Special Briefing: Can North Korea Get Rich?

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This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.

WHAT TO KNOW

What happened? After weeks of heated anticipation, President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ended their second summit today in Vietnam without a deal. “Sometimes you have to walk,” Trump said. The dealbreaker, he claimed, was Pyongyang’s insistence that Washington lift all its sanctions against the hermetic communist regime. Not all’s lost, though: Both sides suggested negotiations would continue, while Kim said he’d allow an American liaison office in his country. Still, the talks fell short of most expectations. 

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T-shirts with the faces of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump are on display at local stores during the summit.

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Why does it matter? For Trump, this leaves him without the major diplomatic victory — whether extracting a concrete promise from Pyongyang to denuclearize or declaring an end to the Korean War — he’d been planning. But for Kim and his long-isolated country, the consequences could be more serious. Ahead of the summit, Trump claimed North Korea could thrive like host nation Vietnam if it gave up its nuclear weapons program. Far-fetched or not, the long-impoverished nation now seems headed in the opposite direction, with U.S. sanctions set to remain in place. Amid some faint signs of change, OZY asks: What happens now to North Korea’s economy?

HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT

Still standing … Gathering accurate data on North Korea’s centrally planned economy is challenging: Observers are forced to rely on a combination of information from defectors, human rights activists and South Korean estimates. In 2015, the latter pegged North Korea’s official gross domestic product at around $40 billion, more than one-fifth of which the regime reportedly spends on its military. Two years later, the economy is believed to have contracted some 3.5 percent — its largest decline since the 1990s — thanks to tougher sanctions. Global isolation has left the regime with few options, and analysts estimate Pyongyang’s ties with Beijing account for 90 percent of its trading activity. In the absence of a robust economy, the black market has thrived, while the state relies on complex and illicit trading schemes for cash and commodities like petroleum.

… and maybe even stepping up? Curiously, though, the economy may not be doing as poorly as one might expect, according to a recent report. The North Korean currency, the won, has stood its ground against the U.S. dollar, while construction projects are chugging along in Pyongyang, where more local goods have cropped up, indicating a boost in manufacturing. Prices for rice and gasoline have remained stable or fallen. “There is no clear sign that the state is in trouble,” William Brown, a North Korea expert at Georgetown University, told The Wall Street Journal. That’s probably due to the government’s promotion of small-scale market activity in recent years, which analysts estimate provides households with more than 60 percent of their income. Today, some 400 markets are allowed to operate in exchange for paying various state fees. Still, recent visitors say, that’s the exception rather than the rule: Poverty remains widespread in North Korea, and it’s facing a food shortage this year.

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Journalists work at a media centre as the press conference by US President Donald Trump is telecasted following the second US-North Korea summit.

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Ask the hosts. North Korean officials are said to be increasingly considering Vietnam’s economic transformation as a blueprint for their own potential opening-up. Rolled out a decade after the war ended, a series of liberalization policies known as “doi moi” turned that country from an impoverished, war-torn backwater into one of Asia’s strongest economies — all without significantly reforming its one-party system. Developing an export-focused manufacturing industry was a driving factor. In North Korea, observers have pointed to the country’s abundant mineral resources, believed to be worth trillions of dollars. But it’s unclear whether a doi moi–style path would work for North Korea, which doesn’t appear as enthusiastic as Vietnam was to join the global community. What’s more, any such steps would require a degree of political reform that Pyongyang, whose ruler is still shrouded in a personality cult, probably wouldn’t accept. For now, as one report claims, North Korea remains “a responsible investor’s worst nightmare.”

Leaving the door open. Despite the summit’s failure to produce a concrete deal, some say Kim isn’t walking away completely defeated. Most prominently, the two leaders effectively agreed to keep talking. And whether or not Trump intends to, observers believe he’s further legitimized his North Korean counterpart with each meeting as a global leader. At home — where state-controlled media reportedly has been careful not to criticize Trump directly — Kim will likely benefit from that image. But whether it actually compels him to change his country’s wayward habits remains to be seen.

WHAT TO READ

Spies and Satellites: Analyzing North Korea’s Economy Isn’t Easy, by Brett Miller and Jungah Lee in Bloomberg

“Cho and his colleagues at the Bank of Korea draw on a grab bag of hard data, suppositions and guesswork that would bring despair to economists studying most countries.”

North Korea Built an Alternative Financial System Using a Shadowy Network of Traders, by Niharika Mandhana and Aruna Viswanatha in The Wall Street Journal 

“The alleged scheme, which American prosecutors say has been used repeatedly in recent years, shows how North Korea has built a shadowy alternative financial system that allows it to continue doing business on the global stage.”

WHAT TO WATCH

Trump’s Full Press Conference After Kim Jong Un Summit in Vietnam

“I want to take off the sanctions so badly because I want that country to grow.”

Watch on Fox News on YouTube: 

How Is North Korea Evading Sanctions?

“More than 20 North Korean ships have already been blacklisted by the U.N. for smuggling fuel. Ships conceal their activities by turning off tracking systems or masking the vessel’s true identity.”

Watch on BBC News on YouTube:

WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER

Local goods. Among the more curious products to have emerged from North Korea’s economy is “Neo-Viagra,” a spinoff of Pfizer’s erectile dysfunction medication. Sold for between $12 and $15 for a three-vial box, it reportedly contains roughly the same amount of active ingredient as the real thing — but it’s billed as an “herbal” treatment.

Donald Dossier: How Cohen’s Reveal Reduces the Risk of Impeachment

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Who needs impeachment hearings?

The central tension of this Democratic U.S. House is whether it will go through the exercise of putting President Donald Trump on trial for high crimes and misdemeanors. The party base demands action and accountability, while the elders look to Bill Clinton’s buoyant approval ratings in 1998 as a blinking red light.

This was the backdrop to Wednesday’s remarkable theater, with the president’s ex-fixer Michael Cohen spelling out Trump crimes old and new, with the parties lined up in their usual fashion. It all functions either as a preview of the impeachment to come … or as an alternative.

Cohen, whom Trump now calls a “rat” just to underscore the ample Mafia comparisons, is not a sympathetic character. (Nor is his attorney, Lanny Davis, a Clinton confidant whose client list has included African dictators and Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder.) Cohen is about to go to prison for lying to Congress about the ongoing 2016 negotiations to build Trump Tower Moscow, which we now know extended through most of the year even as Trump repeatedly and publicly denied them. And under the Republicans’ “Liar, liar, pants on fire” standard — so eloquently proffered by Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona — no one should believe anything he had to say. (Except, of course, Cohen denying wild rumors such as the “pee tape,” a secret Trump love child and that the president would ever hit his wife.)

