The Lunch Lady of Saigon

Saigon: a tide of motorcycles, tourists, and lately, American culture. Where East met West, both in war and peace. Where Old meets New, both in love and trepidation. Where Viet Cong hats and rubber-tire sandals meet iPhones and Louis Vuitton bags. This is where a Subway sandwich shop can coexist alongside a banh mi stand, where a Heineken is held at the same regard as the 333. This is where Victor Hugo, Sun Yat Sen, and Nguyen Binh Khiem are venerated alongside Uncle Ho, Quang Duc, and Ronald McDonald.

In Ho Chi Minh’s city, the world’s sharpest contrasts mingle together. It shows in the roads, the tourist destinations, and the food.

You spend a few minutes at the improvised cinema at the Cu Chi Tunnels listening to documentary/propaganda films about “American Killer Heroes,” and come back a few hours later to the densely-populated districts of Ho Chi Minh City dotted with Burger Kings and KFCs and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchens. Here’s a country that swells with pride over its sound defeat of American forces in the Vietnam War, and swells with joy over the opening of McDonald’s branches.

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And then there’s the Lunch Lady, almost always preceded by the travels of Anthony Bourdain. He spoke of it in superlatives: the broth that the gods suckled from. Whether it’s in the crowded backpacker hostels of Pham Ngu Lao or the gentrified establishments of Ngo Duc Ke, tourists speak of Saigon’s best-kept secret with a certain veneration. For Bourdain: the Ibn Battuta of our generation. And for the Lunch Lady herself, Nguyen Thi Thanh: the unassuming lady whose pots and bowls have simmered more than one blog post – likely from intrepid foreign foodies – about Southern Vietnamese beef noodles.

I’m pretty sure that for every Lunch Lady recommendation, there would be a few more that would attest to the “best pho in Vietnam” (using the word “pho” loosely). The in-flight magazine suggested Pho Thin in Hanoi. Still others have told me not to wander far from Pham Ngu Lao, if all I ever wanted were beef noodles. And pho – beef noodles – aren’t too hard to find in a city that has been sustained by it through thick and thin. But the girlfriend – the biggest Anthony Bourdain fan I know – insisted on the Lunch Lady.

So off we went, braving the tide of motorcycles and tourists and American restaurants standing side-by-side with the ubiquitous coffee kiosks, in search for the Lunch Lady.

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On That BIR Ad

Much has been said about the BIR’s half-page ads on paying taxes, mostly from doctors who see the ads as “unfair” to their profession. Lots of “two cents” shared on the matter, too.

But I’m not a doctor, a lawyer, or an online seller: I’m one of those people who do ads for a living (although I’ve never worked for the ad agency that made that BIR ad). So with all disclaimers engaged (these are my opinions, this POV does not reflect that of my employer, etc.), here’s what I think.

I think of ads as business solutions. Advertising is one of many ways to make businesses work better. Badly put, advertising helps businesses by talking to people to spread the word about the business. Whether that business is a commercial enterprise, a manufacturer, or government, it’s pretty much the same thing.

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Three Lessons I Learned From Flappy Bird

Maurice Saatchi has this to write to the employees of M&C Saatchi – and the rest of the advertising world – about what he termed “The Brutal Simplicity of Thought:”

Simplicity is more than a discipline: it is a test. It forces exactitude or it annihilates. It accelerates failure when a cause is weak, and it clarifies and strengthens a cause that is strong.

Saatchi is known in advertising circles as the brains behind some of the world’s most successful ad campaigns. Things like “Labour Isn’t Working,” “Let’s Get Behind Scotland,” and the “Face” ad for British Airways. Then again, a developer named Dong Nguyen released a game called “Flappy Bird,” and is now a cause for celebration (perhaps even revulsion) among many mobile gaming fans.

Mostly because the game is hard. Damn hard. On my best day of playing the game, I got a score of 10.

I’m not a fan of writing “marketing thought leader” -ish pieces on my blog – for one I’m not, and for two most of these Mashable-y pieces are exercises in common sense – but “Flappy Bird” got me thinking about the lessons we can learn from the game. It can lend some order and perspective (read: sanity) into a world filled with “Let’s make a mobile app,” or “mobile should be a pillar for awareness.” Because sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t; most of the time, though, some things demonstrate the things we believe in most simply by doing.

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The Work of the Eyes

Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote, “The work of the eyes is done.  Go now and do the heart-work on the images imprisoned within you.”

Coy Caballes, among so few, lighted and stoked the embers that started a revolution.

That’s a lot to say for someone.  The word “revolution” has been so abused here that anyone can come up with something mediocre, and call it something grand for the sake of rhetoric or maybe even marketing.  But Coy – my friend, my fellow blogger, my client – came up with something that truly fits the mold of revolution.

In simple terms: Coy came up with social media marketing in the Philippines.  Yes, he was one of the first client-side social media managers in the Philippines.  And it’s an honor and a privilege to have been part of that journey.

