People

Rising Phoenix

Special effects make-up artist & host Kim B. Phuong

We’re just minutes into our interview and Kim, the recently-announced, bubbly co-host of the Saigon Tattoo Expo 2018 this November, begins listing the places she’s visited so far in her short but packed lifetime.

“Singapore, Australia, the UK, Europe, Asia. I’ve been to so many countries. I love that. I feel like travelling is the best way to learn and to become more open-minded.”

In a short space of time, she has the ability to make you feel like you’ve known her forever

Indeed, the 29-year-old special effects make-up artist (Kong: Skull Island) and host (NYX Face Awards) from Bien Hoa City, near Vietnam’s largest city, Saigon, is just that — intelligent, open-minded, well-travelled and oozes truckloads of personality. She represents all that’s good about her generation. She’s a go-getter without an attitude. When she speaks, her zest for life shines through, while her playful laughs and giggles inject even more vitality into an already engaging personality. In a short space of time, she has the ability to make you feel like you’ve known her forever.

“I’m still traditional, though,” she reassures me, with a tap on my knee and a smile.

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As we continue to chat, Kim listens intently and is obviously taking this whole interview thing seriously. Not that others don’t, but she has an opinion on everything we discuss from entertainment to Vietnamese culture to women. Yes, she had requested the interview questions in advance so she could prepare, but when I throw in some sneaky extras, she’s up to the task. Take for instance the one I ask about whether or not she thinks men get weirded-out by her obsession with zombies.

“I don’t want to talk or think about negative things too much, because it’s not good for you”

She briefly considers the question, then replies with: “I don’t think it’s a problem. I think what’s more important is the connection between two people.”

She does, however, stop short of going into detail about the times she’s been targeted by online trolls wanting to take her down a peg or two: “I don’t want to talk or think about negative things too much, because it’s not good for you,” she says. “If I said I didn’t live my life online, I’d be lying to you, but when I go out with my friends, I tend to focus my energy on them, I put my phone away and enjoy my time without online distractions.”

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I ask her to expand on why she identifies as being traditional: “I’m traditional and open-minded,” she says. “What I mean is, being open-minded is good, however, I want to hold onto my traditional side, the good side.”

In an era of rapid development and urbanisation in Vietnam, and at a time when people Kim’s age are often unfairly labelled ‘Generation Me’ for being seen as needy with a desire to be heaped with praise and lavished in attention, it’s reassuring to find out not all is lost.

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But I’m still fishing for what she really thinks about the head-on collision between modernity and tradition sweeping Vietnam. Eventually she comes clean and says the “good side” of Vietnamese tradition she had referred to, is that Vietnamese people, especially women, are “gentle and faithful.”

“When I think of my grandmother, she took care of us kids, my grandfather, the house,” she explains, the lilt of her Australian accent noticeable with every vowel sound she makes. “I learnt how to cook from my grandmother and how to treat people the right way. It wasn’t until I’d grown into an adult and looked back that I realised all along she’d been teaching me all the good things about life, like how to behave and treat people.”

“We were poor and didn’t have rice to eat”

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Like so many others in Vietnam, Kim’s family was impacted by the War, which meant, although she was born after 1975, she experienced its devastating after-effects long after reunification. It taught her that she should appreciate the things she has now, rather than to look too far forward, or to wish for things her family couldn’t afford.

 

 

“We were poor and we didn’t have rice to eat. So whenever I didn’t want to eat, my grandmother would tell me about the War and how little people had. Nowadays, if I leave leftovers, I feel really bad and guilty.”

She says, however, it’s hard to tell if others her age are mindful of the hardships and sacrifices family members before them made: “I think I’m lucky to have had my grandparents raise me. I grew up with them, they taught me a lot, so I’m appreciative of things like that. I can’t speak for others, though.”

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Beyond her own family circle, Kim also recognises the positive steps Vietnamese society as a whole is taking, like the gradual move away from the long-held expectation that women should be the sole caregivers and domestic servants of the household. She even goes as far as saying “trying to be the good wifey” is on the way out.

“Nowadays, I feel like we can raise our voices, give our opinions and offer ideas equally,” she says.

When I ask if she thinks women do actually have an equal standing with men in Vietnamese society, she takes her time to consider it:

“I guess things are becoming more balanced”

“I think things are getting better. Women can now do business and drive cars, whereas in the past, it was like, ‘No, just stay behind.’ Although, I must admit that part of me still goes, “Wow!” when I see women driving cars. I guess things are just becoming more balanced.”

Indeed, it makes sense that Kim believes now is better than ever before to be a woman in Vietnam, but says it doesn’t come without a whole new set of modern pressures.

“Personally, I don’t feel pressure [to conform to traditional roles], but what’s causing the greatest amount of pressure is social media. Women these days have a greater capacity to reach the world than ever before, which is good, don’t get me wrong, but you just need to try and be yourself and have your own style. Don’t forget who you are and be yourself. Some people treat it [social media] like it’s a competition, ‘I’m better than you!’ Just follow your passion and forget everything else.”

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Certainly, Kim can’t be accused of not following her passion. Prior to getting the break she needed as part of a team of special effects make-up artists working on Kong: Skull Island filmed in Vietnam in 2016, Kim held down an office job as a trainer for a large make-up brand, working the nine-to-five grind.

“I’d developed this love for zombies after watching The Walking Dead and wanted to figure out how they created them. Gradually I learned to do the basics well and continued to practice. Five years later, I got contacted for the job on Skull Island, after that I knew I wanted to work in the film industry. You know, I was like, “This is what I want to do with myself, this is what I want to be.” A few years ago, I would just sit around waiting for Halloween to come so I could get more jobs,” she says with a laugh, “but now I’m busy working on just special effects make-up and hosting events.”

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Mention of her hosting work leads us to her co-hosting role at the upcoming Saigon Tattoo Expo with fellow host, Singaporean Paul Foster, something she sees as an exciting opportunity for her, especially given many of the world’s top tattoo artists will be present, including the best from Vietnam. 

“I see tattooists as artists, so I’m excited,” she says. “Danis [tattooist and co-organiser of the event] is an artist, so perhaps he can unleash his creativity on me for a new tattoo? I’m thinking about getting a phoenix.”

For more information about Kim, go to her FACEBOOK PAGE & YOUTUBE CHANNEL

The Saigon Tattoo Expo 2018 is on Nov.10&11. For more information, go to WEBSITE   |   FACEBOOK

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