Bui Xuan Phai in his son’s eyes [Part 4]

Bui Xuan Phai - Self Portrait on wax paper

Why you take me to the red dust?
Mr. Thieu Bao (formerly director of Minh Duc publishing house) came back to a difficult life without relatives after 15 years in prison (for involved in Nhan van – Giai pham affair). Mr. Thieu Bao was then a quite old lonely man with no career for the living. It was fortunate for him that he had a very small flat at Bat Dan street with an area of only about 4 meters, which was enough free space for only 2 persons. Mr. Thieu Bao opened a café there.
At first he also sold breakfast but it was expensive and not delicious then customers did not like it. He was no longer selling breakfast but only café and refreshment drink. His style and service was so surprised and funny because coffee was poured to a very tiny cup, like the cup for kids playing together, for every customer. But to a man who had spent years in prison, he felt it was quite enough and asked for no more.
I used to take my friends to this shop. It was mainly because I wanted to support him and also because his shop (No. 5 Bat Dan) was very near my house.
Sitting there while peaking at a coffee cup and listening to his talking about difficult years. He often said that: “Life is just as short as a nap”. Normally, Mr. Thieu Bao was a gentle and optimistic person. After coming back from prison with no assets, no money but he still had a dream for publishing. I often listened to his talking about development and strategies on publishing. I knew he was just boasting but for I felt pity for his difficult situation then I used to agree and encourage him. Sometimes in afternoon, he used to visit my house to have a gossip with Bui Xuan Phai. Others asked him “Why do you let your house unnoticed to come here?” and the ex-director answered: “Because I know that no one shall come to my house at this time”. Bui Xuan Phai valued Mr. Thieu Bao too because both of them had nice memories from old days. They often talked about the old time and laughed happily together. Someday I saw they were reading loud a poem which was like a song:
“Don’t care for what happens
How it happens is also of good for nothing
Don’t care for what we do
Whatever we do is also no matter at all”
I remember one time Mr. Thieu Bao asked my mother to give his letter to a widow who lived in the same street. Several days after that Mr. Thieu Bao received a reply letter. Nobody knew what the widow wrote to him in that letter, people just saw him seemed to be disappointed and blamed: “At this age, people need each other more than ever, why does she ask ‘why you take me to the red dust?’”
After the unfulfilled dream with that widow, perhaps Mr. Thieu Bao was disappointed in life. From then, I never met him again for he had moved to an unknown place. People said that he died for illness somewhere.

The wound of life
In 1982, Bui Xuan Phai made his last career “accident” in life. It was about the hand-writing draft of Hoang Cam’s poem volume. By that time, Mr. Thieu Bao (Tran Thieu Bao, director of Minh Duc publishing house) brought that poem volume to Bui Xuan Phai and asked him to paint supplement. Bui Xuan Phai agreed with his friend. He painted 6 paintings. After Bui Xuan Phai had read the volume, I took that and read. I found no big political problems and I did not know why it was called “reaction”? Then Mr. Thieu Bao came to receive six paintings used as supplement for the poem volume Back to Kinh Bac of Hoang Cam. The volume’s supplement paintings were painted by Bui Xuan Phai and its cover was presented by Van Cao. Several days later, poet Hoang Hung met complications (I also heard that by that time they wanted to transfer the volume to a French publishing house for printing and publishing). Poet was arrested while he was holding that draft on the road and he was condemned the crime of “storing reaction publications”. This poet was then gathered for re-education in 39 months for the case. The draft and supplement paintings of Bui Xuan Phai were confiscated. It was fortunate that Bui Xuan Phai was not convoked for examination. However, I knew that he was very worried and in anxious suspense. I want to note that Bui Xuan Phai’s six supplement paintings are very nice and valuable paintings today. If one has still kept these paintings, they should be transferred to Vietnam Fine Art Museum instead of lying silently in a strongbox.
I did not know why Bui Xuan Phai was “ignored” for his supplement paintings for the poem volume “Back to Kinh Bac” of Hoang Cam while related people were examined and some were put in prison. On those days, we were really worried when hearing Hoang Hung and Hoang Cam arrested, Thieu Bao examined…In this case, poet Hoang Cam was arrested and imprisoned for 18 months. Bui Xuan Phai was then like a fish put on the cutting board…
I did think that, the direction in 1982 was different from that in 1956. When talking with friends about this matter, one of them said that it was even good-natured in Vietnam in compared with Chinese Cultural Revolution. Let say if the situation happened in China then perhaps Bui Xuan Phai had been killed from the beginning let alone he had chances to practice his painting job for dozens of years like that. Moreover, by the 1980s, the name Bui Xuan Phai became so popular with mass people in Vietnam and in the world. If Phai was just a new painter in the case with no reputation, he would be surely suffered from punishment or deterrent words.
The case of some supplement paintings in 1982 was the same with a case in 1956. It means that Bui Xuan Phai also painted figures as his friends asked him to because I had never seen him say no with his friends. The case in 1956, due to the fact that he painted some figures for his friends then he was sentenced him to “faute” (involved in the VNGP group) and that punishment was not imposed on him but also on us (children of Bui Xuan Phai). All of us, five children of Bui Xuan Phai, were considered the problem social background and were not admitted to the Union. In the education system of Vietnam at that time, a pupil who was not a union member also meant that his chance to the university had been closed. If I had been allowed to the university, my destiny would have been different, maybe better than now or worse but it must have been different.

