Artist Richie Fawcett’s story reads like a blurb from the back cover of a swashbuckling adventure novel. In it, the main protagonist throws in a promising career in archaeology for the chaos and uncertainty of travel to the other side of the world with just the clothes on his back and a few bob to spare.
Fawcett’s tale has spanned continents across land and sea in which he’s witnessed (among many things) the emergence of now legendary music scenes and DJs in Europe, grappled with unbridled urbanisation and development in Asia, and visited the remnants of ancient civilisations in Central America.
In Fawcett’s adopted home of Vietnam, however, he’s perhaps best known for igniting Saigon’s nascent mixology scene back in the early 2010s shortly after arriving here. But it’s for his art on the eve of the launch of his latest book Cocktail Art of Saigon Drinks Manual Volume 2 that he’s now making a name for himself.
“It’s my art that I really want to talk about, not so much the bars,” says the 47 year-old from England when we catch up at his studio and speakeasy, The Studio Saigon.
That’s not to say drinks are off the agenda, however: “Gin?” he enquires moments after I walk through the studio door at his second-floor Ly Tu Trong Street address in the centre of Saigon.
He knows me well.
Before I can answer, I hear the ice bucket rattling in the other room.
On his work bench in the corner, I notice a glass of red wine that by my estimate has had a couple of mouthfuls out of it already. When I express my surprise and note that it’s barely after lunch, he casually shrugs it off and replies over the sounds of my drink being mixed: “I’m an artist. We’re always drinking.”
Fawcett may be gradually leaving behind his old life as Richie The Bartender save for the odd guest bartending shift and consulting job here and there so he can devote most of his time to his art, but this newer and more relaxed Richie The Artist version is still adept at making visitors feel at home via the virtues of great hospitality mixed with generous amounts of alcohol.
”Tonic, right?” he enquires with a grin as he appears from the other room.
Hospitality courses through Fawcett’s veins like floodwaters do through Saigon streets in the wet season; you can tell it will never leave whatever Richie version he may morph into in the future.
That’s not to imply his becoming a full-time artist is some passing whimsy, rather it recognises how Fawcett’s real talents are being set free, as evidenced by his work over the years sketching as many of Saigon’s historic streets and buildings as he can before they disappear.
“It’s never been a transition for him,” says Fawcett’s long-time friend and ex-Bloomberg TV anchor John Dawson when I asked him recently about Fawcett’s transition from bartender into full-time artist. “His artistic talent is immense. It just needed space to breathe and let loose. Without Vietnam, we wouldn’t have seen his talents.”
Indeed, Vietnam has undoubtedly given Fawcett the opportunity to properly engage his talent.
“Hospitality is what it is, isn’t it?” Fawcett says when I nudge the conversation in that direction. “To be hospitable at the end of the day, you just make people relaxed and welcome. It’s the old way of looking at it. When you welcome people into your bar or restaurant, it’s the same way as you would treat people in your own home – you give them as much love and attention as you can, then, if they happen to love the food and drink, great.”
Initially, Fawcett had turned his nose up at my approach to this interview. The suggestion of a casual chinwag over a G&T or two about his achievements in hospitality over the past two decades in which he’s worked just about every gig in the industry you can poke a swizzle stick at from London to Hong Kong to Saigon basically got shot down as fast as a Jager Bomb on one of the city’s seedier nightlife strips.
And perhaps rightly so.
He and his story have been covered extensively by others over the years. But in the end, we both agreed that it’s impossible to talk about the man without peeling back at least a few layers of his intriguing past before digging into his current work and future plans.
How did the son of a chef and a nurse from a small English village wind up in Saigon getting paid for sketching the city he loves and having the audacity to anoint himself The Bartist (a portmanteau of the words bartender and artist)?
And even more audaciously, where did he get those balls to call out Vietnam’s hospitality establishment with a big ‘fuck you’ (literally) whenever he senses it’s getting too big for its boots?
“Well, a lot happened before that,” he’ll go on to tell me later.
With all this in mind, I’m concerned Fawcett may choke on the orange rind in his Old Fashioned (the best in town I might add), or worse, stab his eye repeatedly with one of those pens that are never too far from his reach when he gets round to reading this. But I’m hoping he’ll appreciate my efforts at unpacking him a little more than others have before me, after all, he’s a keen student of history and loves nothing more than a good yarn.
