In early April, a disturbing sight appeared on the central Vietnamese coast. In just a few days, hundreds and then tens of thousands of dead and dying fish appeared on the sand. At first, some locals rejoiced, gathering the fish still gasping with life to eat. Many of those residents became sick, and as more dead fish piled-up, Vietnam couldn’t deny the fact: it had a huge environmental disaster on its hands.
The theory is that a steel mill dumped toxic waste into the ocean, poisoning the sea. The mill, in Ha Tinh Province where many of the fish have been washing ashore, is run by Formosa Plastics, a Taiwan-based company. The government claims to be investigating the cause, but much too slowly for many. They have taken water samples and ordered Formosa Plastics to remove an illegal pipe draining into the ocean.
Even Environment Minister Tran Hong Ha admitted that the government had been slow to react for such a serious environmental disaster. With many of the region’s residents relying on fish for both food and income, hundreds have been poisoned by eating the fish and thousands are out of work. In 2015, Vietnam exported $6.6 billion worth of seafood, it is unclear to what extent this massive die-off will affect this year’s exports.
Adding to the outrage, as fear and anger grew, Chou Chun-fan, the external relations manager for Formosa Ha Tinh, shrugged it off. Vietnam, he said, must “choose whether to catch fish and shrimp or to build a state-of-the-art steel mill. … You cannot have both.” Formosa fired him, but not before the public responded to his options. #IChooseFish and the Vietnamese-language version, #toichonca, were born.
Born from the callousness of Formosa and the government’s incompetence, #IChooseFish has been the online rallying cry for Vietnamese anger and protests stemming from the mass fish die-off. While the extent of the demonstrations that have followed comes as a surprise, Vietnam remains a country where freedom of press and assembly are strictly controlled. Many are using social media and the #IChooseFish hashtag to share and learn about the news. The tag grants them a relatively new opportunity to counter the Vietnamese party line while running relatively little risk of being arrested or beaten. However, while not nearly as rampant or sophisticated in scope as in neighboring China, censorship online is still common in Vietnam, and it appears Vietnam blocked Facebook in mid-May over the #IChooseFish protests.
The hashtag is flooded with fish skeletons, drawings, rallying cries, and more. It is a visibility campaign for the environmental degradation of the region, which the government and Formosa seem to be waiting for the tide to slowly wash away. However, like the dead fish that keep piling up, the hashtag and the thousands using it have become difficult to ignore.
While the vernacular creativity of the hashtag campaign is undeniable, contemporary visual artists adding to the mix is especially powerful. In order for me to better understand the creative responses, moving past the censorship and linguistic barriers, Nhung Walsh, founder of Noi Projects — which seeks to connect and facilitate projects and dialogue for Vietnamese artists — was instrumental for this post. Walsh reflected that while censorship has been prevalent in Vietnam for a long time and causes a great deal of self-censorship, Vietnamese artists often find a way to speak out.
In Hue, a group of artists from Viet Art Space decided to take advantage of the concurrent 9th annual Huế Festival to hold an unscheduled performance on the Trang Tien bridge over the Huong River in response to the fish die-offs. While the festival features extensive cultural programming that highlights the city’s and nation’s culture, both old and new, this group had not received permission for public performances.
The performers were promptly arrested, questioned, investigated, and, luckily, released. Many photographs of and much information about the event was removed from the internet, seemingly by those involved, in fear of further repercussions. The artist residency program where the artists were staying was raided, and shortly thereafter permanently shut down, according to sources closely involved.
Also in Hue, artist Tran Tuan organized Quay II, a small exhibition in response to the environmental crisis. One powerful project featured in the show, “Day 32,” was made by Tran and fellow Hue artist Ngoc Tu Hoang, who printed fish on face masks, handing them out with a slogan reading, “we can keep silent but that doesn’t mean we don’t care.” The masks turned up at protests, in selfies, and in profile pictures, regularly accompanied by the #IChooseFish and #toichonca hashtags.
Another powerful work in Quay II was an installation by Tran titled, “The Silent Knives,” (2016). The piece was made up of the distinctive knives used by fish sellers, whom Tran interviewed about the fish crisis and how it has affected their businesses. Each knife included the seller’s name on the blade and was returned after the show. The fish merchants’ anger was reflected in their willingness to loan their blades, which have been laying idle after the massive fish deaths prompted a regional fishing ban.
Taking place at Then Cafe, which was founded by Tran and serves as a sort of informal arts hub in Hue, the exhibition occurred on private property, but still legally required permission for exhibitions and events. Walsh wrote me that the unlicensed exhibition was shut down and Tran and Hoang were “invited” to work with the police. “The police broke into the studio, took away the masks and art supplies,” Walsh wrote me over email, adding that “Tuan was said to provoke the protest,” despite the masks actively encouraging wearers to be silent. Unlike much of the photographs of the public performance, many pictures of Tran’s exhibition remain on Facebook.
On May 4 and 5, artists Knee Jerk, Sautel Cago, and Sam Mudrok made a large mural in Da Nang that read, “Respect the Environment.” It was promptly painted over by the authorities. “We painted that piece just to raise a bit more environmental awareness here in Vietnam,” Knee Jerk, a British-born, Da Nang-based artist, told me over Facebook. “Not to blame anyone, just to raise awareness.”
After the police buffed the #IChooseFish mural, officers went on to paint over about 10 more for which Knee Jerk had obtained permission from property owners (though not from the local police). While all public artworks in Vietnam technically require permission from the Cultural Police prior to exhibition, this is the first time in five years of painting in Vietnam that Knee Jerk has experienced such censorship. He believes the buffing to be politically motivated. “They were cool with all the other street paintings we did until we did the environmental wall,” he said.
If they are ever found guilty, this would not be Formosa’s first environmental and safety controversy. In 1998 the company illegally dumped 3,000 tones of mercury-laden waste in Cambodia; the company was forced to pay $2.8 million for environmental destruction and safety negligence after a deadly explosion in the US in 2004; and, in 2011, the company was fined $2.7 million in Taiwan for pollution. Like the Vietnamese officials now fearing free speech, Formosa filed a lawsuit against an academic for publishing a damaging report on their safety violations. The courts ruled in the academic’s favor.
This is the second major series of protests in Vietnam in the last two years. In May 2014, long-brewing anti-Chinese sentiment erupted in protests sparked by China’s increasingly antagonistic actions in the South China Sea. In the beginning — and in sharp contrast to standard policy — the government allowed surprisingly large protests to occur. However, as some protests turned into riots, hundreds of factories throughout Vietnam (Chinese-owned or not) were damaged, and dozens were killed. Some of the most serious rioting, coincidentally, occurred at the very same Formosa factory whose actions led to the #IChooseFish campaign this spring.
It is believed that the May 2014 protests were allowed to grow at first because they were nationalistic in a way that was in line with the political will at the time. Both the Vietnamese people and government were angered by Chinese aggressions in the South China Sea. As protests continue and information about the fish die-offs remains available online, the Vietnamese government is faced with a difficult choice: keep protecting big business interests, no matter the local health and safety, not to mention the environmental cause; or begin to be more transparent and responsive. As official policy on protests grows more severe and the #IChooseFish hashtag begins to wane, it seems that — at least for now — the government has chosen the former approach.