A time of meatless wine but long drunk
Any time being invited to a “friendly” party then masters would talk about the party during some days later and so did Bui Xuan Phai. After attending a party, if his friends came then they would have to listen to Phai telling them about the party with listing dishes. The listener also craved for the party then they sometimes washed down a sip of tea. And some days later, one of those listeners came back and “revenged” Phai by telling his party with specific dishes. Apart from listing dishes, these people also told the discussion contents at the party they had taken part in.
One time guests had come but they had to wait for another person, writer Nguyen Tuan could not stand waiting for a long time, he asked doctor Lan:
-Why does the “people-catching guy” come too late?
People all laughed for Tuan’s joking words. The “people-catching guy” in his sentence was Mr. Hung who was called “fish Hung” because he had been formerly a police officer.
I missed the chance to ask: How could doctor Lan afford every party each month for the three: Rook, Cracker, Horse – Nguyen Tuan, Van Cao, Bui Xuan Phai to drink into drunken state to talk out all? And why every time, they wanted the “people-catching guy” to participate in?
During parties at doctor Lan’s, Nguyen Tuan was always the center of the universe. Mr. Tuan often told funny stories with humorous comments to make the others laugh into death. Once he told the story about the time he was drunk in his friend’s house. On coming home, he walked on foot and took a rest after every short moment. It was unfortunate for him that, that day he took a rest right at the gate of an Embassy of a capitalist country while his mind was dreaming of the sky. He stopped telling the story and took a sip of wine. People kept quiet and waited for him to continue. One person asked what happened then. Tuan asked him:
– Have you seen anyone who can have a long dream in this Hanoi city?
Then he smiled and continued:
– When I was dreaming on the sidewalk then I startled because someone had kicked strongly to my buttock. The kick made me awake from wine and at that time knew that I was sitting at the gate of the Embassy of a capitalist country. A young police, maybe at my grandchild’s age, asked me seriously:
– Why do you sit here?
– I am tired
– Why are you tired?
– I am old
– Why are you old?
Tuan stopped telling and laughed loudly and happily then said:
I intended to tell him that old is old and ask him if he saw me a young person. That was the truth but that was also what they did not want to hear. Then I had to tell him the truth that I had just drunk with my friends.

Painting on a bamboo tape fan
After Bui Xuan Phai passed away, domestic and international collectors are very interested in objects that he had used such as the hubble-bubble, glasses, watch…and especially his bamboo tape fans on which he had painted. Today, these fans are considered of big value. Recently, painter Van Duong Thanh has given me a photo in which she was standing near two works presented on bamboo fans by Bui Xuan Phai, which are now being exhibited in a museum in Swede. Ms. Thanh told me: Bui Xuan Phai has become a Vietnamese painter having the longest exhibition in Swede which is named “Phai” and at the Ostasiatiska Museum in Stockholm. The exhibition lasted for nearly 4 months. An interesting feature is that paintings in this exhibition are all owned by the Swede. Director of Ostasiatiska Museum said that: in Swede, there are about 200 works of this painter. He borrowed 120 paintings and only exhibited 80 of them in the exhibition. These paintings were bought by Swede experts from Vietnam in the 1980s. According to the Director, the exhibition was successful beyond expectation. After having returned the paintings to their owners, there were still a lot of people coming with a wish to see such works of this talented painter.

Offspring of the famous painter
In several times I participated in exhibition of Bui Xuan Phai’s paintings in Asian countries such as Korea, Hong Kong…(and this year shall be Japan), there was a fact that the presence of the painter’s offspring was always considered important and necessary while in Vietnam this role is not really important. Visitors seeing paintings often met me to ask questions that made me exhausted to explain and then took photos with them. Especially, if there was any works attracting collectors (professional) then despite of very high price, they would agree to buy it provided that there must be offspring of the painter to take photo with them near the selected works. This was so important that the organization board asked me not to be absent during exhibition time.

The film “Phai’s street” 
Ukraine (formerly Soviet) film makers made the film “Phai’s Street” in 1983 to introduce career and life of painter Bui Xuan Phai. The film introduced a lot of works and described life and composing environment through periods of the painter. Not many people in Hanoi watched this film and the only person in the painter family watched this film was Bui Ngoc Tram, a daughter of Bui Xuan Phai. In 1983, when Tram was working in Russia, she watched the film on Russian Central Television. Tram was very moved and proud because that was the first time she saw her parents on TV in a Cultural and Arts Program of Russian Federation.
Bui Xuan Phai did not have a chance to see how he “acted” in the film. But he had complained several times about the case he “acted” in this film:
– They made the film then ran away. I got nothing while my half-storey was broken.
The half-storey was broken because two Ukraine film makers were too big and heavy climbing at the same time. The wooden floor being made of boards could not stand the over-weight then it collapsed. It was fortunate that nobody was wounded but people were startled by the fierce noise together with the cries of film makers.
Now my friend Tran Hau Tuan and I are trying to contact with the Ukraine producer to buy this film.

It’s dangerous
Bui Xuan Phai concentrated all his emotion and passion on the lines and he kept doing so until he had cancer. He became weak and could not leave his bed, the brush started to leave his hand. One day, all of us had to face with a grief that: He died. When all relatives and friends had left, I came to his bed and took his notebook up. There was his final line “IT’S DANGEROUS” scrawling near his self-portrait at the time he passed away. I will never forget that moment because I knew that I was witnessing an immortal love

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