 

Still, Cohen, sunken-eyed, at times wry, emotional and defensive, advanced the public record in significant ways:

  1. He provided checks that he says were reimbursements for payments he made to adult film actress Stormy Daniels to keep quiet about her affair with Trump, breaking campaign finance law. Cohen says Trump also called him to make sure they got their (false) story straight about the matter after The Wall Street Journal reported the payments. 
  2. Cohen says Trump-tied lawyers including Jay Sekulow and Abbe Lowell (who represents Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump) edited his false congressional testimony about the Moscow deal, and Trump indirectly encouraged him to lie about the deal in a face-to-face meeting.
  3. Cohen says he overheard a call from Roger Stone to Trump in July 2016 in which Stone said he had talked with Julian Assange of WikiLeaks and that there would be a public release of stolen Hillary Clinton emails in the coming days, to which Trump replied: “Wouldn’t that be great.” (Trump, WikiLeaks and Stone all deny this.)
  4. Cohen says Trump inflated his personal wealth in statements to Deutsche Bank and an insurance company.

The hearing also underscored the party-line nature of all this. Republicans were focused like a laser on showing that Cohen was untrustworthy, and thus the hearing was a colossal waste of time. As freshman Republican Chip Roy of Texas passionately exclaimed, “This is an embarrassment for our country!”

Meanwhile, the scattershot nature of Democratic questioning — from Trump allegedly misusing his charity to buy a painting to lying in a 2013 deposition about his relationship with Russian mobster Felix Sater — indicates the many avenues (or rabbit holes) for these investigations.

So media coverage has been completely consumed by the smorgasbord of Trump scandals rather than Trump’s summit with Kim Jong Un. Trump’s motorcade arrived back at Hanoi’s JW Marriott from dinner with Kim just as Oversight Committee chairman Elijah Cummings pounded the gavel to begin the hearing. The president retweeted an earlier dig at Cohen but otherwise did not offer live commentary.

Cohen’s testimony, dramatic as it may have been, is unlikely to sway the political calculus of impeachment. It’s hard to imagine even a nuclear Robert Mueller report convincing 20 Senate Republicans to vote to remove Trump from office. Credit Trump’s ability to keep the vast majority of Republican voters on his side.

A series of hearings that dominate the news, unearthing new nuggets of potential criminality and unsavory behavior by the president could well be the way House Democratic leaders allow their members the social media–ready whacks at Trump they crave, without going through an impeachment exercise that almost certainly won’t dislodge him from office.

So plan on more days like Wednesday, across a whole fleet of committees, and a lot more face time for grandstanding members of Congress talking to the band of miscreants surrounding the president. (One for tabloid chief David Pecker would be a doozy.) The hearings are diagrammed to get rid of Trump just the same, but the preferred means will be the 2020 ballot.

Read more: This Georgia pastor is Trump’s first line of defense against impeachment.

NBA 2K Players Make as Much as Real-Life Ballers

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Last August at the NBA 2K League studios in Long Island City, when Knicks Gaming defeated Heat Check Gaming to win the inaugural NBA 2K League championship, the six adrenaline-filled gamers celebrated like they were hoisting an NBA Finals trophy. And rightly so. After thousands of hours spent gaming and traveling, the season that began with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver calling their name on draft night culminated with an 11-point fourth-quarter championship comeback. So, yes, they donned championship shirts and hats, posed for photos with their trophy and drank Champagne.

Better believe they cashed professional checks too. The end-of-season championship tournament was worth $300,000 — or $50,000 per player. Heading into the Season 2 draft on March 5, both salaries and tournament prize pools have increased, putting NBA 2K League gamers on par with the real-action prospects employed by the NBA.

NBA 2K League players now make the same base salary as G League athletes, with the potential to make hundreds of thousands more.

This season, which tips off April 2, will feature a $1.2 million prize pool (a $200,000 increase from last year) to be distributed across four tournaments. That’s on top of six-month base salaries ranging from $37,000 for returning players to $33,000 for lower-tier rookies. March’s first-round draft picks will earn $35,000 — aka the average salary in the G League, the NBA’s minor league. The pay bump serves as further proof that the NBA’s newest appendage might just have profitable legs. If projections of the expected global esports market ($1 billion revenue by 2020) are to be believed, the 2K League could blossom into a bona fide NBA revenue builder.

“We’re focused on growing our fan base and building a strong league,” says NBA 2K League managing director Brendan Donohue. “We expect all 30 NBA teams to be involved soon. If we build a great product and reach new markets, revenue will follow.”

After 17 teams participated last year, four more are joining for Season 2 — Hawks Talon GC, Lakers Gaming, Nets GC and T-Wolves Gaming — as the regular season grows from 14–16 weekly games, plus three tournaments and the eight-team playoffs. Players compete in 5-on-5 game play using their own unique characters, rather than existing NBA players.

 

The tangible results: The league and teams have more than 1.8 million combined followers on social media platforms. NBA 2K League content has generated more than 152 million video views across all NBA and NBA 2K League platforms like Instagram, Twitch and YouTube — roughly the same as the G League in 2017–18. But the audience remains small compared to most big-time sports: About 645,000 watched the 2K league championship match on Twitch, with a peak of 61,000 at any one time, and another 150 attending the studio in-person. It remains to be seen whether those viewers can be converted to repeat, paying customers. 

Additionally, the 17 NBA 2K League teams formed more than 90 corporate and marketing partnerships. Individually, players may sign endorsement deals just like any professional athlete — though no major player endorsements have been announced. Perhaps those deals come once league-leading stars emerge after another season or two, but it’s difficult to envision typical sports brands being enthusiastic until they see massive growth. For now, brands like Intel, Coca-Cola and Red Bull are leading in the space, with Nike signing its first esports player — League of Legends star Jian Zihao — last October. 

Still, about half the players might not be back this year. “After Season 1, there was a common belief among players and coaches that the best 102 players were not in the original player pool,” says NBA 2K League analyst Jeff Eisenband, explaining that 52 of the original NBA 2K League players were retained ahead of this season’s expansion draft. The 50 players not retained by the league enter back into the draft and likely will be cut in favor of new talent. “It will take some time to figure out if the grass really is greener,” Eisenband says.

