From kitsch to art

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Audrey Tran, the owner of Saigon Kitsch, at her shop with a bag made from the same material as rice bags

I discovered Saigon Kitsch, a shop selling propaganda and other bric-a-brac related to Vietnamese history, by chance when I went there to interview a person upstairs.

At first sight, the shop on Ton That Thiep Street in Ho Chi Minh City's District 1 reminded me of Hanoi's old quarter with its propaganda paintings featuring the Party's historic moments.

Printed on mouse pads, cups, purses, and key chains are legends like Tinh huu nghi Viet Nam Lien Xo muon nam (Long live the friendship between Vietnam and the Soviet Union), Bao ve vung chac bien gioi cua to quoc (Protecting the nation's borders), and Dang Lao Dong Viet Nam muon nam (Long live the Vietnamese Labor Party).

The prices start at VND30,000, or US$1.50, for a key chain.

Propaganda paintings in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City often cost an arm and a leg, and are not easy for tourists to carry around.

The shop also sells fashion products from materials like rice, cement, and animal-feed bags.

It is owned by Audrey Tran, a 28-year-old French-Vietnamese.

Vietweek asked her how she got into the business at such a young age and what inspired her to work with such unusual materials. She replies in English.

"I wanted to create something different, something people need but can't find in Saigon, something I could make," she says.

While on a visit to Hanoi once in 2007, she was inspired by propaganda posters she saw in the old quarter and wanted to reproduce them.

Tran sounds like she knows what she wants.

She grew up in Paris with five brothers, playing football with them. After high school, she went to Les Plaisances College to study sport.

Tran is of Vietnamese, Lao, and French parentage. "My parents did not tell me much about Vietnam, but we had Vietnamese food at home often. Sunday it was pho. Banh xeo and com ga every week. My mum only cooked Vietnamese food.

"My parents brought from Vietnam things such as chopsticks and ao dai."

When she was 22, her mother passed away. "For three years I did not have Vietnamese food."

Saigon Kitsch, 43 Ton That Thiep Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, sells handmade items including bric-a-brac carrying snippets about Vietnam

In 2005, for the first time in her life, she visited Vietnam.

After three years without her favorite Vietnamese food, all her initial impressions about HCMC related to food.

She had only planned to stay for a month, but changed her mind and decided to work here.

She worked for restaurants and shops, but did not stick around for long at any place.

In 2008 she got a job as a manager at a fashion shop. It was at the same location as Kitsch, but soon closed down. "The French owner who had run it for around 10 years asked me if I want to take over. But I had no skill as a designer and I was not sure. But then she persuaded me that I have some skills and she believed I could take over."

But things were not easy. "Sometimes I could not sleep. There were so many responsibilities I had to be a designer, I had to pay the rent and the staff."

Products from "˜waste'

Kitsch is a 19th century German loan word describing cheap artistic stuff though it has since taken a pejorative meaning to describe objects or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness.

At Saigon Kitsch, there are many products that at first sight look like they were made from discarded materials, though, of course, they are not.

But to me it was a reminder that people should recycle stuff to save energy and the environment.

"There are four main things - rice bags, cement bags, paper, and tissue. They are not difficult to buy in the market," Tran says.

"The colors and details are already on the materials. The more colors they have, the more expensive they are."

After the interview, I bought a large bag. It was made from a treated cement paper bag in the color of sand and young lotus leaves (VND180,000).

I also bought a laptop bag of similar design and price.

Tran understands the material well, and calls it "durable, strong, beautiful, and different."

"A rice bag contains 20 kg of rice. A cement bag contains 25 kg. These materials are stronger than many other fabrics like cotton."

Showcasing Vietnam

"I want to show foreigners Vietnam's past, its history," Tran says showing me a notebook made of normal paper but which looks it is made from cement bags. The cover has a photo of Queen Nam Phuong, the last queen of Vietnam who lived in the last century.

"[The queen] was a good person. It invokes memories of her, reminds people about her."

She next has plans to make products from advertising banners.

"I have to create products for people, have to know what French, Japanese, Germans like."

Tran lives with her uncle's family in HCMC. He assists her with the graphics she sometimes needs for her products. But she herself handles most of the tasks like designing, working with the factory and workshop, and marketing. She has plans to export her products to France.

"Everything is handmade."

How has the job changed her? "[I became] more mature and friendly. I used to be reserved, I didn't talk to people. [But], for this business, I have to talk to people. I love it.

"For the first seven months things were very complicated. After that I loved it for a 26-year-old to be boss was nice."

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