Tales of my grandfather: the Vietnam of Hoa Huynh – photo report | Photography

Grandparents are a mystery, and when you layer the barriers of culture and language, can we ever say we know who they really were?

Hoa Huynh – my yeye, or grandfather – was born in 1928 in a small town in the central highlands of the French colony of Indochina. His yeye had brought his family to southern 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 at 17 he taught himself how to film and develop.

A boy rummages through a dumpster looking for valuables to sell

Her work over the decades that followed, in Vietnam and later in Australia, focused on human warmth and determination in the face of suffering.

Yeye’s photography career in Vietnam spanned decades. He opened Lucky Photography, his city’s photo studio, in the 1950s, specializing in portraits. At the time, it was mostly rich people who posed for them, but my yeye was interested in capturing a different class of people.

A man with a small child, both from one of the indigenous tribes of the central highlands of Vietnam
Yeye loved to focus on inhabited faces

Throughout my childhood, stern faces populated the homes of her five children – though their stories were lost when we lost Yeye. Most of these portraits are of indigenous people from the highland tribes of Vietnam.

Distinct in ethnicity and language, these peoples 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 them seh gwai – literally “ghost snake” – and, unlike other Chinese of his generation, he is interested in their cultures.

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

Back home, it was said, he was a master of post-production – a technical skill he picked up when he started experimenting in his kitchen-turned-darkroom. Armed with brushes, cotton swabs and cardboard, he dodges, burns and blurs 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 when he was working on his art. Now we are left with half-forgotten stories and skills lost over time.

In the top image, a child’s face, brightly lit. His mother stands behind him, her hands crossed over his chest and her arms framing his face. In the bottom image, a baby is being breastfed by its mother
Vietnam highland tribesmen

Yeye received his first camera in 1945, when he was 17 years old. A nearby French school had books on photography that he read to learn everything from how to photograph to how to mix chemicals and how to set up a darkroom. I never heard him speak a word of French.

He was considered extravagant for his generation, practicing an art like his craft. While it is considered difficult to pursue the arts now, it was much more so amid the turmoil of war and civil unrest. It brought him enough to get by, but not enough to be considered rich.

In 1962, my father was born, the third son of Yeye. It was the year when Yeye won his first photo exhibition (or contest – no one remembers) and so my father was called Triển, which comes from the word exhibition, triển lam.

When American forces entered Vietnam and the war between north and south escalated, Yeye’s time and energy were focused on protecting his family.

Our family calls the fall of Saigon giải phong – or “liberation” – even if we were on the losing side. It marked a pause in Yeye’s photography career and a turning point in our family’s history. Like his own yeye before him, he sent his children to seek a better life.

Four figures cross sand dunes
Mui Ne sand dunes near Phan Thiet. Yeye took his youngest son, Kien, with him on trips to carry bags of movies, starting when Kien turned 10.

Yeye moved to Australia in 1982, sponsored by his children, who had traveled by boat and on foot to a refugee camp in Thailand and then to Australia. He marveled at the multiculturalism he found here and it inspired him to pick up his camera. This time, he is learning color and digital photography on his own. Although retired, he dove headlong into his art, even teaching himself Photoshop.

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

Shortly before his death last month, he gave me his German-made Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex camera – a functional relic. It was one of his first cameras, found in Saigon’s underground markets.

Yeye is survived by five children, 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

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