Richie Fawcett & The Fine Art Of Reinventing Himself
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 science 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 over land and sea, in which he's witnessed 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 in Saigon, but it’s for his art 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 just after lunch, he casually shrugs it off and replies over the sounds he's making while mixing my drink: “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 here and there so he can devote most of his time to his art, but this newer and more at ease Richie The Artist version is as aware as ever as to how important it is to make visitors feel at home via the virtues of great hospitality mixed in with plenty of alcohol – especially when those writing about him pay him a visit.
"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 evidence by his work sketching as many of Saigon's historic streets and buildings as he can before they disappear.
His long-time friend and ex-Bloomberg TV anchor for 20 years John Dawson raised this when I asked him recently what he thought of Fawcett's transition from bartender into full-time artist: "It's never been a transition for him," he said. "His artistic talent is immense. It just needed space to breathe and be 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. 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 pretty much got shot down by him as fast as a Jager Bomb by a punter on Pasteur Street.
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, having the audacity to anoint himself The Bartist (a portmanteau of the words bartender and artist) and more audaciously having the 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, anyway?
"Well, a lot happened before that," he'll go on to tell me later.
With all that 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. “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 twitching in my seat a little 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.
Soon enough I learn from Fawcett 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 the Middle East, Asia and India, documenting his travels 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 I'm willing to put my money on Fawcett's wry sense of British humour being funnier than della Valle's Italian one any day, or century for that matter.
As he potters about, shuttling back and forth through the opening of the secret door that seals off the studio in the front room from the bar in the back room (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 things and hoarding them, like bowerbirds do to beautify their nests.
Above the bar, on shelves and in bookcases, he keeps a lot 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 somehow acquired over the years, bought, been gifted, maybe 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 need a moment to compose himself.
The treasure trove in Fawcett's bar also includes a model Spanish galleon made from lacquered dark wood and is 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 "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 and I wouldn't have been surprised had he Christened it by smashing a champagne bottle over its handrails.
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. 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 that had greeted me earlier now 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 featured 41 of his original cocktails representing every year of peace since the end of the American War in 1975. He has now finally published his long-awaited updated second edition with four new drinks to commemorate 45 years since Vietnam was unified. His 45 unique cocktails come complete with sketches and a brief story demonstrating how Fawcett has drawn inspiration from Saigon's historic streets, buildings and prominent figures to create them.
Then Fawcett re-enters the room: “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, his wife Duyen with the couple’s adorable one-year old son, Harry, arrives for one of their regular visits to the studio. Suddenly my history lesson is over as all attention turns to Harry, who 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 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 illuminating 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.
At any rate, we resume the discussion we had started at his studio the previous week, but this time we kick it off at an earlier juncture in his life. But first, food, he’s hungry, so we order 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 also recently published a book of his own on Vietnamese Modernist architecture, says, “Richie is a man of the night.”
Indeed, he is. And a man of eating at odd hours it seems.
Garel has just finished working with Fawcett who he commissioned 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 echoes Garel when he talks of the work Richie is working on 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 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, his father being a chef who he spent a lot of time with and from who he clearly picked up on the nuances of customer service and hospitality, and how down the laneway from the family home lived a local toymaker where he spent much of his childhood with friends in the toymaker’s workshop tinkering away on toys and trying to figure out how they worked, it dawns on me that it makes perfect sense Fawcett isn't surprised by where he finds himself at this point in time.
“In many ways I’m doing what my father did,” he says. "He travelled and lived overseas as an engineer, then turned to 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 1950s, Fawcett's father’s reputation as a chef had grown to such acclaim that his German-style restaurant earned a coveted place in the recently established Good Food Guide, the UK’s equivalent to the Michelin Star Guide, way before celebrity chefs and yes, Instagram. It was a crowning achievement for someone who started out as an engineer and who didn't train at culinary school but would gravitate towards restauranting and hospitality. Prior to his death, he was a gunsmith making high-quality precision guns.
"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 ones who are, but there are plenty who aren't."
This prompts me to ask about the motivation by his taking to social media recently to reflect on the last five years in Saigon’s hospitality scene in which he laments that it’s “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 it 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. I don’t need them. I’m making a good living out of my art and what I said in that post were my observations of what’s happening.”
Courting controversy is nothing new for Fawcett, however.
At university, a career as a lifestyle photographer beckoned as he took advantage of the equipment he had access to in the archaeology department. He would sequester it at evenings and weekends whenever the student union bar on campus had live gigs. As his photography skills improved, he was allowed greater access backstage to mingle and take candid photos of artists like Moby (and later Ricky Gervais, then ULU Student Union President), photos he would go on to sell for £10 a pop to popular 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 after graduation with renown magazines like Loaded, mixmag, FHM, GQ and others, followed by a job as a cruise ship photographer and videographer.
"That was another job I got sacked from," Fawcett says with a sheepish grin. "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 he'd spent three years in the job, the upside to his dismissal was that the experience had given given him a newfound appreciation for cocktails and bartending which would ultimately steer him into the direction he is today.
"I ended up managing clubs and bars in London, including one owned by Roger Moore, which eventually lead me to Hong Kong where I met John (Dawson) in 2010, and then through his connections I made my way to Saigon," says Fawcett.