“No, not at all,” he replies when I ask if he’s surprised at where he is now and what he’s doing, before continuing: “I’ve been listening a lot about the rise and fall of civilisations and the story about the Sumarians, including the Italian traveller, Pietro della Valle.”
This leaves me moving uncomfortably on his sofa and wondering where the conversation is headed. I don’t think he’s aware that I’ve never got more than one point out of ten in a pub quiz history round.
He tells me that della Valle lived during the 16th century and discovered the lost Sumarian city that historians believe was possibly one of the first cities in the world. And that he travelled across Asia, documenting his experiences along the way and even marrying a Syrian princess in Damascus – as you do.
“I did something similar in 1991,” Fawcett says, hinting at some kind of kindred connection with the Italian traveller and author. “I travelled prolifically and eventually settled in Saigon, about as far from the UK as possible, set up shop and married a Hanoian!”
Indeed, there are many similarities between the two men, not least their ceaseless curiosity to know things, but my money is on Fawcett’s story told with his wry sense of British humour being far more engaging than della Valle’s any day – or century, for that matter.
As he potters about and shuttles back and forth through the opening of the secret door that seals off the studio at the front from his speakeasy out back (where I’m now seated) making preparations for a group who’s booked him and the studio for a few hours of cocktails and team building the following day, I look about the place.
Like I imagine all wayfarers (Fawcett doesn’t drive and rarely uses any form of transport), he has a propensity for collecting and hoarding things.
Above the bar, on shelves and in bookcases all around, he keeps a cache of bartending paraphernalia along with other dust collectors (books are a favourite, including a unique version of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather in which a whisky glass can be concealed) that he has acquired over the years – bought, gifted, perhaps even nicked.
A couple of special keepsakes among the melange are cocktail books that once belonged to Fawcett’s father, someone he talks of as if he were a best mate but who sadly passed away from complications related to cancer in 2004.
“I just wish he was here to see what I’ve achieved so far,” he would go on to tell me a couple of weeks later over a drink at the Park Hyatt’s Opera Bar. “I wish he could’ve met Harry (Fawcett’s 12 month old son), too,” he said, fighting back tears and needing a moment to compose himself before telling me more about his dad and how much he loves him.
The treasure trove in Fawcett’s bar also includes a model Spanish galleon made from lacquered dark wood, resplendent with cotton sails. The galleon, in a sense, is symbolic of how history, the high seas, travel, exploration and adventure are never far from Fawcett’s musings.
In fact, when he recently announced that he had redecorated his drinks trolley – aptly named “The Spirit of Adventure” – with the surnames of explorers and people dear to him who have played a significant role in his journey thus far, it felt like he was announcing the official launch of a ship. I wouldn’t have been surprised had he Christened it by smashing a mini champagne bottle over its handrails with some kind of elaborate rope and pulley system fixed from the ceiling.
Meanwhile, the galleon also happens to be the vessel in which he served his original and ridiculously popular Ba Son Shipyard cocktail when he was at Shri, the last restaurant he managed before dropping anchor into the depths of full-time art.
The drink features prominently in the first edition of his drinks manual, Cocktail Art of Saigon Volume 1, the forerunner to his latest volume.
When he came up with the idea for the cocktail, the historic shipyard just minutes from City Hall and in its heyday one of the region’s busiest, was largely in-tact, but as history now tells us, it was soon after demolished to make way for luxury townhouses, an act that still riles Fawcett all these years on.
“I’ve never spoken publicly about it and I don’t really want to,” he says with conviction, the playful look on his face from earlier replaced with one of sternness, “but it was a lost opportunity to preserve a significant piece of Saigon’s history for future generations and now it’s gone. I know why it happened, but what can I do about it when I’m a guest in this country?”
When it was published in 2016, Fawcett’s Cocktail Art of Saigon Drinks Manual Volume 1 featured 41 of his original cocktails representing every year of peace since the end of the American War in 1975. His long-awaited Volume 2 has the addition of four new drinks to commemorate 45 years since Vietnam was unified.
In the book, his 45 unique cocktails come complete with detailed sketches, a brief history of the Saigon streets, buildings or prominent figures that inspired them, along with the ingredients and methods for making them at home.
Then Fawcett re-enters the room and takes the conversation in a new direction: “It’s a bit like Prometheus, you know,” he starts, surveying the space up and down which he’s been clearing of his works and other clutter that has piled up during the social distancing period,“firing up this old relic that’s been buried in crap. You know that film, right?” he asks, checking that I’m following his drift. “So, you know, that spaceship they find, it’s a classic, off-world kind of situation, it feels exactly the same here.”
