Spiritual waste, traditions and alternatives in a city of 8 million people: a talk with artist Chi L. NGUYEN

— Anh NGUYEN

Chi L. NGUYEN is a young Vietnamese artist. Born in a family of known artists in Hanoi, trained at the University of the Arts London, Chi embraces her Hanoian identity and all of its soulful contradictories – this whole nostalgic, idly hustling, contemplative vibes, and at the same time, her analytical mind sharpened by the long years living in the West.

I met Chi for the first time in a café called De.Tầm in Hanoi, December 2019. We tried out funky, wildly imaginative drinks that Hanoian cafés & bars have been very keen on making lately: pineapple coffee for me and some-blue-bean-flower infusion for Chi, and talked about so many different things: arts and artistic endeavors, traditions, ways of life in the North of Vietnam, nature and the serious lack of nature in cities…

This talk happened 2 years later, on Zoom. Though we didn’t have that same luck to sit in a café in Hanoi together, the richness of the discussion, as usual, did match what I always expect from Chi. We discussed a phenomenon that Chi finds quite paradoxical and has been investigating for the last one year and a half: how come a spiritual individual, who is devoted to higher beings such as the Heavenly Deities and Nature, can overlook nature and natural preservation endeavors right in their daily life?

An incense pot by a lake in Hanoi. (Photo from Chi’s instagram)

C: I don’t know if you know this, but last summer 2020, Hanoi went through the longest heatwave in 49 years. It’s just getting hotter and hotter every year, in 2019 we also broke a record for the highest temperature in summer. It was so hard to work properly, and everyone was just on their edge, ready to be exploded due to the 40 degrees mark outside. 

A: And this doesn’t help with the rapid constructions of tall residential buildings inside of the city, does it? I was quite shocked back in 2018, after three years away, coming back and saw so many new 20-something-story buildings in areas that were rice paddy fields when I left the city in 2015…

C: Totally. It is becoming super urbanized here and everywhere you look there is a tall residential building. Hanoi city has its own micro-climate, coupled with the heavy air pollution, the situation is quite dire. I don’t seem to see any concrete short-term nor long-term solutions to solve this air pollution problem from the government side.

But there isn’t any official analysis or insights into the situation from the government-run press. I had to read independent sources such as Planet Titanic in order to get updated on the evolution and impacts of climate change and environmental degradation in Vietnam. 

One of my projects was on the gradual disappearance or degradation of lakes and ponds in Hanoi. Some were leveled out to create new space for building constructions, while others were polluted due to waste dumps. There are never any audited and transparent environmental studies on the impacts of leveling out a lake, there were just some orders and then it’s done. The others that are still there, on the other hand, are heavily polluted and their ecosystems are irreversibly damaged.

*** Author’s note (A/N): according to this article from VietnamNet, a government-run media, 97% of lakes in Hanoi are polluted. ***

Chi’s exhibition on the gradual disappearance of lakes and ponds in Hanoi at the Vietnam National Museum of Nature

A: If you could list two main reasons for this situation of pollution and environmental degradation in Hanoi, what would they be? 

C: The first one could be the mindset of “everybody’s business is nobody’s business”. (A/N, Chi used this saying in Vietnamese, whose literal translation is“when a Father of everyone dies, no one will cry for him.”). Public property or space, especially when that property is quite “intangible” as natural surroundings, is no one’s business. At the same time, there is virtually no fines applied if you litter or degrade these public properties or space, which should be the second reason why. 

A: How come? Is the municipal office supposed to impose written laws on littering and illegal waste dumps?

C: Virtually nothing. There are always other more urgent or important matters to be taken care of instead of pollution and environmental degradations, aren’t there? For example the construction of new buildings and economic zones or traffic congestions. I don’t really know what their main concerns are, to be honest, anything but environmental degradation. 

When researching for my exhibition on the disappearing lakes and ponds in Hanoi, I saw that the last report of the Water Environmental Science Institute was issued in 2015. 

A: So what about citizens? They do see the degradation of the living environment around them, don’t they? What are their main concerns then? 

C: Daily survival. (A/N: Chi used the expression in Vietnamese, literally translated to “food, clothes, rice and money”, the equivalent of “bread and butter” in English). 

Because you have to survive the hustling of life, anything that is convenient to you will do. Will you have time and a clear mind to even ask the lasting impact of this plastic bag used to carry your food from the market? If you do, good for you, but will the vendors at the market – who certainly have a much more difficult work life than that office job of yours, have the time and mind to think of such impact?

A: What are the reasons for such a cut-throat daily life? As I left the country right after college, it’d be a lie to say that I grasp all the aspects of working life in big cities in Vietnam…

C: For the younger generations, a growing population leads to huge competition in the job market with immense stress. With more and more people going abroad to get their educations, the job market becomes fiercely competitive. Once you get the job, you’ve gotta keep it, work harder and earn more money in order to finance your family’s lives. 

The weak social security system and rising costs of living in Vietnam altogether cause a high level of anxiety, and everyone must work hard in order to secure a good life. That’s a more urgent and important thing to be concerned about, for example. 

A: Indeed. People, therefore, in general, do not have enough time and headspace to think about environmental degradation. Let’s talk about spiritual waste then, this is quite a sensitive topic. Because we are discussing traditions and beliefs that have existed for hundreds of years.

C: Totally. The “spiritual waste” that I demonstrated in my exhibitions was mostly old wooden altars, ceramic incense holders, incense ashes, dumped in lakes and rivers in Hanoi. These “holy” items, used to honor the ancestors and the Deities, were dumped into a large body of water after an annual cleaning session. The belief here is that the water will help cleaning these holy items, making them “lighter” in a way. This is a way to pay homage to the ancestors.

