“The Luxury of Home: From Shanghai to China Beach”

HaLong-postcardDa Nang, Vietnam, 27 November 2013

… My laptop screensaver has a similar view of Ha Long Bay, from my last visit to Vietnam in 2007. 

Years, locations and career transitions have flown by, and this image has reminded me to keep a worldly perspective on whatever I do — and wherever I go.

Whether as a memory of a visit to my origins — like this moment in writing from a cafe at my birthplace in Da Nang — or as I renew my ventures abroad after six rather domestic years as an entrepreneur in my Western home in Los Angeles.

I must sail on like these ships in the South China Sea.  We are restless, driven by the rising Sun in the East, and in pursuit of the setting sun out West.  MDN”

*  *  *

Da Nang, Vietnam, November 26, 2013

“Peeezzzz….” Swat!  Within a minute of laying my head down on the lumpy yellow pillow, a mosquito flew directly within striking distance of my left ear.  I knew more were en route as I used a thin worn sheet as a barrier – which barely covered my feet to neck and left my head exposed to their nightly feeding rituals.

Prior to arriving in Vietnam, I had spent two weeks as part of the UCLA-NUS Executive MBA program in the luxurious confines of the Royal Le Meridien in Shanghai.  The hotel upgraded me to a deluxe room on the 40th floor as a lifetime Starwood Gold Member, a status earned from 384 nights with that chain alone since my globetrotting began after receiving my first degree from UCLA in 1994.

But, every time I’ve returned to my birthplace in Da Nang (also known as “China Beach” the infamous military retreat and setting for the TV show from the 1990s) since the U.S. and Vietnam normalized relations about two decades ago – I have always stayed with my relatives in the center of the bustling city.  No screened windows to keep out the thirsty bugs, few creature comforts in the bathless bathroom and the communal bedrooms, and the occasional rat scurrying across the kitchen floor.  On the faded walls, they displayed pictures of me and my younger brother, cousins and family – and most prominently our graduation pictures which they are especially proud.

Graduation-Family

My aunts cooked the same meal this evening to welcome me, as they did the first time the saw me since my family and I left the country in 1975 at the end of the war – marinated beef with lemongrass, fried potato wedges, salad and tomatoes.  On the first visit back in 1995, accompanied by two fellow Americans and Fulbright Fellows who traveled with me during our year abroad in Singapore – we chuckled as we were served the same meal every night, but politely ate as they insisted we were all too thin, and were quite pleased to offer us meat and potatoes given the hardships they’ve faced.

… Earlier in the day, I had an appointment at the Hyatt Regency Resort in Da Nang Beach, one of the newest and most posh seaside resorts in the country, if not all of Asia.  It has an enviable location along a stretch of white sand, and reminded me of beachfront properties I’ve stayed in from Bali to Maui, the Mayan Riviera and the Venetian Lido.

Hyatt-DaNang

There I had an appointment with an American businessman who my long-time friend the Deputy U.S. Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) thought I should meet while visiting Da Nang.   This admirable gentleman served during the War, then returned to Vietnam a decade ago to help train entrepreneurs on modern management techniques.  We spoke of how local businesses were transforming their communities with innovative tapioca farms and sustainable fishing, while multinational companies continued to expand their presence by mining for gold and growing lumber for wood chips.

As we were leaving, we met the Director of Rooms who was previously at the Hyatt’s notorious property on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, where I have been for entertainment industry events.

“You went from Guns ‘N Roses throwing TVs out their windows to this…” I remarked with subtle surprise.

“Yeah, no rock stars riding Harleys down the hallways here!”  he smiled, as we breezed through the pristine marble lobby. “Let me know next time you visit.  We would love to have you stay with us.”

Actually, I had checked the Hyatt’s rates the week prior and was quite tempted to book a room there – which was under $200/night given the off season – a steal for such a gorgeous property (and cheaper than the nightly rate I paid in Shanghai), but extravagant in the eyes of my relatives and most locals.  Moreover, staying there or anywhere but their place would probably have offended their sensibilities.

… The smell of the menthol-infused Tiger Balm wafted in the air; my aunt handed it to me with a reminder it would alleviate mosquito bites.  I looked more closely at the opaque little hexagon canister, which dated back to the mid-1990s when I first visited my relatives, and brought a box as a gift from Singapore.  Amazing they have kept these remedies for so long and perhaps held on to some for safekeeping for my future stays – since they knew I would return and stay at “home” – and therefore would be in greater need of it.