The odds of making it to this level are long. Of the 72,000 gamers who qualified for entry in the Season 1 draft, only 102 were selected (0.14 percent). Compare that to the 1.2 percent of NCAA basketball players who are drafted by the NBA.

But unlike NBA and G League athletes who’ve spent their lives training for a professional chance, most gamers could have never envisioned this opportunity. “They never believed there would be a league,” says Eisenband. “They were in college, working other jobs or just trying to figure out their lives when the league popped up. This is all icing on the cake already.”

Read more: The LeBron James of esports has his stage at last.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of people who watched the 2K league championship. There was a peak of 61,000 at any one time, not a total of 61,000.

The Hidden PR Disaster That Led to Huawei’s Crisis

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It has been almost a year since William Plummer lost his job as the head of Huawei’s U.S. public and government relations department. But it is impossible for him not to get fired up as he sees how the Chinese telecommunications company has been dragged into a morass of suspicion by U.S. accusations that it is a security risk and a thief of commercial secrets. In particular, Plummer has been agonizing over Huawei’s handling of the crisis.

Earlier this week, Ren Zhengfei, the company’s founder, hit back at the allegations in two television interviews. He told the BBC that the U.S. would not be able to “crush” Huawei, adding: “If the lights go out in the West, the East will still shine … America doesn’t represent the world.”

For Ren, a reclusive former Chinese army engineer who rarely gives interviews, the public comments were the latest step in Huawei’s counteroffensive against an onslaught that threatens to damage its global business. The interview came ahead of Mobile World Congress (MWC), the telecom industry’s biggest annual trade show where the Chinese company has outshone rivals for years with enormous displays of its technological prowess and armies of marketing staff.

I’m not sure that being confrontational now is a good idea.

William Plummer, former PR adviser to Huawei in the U.S. 

For Plummer, and other non-Chinese who have advised Huawei on its public relations strategy, however, Ren’s assertive tone is the wrong message at the wrong time.

“Five years ago would have been the time to do it. I’m not sure that being confrontational now is a good idea,” Plummer says.

U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to sign an executive order barring U.S. carriers from buying Huawei gear ahead of MWC, although the move would change little in practice: Government pressure on American carriers not to buy from Huawei and moves to derail investments by the Chinese group in U.S. companies has ensured that an 18-year quest to break into America has largely gone nowhere.

 

But Washington is also pressuring allies to shut Huawei out of their markets for security reasons and is going after the company with criminal charges that could land Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer and Ren’s daughter, in jail. She is under house arrest in Canada, after U.S. authorities filed an extradition request over allegations that the company violated sanctions against Iran. The company and Meng deny the charges.

“This rolling thunder holy jihad they have been on over the past year makes it impossible for any government relations person to do a meaningful job,” says a senior executive at a lobbying firm that worked for Huawei until last year. “Things are made worse by Huawei themselves — the best you get is crisis management, but there has never been a consistent, strategic approach to managing their image.”

It was not for lack of advice, according to several PR specialists who have worked with the company.

From the 1990s, Huawei enlisted some of the most illustrious Western consultants: IBM to help modernize management; Bain Capital as a partner for U.S. acquisitions; and the Cohen Group, an advisory founded by former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, to help deal with U.S. government security concerns. It also employed a vast array of global PR companies, from Ogilvy to Edelman to BCW.

But at crucial moments, the company did not heed their advice and even outmaneuvered the consultants it had hired, according to former executives and external consultants. “There was always a fundamental lack of trust in non-Chinese. You offer guidance, and are regularly second-guessed,” Plummer says.

Two external consultants who worked for Huawei in the U.S. and one American government official say a move by management to set up a lobbying outfit in the U.S. in 2009 without consulting its experts on the ground did immense damage. The company, which was vying for contracts to upgrade U.S. telecom operator Sprint’s mobile network, offered to deliver its products through an independent third party that would probe its software and hardware for security flaws and hold Huawei’s source code, the key software component, in an attempt to offer more transparency.

At the same time, however, the Cohen Group was discussing with the director of national intelligence to use such mechanisms for trusted delivery of Huawei gear that would assuage U.S. security concerns. When Huawei announced its own structure instead — a company called Amerilink, which would be led by William Owens, a former vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff — that potential deal fell apart over concerns that the new entity was not sufficiently independent. “There was a chance to build trust, but when Huawei made that sudden move, it was perceived like they had decided to go for window dressing instead, and they destroyed all trust,” says a person familiar with the Cohen Group’s talks.

Such incidents are not an exception. In a book published last September, Plummer described how senior local staff in foreign markets are regularly excluded from key decisions. At the same time, Chinese executives are constantly second-guessing senior management in local markets out of fear of Ren, injecting confusion into the company’s handling of PR and lobbying abroad. Plummer also wrote that his warning of how to deal with allegations that the company and Meng had violated U.S. sanctions against Iran were ignored.

“I received no response or reaction to the concerns I expressed and was effectively iced out of the loop,” he wrote, adding that he “had touched on topics that were off-limits.”

The deep divide between Chinese and foreign staff, corroborated by employees in five countries, is not coincidental. In internal meetings, Ren advises staff to represent the company in different terms in China and abroad.

“The core of public relations is the truth, and we therefore must convey the truth at all times. Correctly define Huawei’s identity and ‘who we are,’” the company founder told executives in 2014, according to Plummer and current and former Huawei executives. “In China, state that Huawei strongly supports the Communist Party of China. Outside China, stress that Huawei always follows key international trends.”

Huawei said it was not aware of Ren having said this.

During the current geopolitical standoff between the U.S. and China, this chasm between the company’s inner workings and the image it is trying to project in the West has only grown wider. A local executive at Huawei in a European country says China’s increasing power and the growth of Chinese companies had bred arrogance and at times aggression among Chinese, including Huawei staff.

Huawei says the low profile it had kept in the past has lent credence to the perception that it is secretive. “We will continue to let facts speak for themselves but strive to better explain what we are doing to connect people and improve technology,” a spokesperson says.

In a recent meeting with German journalists, Eric Xu, one of Huawei’s rotating CEOs, explained: “Our PR department is asking Huawei executives to speak up about who we really are and what we do. So here we are, even though we are not sure whether this can really work or not.”

But for Plummer, it may be too late for Huawei to rescue the situation.