*** A/N: This practice has been widely criticized by environmental activists and also religious leaders. A huge amount of spiritual waste is dumped each year into the Red River and several lakes in Hanoi after the year-end cleaning of altars. The religious leader Thich Nhat Tu from the Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam considers the practice to be a “wrong belief” and not aligned with the teachings of Buddha, which only focuses on remembering ancestors by doing good deeds. He called to break free from this “tradition” – a degrading situation in which the next generations follow a wrong belief of the previous. He uses a Vietnamese saying “cha mẹ làm thầy con cái đốt sách”, literally translated to “parents being teachers children burning books”, which means wrong teaching leads to devastating “tradition”. ***

Every year-end period, many households tossed old incense pots or wooden altars into the Red River. Photo source

Burning joss papers or incense is also a problematic practice in terms of air pollution. This has been a tradition for hundreds of years, but with a growing population, if each family burns just a bit of papers each month for the Full Moon, the whole city of 8 million people will have to suffer an abnormal amount of smoke. 

A: What are your suggestions in this case? My family does not throw alters and incense holders into the river, but it’s still quite hard for me to imagine if we must stop burning joss papers or incense…

C: I discussed with the founder of Kilomet 109 this point lately (A/N: Kilomet 109 makes sustainable high-end clothes through traditional & 100% natural techniques & materials). She too advocates that we must keep the tradition of burning joss papers and incense to stay in touch with the ancestors and the holy spirits. 

I don’t agree with this. Traditions are beautiful and we do need to preserve them as much as we can in general. But if it’s no longer compatible with our lives today, we must make the traditions adaptive. If traditions stand in the ways of us moving towards a cleaner, more environmentally responsible future, they need to be let go. 

A: That being said, I think it’s also interesting to look at the carbon footprint of a standard Vietnamese in comparison to a standard European. It’s 2,20 tons per year for a Vietnamese and 9,62 tons per year for a Dutch, or 18,58 tons for a Canadian, for example. 

So it does not necessarily mean that a Vietnamese person should abandon their traditions of lighting incense to remember their ancestors, but people from a“developed” country should cut off on their domestic flights or industrially processed food first?

C: Still, it does not intervene with the fact that we must reduce our emissions on our side first, within our own measures.

A: Haha I tried…But I’m still convinced that there must be a way to preserve traditions facing the climate urgency

C: Hopefully yes. If we would still like to be in touch with our ancestors and the Deities through rituals and tangible offerings, it is time we come up with a more eco-friendly way? You know a session of Lên đồng and how it can be extremely wasteful right? As any of other types of religious practices.

*** A/N: “Lên đồng“ is a type of shaman dance, in which the shaman becomes the spirit medium for various folk Deities. To learn more about this folk tradition, I invite you to read this paper “Staging the Spirits: Lên Đồng – Cult – Culture – Spectacle” that sums up very well the beauty of this practice, as well as how its image evolved in Vietnam, from a “wasteful superstition” viewed by the Government in the 80s-90s, to a “part of cultural heritage” nowadays.

Like any other types of religious practices, in this paper “Reenactment and Heritagization of the Sacred in Urban Hà Nội”, the author points out the booming of “spiritual tourism”, in which trips can be expensive “due to renting a small bus, preparing chicken, fruit, flowers, and incense as offerings, buying paper votive offerings to be burned at the locality of the temple, and donating money in front of the shrine of each deity, etc.

This is part of a bigger picture if we look at spiritual and traditional practices across the globe. In this article “One Man’s Trash, Another Man’s Tradition”, the author cites examples such as the pilgrimage to Mecca, with more than “2 million pilgrims emitting 60.5 kilograms each of carbon dioxide per day – as opposed to a global average of just under 14 kilograms per person per day – as a result of transportation and lodging.” Or during Christmas each year, “the UK produces 30% more waste than usual, air travel around the world spikes, and 540,000 tons of wrapping paper fill Canadian landfills.

In conclusion, any religious practices might be wasteful, depending on the followers & the widely agreed customs. ***

Chi’s installation for the theme “Beyond Destruction”, based on the traditional Vietnamese funeral flower arrangement.

A: It is feasible to still have a rich spiritual life with much less waste. What is the key element to making the switch, in your opinion?

C: There is a stark difference between superstition and belief in Asia in general. When you have a belief, you try to be mindful and following the teachings of your ancestors and other Deities, to be benevolent and dedicated towards others and yourself. 

But superstition is different, you look for answers from the Spirits in order to earn more money and fame, to have a better life. It’s the kind of primitive mindset in which you leave your life to chances, fearing some invisible supernatural forces that will take care of you and give you what you want. This helps with the business, however, now that beliefs and traditions have become some sort of merchandised commodities. The Deities are no longer just Nature-related forces but have long become quite human-like, to whom out of fear you exchange tangible offerings to receive their blessings. 

A: Indeed. As much as I would like to preserve the traditions & folk rituals, nowadays there is a spectrum of attitude towards the randomness of life. On one end you find Respect, in which you accept that life is totally random and there are forces(among which there is Nature) that you can never control, still you continue to live your life while respecting all that. 

On the other hand, there is Fear, where you find yourself scared of the unknown, and must therefore trade some offerings(whatever it is, both spiritual or physical) in order to secure a given level of perceived security…

To wrap up this talk, would you like to share with us your next projects? 

C: Sure! With two artist friends, I co-founded a Design collective called SonSon, sharing mutual practices in visual arts and inferior designs in relation to sustainability and ecology. I’ll continue the pursuit of artistic projects, exploring the harmonious trinity, to my eyes, of Human – Nature – Spirituality.

  • To follow her innovative artistic projects, find Chi and her works on her website and on Instagram.
  • To follow the projects of the Collective SonSon, find them on their website and on Instagram.

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