*  *  *

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Too Close to Home, Still Far To Roam…

October 10, 1998, Da Nang, Vietnam

Da Nang 1998

… family and friendships can be most endearing, and often enduring, despite the strained years.  On my second visit back to Saigon, and now of my birthplace in Da Nang, or “China Beach” — I am touched, and by no means surprised of how quickly — and intimately those emotions are evoked.

Yes, I shared shots of Johnnie Walker with my father’s best friend — and of course, my family keeps commenting that I am too thin — it worked, and I ate my fill.  The nurturing reminds me of just how close we are in spirt — yet so very distant.  MDN”

DaNang-1998-back

October 26, 2013, Los Angeles, CA

“Those are among the strongest chemotherapy drugs,” my oncologist friend explained to our family.

“Let’s hope he will pull through the treatment.”

We also reviewed the Advanced Health Care Directive, which my father signed to indicate his wishes in the event of medical emergencies.  We had to take every precaution as he is about to start chemotherapy this week to treat a tumor in a sensitive region at the intersection of his pancreas and vital organs.

My father has always been a solid pillar of our family… strong-willed, stubborn and bullet-proof (literally, after fighting in and surving the Vietnam War).  Now, he and we, are facing the toughest challenge to his well being and our family’s foundation.  In a matter of months, the cancer arose unexpectedly and has hit so close to home.

Meanwhile, my brother and I are poised to venture abroad again soon — after several years of being more domestic in our careers and travels since we moved back to Southern California.  He is leaving for Afghanistan for several months, while I am about to start the next session of my global M.B.A. studies in Shanghai, and a return trip to Vietnam.

“You need to go.  Do what you need to do,”  my father told us.

He has never discouraged us from blazing our own paths… whether my brother’s work assignments to conflict-prone areas in the Middle East and South Asia, or as I filled up four passorts on a jet-set career for over a decade.  We have always pursued the American dream, whether it took us to far-flung and dangerous locales, or navigating professional twists and personal transitions as we returned to our roots.

After we settled in our new home in the States in 1975, he and my mother have worked hard all their lives until their retirement this year.   We would often take our annual vacations in the national parks… Yosemite, Yellowstone, Bryce, Zion and the Grand Canyon and across the Pacific Northwest.  These road trips involved a lot of bouncing in the back of a Toyota camper truck across the Western states.  Our wanderlust was incubated, and has never been cured as my brother and I lived and studied abroad, eager to roam the world and explore the boundaries of our passions.

“If anything happens, take me to Yosemite.”  he said.   Yosemite National Park is among his favorite places, and where we went on many camping trips.  We would often give him poster prints from Ansel Adams and annual Sierra Club calendars… scenes of plunging waterfalls, snow-flocked trees and the rock solid Half Dome… reflecting upon moonlit valleys and Nature’s unpredictable intentions.

Dad in Yosemite

Hitting the Re-Start Button in L.A. and Singapore

Singapore-2013-Front 4 June 2013, Singapore

“… Déjà vu, nearly twenty years later as I have returned as a student at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School.

And, coincidentally it is also linked to UCLA Anderson School’s MBA program — so it’s time (again) to learn and re-learn in two familiar settings and institutions.

I didn’t think I’d have to hit the restart button at the age of 40 — but life is full of irony and wonder, surprises at every turn of fate and circular path… MDN”

*  *  *

23 June 2013, Los Angeles, California

A year ago, I celebrated my 40th birthday on a glorious Saturday evening while enjoying performances by many artists my label has showcased since 2009, surrounded by family and friends from my creative and diplomatic worlds.  Though, the celebration was tinged by uncertainty after a challenging and ultimately, impoverished three years as an passionate entrepreneur.  My former business partner and I were about to close the offices of Planet LA Records on June 30, 2012.  Nevertheless, the foundation of what we had built among our artists and brand partners would continue and strengthen (and later manifest into wonderful collaborations this year during Grammy week and the annual SXSW festival).

My birthday wish a year ago was for a fresh start, a re-start — as I knew the course I was following at the time was unsustainable, and heading in the wrong direction.  Too much risk was taken while navigating unchartered waters of the music industry’s rocky business models.  Like a ship that had veered off course, I had to re-gain control of the wayward enterprise and my own destiny.  At that pivotal juncture, I decided it was time to re-invent and re-invest in my skills through new academic and professional pursuits.