On cue, before my lack of film knowledge is also exposed, his wife Duyen and the couple’s adorable one-year old son, Harry, arrive for one of their regular visits to the studio. Suddenly my history lesson is over as all attention turns to the boy, who, by the way, looks strikingly a lot like his dad. Our interview ceases for now and before long I’m juggling another G&T along with the see-sawing emotions of a toddler who, thankfully, turns out to be an absolute delight.
Days later we pick things up mid-afternoon at a flame grilled chicken joint a block from Fawcett’s good friend and restaurateur Peter Cuong Franklin’s Anan Saigon where Fawcett has been installing a new floor-to-ceiling led light cityscape the award-winning chef has commissioned him to sketch. Fawcett has nothing but respect for Franklin.
“I love the guy, he’s such a soldier,” he says of the man who is challenging us to reimagine Vietnamese cuisine with his creative adaptations of traditional dishes typically found on the streets and in markets. “He works very hard at what he does and he’s amazing at it.”
Franklin is equally as effusive days later when I contact him to ask about his friendship with Fawcett.
“We’re good friends, collaborators in art, cocktails and food and we’re occasional rebel rousers together, too,” says Franklin who’s just opened his latest outlet, something he describes as a “futuristic pho bar” called Pot Au Pho on the third floor of the same building as his outrageously successful Anan Saigon. Inside it hangs Fawcett’s latest work created especially for the venue; a four-piece illuminated installation of pudgy sumos precariously balancing on steaming hot bowls of pho. “I admire Richie’s work, he’s a true artist as he can be emotional, a perfectionist and a pain in the ass to deal with sometimes – but I still love him,” says Franklin.
At the chicken joint, Fawcett and I commandeer a circular booth in the front window that looks out onto the street where we talk at length for a couple of hours until the sun dips behind the buildings and blazing neon lights on their shopfronts that illuminate beer brands and words like ‘bar’ and ‘bubble tea’ begin to burn into our retinas.
It’s largely well-known, at least among his friends, that Fawcett studied Egyptian archaeology at University College London in the early ‘90s (he has never studied art) and left with a degree specialising in underwater archaeological photography and ancient shipwrecks. Funny thing is, I’ve never seen Fawcett with a camera (although he’s fond of taking random snaps on his phone and says he has a DSLR somewhere at home) nor have I seen him swim, yet he’s qualified to take precision shots of sunken ships far out at sea.
But there you go, Fawcett is full of surprises.
We resume the discussion we had started at his studio the previous week over a plate of crumbed chicken breast fillet bites dunked in a tasty house-made Thousand Island sauce and a chicken burger washed down with some cheap local beer that makes us both burp.
I’m not used to eating lunch this late in the afternoon, but as his long-time friend, photographer and co-collaborator Frenchman Alexandre Garel, who’s behind the hugely successful Instagram account @saigonsnaps and who’s recently published a book of his own about Vietnamese Modernist architecture, says, “Richie is a man of the night.”
Garel has just finished working with Fawcett on a commission to sketch a map of Saigon for his book and says that Fawcett was the obvious choice of artist for the project: “Who in town better than him to understand my work?” he says. “There’s a quality in Richie and his work that speaks to me in terms of consistency; he’ll never let go of what he’s started. He’s able to come back several times to the same place to tell a story. It’s the kind of thing that makes the difference in our art and also in the visual message that we want to convey, which is the evolution of a young city, but which already has so much history.”
Franklin offers similar praise as Garel when he talks of the work Fawcett is creating for him: “I admire Richie’s work,” he says. “We’ve worked together on a number of projects which makes me very excited about his new expansive work which will capture the city’s view from our restaurant and when it’s finished, will cover an entire wall.”
As Fawcett talks openly about growing up in a small north England village in the ’70s and ’80s and being surrounded by creativity and hospitality, and about his father being a chef and how he spent much of his childhood with friends in the local toymaker’s workshop tinkering away on toys and trying to figure out how they worked, it becomes clear why Fawcett isn’t surprised to find himself where he is at this time.
“In many ways I’m doing what my father did,” he says. “He travelled and lived overseas as an engineer, worked in hospitality and eventually became a gunsmith. He worked with tremendous detail, qualities that I’ve inherited and will probably pass on to Harry, I guess.”
