Things people say can not be trusted,

Gender is a category, socially constructed.

(In) Southeast Asia, they got all kinds,

Not just two, yours and mine.

Those ladyboys, they ain’t freaks,

Yea they look a little unique,

But that’s because they got the power,

Of the third gender,

Show me your flower!

In Vietnam they got the bóng (spirit mediums),

They can dance a little,

They can sing a song.

When you’ve got a decision to make,

You need their help,

They ain’t no fakes.

They can talk to the gods,

Nam và nữ (male and female),

And bring you good luck,

That’s the truth.

So people today, be they rich or poor,

They all need a bóng,

That’s for sure.

In Burma they got the nat kadaw (also, spirit mediums),

They visit the gods,

And tell you what they saw.

Some are girls and some are boys,

But you know the best,

Yea, let’s hear some noise.

They are the ones,

Who can go both ways,

‘Cause they’re in between,

They don’t need to stay,

As a man or a woman,

All the time,

They are who they are,

It ain’t no crime.

Sulawesi that’s the best,

The Bissu priests,

They were better than the rest.

They protected the king’s,

Sacred sword,

Without their help,

He couldn’t be lord.

So next time you see,

Someone in between,

Remember that they’re special,

Not like you and me.

Yea they had it better in the past,

(But) Third gender power,

Is here to last.

Chầu văn is a type of Vietnamese music that one can hear during spirit séances, when mediums contact spirits.

The ethnomusicologist, Barley Norton, has written a wonderful book about this type of music.

It’s a very “traditional” type of music, but after sampling a section of a chầu văn song and playing with the samples in a Korg Padkontrol, it quickly became apparent to me that “modern” ways of composing music can easily fit well with the world of chầu văn music.

The video below is by no means a “masterpiece,” but it hopefully at least gives a sense of the ways in which the “traditional” and the “contemporary” can potentially intersect.

This is the song that the above piece plays with.

As it became clear that the Chinese Communists would gain control of the mainland in 1949, many members of Shanghai’s film industry relocated to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong already had a thriving film industry, much of which was produced in Cantonese. Nonetheless, with the arrival of people from the Shanghai film industry, even more films started to be produced, including increasing numbers of films in Mandarin.


However, with the mainland cut off from Hong Kong, there was not a big enough market in Hong Kong to support such a large film industry. Therefore, in the 1950s the producers of Hong Kong films started to seek to attract viewers from the Chinese population in Southeast Asia.

They did this in part by making movies about Chinese in Southeast Asia, and by also making movies in Southeast Asia.

One of the earliest such films was a Cantonese movie that was released in 1953 called “The Belle of Penang” (檳城艷).

The following video goes into more detail about this movie and its place at that time in the efforts of Hong Kong film producers to gain viewers among the Chinese in Southeast Asia.

This video contains clips from the movie, “The Belle of Penang,” as well as from the following videos: “Singapore – The Lion City, 1957,” “Old Hong Kong Sheung Wan, Opium Smoking, 1952” and “Old Singapore 1951, Cathay/Oriental Theatres.”

The music is “The Belle of Penang” (檳城艷) by Fong Yim-Fen/Fong Yim-Fun (芳艷芬), the actress who played the role of “the Belle of Penang.”

Continuing my effort to experiment with different ways that we can use digital media to engage with the past, I tried to make a version of “drunk history.”

For those who don’t know, Drunk History is an American comedy series in which a supposedly intoxicated narrator talks about an episode from American history, using rather crude language. This narrative is interspersed with acted out scenes in which the actors all mouth the words that the drunk narrator says.

Following this model, I tried to make something similar. I don’t have actors, so it is not as elaborate as Drunk History, but I tried to compensate for that by using plenty of “bad words.”

The video I made is about the Vietnamese revolution, Phan Bội Châu.

I call this type of history “crude history” because I use crude language, and because it’s meant to be a rather basic or rudimentary (another meaning of “crude”) version of the past.

If you do not like hearing swear words, do not watch this video!!

This video is not meant to be disrespectful. In fact, the message is meant to be very positive. It is just expressed in a way that most historians, other than Drunk Historians, usually don’t employ when they talk about the past. . . at least not when they talk in public. . .

As an historian, not only do I enjoy learning about the past, but I also have a strong desire to travel back in time to visit certain places at certain times.

1960s Cambodia is one such place I would like to go back in time to visit, because I would love to be able to listen to the great musicians at that time perform, such as Sinn Sisamouth and, of course, Ros Sereysothea.

Sinn Sisamouth & Ros-Sereysothea

I was thinking about this the other day, and then it dawned on me that I can go back in time. With the use of digital audio and video tools, I realized that not only can I go back to 1960s Cambodia, but I can actually play guitar with Ros Sereysothea’s band there.

So I tuned a guitar to an old recording of Ros Sereysothea’s “Bong Srolanh Oun Ponmaan Dae” (How Much Do You Love Me), and recorded a rhythm track as well as a little bit of lead guitar.

I then made a video of me playing that music, and. . . before I knew it, I was transported back in time to 1960s Cambodia. . . (or at least to the world of the hip elite in 1960s Cambodia).

I played with the band, people danced, and we all grooved to the lovely singing of “the Golden Voice of the Royal Capital.” It was an honor!! And I also learned that in the digital age historians can finally time travel.

I have been learning a lot about making music in the digital age recently, and one aspect of making music today that I find fascinating is the fact that people are “sampling” everything imaginable – from grand pianos to washing machines – and using these sounds to make songs.

Another interesting development is that many people are trying to recreate the “imperfect” sound of musical instruments played through a cassette recorder. With digital recording, sounds can sound “perfect,” and that is not always pleasing, as there is a texture to “imperfect” sounds that can sound very nice.

Therefore, there are many people who are sampling the sound of instruments played through a cassette so that they can then include that type of sound when they produce music using digital tools (a digital audio workstation or DAW).


I was recently reminded of the wonderful texture that music from the past can have when a friend posted on Facebook an original recording of a song from 1966 by the popular and well-respected South Vietnamese composer and singer, Duy Khánh (Xin anh giữ trọn tình quê). So I decided to use some of the sounds from that recording to make something new.

By cutting out parts of the song, playing some parts backwards, and adding reverb to others, I used the sounds (and texture) of this wonderful song to try to create something more contemporary but which is nonetheless indebted to the beauty of the original, a beauty which comes in part from “imperfection”: the guitar and piano are a bit out of sync at the beginning, for instance, and by today’s standards, the sound quality is somewhat unclear, but again, that’s one of the things that makes it sound special.

Xin anh giu tron tinh que 1

The only new sound that I’ve added to this “remix” are some drums. What I have created is definitely “imperfect,” so it would be nice if people who are much more capable at remixing music would “remix the past.” As I see it, it’s a way to honor people in the past and to create something new for the present.

Fifty Viss

a collection of thoughts and writings on Burma

mini myna

on knowing the past in Singapore


Albert Einstein — 'What is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right.'


About Vietnamese Cultural History and Scholarship

Digital Southeast Asia

Ideas for employing digital humanities approaches to the study of Southeast Asian history


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 668 other followers