Hinduism in Vietnam

One of the subjects that fascinates me is the place of Hinduism in Vietnamese religious culture.
Large swathes of the central and southern parts of Vietnam were once part of the Hindu kingdom of Champa. This Hindu heritage is still evident in places like Quy Nhon and Danang, where the towers of Hindu temples are still extant and the Hindu Gods often feature in garden shrines in Buddhist temples.
Once you get to Saigon, however, this Hindu past is long forgotten. There is none of the popular worship of Ganesh and Brahma as you see in Bangkok, for example (or even Hong Kong, for that matter). There are still two Hindu temples operating in Ho Chi Minh City, but these are leftovers from the expatriate Indian communities that flourished in Vietnam War era Saigon, and who almost totally departed post 1975. Mariamman temple still flourishes, mostly because it's said to be particularly efficacious in granting the prayerful wishes of women seeking husbands, babies or both. It is also a popular pilgrimage site for women involved in the "entertainment" industries (I use the broadest sense of that term). It is distinguished by the voracious hoards of aggressive incense and flower vendors who sit outside waiting to pounce on (and normally abuse) the unsuspecting visitor. Once you make it inside, however, the shrine is pervaded with a pleasantly bustling atmosphere - young ladies praying and offering flowers, and accepting little bags full of flower petals in return for modest donations.
I much prefer the more sedate Chua Ong, located on the other side of the downtown district and almost entirely unvisited. This temple is dedicated to the male deity (whose name escapes me, though I have it written down somewhere) - the Vietnamese simply call it "The Mister Temple."
It is overseen by a dashingly handsome mixed race man who does the prayers and cares for the Gods. The temple is a complex of long, cool verandahs decorated with large, mouldy portraits of some of the key figures of modern-day India - people like Gandhi and Tagore. It is very quiet, and for some undisturbed prayer and reflection it is almost unequalled in Vietnam.

Prince Manvendra

I watched Oprah today (ok, so I'm in kind of an 'in-between' period) and she had a special on being gay around the world. It wasn't very cheery viewing, but she did feature the most adorable Indian Prince who has been disowned by his parents for coming out as a gay man.
Gorgeously attired as only a queen/prince could get away with, Prince Manvendra described his journey to self-awareness, via an arranged marriage and a good deal of social pressure to conform.
His mother didn't take it all that well - in fact, she took an ad out in the Indian papers saying she disowned the Prince and warned that anyone referring to him as her son would be sued. A picture of maternal love, I must say.
The Prince is tall and goofy looking, and absolutely charming with his old-world manners and truly regal bearing. I can't believe I haven't heard of him before! This man is a true gay hero, and deserves to be celebrated. His coming out was a true act of sacrifice and courage, and resulted in threats to his life and significant loss in social status. He now devotes himself to AIDS charities in India and dreams of finding Mr. Right.
Way to go Prince Manvendra! I could think of one or two other royals who could follow in your footsteps!

9 to 5

I am a child of the video age.
VCRs really got big when I was around 12 years old, and my technophile father bought one of the first ones in our town - a massive thing that clacked and whirred and cost about as much as a small car. I liked it - it opened up a new world for me. In 1982 there was only a very limited number of films released on video, and the choice for a Friday night's entertainment was eclectic, to say the least. I saw Fassbinder's The Marriage of Maria Braun and the 1970s animated sex-film Fritz the Cat and the outrageously racist and wonderfully old-fashioned 'documentary' Shocking Asia all in the space of a month. These were the films that shaped me. I also taped a selection of my favourite video-clips from TV music shows, and my sister and I would spend entire afternoons watching and re-watching and ultimately imitating such classics as Melissa Manchester's You Should Hear How She Talks About You and The Human League's Fascination.
When my cousins finally got a VCR it came with two free tapes. One was Flash Gordon (with its fabulous Queen soundtrack) and the other was, inexplicably, a tape containing just the first half hour of that great women's comedy 9 to 5.
This fast became a favourite, and every morning before school my cousin would pop that tape in and the entire family would watch that first half hour of 9 to 5 before heading off variously to school and to work. Pretty soon they had the dialogue down pat, and the entire family made mysterious references to key moments in that short piece of film that were imbued with a deeper significance.
Now, any film starring Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda has gotta be ok, right? Wrong. I just watched it again tonight, after a 24 year gap, and it is dire. Obviously they were aiming for a peculiar blend of high camp and social commentary, and mostly it just falls flat on its face. Lily Tomlin does a reasonable job with her tongue planted firmly in cheek, but Dolly (and I ADORE Dolly) is truly wooden. She may be many things, but she is not an actress.
The theme song is a true classic, but buy the soundtrack and give the film a miss.