For the rest of the year, I re-connected with my professional network about career options while considering leading M.B.A. programs.  I interviewed for positions that would have taken me to Africa or Asia, and also applied to graduate programs back East, in Madrid and Singapore.  There was a diminishing possibility that I would stay in L.A. beyond last year.  In any event, I was confident I would still be able to turn the ship around and away from the undertow…

“Peach blossoms during Lunar New Year… the orchid from last year has re-bloomed with eight yellow stems,” my mother pointed out while I helped her in the garden this Spring.

“These are auspicious signs!”PeachBlossom she insisted.

For the past three years, I kept saying I would help her re-plant and fertilize the flowers, trees and succulents — however, I was entirely driven on launching my start-up business, and didn’t stop to do so, or re-gain my footing… until this season.

By April, after sowing many seeds last year — some fantastic options appeared.  Last month, I accepted an offer to work with MNET/CJ E&M, an Asian entertainment conglomerate to support their brand partnerships.  Weeks later, I embarked on a flight to Singapore to begin my Executive M.B.A. with the UCLA Anderson School of Management and its partner program, the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School.  Coincidentally enough, I attended both academic institutions in the mid-1990s — and two decades later, have hit the re-start button.  This time around, the settings may be familiar, but the situations are decidedly better.

Spore-City1There is a Buddhist expression in Sanskrit known as “Saṃsāra” or the “cycle of existence” and how one may be caught in a vicious pattern due to ignorance, anxiety and dissatisfaction.

Buddhist philosophies encourage individuals to recognize and attempt to break free from Saṃsāra and suffering in order to reach enlightenment.  This is not necessarily religious dogma, but does provide useful guidance in life — whether to learn from past mistakes, achieve a heightened awareness of the present, or gain greater focus for the future.

I tend to get a bit self-reflective on days like this — and grateful that I can look back upon the year with much satisfaction, more knowledge and higher hopes that I am on a better path.

Nevertheless, there is still much distance left at sea on this exciting journey… and before I will reach the stability of land and more promising territory.

Today, it has been a happier birthday!

*  *  *

“Conscious Capitalism” and Lessons from the Bangladesh Factory Collapse

Washington DC, May 4, 2013 and United Airlines, Flight 802 (LAX to Singapore), May 14, 2013

“Wal-Mart and other Western retailers share some of the blame,” my friend Hussain said as we stayed up late talking about D.C. politics, global affairs, and tips on M.B.A. programs.

“Their focus on maximizing profits has squeezed suppliers to cut costs in dangerous ways, creating unsafe working conditions,” he added.

We were discussing the tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh on April 13, 2013, which injured over 2,500 and killed 1,127 workers.  The factory is one of over 5,000 in the country, which is the world’s third largest exporter of clothing after China and Italy at $20 billion in exports annually, and employs over 3.6 million workers earning a minimum wage of less than $40 a month.

Hussain had just returned from Bangladesh a few days ago, though as a son of a distinguished diplomat, he had spent much of his life abroad including grade school in Geneva, university studies in the D.C. area then graduate studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in the Boston area where we were classmates in the mid-1990s.  In the graduate dormitory Blakely Hall where we and about 60 students lived while at the Fletcher School, I remember seeing pictures of Hussain and his father, the former Ambassador of Bangladesh to the United States, taken with world leaders including President Reagan and Pope John Paul II.

After the Fletcher School, Hussain collected more graduate degrees in law and business with a J.D. from Georgetown University and an M.B.A. from New York University.  Our conversation veered towards M.B.A. programs and corporate profits in the age of globalization,

“Well, multinational corporations are not only driven by profit… they can do good,” I noted, given my work on international trade matters for over a decade, including at the World Trade Organization in Geneva, and private law firms in D.C. and L.A., and more recently as an entrepreneur in the entertainment space.

Though, unlike Hussain – I had not received in-depth training on corporate behavior and financial analysis – and decided recently to enroll in the UCLA Anderson School of Management – National University of Singapore Business School Global Executive M.B.A. program, starting this month.

“Consumers are more aware of product supply chains, look at Whole Foods Market and organic producers – it’s not all about the lowest price,” I explained, given my partnership with Whole Foods over the past several years.

I had also been reading “Conscious Capitalism” by John Mackey, the Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Whole Foods Market and Raj Sisodia, leaders in advocating more benevolent business philosophies.   In the book, the authors write that: “Conscious businesses think caringly, creatively, and strategically about the environment.”

Mackey also noted that Whole Foods Market from early on developed a strong partnership with their suppliers – and not just based solely on profit margins.  In fact, the original store established in 1978 in Austin, Texas was on the verge of closure after a serious flood – and it was the suppliers that urged the specialty retailer to rebuild and provide shelf space for organic and natural products that struggled to find distribution in other grocery chains.  Now, Whole Foods Market has nearly 350 stores in prime locations like New York City’s Time Warner Center who I met with earlier in the month, and a market value of nearly $20 billion.