“Cut a deal, perhaps buy a pillow factory in Detroit, go to CFIUS [Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States] and sign a national security agreement that would give the U.S. government remarkable visibility inside the company, allow them to name members to an independent board in the U.S., etc.,” he says, as suggestions for Huawei’s executives. “If you get the U.S. boot off Huawei’s neck, all these other markets would be fine. [But] I don’t know if it’s even possible anymore.”

Staring at a Sexual Assaulter, Staring Down a Sexual Assault

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I saw him enter the CTA Red Line train compartment. The same self-assured gait and that movement of his left shoulder to flex his neck muscles. The platform was teeming with people returning home for the day. It seemed as though the entire population of Chicago had gathered to witness my discomfort at seeing the man who had marred my youth.

Wiping my sweating hands on my pants, I thought about getting on a different car. But pushing through the crowd while battling the sudden onslaught of palpitations did not seem enticing. I was already late for a social gathering. Trains are less frequent during the weekends, and I could not wait for the next one. Fortunately, I was able to find refuge in a corner farthest from him.

My school back in India had been run by missionaries, and we were expected to adhere to strict rules. Some days I felt like a prisoner, staring at the streets through the imposing bars of the balcony. The only time when we were allowed freedom was during interschool festivals. That was where we interacted with boys and indulged in flirtatious courtship rituals common to teenagers worldwide.

“This is why we want you to behave like ladies and wear longer skirts. Things like these can be easily avoided.”

On one of those days in 2006, my friends and I had gathered in front of the main stage, awaiting the guest performance of a revered Pakistani band. That area had minimal lighting, and I was distracted, vying for the attention of a handsome young man from one of the competing schools. I felt the slight brush of a thumb on my leg. Turning to my right, I found the empty spot where my friend was sitting a few minutes ago. On my left was a guy, seemingly older than all of us, and conventionally attractive. He jerked his shoulder, looked at me and smiled.

“Isn’t this band amazing?” he said.

I did not reply. His smile was charming enough to melt the heart of any other 14-year-old, but his eyes had a sinister gleam. I turned away, and within a few minutes, his hand began to graze my thigh, toying with the hem of my school uniform. As he reached under the skirt with a finger, I jumped up, frazzled and scared, and began walking to where a few other girls from my class were standing.

 

I turned around to find him following me. I increased my pace, despite the dark spots threatening to take over my vision. My classmates noticed the sweat clinging to my face and possibly the dread in my eyes. They instinctively moved closer, forming a protective circle. He was now nowhere in sight.

As the evening progressed, the girls gave in to the music and broke away from the group. With my fear momentarily assuaged, I too had begun to sway to the rhythm when a hand roughly cupped my rear. Panic engulfed me. I knew I needed to leave. As I started walking away, I stole a quick glance to ascertain that he was not following me. He simply stood there. Staring.

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The author. In a better place in space.

Source Abhinanda Datta

Instead of going home, I went back to the school. I was not prepared to face the deluge of questions my parents would have. Moreover, in my haste to escape, I had imprudently decided to walk alone, and the festival venue was closer to the school than my house.

The teacher who organized all the extracurricular activities was still there. Her presence afforded me some relief since she was my confidante. I told her everything. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do. A part of me was already wallowing in guilt, but nothing could have prepared me for her words.

She held my hand.

“This is why we want you to behave like ladies and wear longer skirts. Things like these can be easily avoided,” she said.

That night I cried myself to sleep. Even though I never spoke about the incident to anyone, I became overly cautious when leaving the house. The world had finally turned into the big, bad place that every adult claimed it was. I always knew I would have to face him someday. I wanted to confront him. Instead, I felt myself drowning in a swirl of unfathomable emotions.

He still looked the same, save for the few strands of silver near his temples. Our eyes met. I felt terror rushing through my veins, and I waited for a flicker of recognition. But there was none.

The train stopped at Loyola and he prepared to leave. Just as he was about to step out, I moved toward the door since the next stop was mine.

A beautiful woman with a little girl greeted him. He picked the girl up and blew raspberries on her tummy. For a few seconds, he ceased to be the predator who had taken advantage of me — he was a regular man who loved his family and made his daughter explode in peals of laughter.

Right before the door closed, the little girl caught my eye. Her face lit up and she waved at me. She had his smile.

Why Does a Quaint Town in India Have the World’s Highest Suicide Rate?

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Colorful resorts and 18th century churches dot the shoreline of Puducherry, the small city on India’s southeast coast formerly known as Pondicherry. Relics of the town’s French colonial history are still visible in the cobblestone streets and the sleek white structures, like the Aayi Mandapam, built during the era of Napoleon III. Puducherry — which is home to more women than men, a rarity in a country where female infanticide has been historically common — is also a popular vacation spot. In 2017, a record 1.6 million tourist visits were recorded.

But this beautiful beach town is hiding a dark secret. According to the World Health Organization:

Puducherry has the highest suicide rate in India — four times the national average. In fact, it’s the highest rate in the world, with 44 out of every 100,000 people taking their lives.  

And that number is on the rise here — in 2014, the rate was 40.4 per 100,000 people. India’s overall suicide rate is far lower at 16.5 per 100,000 people. Meanwhile, countries with the highest rates — and rates notably lower than Puducherry’s — are Guyana, with 30.2 per 100,000 people; Lesotho with 28.9; Russia, Lithuania and Suriname. 

So why are so many people in this quaint city killing themselves? In police records, the official reasons given are often broad and ambiguous: family problems, illness, examination stress. But those who’ve studied the problem see much more than that. Puducherry is actually two towns, still marred by its history of French colonial rule. The “White town,” where the French colonizers once lived, is home to shiny, beachfront tourist spots, while the rest of the city, where the colonized once resided, suffers from high unemployment rates and lacks access to formal education and health care.

 

Nearly three-quarters of people who suffer from mental health issues in Puducherry are between the ages of 15 and 34. “High rates of unemployment do not marry with the aspirations of the burgeoning youth population,” says Vikas Menon, a professor at Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research (JIPMER) in Puducherry who has studied suicide rates in the town. Families tend to put a lot of pressure on kids to do well in school, but succeeding academically can feel futile when there are still no job prospects. On the flip side, failing exams and getting poor grades is a deep source of shame for many students in Puducherry. Shortly after being grounded for failing her high school board exams in 2016, a 16-year-old named Ratna killed herself, according to a local publication, The Hindu. Her aunt and uncle said they left the house for a brief visit to their textile shop, and when they returned Ratna had hanged herself.

