A Vietnamese artist in his 30s has recently produced an album of digital paintings with hundreds of pages depicting Saigon – currently Ho Chi Minh City – from decades ago.
He takes delight in discovering and preserving the old values of this city.
Born in 1985, Kha Liem seems unrelated to Saigon of the past, but he loves boasting how he grew up among dated values.
The Ba Chieu Market in Binh Thanh District, the Chinese noodle shops near the Cay Queo Market, and the Dong Ong Co – a large field area near the suburbs – were his favorite roaming spots.
“At times, I feel disconnected as if the current time was not for me, as if I lived in the songs by Truc Phuong, Khanh Bang and the literary works by Binh Nguyen Loc or Le Xuyen [the songwriters and writers from the previous generations],” said Liem.
A massive artbook
His painting collection with 200 works surprised viewers, taking them back to a distant past.
Entitled ‘Saigon – Gia Dinh – Cho Lon – The Beautiful Memories,' the artbook is a joint effort by this artist and journalist Pham Cong Luan, who is also well known for writing about old life.
This collection features old temples, cinemas, portraits of singers, Chinese and Khmer pagodas, ancient villas, signage, and details of the old life in Saigon.
Liem can go on and on about long-standing houses and produce detailed paintings of them.
The artbook took five years to complete. As viewers browse the pages, the pictures seem like a vivid movie of the good old days.
|Kha Liem is a Vietnamese artist in his 30s who has recently produced 200 digital paintings of old Saigon, which surprise viewers due to their level of detail and uniqueness.|
Liem’s meticulousness allows viewers to zoom in on the details and patterns on the old architectural features.
Each and every painting is a standalone journey to over half a century ago when the Saigonese could listen to famed singers Thanh Thuy and Le Thu, watch the shining lights from the Baccara disco, feel the hustle of people crowding in to listen to traditional music performances by the Phuong Cuong band, and admire the bright lanterns hanging on the Nghia An Inn.
One viewer was confident that the paintings were reproduced from the original versions from decades ago.
This person was startled to find out how young their creator was.
“You have to live in Saigon of the past and have to taste its romance if you want to draw like this,” he said.
A keeper of the past
Liem’s artbook conveys a sense of reminiscence and modernity through his choice of colors, resembling his love for the city where he lives.
His artistic eyes remain curious about Saigon everywhere he walks past. To him, Saigon is full of unfinished stories.
To deeply understand the past, Liem makes an active effort to seek his answers from written records or from word of mouth.
From these references, he produced paintings both simple, viewer-friendly, and unique in perspective.
The man began delving into the old ways in Saigon 12 years ago.
He kept a collection of used music posters and a music newspaper printed before 1975, the year when Vietnam was reunified.
Liem was attracted by the simple style of southern artists, who made highly effective use of few yet harmonic colors.
“I was overwhelmed by the musical posters by the famous artist Kha Liem of the time,” he said.
|The Continental Hotel is the oldest hotel in Saigon and still operates now.|
“His was the same style – cubism – as Ta Ty, but Duy Liem discarded its complexity and brought in a drop of daily life, which matched the life of the Saigon residents.”
The artist’s paintings are original as he is driven by a huge love for details.
His digital paintings at a close-up look reveal delicate strokes, displaying in detail the aspects of old relics.
They depict most of the old features rather vividly and factually.
Both readers of the artbook and researchers can make use of his work as reference materials.
Kha Liem considers himself a keeper of Saigon’s old stories for people of the next generations.
For days he would, as a hobby, scan old music posters he got from other collectors into his computer to keep a digital version of them.
Painting fills the man with joy.
“At first I simply wanted to reproduce the atmosphere of Saigon based on the novels and music records that I kept,” Liem said.
“I had no idea what to do with these paintings at that time.
“I simply drew along my flow of emotions. I had my eyes fixed on the high-rise buildings dotted with old apartments when I was traveling along the streets.
“I would come back to those spots the next day, take a picture of the scene, and head back home for a painting spree.”
According to Liem, he got to know a lot of singers thanks to his works of art, and some people share his interest.
The process of finding resources got him even more deeply in love with Saigon.
He used to be chased away when he tried to photograph a Chinese-owned bread stand.
He was thrilled to discover the features distinguishing between an old-style and a modern bread stand.
“In the past, they [the bread stands] were made from wood and had 12 paintings covered in glass that told an old story,” he said.
“The modern metal bread stand merely has eight paintings.”
|Ben Thanh Market was built in 1914 and has been a popular tourist destination ever since.|
However, the man does not believe that the old values of Saigon – Gia Dinh and Cho Lon are fading.
To him, the soul of the city remains although ancient houses turn into rubble.
What he felt pity for the most is the manually painted signage hanging everywhere in Saigon in the past.
“As these signs vanished, the life of the city became less glamorous,” he concluded.