Despite Straight Lines

Surely one of the most forgotten figures of the 80s must be that most glamorous of gender-benders, Marilyn. Marilyn was everywhere for a couple of years in the mid 80s. He was Boy George's best pal and sometimes competitor, and the straight press even hinted that the two might be lovers (though the idea was preposterous to anyone who knew anything about gay culture). And while Boy George was cute and cuddly (and no-one adored Boy George more than me), Marilyn was in-your-face sexy, and his androgyny came complete with a dangerous frisson of sexual tension. Marilyn was such a staple of the tabloid press, and such a figure of fun for the teen pop magazines, that everyone simply forgot that he was a singer and performer, and a very good one at that. Calling Your Name was a sublime piece of Supremes-inspired pop, and Cry and Be Free is still one of the greatest and most histrionic queer torch songs ever to have been released commercially.
But Marilyn sank without a trace, despite releasing what is for many (myself included) one of the greatest pop albums ever, the criminally overlooked masterpiece Despite Straight Lines. Marilyn had been described as the greatest white soul singer in the world, and even a cursory listen to Despite Straight Lines will confirm that. It is such a charming and listenable piece of pop-cultural celebration that I have never known anyone who didn't totally fall in love with it the first time they heard it.
Common wisdom has it that Marilyn's career was destroyed by heroin addiction, but Boy George has contended that it ended long before that, when Marilyn appeared on Top of the Pops singing Cry and Be Free and displaying such an overtly feminine (and smoulderingly sexual) performance that he simply frightened the horses.
For me the highlight of Despite Straight Lines will always be the bouncy pop anthem Baby U left Me, the video for which showed Marilyn for the first time as a trim, sexy and reasonably masculine young man. It was a song that sustained me through my final years at High School.
I only ever owned Despite Straight Lines on cassette tape, and miraculously it has survived till now, still quite listenable despite what must have been hundreds of plays. It is now over 20 years old! Imagine my joy when I heard on Facebook that it had just been released, for the very first time, on CD! I ordered my copy from the UK last night, but was rather worried to discover that Amazon had no stock. Still, fingers crossed. I may yet get to hear one of my most beloved albums in digital surround!

In Bruges

I watched In Bruges today, and what a peculiar and dark little film it is. It is also one of the best I've seen in a long while. It is an exploration of faith and death and warped ideas of duty set in the Gothic landscape of Bruges, with a suitably Shakespearean plot.
Colin Farrell is brilliant - he is such a fine actor, and I love his complete lack of vanity. For a remarkably beautiful man, he has allowed himself to be quite ugly and unlikable in this film, and he creates quite a fascinating character.
Actually, everyone is quite good. Ralph Fiennes is so lean and scary that he is almost unrecognisable, and Jordan Prentice is disturbingly sexy in his role as the christ-like dwarf who envisions an apocalyptic race war.
Indeed, the theme of the apocalypse is a recurring one, as is the exploration of guilt, pride and religious faith. Though most will read it as an arty crime story, I read it as a stark and ultimately depressing spiritual vision.
It's a must-see movie, and one that will keep you thinking for hours.
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