What’s more, alcohol is extremely cheap and easy to come by in Puducherry. Young people frustrated by school or work can easily drown their sorrows in booze, which isn’t subject to value-added tax in the region, Menon says. “Put together, it is a heady mix of poor education, unemployment, alcoholism and, perhaps, eventual suicide.”

The differences between the White town and the rest of Puducherry become more apparent when you consider the Aurobindo ashram, founded in 1926 and now reportedly a community of about 2,000 people. Followers of the Aurobindo are overrepresented in the White town, and because it is a closed community, their lifestyle differs from the rest of the city. Kids there are taught a different curriculum and have no formal exams. “Consequently, you can argue that stress is comparatively less,” says Menon. Thus, fewer suicides? “I do not know,” he says, “but this is a hypothesis.”

The major issue in Puducherry doesn’t seem to be mental health disorders or depression, but rather the presence of psychological stressors and environmental factors. A 2016 study in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine found that of 40 attempted suicide cases reviewed, 100 percent had reported experiencing some type of psychological stress, and none had a previous psychiatric diagnosis.

The ubiquity of suicides and suicide attempts here only serves to normalize it. A JIPMER study found that doctors from Puducherry were more accepting of suicide than doctors from other countries, with a lack of awareness that suicidal thoughts can be indicative of a serious problem. 

Some organizations in Puducherry are working to change that. Trust for Youth and Child Leadership is a nonprofit that counsels youth in Puducherry and runs a suicide hotline. Last year, that hotline received 288 calls from young adults in the town — 257 percent more than the number of calls in 2017. “TYCL is undertaking research on the 360-degree root cause [of] youth suicide in Puducherry,” says Siva Mathiyazhagan, co-founder of TYCL. The organization frequently holds workshops and career guidance sessions for students, and provides education loan support, offering resources that many young people there don’t have. “[These] services are preventing young people from suicide social stigma [and] promoting positive mental well-being in Puducherry,” Mathiyazhagan says. 

Despite the high suicide rate, Puducherry maintains its appeal for some. Menon, who has lived there for more than two decades, says the town has “old-worldly charm and tranquility,” and describes it as “a melting pot of cuisines, cultures and couture.”

As organizations like TYCL continue to push for change, hopefully, more Puducherry residents will be able to enjoy these aspects too. 

Kiki de Montparnasse, the Forgotten ‘It’ Girl

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Her body, her face and her name are everywhere. Kiki de Montparnasse was turned into a musical instrument for photographer Man Ray’s immortal Ingres’s Violin. Spanish genius Paul Gargallo sculpted a surreal golden bust of her head, most of her face a void save for her smile. And her name is now that of a luxury lingerie brand that sells not just bras but also riding crops and corsets. Those, for most people, are what remains of the legend of Kiki de Montparnasse. That, and a grave in Paris that dubs her “Queen of Montparnasse.”  

Kiki, as she was known — her birth name was Alice Prin — was the figure around whom Jazz Age Paris spun. As Kate Conley, a professor of French and Francophone studies at William & Mary, says, “Everyone who knows anything about that time period knows her name.” Kiki wasn’t the first “it” girl and she wasn’t the last, but her whirlwind life and tragic death may serve modern “it” girls (and the societies that create them) as a cautionary tale, and others as a how-to guide. 

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Kiki de Montparnasse as a prostitute soliciting Man Ray in the South of France, circa 1925.

Source Getty Images

Born in 1901 in eastern France, Kiki was 12 years old when her mother sent her to Paris to get an education. This was successful, but only just: Kiki reported that when she was 13, she “quit school for good.” At 14, she started working as a nude model for artists, an occupation that at the time was considered morally suspect and even synonymous with prostitution. Slowly, she began to meet and model for some of the biggest names of Montparnasse, from Amedeo Modigliani to Maurice Utrillo to, in one of her most famous encounters, Man Ray.

Man Ray first met Kiki, indignant and enraged, in a Paris café; she had just been refused service for failing to wear a hat. The artist and his companion defused the situation by inviting her to sit with them. Soon, Kiki became his lover and frequent model, and their relationship helped popularize her image as a sensual muse who did whatever she wanted. When friends asked Man Ray whether Kiki was intelligent, he replied that he “had enough intelligence for the two of us.” She was also, he reported, a popular nightclub performer for “her naughty French songs, delivered in an inimitable deadpan manner.”

But Kiki was more than just an artfully posed body, and, as with many muse-artist exchanges, it is difficult to parse where her inspiration ends and Man Ray’s creation begins. For example, his famous work The Lovers depicts a huge pair of floating lips that are generally thought to be Lee Miller’s, his subsequent muse and lover. Yet Man Ray credits Kiki with the idea: She once jealously put a “perfect imprint of a beautiful pair of red lips” on his collar before he left for dinner. Likewise, Kiki produced her own creative work. In 1927, a show of her paintings sold out, and in 1929 — when she was just 28 years old — she published Kiki’s Memoirs to great acclaim.

Many of the most iconic “it” girls, from Edie Sedgwick to Marilyn Monroe, died premature deaths. But what happens when a muse ages and changes along with her era?

The artist Tsuguharu Foujita once noted that “Montparnasse has changed. Kiki does not change” — but change she did. She eventually left Man Ray for the journalist Henri Broca and weathered World War II by clinging to Montparnasse, even as the conflict dispersed France’s artistic coteries. “She would come to perform in [writer Robert Desnos’] apartment during World War II when friends gathered there, bringing what food and wine they had to share,” Conley says. “The party would begin when she arrived.” Though most sources are remarkably silent about this period in Kiki’s life, a decade later she no longer ruled Paris; she haunted it. When Man Ray happened to meet her again after the war, she — like most of Europe — was much altered, suffering from edema, bloated and “quite ill,” as he noted.

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Kiki and a police officer in Paris, 1930.

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Soon after, Kiki was dead. In late April 1953, she collapsed outside of her Montparnasse home, likely from the effects of substance abuse. Her death precipitated an outpouring of retrospectives about Jazz Age Paris, and about Kiki as the symbol of an end of an era. Man Ray commented on her funeral, “Why wasn’t she helped while still alive? And now the undertaker, the florists and the journalists were making the most of it, like maggots on a carcass.”