I think it was way back November 2008, when I worked for a company that was once called NetBooster – when I walked into the Globe Telecom offices to meet Globe’s new social media manager.  It was on that day that a professional relationship was born, and a personal friendship grew.  There were five or six of us in that meeting: a meeting that, in part, probably helped start it all for community management in the Philippines.

I’m not one to call the task “pioneering” or anything like that.  It was just a meeting, probably.  Social media management – maybe branded Facebook pages – were around long before either Coy or myself got started with making projects named after StarCraft characters.  Back then, the role of the “social media manager” was a gamble: could brands use social networks for marketing?  What does it mean?  What does it give my brand, or my organization?  “What is this ORM?”

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It was a mad hustle for people like me, Andre, ES, Bim, and Peter – to name a few – to get the clients that get business moving.  More so for someone like Coy, who worked for one of the country’s largest telco companies.  This was still new back then, when digital had small budgets (or if any) and the risk coming into the venture was too high.  There were no command centers: we had to work in sleeping bags, cramped coffee tables, and clunky Blackberries to get the dice going.

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Pinoy Cinema and Our Discontents

I think it was Lenin who said, “Of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important.”  So it is for us here in the Philippines, where anyone who invokes Lenin would be an “enemy” and where “manood ng sine” is held in high regard.  And here we are – past MMFF season – and the Internet is abuzz about the “sorry” (or for some, “not-so-sorry;” still for others, “sorry-not-sorry”) state of Filipino cinema.

Some forced perspective is in order: cinema in the Philippines has seen better days.  In my hometown, the theaters and movie houses have given way to ukay stores. Filipino cinema is still vibrant, but even the pinilakang tabing is tarnished with the patina of operational costs, media piracy, and expensive movie tickets.  It may sound extreme, but every time we say, “I’ll just download the movie,” we move the wrecking ball an inch closer to the movie house.

And then there are “bad movies,” exemplified (at least for this MMFF season) by “My Little Bossings.”  Having opted to watch “Boy Golden” for this season (it makes me think more of KC Concepcion’s future in being this generation’s Cynthia Luster, and less of Jeorge Estregan’s movie career in general, but this is not a movie review), I’ll reserve my judgments for Vic Sotto’s movie for when I watch it.  But let’s take it as a given that our public intellectuals and cultural critics consider the film as a “bad movie:” my answer is a little less simple than what I want it to be.

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On Selfies

Towards the end of “Samurai X” – OK, “Rurouni Kenshin” – the dojo was supposed to have its pictures taken by a photographer in the village.  In the group, it was only Sannosuke who was averse to the idea of still pictures, claiming that the camera will “suck the soul” of anyone who may gaze into the lens.  He or she will be frozen, he claims.  A lot like a mechanical Medusa of sorts, that the blinding flash of the light will momentarily turn you to stone.

I’m not sure about the statistics of Instagram, but I bet that a majority of the pictures there are selfies.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s word for 2013 was “selfie.”  Their definition: “A photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or web cam and uploaded to a social media website.”  But we all know that there’s more to the selfie than just merely being a photograph.  It’s not an ID picture, but a filtered, saturated, “artistic” self-portrait.  It’s the self-image – in the strictest sense of the word “image” – that we want to project.

The selfie is the closest approximation we have to show the world how we see ourselves in the mirror.  The touch-ups, the angles, the filters and the colors and the hues are touches of personality that a clear eyesight prevents us (perhaps even betrays us) from seeing in the real world.  There’s a somewhat obvious subtext to the selfie: the way we see ourselves, is the way we want to be seen.

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The Binay Card

By now, much has been said about the whole Binay imbroglio.  Binay’s own camp weighed in, which makes this all the more interesting.

I’m not the biggest fan of Binay – not by a long shot – but the guy has always been consistent about playing the victim.  In the minds of the Binays, it’s the family against the world.  A cursory view of the chatter around this controversy shows that the Binays and their supporters may not take too kindly to netizens.

And then there’s the pink war elephant in the room, one that has always been the choice weapon of “oppressed politicians.”  Dasmarinas Village is the seat of the wealthy and the powerful: the Binays need not appeal to them.  The Binays need not appeal to the Filipino Internet community, either: the previous elections show that the promise of a crust of bread is more important than the thoughts and musings of the upper crust.  Erap didn’t win second place in 2010 – and Nancy Binay didn’t become a Senator – on the basis of things like “social media sentiment.”

They are getting away with it as we speak.  To follow their way of thinking, why should their constituency be bothered at all with the rules of people living in posh subdivisions or the ranting and raving on social media?  If anything, Binay – and the political mindset that precedes and perpetuates public figures like him – thrives on things that are far more real than Tweets and hypertext.  It’s a political mindset that thrives on weak civic culture: that voting is enough, that the highest manifestation of political activity in the Social Media Capital is to Tweet and blog about it (or take up a name and head to Disqus calling out “lefties” and “Yellowtards,” for example), and the millions of reasons not to join the public sector because “politics” is a bad word.

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