(Obituary for Tam Dang)
Back in the ‘90s, we used film for all our photos and it took a lot of work to develop the film. It had to be done right and well. Near our school there was a shop called “One Hour Photo” that was owned by a Vietnamese fellow called Tam, and that was my go-to place. He always did good work.
An Encinitas Advocate article documented how Tam started out as a young man in Vietnam, was a law student, and a cameraman for a private educational Jesuit TV station. (I’m a long-time admirer of Jesuit education.) His family was heavily tied with South Vietnam--three of his brothers and three brothers-in-law were military officers. But with the fall of Saigon in 1975 and South Vietnam under Communist rule, the Dang family’s world was in turmoil. Tam changed his name and tried to escape the country several times by boat, each time landing in jail. That article ends with a nice quote from the first edition of this very blog, back in 2015 .
Perseverance paid off, and Tam finally escaped by land, in 1982. He spent several years in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border, and qualified to be relocated to San Diego in 1986.
Here he worked to manage a few small businesses until, in 1994, Tam bought Plaza-One Hour Photo in the former Target shopping center at El Camino Real and Encinitas Boulevard, and he became my regular photo processor as I sought to document the early exploits of The Grauer School.
Tam developed our school photos with the greatest of care and, as a result, I grew in friendship with him. You might think that photo development and friendship would not be related well, but to me, when someone makes a true craft of what they do, it becomes friendship. To me, great workmanship means, “I care about you” and “You can depend upon me.”
Over time I learned more about this unlikely post-Vietnam war days friend with hair touching his shoulders just like we all had in college back in the day. Had just a slight few things been different in each of our lives, Tam and I could have literally been hunting each other down with automatic rifles or napalm bombs in the jungles of Vietnam. Of course, that didn’t happen, and instead of opposing lives, we ended up with parallel ones. I never knew back then how Tam had ever got out of Vietnam; I got out by drawing a lucky number in the draft lottery back in ‘69. As it happened, Tam had a daughter just the age of my own, our prides and joys, and so every time I dropped off film rolls or picked up my gorgeously developed Kodachrome, I could swap fathering stories with my friend. As a photography shop owner, Tam wasn’t going to get rich or famous, but that is never what motivates the people I admire most—Tam was motivated by digging into his craft, appreciating his product, and respecting his clients. Tam thought hard work was a good thing and our connection was based on that simple value.
Then the digital age came sweeping across all of the arts, and photo development was among the first thing to go. Tam tried to hold on and I did too, and I even bought my first SLR digital camera from him, knowing I could have got it cheaper at the Price Club. But there was no stopping digital technology any more than 9/11 and, one day, driving through the shopping mall the One Hour Photo sign was gone and so was Tam. The world’s last roll of Kodachrome would be processed on January 18, 2011.
I went home feeling loss and my family felt that way too, and we worried about how this middle-aged man could land on his feet now that his business had vanished. Was this a tragic life? What could we do?
If you’ve seen archival or early-era photos of The Grauer School, you’ve seen Tam’s handiwork. The photos were rich and colorful and deep, and even aromatic—try that digitally!—and we’ve run a lot of them through the scanner. All this handiwork and everything Tam did for our school is supposedly much cheaper and better to do today with Photoshop—and yet Photoshop was $1,849 bucks last time I checked. I’m not so sure things got better because of the digital age and its pixels and bytes.
Seven years went by and one morning we went out to the old Santa Fe Café for a classic old-time breakfast such as they served up: hash browns, pancakes, huevos rancheros—straight up Americana. In fact, the last time I went there it was to take a Taiwanese houseguest, so I could show him a typical Encinitas breakfast shack. Anyway, on this morning, the doors were locked and a sign was posted on them saying, “Coming Soon, Pho Ever Vietnamese Restaurant.” Out front, a late-middle aged old-time Californian, stocky, sandy haired, and tanned, used to be a surfer. He stood studying the sign, just staring at it like he was lost. Santa Fe Café had been there forever, and now it was gone. I got out and studied the sign with him for a minute in silence and at last could only say, “Get ready.”
America is always changing and we’re not always ready. I got in the car and said to Sally, “No way am I going to a new restaurant there. The Santa Fe Café was a classic.” Did we really need Vietnamese noodle soup? Santa Fe Diner was the closest breakfast place to the school, too. That was the winter of 2015.
Soon after, we were cruising around that area and on a whim we said, “Well, shall we check out the pho?” We walked in and the placed looked pretty busy, and there behind the counter doing two things at once was an unmistakable, slight man with dark, leathery skin and hair down to his shoulders. “Tam!” I almost screamed. “Dr. Stuart!” he returned, and put down a huge stack of dishes and came over grinning and gave me a hug.
“I was worried about you,” I said, “You were suddenly gone.” He explained he had started up a pho place six years ago a few towns away in Vista. “You can email photos, but you can’t email food!” he said. We caught up on our daughters and he ran back to the kitchen and brought his wife out, happy. As it turned out after his photo shop closed, his wife’s Anna’s native Vietnamese cooking inspired him to enter the world of restaurants. “My wife has a cooking passion — she loves it,” Dang said. Tam pivoted from quality photo to quality pho, and he was so successful that now he could open another branch right here, just a block from his original photo shop. I loved that soup—cures what ails you, smooth and rich.
It’s a good country we live in. There are not many photo shops left, but thanks to Tam there will be plenty of pho shops. Some people complain that they are put out of work, displaced by technology, or replaced by someone younger or more foreign, or put down by people who make the money we want for ourselves. But some other people—the ones that work hard, and really care, and are craftsmen and real teachers—always seem to land on their feet. Tam’s pho was rich and aromatic, deep and colorful, like Kodachrome.
Today is week seven of the coronavirus, global quarantine.
I woke up from the fourth dream/nightmare I’ve had recently about someone dying and saw the following message, out of the blue, from Lynn Dang: “Hi Dr. Grauer! I hope you and your family are doing well and staying healthy. I’m not sure if you heard, my dad, Tam Dang (owner of Plaza Photo) passed away about 7 months ago unexpectedly. I remember you wrote a really great article about him and I can’t find it for the life of me. I wanted to share it with my cousin. Do you happen to still have it somewhere in your archive? Thank you so much!”
In quarantine, we’re all refugees. I looked up Lynn and she still reminds me of my daughter. What a smile! What a punch in the gut! It reminds me of the way I felt when that photo shop closed, like these days something epic is happening.
Dr. Grauer wants to hear from his readers. Please click on the "Comments" drop-down box below to leave a comment about this column!