In the years since, English-language criticism on Kiki has been scant. Author Anna Davis argues that Kiki’s male artist companions “reinvented her.” In this imagining, Kiki becomes valuable primarily for the pliable surface that she offers the male genius. In response, other critics have rightly focused on Kiki’s own creative agency — but they also tend to skim over her troubling death.

This critical legacy puts Kiki in an impossible position of either artist’s plaything or absolute individual. Many of the most iconic “it” girls, from Edie Sedgwick to Marilyn Monroe, died premature deaths. But what happens when a muse ages and changes along with her era? Some Jazz Age stars such as Josephine Baker and Ada “Bricktop” Smith managed to parlay their “it” status into long careers, but their later work was still heavily dependent on nostalgia. Kiki, forgotten and discarded, never made it that far. Her fate points to a larger problem: “It” girls are rarely allowed to become women.

“All I need is an onion, a bit of bread and a bottle of red,” Kiki quipped in her memoirs, “and I will always find somebody to offer me that.” 

What the War Over Naomi Rao Teaches Us About Future Judicial Nominations

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OZY Newsmakers: Deep dives on the names you need to know.

While many of us get nostalgic about the 1980s and early 1990s by donning shoulder pads and hitting karaoke bars, a new wave of middle-aged public figures has been living on the prayer that the period would just beat it. The un-lost decade has come roaring back lately as a minefield of youthful indiscretions, questionable statements, potential crimes and horrible costume choices for a whole slate of politicians and judicial nominees, including most of Virginia’s leadership and recent Supreme Court appointee Brett Kavanaugh.

One of the latest to run the hot-tub time-machine gauntlet is President Donald Trump’s nominee to fill the seat that Kavanaugh left vacant on the powerful D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Neomi Rao, who currently serves as administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), came under fire during her Senate confirmation hearing earlier this month for some opinions she expressed as a college student at Yale in the early 1990s, including that sexual assault at college parties could be avoided if women didn’t drink too much. Rao, 45, admitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee that some of her early writings were “cringeworthy,” but now she faces a new round of scrutiny — this time from some prominent conservatives who think that her more evolved judicial philosophy, and not her collegiate views, could sink her nomination.

Rao’s almost impeccable conservative credentials haven’t satisfied everyone in the Republican Party.

The D.C. Circuit, widely regarded as ”the second highest court in the land,” is known as the primary feeder court for Supreme Court nominees. Four current justices (John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Kavanaugh) served there. Rao’s position as a young, accomplished woman of color in a pool of Republican judicial nominees that is overwhelmingly white and male also makes her a prime contender for one of the next Supreme Court vacancies. With the 85-year-old Ginsburg’s iffy health and the possibility that Thomas, 70, could retire soon so Trump can appoint a replacement, the question is an urgent one. Remember, says Daniel Urman, a law and policy expert at Northeastern University, “presidents love to nominate ‘firsts,’ which tend to activate the community of which the first is a part.”

First, however, Rao needs to make it onto that feeder court. The irony that the woman hoping to follow Kavanaugh — whose confirmation focused on his behavior in high school and college and was almost waylaid by multiple sexual assault allegations — has been confronted about her own questionable collegiate actions is not lost on many court watchers, even if Rao has a decidedly different view toward the overconsumption of alcohol.

Among the statements that came back to haunt Rao at her hearings were her claims that racial and sexual oppression was “a myth” and that there is a “dangerous feminist idealism which teaches women that they are equal.” “I very much regret that statement,” she informed the committee, saying she hoped she had “matured as a thinker and writer and indeed as a person.” Putting aside any immature views, there is plenty in Rao’s background to be proud of. Raised in suburban Detroit, the daughter of immigrant doctors from India graduated from Yale before earning a law degree at the University of Chicago. She has served in all three branches of the federal government, including as a clerk for Justice Thomas, a counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee and an associate counsel to President George W. Bush. 

Rao is also an accomplished scholar who has written extensively about the regulatory process and the authority of federal agencies from her perch at George Mason University, where she also founded the Center for the Study of the Administrative State (funded largely by the conservative Charles Koch Foundation). Rao’s conservative views and expertise on regulatory policy have made her the perfect person to head OIRA, which helps dictate how the Trump administration implements its regulatory reform agenda.

 

Rao’s almost impeccable conservative credentials, however, haven’t satisfied everyone in the Republican Party. Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa said during Rao’s hearing that Rao’s college writings on sexual assault “do give me pause,” and news broke in recent days that anti-abortion Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri has expressed concerns to party leaders that Rao’s more recent record doesn’t indicate clearly where she stands on the issue of abortion.

Most court watchers, including Urman, believe that the conservative pushback will blow over and Rao will sail through confirmation in the Republican-controlled Senate. (She still awaits a committee vote.) Rather, the true significance of her confirmation — building on the recent blackface controversy as well as Kavanaugh’s own fraught nomination — is the glimpse it offers into the future of American judicial nominations, says Urman. “How much of what you say as a young adult can be held against you? How much of a ‘tell’ is it about your temperament and character?”

And how much will future confirmation hearings, including possibly Rao’s own to the Supreme Court, be characterized by an examination of not only the nominee’s judicial decisions and scholarly articles but also her college papers, journals, yearbooks, even social media profiles? The two are not as separate as most nominees would like us to believe. Even if Rao has disclaimed her college views on campus rape, for example, at OIRA she signed off on a rollback of Title IX protections for victims of sexual assault on college campuses first proposed by the Obama administration.

In the future, says Urman, high court appointees like Rao will have to hand over all paper and digital trails to get ahead of any “cringeworthy” moments, and the vetting of judicial nominees will get deeper, wider and more contentious. In some ways, Kavanaugh’s confirmation and the row over Rao suggest we may be destined to hit replay on another throwback pop culture sensation from the 1980s: the nomination of Robert Bork, the controversial Supreme Court nominee whose 1987 confirmation battle shaped the partisan judicial landscape that Rao and every other nominee must still traverse today.

Trump’s Other Court Options

Besides Neomi Rao, here are a few other judges who could be on President Trump’s short list if there is another Supreme Court opening:

Thomas Hardiman — Always a bridesmaid, never a justice. This law-and-order conservative from the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals has been a Trump favorite for a while but was passed over for both Justice Neil Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. Will the third time be the charm?