Since 2010, I have fostered a collaboration between my entertainment entity Planet LA Records, Whole Foods Market and its charitable organization Whole Planet Foundation by raising awareness with artists and brands during the SXSW festivals, Grammy Awards week and music events.  This has exposed me to partners who have business models and value chains that are mindful of product sourcing, sustainable practices and equitable standards of corporate social responsibility (CSR) – sometimes referred to as the “Triple Bottom Line” of people, planet and profit.

Interestingly enough, Whole Planet Foundation collaborates with many of these suppliers in the over 50 countries where it has global micro-lending programs averaging $160 per loan to mostly women entrepreneurs and households with an impressive repayment rate of over 90 percent – creating stronger bonds between Whole Foods Market as the retailer, its over 50,000 suppliers and the millions of American and other consumers that support them.

Some promising examples include Sambazon and their preservation of Amazonian rain forests and support of small farmers of acai berries; VOS Flips and their sourcing of natural rubber products and matching donations of slippers; Nika Water and their donation of all profits to clean water and other causes; Mrs. Meyers cleaning products made from non-toxic and essential oils; Justin’s Nut Butter and their sourcing of sustainably-harvested cacao for their chocolates; Wear Pact clothing made with organic cotton in sweatshop-free facilities, and many others.  These are profit-driven businesses with unique stories and charitable aims, which can prosper in the age of “conscious capitalism.”

In fact, the recent factory collapse in Bangladesh has spurred widespread social media and other demands for preventative action – importantly, among the world’s leading clothing brands like H&M, Gap, Zara and other major retailers.  In the wake of the disaster, a coalition of private, non-government and public interests have formulated legally-binding agreements aimed at improving safety conditions in the factories of Bangladesh.

Earlier this month, some of the largest retailers including H&M (the biggest buyer of clothes from Bangladesh) and Zara have reached a critical agreement aimed at improving labor and safety conditions, though have argued that such agreements would only be effective if a substantial threshold of global suppliers also align their practices.  Some U.S. companies like Gap and Wal-Mart have argued that strengthening “best practices” and self-enforcing agreements are preferred, while others like Disney have suspended supplier relationships in Bangladesh in favor of suppliers in countries like China and Vietnam.

Having been born in Vietnam which also offers cheaper labor and less enforced standards – I can certainly empathize and support poverty alleviation and economic growth despite the costs.  Like the Industrial Revolution in Europe and America in the late 19th Century, rapid development certainly took a toll on the populace and the environment – and conditions were pretty awful for the working poor before an expansion of the middle class.

Given the speedy actions among a handful of key multinational retailers – spurred by swift public outcry to the Bangladesh factory disaster that killed over a thousand exploited workers, there is hope that businesses are not only driven by the bottom line.  In fact, these twin objectives of better standards and higher profits – often requires greater harmony between the trinity of the modern business model:  sensible suppliers, benevolent retailers and aware consumers.

On a personal level, and as I write this on a United flight from LAX en route to Singapore as I embark on my M.B.A studies this month – I hope to contribute to the global business dialogue in a profitable, as well as meaningful manner.

*  *  *

Pursuit of Love and Passion: Across the Oceans and Generations

2 September 2002,Da Nang, Vietnam

DaNang-PoscardFront

“… The city of Da Nang was abuzz with revelers on holiday as today is National Day — also Labor Day in the US.

My parents and I have returned, after many years (my mother after 27 years) to the country of our birth.  Needless to say, much has changed.  My grandmother at almost 90 is not as coherent as before, but still very glad and aware of our presence.

Other family have welcomed us with much love and kindness — without a hint of strain after many years and hardship.  We are glad they are now more content with their lives — and always the more appreciative of our own opportunities “back home” — which is always where the heart is… whether the California Coast or along the white sand beaches near Da Nang… MDN”

DaNang-PoscardBack

* * *

April 5, 2013, Los Angeles, CA

“She passed away this week,” my mother said of her aunt, my great aunt Ba Le — who I first met in November 1996 over 16 years ago, on my first trip to Europe.

“She returned home.”  My mother explained, “She will be laid to rest this weekend in Hanoi.”

I wasn’t sure if my great aunt was still living in Lausanne, as she had moved over sixty years ago to France, then Switzerland — before Vietnam was divided at the 17th parallel between the North and the South by the Geneva Accords concluded on  July 21, 1954.