By the late 1960s, Fawcett’s father’s reputation as a chef had grown to such acclaim that his restaurant The Bistro in Sheringham, North Norfolk earned a coveted place in the then-recently established Good Food Guide, the UK’s equivalent to the Michelin Star Guide. It was a crowning achievement for the chef who also was drafted into the Merchant Marine, taught himself engineering and how to make guns when he was in his thirties.
“Hospitality has to be in you and something you really want to do,” he says when I ask if he thinks it’s something innate or can be learned. “I can tell straight away when I walk into a bar or restaurant in Saigon whether or not the person serving me is into it or not. There are a lot of amazing people who are, but there are plenty who aren’t.”
So I ask about his taking to social media recently to lament the last five years in Saigon’s hospitality scene which he called “a dodgy shadow of its former self”, that “the mass of ground level mainstream bars remain exactly that…mainstream” and that “all (hotel) bars are needing a serious overhaul” and that things shouldn’t be tolerated just “because the hookers are hot and attract overweight businessmen.”
“I’ve got nothing to be afraid of,” he replies. “I meant everything that I said, I’m not in that world anymore. What I said in that post were my observations of what’s happening at the moment.”
Of course, courting controversy is nothing new for Fawcett.
At university, he used photography equipment belonging to the archaeology department to take photos whenever the student union bar on campus had live gigs. As his photography skills improved, he gained greater access to artists like Moby (and later Ricky Gervais, then ULU Student Union Entertainment Manager), then he would sell the photos for £10 a pop to leading music magazines of the time.
“They were great times,” says Fawcett grinning from ear to ear. “I’d be up all night taking photos with university equipment, then I’d spend the next day in the university darkroom developing the film and selling the photos for good money.”
Because of the relationships he’d developed at university, this lead to photography jobs with renown magazines like Loaded, mixmag, FHM, GQ and others, followed by a job as a cruise ship photographer and videographer cruising the Caribbean and the Pacific.
“That was another job I got sacked from,” Fawcett says sheepishly. “Back then it was all film and I was on this cruise ship sailing the Caribbean taking photos of a wedding ceremony. Later in the day I went to replace the film and realised that there hadn’t been a film in the camera the whole time. It wasn’t like I could jump ship and disappear. That was a long few days aboard after that.”
By then, however, he’d spent three years in the job and the experience had given him a taste for cocktails and bartending which would ultimately lead him to where he is today.
“I ended up managing clubs and bars in London, including one owned by Roger Moore, which eventually led me to Hong Kong where I met John (Dawson) in 2010, and then after that I made my way to Saigon and eventually opened The Studio Saigon in 2017,” he says.
But back to the book.
Given how rapidly things change in Saigon, it’s reasonable to expect there will be many more volumes of Fawcett’s Cocktail Art of Saigon in the years to come.
In fact, on the day of the photoshoot for this interview, I take Fawcett to the 9th floor rooftop of an old apartment building at 22 Ly Tu Trong Street in the centre of the city, just a block from his studio. It’s the building made famous by Dutch photojournalist Hubert van Es when he took that iconic snap of evacuees scrambling to board a waiting US helicopter on the elevator shaft of the CIA offices on the penultimate day of the Vietnam War on April 29, 1975.
For the first time since then, the rooftop is now officially open to the public.
Suddenly, Fawcett has a whole new cityscape to inspire his future work as an artist, while the possibilities for a slew of new cocktail creations are as endless as the views.
Only time will tell what he comes up with next.
As he smiles and jokes his way through the photoshoot with Notre Dame Cathedral bathed in brilliant morning sunlight in the background, the words of his close mate now based in Hong Kong, John Dawson, sum Fawcett up better than most: “I’ve never seen him happier than he is now. His son, Harry, has opened up a new joy in him and you’ll see another level of creativity burst through as a result. Mark my words. You’ve seen nothing yet. He’s just getting started.” – Matthew Cowan
***The Studio Saigon will be open to the public for the launch of Cocktail Art of Saigon Drinks Manual Volume 2 on Saturday, Nov.28 from 1pm to 9pm***
Words by Matthew Cowan. Follow Matt on Instagram at @mattcowansaigon
Photos by Mike Palumbo. Follow Mike on Instagram at @mikepalumbo_
Video by Alex Ling. Follow Alex on Instagram at @axx_lii
Artwork by Richie Fawcett & provided by DZK Creative
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The Studio Saigon is at 42bis Ly Tu Trong Street, District 1, HCMC, Vietnam