cat by Foujita. After many disputes about its price between the two sides, they decided to sell her the whole set, including the third one, of course, for one and a half taels of gold.
Upon the arrival of her flight, I drove my car to Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport to welcome her coming back with the three Foujita’s precious pictures. On the whole, in this deal I earned a lot. Including her airfare and board and lodging, I paid only three taels of gold in total. A huge profit! I felt in seventh heaven.
“Well, come to me this evening, eh!” Nam suggested.
“Viewing the picture of the Hanoian girl drawn by Foujita, I remembered the faces of the Hà Nội young ladies of yore I used to admire in the romantic autumn air,” I told Nam. “Then I was taken aback when facing the eyes of a European lass, those I seemed to see somewhere for the first time. All of them seemed to look deep into my soul. Surprisingly, they enabled me to remember the real ones in life. And the third one with the cat! Its posture with a slanting look aside. The pet appeared to miaow, miaow with the smiling eyes of a sage,” I went on.
“How do you find them? Wonderful, aren’t they?” asked Nam.
“I think so!” I nodded.
* * *
Some months later, several Foujita painting hunters got wind of its owner.
One day, a well-known painter in Sài Gòn, also my acquaintance, came to see me.
“To the best of my knowledge, you’re Nam’s friend?” he asked me suddenly.
“Yes, he’s an old friend!”
“Unlucky for me!”
“I was told that he owned several rare paintings by Foujita.”
“Yes, I have seen them.”
“Oh, splendid! Can you introduce me to him?”
“Why so? In order to look at them?”
“Far from that! One of my friends in France emailed me to get a few works by that artist.”
“Why don’t you come to him straightaway?”
“Oh no no, impossible! I know his fastidiousness very well. Without a prior recommendation, he would refuse to meet me point-blank or just shake his head, saying that he didn’t know whom Foujita is.”
I did as was requested.
Consequently, that Saigonese painter got the Hanoian girl’s picture for two taels of gold. As for the oil painting of a European young lady, Nam sent it abroad for an auction. The work portraying the cat though, he kept it for good as a precious keepsake.
One evening, he visited me with a special story.
“Last night I had a weird dream, perhaps due to heavy drinking. That was about the cat of Foujita. While I was contemplating it, it suddenly sprang over me. When I got up, it dashed out of the window. In confusion, I switched on the light then opened the wardrobe. The cat painting remained there. I spread it wide on the desk. It turned into Foujita who stared at me, smiling brightly."
Translated by Văn Minh