It was during the Geneva Conference which negotiated the Accords that the decisive Battle of Dien Bien Phu was fought, beginning on March 13, 1954 and ending with the climactic French defeat on May 7, 1954 — marking the end of French occupation of Indochine which lasted from 1887-1954.  The end of French colonialism set the stage for U.S. entanglement in the Vietnam War for the next two decades during the Cold War.

It was also 38 years ago this month that the Vietnam War ended, and with the Fall of Saigon — my parents, relatives and I fled the country as the Communist forces of the North overran the South and unified a divided nation.  April 30, 1975 was also a watershed moment in American history as diplomats were evacuated from the U.S. Embassy at 4 Le Duan Blvd in downtown Saigon — which reopened in 1999 as the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City.  In fact, my good friend Robert Ogburn who I met while an intern at the U.S. Department of State in 1993, has returned to serve there in his current posting as the Deputy Consul General.

It is amazing how much Vietnam has been transformed, and is now quite welcoming of former Western adversaries and diplomats, as well as its ethnic diaspora like me, my parents and my great aunt — who have returned to our place of birth after wars and generations have passed.

*  *  *

November 1996, Lausanne, Switzerland

“He died with a broken heart at 24, with few realizing his talent until much later.”

So began the tale my great aunt told me of her childhood amour back in the colonial days when Vietnam was part of the French colonial empire known as Indochine.

“We were not permitted to marry,” she explained, with a deep pause.

The young composer who was captivated by her beauty did not survive long after their relationship ended, given the strict traditions of the day on appropriate love and profession.  Shortly after, his remaining artistic aspirations crumbled when his respected parents destroyed many of the seemingly frivolous songs he wrote as a means of disciplining him into reality.  However, with the withered songs of love, so went his broken heart.

His friends managed to salvage his compositions, and posthumously shared the secrets of his brilliance.  As for my great aunt, she ended up leaving Vietnam before the end of the French occupation in 1954 to marry a gentleman in France.  Later, after being widowed, she remarried a gentleman in Switzerland.  She currently lives alone in Lausanne in her grand age, where I have come to visit on my first trip to Europe.

There on the mantle in her small apartment were photos of the three men she loved in her life — tributes to their memory and her fascinating journey from Indochine to Paris, and now Lake Geneva.

*  *  *

My great aunt lived quite a full and international lifestyle.  She loved at home and afar, and returned to her ancestral roots after six decades in the West to her final resting place.  May her soul find eternal enlightenment…

My father also happened to return to Vietnam this week upon retiring earlier this year.  For the first time in his life, he is no longer burdened by a labor intensive job, and can finally take more than a few weeks off to relax with our relatives and his childhood friends.  He is spending nearly three months at his birthplace of Da Nang or “China Beach” pictured on the postcard above, which I wrote when I returned with my parents in 2002.

“I plan to visit Laos for the first time.” He told me as I dropped him off at LAX airport earlier this week.

His statement struck me and reminded me of when he dropped me off at LAX  nearly two decades ago, when I left for Laos for an internship at the American Embassy in Vientiane during the Summer of 1994.  It was my first trip abroad as a young adult and recent college graduate, and I was incredibly smitten with wanderlust.  The following year on July 11, 1995, the United States and Vietnam normalized diplomatic relations — allowing me and other Americans to visit Vietnam after a 20-year embargo.

Laos is next door to Vietnam.  I was quite surprised my father had never been before, and waited until his retirement to visit.  After 65 years of experiencing warfare in support of U.S. troops, toil in American factories and sacrifice to establish his family in our adopted home — my father is finally allowing himself to visit Laos.  He must have been proud his son went to Laos before he did, and the nearly 40 countries that I have ventured to since then.

In memory of the recently deceased and in respect of the living, I am ever grateful for the opportunities to have lived freely, loved dearly and pursued an artistic passion — no matter how fleeting.  The adventures have been enormously rewarding, whether to foreign and familiar lands, or to have expressed myself through writings and songs.  The destination, as cliche as it may sound, is not necessarily the end goal — but rather the journey itself.

May you also have the chance to live your lives with fewer regrets, higher hopes and greater fulfillment.

*  *  *

Déjà Vu in Singapore and Los Angeles: Re-Learning and Renewed Opportunities

Singapore-FrontMar2013

17 December 2000, Singapore

“…  yet another déjà vu along the Equator — and another return to the self-proclaimed Switzerland of Asia.  Since my last trip over two years ago — the city has become more affordable owing to both the strength of the dollar and my own rising income.