Amy Coney Barrett — A Notre Dame law professor and practicing Catholic from New Orleans, Barrett also made the shortlist for the Kavanaugh seat. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals judge and former clerk for Justice Antonin Scalia would check a lot of boxes for Trump: young (47), deeply conservative, telegenic and family-oriented (the mother of seven children).

Diane Sykes — Also from the 7th Circuit, Sykes doesn’t fit the typical judicial mold, which is perhaps why she might appeal to Trump. Born and raised in Milwaukee, the Marquette Law School grad and former journalist is a bit of a legal maverick, even siding with liberals at times, including on abortion. 

He’s Creating a New Fuel Out of Thin Air — for 85 Cents per Gallon

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Advocates of America’s Green New Deal or other radical efforts to decarbonize the world economy in the face of a looming climate crisis may well have one of their greatest champions in a rumpled 65-year-old who lives in the Toronto suburbs.

Roger Gordon wears a navy wool coat that extends well past the bottom of his green knit sweater on a chilly day in February. He talks with a quintessentially Canadian politeness as he rails against what he sees as a massive conspiracy to suppress his life’s work — which could amount to a fuel revolution.

Ammonia has been used as both an alternative fuel source and a surplus energy storage mechanism since the 1800s, and while its production is far less damaging to the environment than traditional oil and gas, it’s not without its pollutants. In order to create NH3, the ammonia-based fuel, one would have to build a massive production facility that still burns large quantities of fossil fuels and releases significant amounts of carbon in the production process.

There’s actually no other zero-carbon fuel out there, so we really don’t have any competition.

Roger Gordon

But in 2014, Gordon — who’s spent his career producing active pharmaceutical ingredients for sale around the world — secured a patent for his long-time side project: a refrigerator-sized machine that turns water and air into a reusable, renewable, ammonia-based NH3. The project began in the early 2000s, and took almost nine years before it produced a usable prototype. The patent application was submitted the following year, at a time when Gordon says he didn’t even have transportation fuel on his radar. Today, he drives a converted Ford F-350 with a button on the dashboard that allows him to switch between traditional gasoline and one of the small tanks of colorless, strong-smelling NH3 gas sitting in back of the pickup truck.

“I didn’t have the wherewithal to try it as a transportation fuel,” Gordon explains in an interview at a shopping mall in Toronto. But researchers at the University of Iowa and the University of Michigan were driving on ammonia — and Gordon says they jumped at the idea of creating NH3 “with no heritage of oil or coal or anything that’s carbon.”

 

Anyone can retrofit a traditional combustion engine into one that runs on NH3 for about $1,000, and at least 100 others around the world have made the investment, but Gordon says the infrastructure required to change the global transportation industry is too overwhelming to even consider. Instead, Gordon sees opportunities in places that are spending significant resources on getting access to fuel, such as remote communities and industrial operations in Africa or northern Canada. “The lowest hanging fruit would be a mine in the far north that’s now spending $105 million on diesel fuel a year, and they can now come to us for half the price,” he says.

Though the price fluctuates, NH3 typically costs about $0.23 a liter ($0.85 per gallon) and has no byproducts other than harmless nitrogen and water. The lack of pollutants is especially appealing in places like Canada, which is now considering a tax on carbon. “There’s actually no other zero-carbon fuel out there, so we really don’t have any competition,” Gordon says. “Once the oil and natural gas ones are taxed for carbon, I don’t think there will be anything else.”

Over the years Gordon has impressed a number of Canadian bigwigs including Shark Tank investor Kevin O’Leary and even Justin Trudeau before he became the country’s prime minister, both of whom expressed enthusiasm for the project before getting further entangled in Canada’s touchy energy politics. One politician who has remained by his side is the former environmental commissioner of Gordon’s home province of Ontario, Gordon Miller, who says perhaps ammonia’s biggest advantage is it can be produced anywhere. 

“Our energy systems are centralized and distributed from central locations at great costs,” he explains. “This is locally distributed generation, which is a huge opportunity, because we don’t have to bring the stuff in from strange countries and refine it and haul it thousands of miles, nor do we have to string wires to get it where it needs to be used.”

Instead, Miller sees a future where individuals generate and store their own electricity locally, using some of the power generated from private windmills immediately and storing the rest in the form of NH3 for later use.

As a recently retired politician in a relatively oil- and gas-friendly country, however, Miller understands what Gordon’s up against. Still, he takes the attention surrounding Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recently proposed Green New Deal as an indication that change could come suddenly, and swiftly. “It has so much potential, a breakthrough is possible at virtually anytime,” Miller says.

Others, however, are less optimistic, given the stranglehold one of the world’s most profitable industries has on global transportation and infrastructure. “Even if you’re the same cost or lower than fossil fuel, that doesn’t guarantee access to the market, because you don’t own the distribution,” says the president of Advanced Biofuels Canada, Ian Thomson. “Shifting away from a fossil-based industry can be a massive source of economic stimulation, but that does not take away at all from the fact that you face a lot of headwinds.”

After nearly two decades working on creating a clean, decentralized energy storage and fuel source, Gordon himself seems split on where he believes things go from here. Though he’s spoken with potential investors and interested parties all over the world, none have put money in. Several universities have expressed enthusiasm over its potential, but Gordon says it would take millions of dollars in testing to start to win over the political class, an investment he isn’t interested in making himself. He’s also made plenty of pleas to mainstream media, with little reporting to show for it.

“I just don’t know how it’s going to pan out,” he says. “Something might come out of nowhere.” Until then, Gordon maintains his pharma day job, putting just enough money into the project to keep it alive until it either takes off or it doesn’t. At least his commute is cheaper.

Read more: Africa embraces an $8 billion solar market for going off-grid.

Female Artists Challenge Vietnam’s Gender Stereotypes

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In a 10-minute video titled Dream II, multimedia artist Pham Hong, dressed in a white wedding gown, chews betel leaves, an essential part of every Vietnamese wedding. Slowly, red juice from the leaves starts flowing down her chin, and her white dress turns red. “Betel leaves signify tradition,” says the 34-year-old, as she fiddles with her copper and jute bracelets, before delivering the punch line: “Eating the betel leaves to the point of self-pain is symbolic of how marriage can become a cause of suffering.”

It’s a bold statement in a country where public discussions on women’s identity, empowerment and sexual rights are rare. But Hong’s work isn’t a one-off. She’s among a growing band of independent female artists in Vietnam using art in all of its forms — performance, sculpture, painting, installation and multimedia — to reshape conversations long seen as taboo in this communist-ruled country where President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un notably are meeting today.