And, new additions — malls, of course — and the first child of my friends Ron and Annemie — Otis!

Now, as he ran barefoot in the grass while gurgling his first phrases of Dutch and English — he will soon grow, and quickly.

Singapore-BackMar2013

As the Millenium marches on — we are all bound to evolve… MDN”

*  *  *

March 21, 2013, Los Angeles, California

We like entrepreneurs.  They add a lot to the peer learning of the program.”  One of the professors in the interview committee said over a speakerphone from Singapore.

Based on your credentials and our discussion today, we intend to grant you admission,” another professor added.  “Congratulations, you will receive a confirmation shortly.  We hope to see you when the program starts in May in Singapore!”

As the call with the UCLA-NUS (University of California, Los Angeles and National University of Singapore) Executive MBA committee ended, it felt like déjà vu — though not in a circular and redundant sense, but rather as if being lifted up a spiral path, which would finally allow me to move upward and forward after a challenging three years as an entrepreneur.

Over two decades ago, I began my university education at UCLA and graduated in 1994, then went on to do a Fulbright Fellowship at the National University of Singapore from 1994-1995 before my graduate studies.  I find it rather coincidental these two institutions have linked their renown MBA programs, and that I would be returning to both soon, for a second round of training.

In fact, the start of Spring had been particularly eventful, and earlier the same day I was offered a job with a global media company I had been interviewing with over the past month.  I had more meetings with their executive team, who told me they were ready to welcome me on board starting May 1.

After an incredibly difficult year in 2012, in which I had to reassess my career and life ambitions (coincidentally upon turning 40) — I actively took steps towards re-learning and re-focusing.

Last year, my business partner and I closed the offices of our start-up Planet LA Records in June 2012 (a week after I turned 40; something about that milestone…).  I then applied for new positions and with MBA programs in L.A., as well as the Midwest, East Coast and options abroad — which might have taken me back to Asia or Europe, where I had lived and spent much time in my previous profession.

Many who I encountered were often intrigued or perplexed by my background and transition from a decade-long career in international trade and at global law firms in Washington D.C. and Geneva, Switzerland — to working with musical artists and events in L.A. and cultural hubs like Austin, Texas.

“Why Music?” was a common question I was asked by interviewers.

Music icons and independents alike in the industry would find that a challenging question in the digital age.  As I have learned firsthand, it is extremely tough to be profitable, or even sustainable in pursuit of a musical career.  Many artists and their supporters do it out of passion and to establish a creative legacy, and not because of any predictable or financial returns.

So, how did I answer this question?  And what does my future look like in 2013 and beyond?  At least, according to my Facebook post today about the pending career and academic changes, 111 friends “like” the news and are curious to find out.

… The answer is, as expressed in the postcard I wrote above from Singapore in 2000:  “We are all bound to evolve.”

As I or we age, grow from pitfalls and progress, learn and re-learn from classrooms and life lessons, and take second chances and seize new opportunities — we must constantly evolve in our perspectives and through our actions.

For instance, a week ago, my team from Planet LA and I returned from Austin, Texas after our fourth consecutive year of showcasing artists during the annual SXSW festival (a leading music and branded-entertainment event).  On the first trip in 2010 after Planet LA started, we brought on tour three bands from L.A. and showcased them at local venues and a suburban Whole Foods Market cafe I reached out to weeks prior, and with no sponsors involved.  On the second trip in 2011, we showcased a dozen artists in front of the same Whole Foods Market and had two in-kind partners offering free snack bars and drinks.  While in town, we saw the posh Gibson tour bus pass by and had joked how cool it would be to go on tour with the bus someday.  A year ago in 2012, we partnered with a collective group to showcase over three dozen artists (including now well-known bands The Lumineers and Imagine Dragons) at the Whole Foods global headquarters in downtown Austin with dozens of brand partners and sponsors.  This year, our showcase with the Whole Planet Foundation on March 10, 2013 attracted a record-breaking, capacity crowd on the main rooftop plaza as we featured leading artists and sponsors in support of Whole Planet’s annual prosperity campaign.  Also this year, our brand partners at Gibson Guitar reserved their national touring bus for the event which was parked next to the Whole Foods Market the entire day.

We are all bound to evolve.

wpf-sx2013-finalflyer

Gibson-WholeFoods

Honestly, I don’t know whether that means I have figured out the answer to: “Why Music?”

Given the challenges and despite the progress, perhaps the time is near to suspend Planet LA after three years, and hope that its innovative business model will transform and live on in a renewed capacity.   I do know that I have gained valuable skills and brand networks that I intend to leverage in a new position soon.   Moreover, I recognize that I have additional and critical tools left to gather and sharpen in my toolbox, and must go back to school.

Interestingly enough, it may well be déjà vu academically and professionally — as I prepare to return to the classrooms of two familiar institutions with UCLA near home and NUS in Singapore, and reinforce my abilities to lead in a global setting and creative environment.

*  *  *

Olympic Glory and Transformation: Beijing to London and L.A.

20 March 2001, Beijing, China

“… 2008 and the Olympic rings.  China is intent upon this sky high ambition.

A successful Olympic bid would crown the country’s integration into the world.

Of course, in the immediate term China has plans to join the WTO — which is one of the reasons for my first trip to Beijing.

With the dawn of Spring — the Temple of Heaven is a beacon in a sea of tranquility in the city which is no longer forbidden.

Though, I missed the opportunity to see the Forbidden City confines. 

Some things take time… MDN”

*  *  *

The Olympics like the upcoming tournaments in London starting July 27, 2012, provide prominent cities like Beijing — the host of the previous games in 2008, and elite athletes the opportunity to make huge strides and sacrifices in pursuit of glory.

For a brief two weeks, these places, people and experiences can leave lasting records, impressions and legacies.

My visit to Beijing in Spring 2001 was on the eve of the ancient imperial capital being awarded the 2008 Games on July 14, 2001, and also its imminent membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO).  There was great anticipation in the air as many observers felt that momentum was in the city’s favor with the Olympics as well as China’s WTO membership (concluded on December 11, 2001) — would coincide with and were critical to China’s greater openness to the world.

Seven years later, Beijing and China rose to the occasion and staged a spectacular and memorable series of Olympic events.  Moreover, China has continued down the path towards greater economic liberalization as an active WTO Member.  Despite the persistent challenges, China has no doubt become a more prosperous, open and innovative country in the past decade.  London also won its Olympic bid on the premise that the Games would help transform and reinvigorate the fortunes of the city’s impoverished Eastern territory.

There is something about the feeling of “change in the air” — as will and vision are critical to realizing results and progress — whether as individual athletes and performers, collaborative teams and communities, or dynamic and forward-thinking cities and nations from Beijing to London.

*  *  *

June 23, 2012, Los Angeles, California

“Today is a celebration of our common pursuit of a dream,” I said to the artists, family, friends and strangers gathered at Planet Dailies restaurant as I turned 40.

“Thank you for allowing me to share a part of the American dream over the past 37 years.  I came here with just this picture, my clothes and the hope that comes with new roots.”

I held up a signed poster — a reprint of a black and white picture of me which was one of the only items that my mother brought with us from Vietnam as we fled upon the fall of Saigon in  April 1975.

My mother was at the party along with my brother and sister-in-law, and it was actually her first time seeing me perform with my band.  My father couldn’t make it as he had to work on Saturday evenings, the same long and labor-intensive schedule six days a week.

“And thank you Mark for creating opportunities for artists,” Brent Michelle said as she introduced me and the ad hoc When Planets Align band (since my original band members Juan Lizarazo and David Lopez couldn’t make it from Bogota and New York City for the festivities).

The evening featured a lot of talented artists including Brent Michelle, who I met when she was Michelle Brent and was the most impressive performer among about two dozen at the first open mic evening where I played — at the Un-Urban Cafe in Santa Monica in December 2008, just as I was about to leave my corporate job and dive headlong in pursuit of a passion.

An array of other performers took the stage in the shadow of Hollywood as the California summer sun set on one of the longest days of the year.  Singer-songwriters Rebecca Sullivan, Julia Lucafo, Bryan Titus and Gianna Nguyen shared stories from their soulful hearts; duo performances came from global artists including Nadine Ellman and Jeremy Ferrick, and Maria Aceves and Martial Chaput; and leading songs from frontman Gabe Watson of Planet LA Records band Native June and frontwoman Julia Dettwiler of rock band Lunar Rogue, Elyse Haren of the self-titled group Elyse + The Aftermath, among others.

My “band” (being me and others who I’ve never performed with publicly before) was the last to go on as the evening also marked the release of our latest and possibly final album “The Universe in Me.”

Julia Dettwiler filled in for my original bandmate Jacqueline Van Bierk (who was in Nashville that weekend) and performed “Life’s Too Short” — one of the first songs I ever wrote, and probably the most inspirational of them all.

I played guitar and sang back-up vocals, including the rideout lyrics of “Life’s Too Short””

“The Universe is guiding me… Just let me be what I want to be… Yeah yeah yeah yeah!”