Multidisciplinary artist Himiko Nguyen’s ongoing photography installation Come Out II in Ho Chi Minh City consists of independent boxes containing nude portraits of herself and other women, and is aimed at challenging mainstream notions of gender and sexuality. In her interactive performance titled Encroaching Space, 35-year-old Anh-Thuy Nguyen invites audiences to walk through a room, where she acts as an obstacle and observes how others look at her body. Ly Hoang Ly’s installation artwork and performances deal with menstruation and breastfeeding. And at a Hanoi cafe last year, curators Dinh Thi Nhung and Duong Manh Hung ran a two-week exhibition titled Lip Xinh, which focused on the vagina and people’s relationship with it.

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A poster of Himiko Nguyen’s Come Out II exhibition.

Source Himiko Nguyen

For decades, Vietnam’s art galleries held only commercial exhibitions of silk, oil and lacquer paintings showcasing women in traditional attire, working in the fields or in Viet Cong uniforms fighting American soldiers. Now, as the country slowly opens up, that’s changing too, helping these female artists. Five years ago, only foreign-funded art spaces such as the Goethe-Institut and L’Institut Francais de Hanoi, and a handful of private art spaces including the Nha San Collective, Six Space and Salon Natasha, exhibited offbeat art. But since 2014, at least 15 contemporary art galleries and cafes, such as the Factory Contemporary Arts Center, Salon Saigon, MOT +++ and the Vincom Center for Contemporary Art, have come up in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi to offer space for experimental work.

I want to use my body as a powerful material, to reaffirm my possession of it.

Anh-Thuy Nguyen, Vietnamese performance artist

Both the artists and these new public spaces have faced censorship. But they’re pursuing the push for change they’ve started, and their work, experts say, could transform broader gender equations in Vietnamese society.

“The work of these artists is crucial to shift discourses of gender and power in a political setup where gender equality is strongly guaranteed by law but feminist questioning of social power structures is not encouraged,” says Shweta Kishore, an art curator who teaches media and communications at Ho Chi Minh City–based RMIT University and is exploring the work of contemporary female artists in Vietnam for a project titled In Art as in Life.

 

There’s no word for “feminism” in Vietnamese, and these artists don’t overtly call their work feminist. Historically, Vietnamese literature has had feminist themes, such as in folklore that mentions the heroism of two sisters, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, who, riding on elephants, drove away an invading Chinese army. The 18th-century poet Ho Xuan Huong spoke up for women’s rights. During French rule in the 1930s, women advocated for gender equality in newspaper columns. Later, the Vietnam People’s Army allowed female soldiers to fight against the U.S. In 1986, when the Communist Party of Vietnam launched “doi moi” (economic reforms), it gave women the chance to be financially independent, but there were also government campaigns to re-domesticate them. Curators say Vietnam’s artwork reflected this feudal thinking. And while in the 1990s, some female artists like Dinh Y Nhi, Nguyen Thi Chinh Le and Dinh Thi Tham Poong did challenge the norm, they remained only a handful of individuals, and the country’s art landscape wasn’t supportive.

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Artist Anh-Thuy Nguyen’s Thuy & Sand project. The lone figure travels across the landscape, filling holes that were left behind. As she fixes them, more holes are created. A constant endless effort she pursues represents the inevitable cycle of life: creation and destruction.

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For sure, the female artists trying to drive controversial conversations through their work face challenges even today. In Vietnam, there is still almost no commercial market for them. Some of them exhibit their work in the U.S., Thailand and Hong Kong, where they are paid when their work is on display at major museums. Occasionally private collectors purchase their work. But many need second jobs to sustain their art. Hong works as a designer. Anh-Thuy Nguyen teaches in the department of visual arts and photography at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona. 

Then there’s censorship. Exhibitions that don’t comply with the government’s set parameters of promoting “good cultural and moral values” are not allowed. In 2016, San Art, a Ho Chi Minh City alternative art space, had to discontinue a residency program because of increasing government scrutiny. Himiko Nguyen’s Closer, a nude photography exhibition, was shut down by authorities in 2006. Publishers self-censor too. The cover of an upcoming book by visual artist and writer Nguyen Thuy Hang had to be changed because the image she wanted to use, of two naked women holding each other passionately — a painting titled She by Hanoi-based artist Ly Tran Quynh Giang — was considered “too sexual” by the publisher. “This painting was banned by the government even 10 years ago,” says Hang. “It’s funny that the government’s approach toward art has not changed in one decade.”

To get around censorship, Nhung didn’t seek government permission for her exhibition on the vagina. Many artists simply call their exhibitions “private events” to avoid government scrutiny.

But unlike the previous generation of female artists who tested boundaries, the current set is finding support from public spaces willing to host their work. “Alternative art spaces play an important role because conventional art galleries and museums would be either commercial or state-funded, which are still limited to propagandist art,” says art curator Do Tuong Linh, who co-runs Hanoi’s Six Space gallery. These art spaces finance themselves by hosting the work of other mainstream, renowned artists too, for which they charge a fee. Vincom Center is funded by its parent company, Vingroup, founded by property developer and entrepreneur Pham Nhat Vuong.

These women have also benefited from international exposure those before them didn’t have. The alternative art galleries invite international artists, and some Vietnamese artists have won international residency programs at the Art Institute of Chicago or Singapore’s NTU Center for Contemporary Art.  

Slowly, Vietnamese society is accepting them too. More Vietnamese women have come forward to pose for Himiko Nguyen’s Come Out II project as compared to Come Out I in 2011, she says. “On one hand, these women inside the boxes are in a closet; on the other hand, they have liberated themselves by posing nude,” says the 42-year-old. At Nhung and Hung’s exhibition on the vagina in 2018, ordinary people turned up to share their stories and experiences — unimaginable a few years ago.

The work of these artists is helping “provoke new questions about women’s role in society, outside their identity within family relations or as economic units,” says Kishore. Anh-Thuy Nguyen, for instance, uses her body as her device to test her audience. “A woman’s body is often being claimed by others,” says the artist, who splits her time between the U.S. and Vietnam. “So I want to use my body as a powerful material, to reaffirm my possession of it and to examine how others view our body.”

The artists know these conversations are tricky. But that’s precisely why they must not be avoided, says Hong, the multimedia artist. “Conversations must go on, even if these are uncomfortable conversations,” she says.