Then, took the microphone to sing two of our newly-released songs starting with “L.A. (I’ll Be Back Someday)”:

“City of Angels do I have a chance, for fame or fortune?

Shine my way, for just a passing glance, for a minute a moment…

Please remember me!”

And ending with a dedication to the late author Ray Bradbury — a champion of space exploration and pursuit of the grandest dreams — with the final song “Crush The Stars”:

“I had drifted across the globe, a grain of sand lifted by the sea

Escaping history in pursuit of hope, no roots bind or limit me…

Life sometimes moves in reverse, when we see beyond this earth

Across the ocean blue, futures can come true!”

*  *  *

July 9, 2012, Los Angeles, California

“I’m glad I can help you complete this project,” my former UCLA Extension music production instructor Jeff Lewis said, “And great to hear you finished the program!”

“For you, the student rate is $90.  Maybe someday I’ll be able to afford health insurance… but we do what we love!” he said with a laugh.

Jeff had spent nearly three hours mastering the final songs on the album “The Universe in Me” as it wasn’t finished in time for the release party two weeks ago.  One of our producers Joshua “Cartier” Cutsinger who has received a Grammy nomination for his prior work, finalized the mixes on the remaining three songs in early July, which I then took with me to Moonlight Studios that sunny afternoon.

As Jeff finished what had involved nearly three years of production and producers, more than a dozen musicians, tens of thousands of dollars in costs and over three decades of life experiences — his words struck me.

“No health insurance.” — ditto.  “We do what we love.”  — check.

For most my life, going from an immigrant with just rags to a successful career as a globetrotter with near riches… I’ve created safety nets, pursued stable careers and built nest eggs.  Now, most of those securities are gone including health insurance, retirement funds and a steady job.

But, as an entrepreneur, creator and dreamer for over the past three years… I have done what I love, and held in my hand a simple, shiny disk of ten audio files that could well be my swan song to this pursuit of a musical legacy.

“Thanks Jeff!  It’s nice to be done… now we’ll see where this, or I go from here,” I said as I wrote him a check for $100 — which was a very reasonable amount for his effort, though felt much more precious in 2012 than it did when I started throwing money around in 2008.  I then ran off to meet a CD manufacturer to place a rush order in time for an important industry event this week.

As I left the studio, I checked my email and noticed a comment on my blog Mark39.com (which was now a misnomer given I was no longer thirty-something) — the first since my last posting and 40th chapter over two weeks ago on June 23.  Someone was still reading in cyberspace and from a far-flung place.

From “StephGlaser” (July 9, 2012):

“Mark, I love the concept of your blog and it is so inspirational to read. (I’m sad it’s ending…I hope there’s a sequel or new incarnation.) We dreamers need to support each other and I thank you for being the first person to like one of my posts (“Drinking Poop Coffee in Bali”).”

*  *  *

“You aren’t that young anymore… and have worked so hard and very late these days,” my mother said, as I returned to writing this blog after a two-week absence.

“Don’t let your future slip away,” she cautioned as she went to bed.

My mother worries a lot, like most loving and mildly doting mothers.  She has been very concerned about my financial health and well being (though is not aware of the lack of health insurance otherwise would really fret), and seems to lament the fact that I may or may not be around much longer, at least in the same household.

In the past two weeks, momentum has been building for one of those “critical juncture” moments… which I can feel in the air, and is getting closer each day.

On the one hand, Planet LA Records has closed its office as of June 30, but our business relationships are stronger than ever after three intense years of activity.  In fact, I recently initiated several meetings with senior and executive vice presidents at a major TV network and leading brands — to launch an innovative media platform to support artists.  It took three years of toil to build this kind of network and credibility, and these discussions are leading up to a make-or-break private event on July 12 at the Gibson Guitar showroom in Beverly Hills.  Many among our industry network plan to attend and will learn more about our future plans, and whether we have a future.

On the other hand, I have begun to reach out to my global affairs and corporate circles about possible new roles — whether they involve going back to my roots in Vietnam and Asia, familiar professional worlds in Washington D.C. or Geneva, or other places in or beyond L.A.  It would be ideal to utilize skill sets gained in both diplomacy and branded entertainment, but if I must return to the nuances and regulations of international trade law, then I am ready and willing.

Whatever the outcome, I have been inspired to write again… as this story and life as I know it didn’t end on June 23, 2012 with the expiration of Mark39.com.

Stay tuned and let the (Olympic) games begin!

*  *  *