Now that the city’s favorite venue for local and international artists is gone, where does Saigon go from here? Elijah Ferrian sat down with Cargo’s owner, Rod Quinton, to discuss the past and the future of live events and music in the city. Photo by Vinh Dao.
“Cargo was basically an old warehouse built by the French in the 1940s in Saigon port as a dry-store for things being taken off ships… rubber and things like that. Saigon Sound System was the company that brought the first international artists here, and it put Saigon on the map as a place for musicians to come, and that was kind of the beginning…”
I’m sitting with Rod Quinton, Cargo’s owner, at District 2’s Boathouse Restaurant, with some live music crowing in the background. We’re talking music, or, more importantly, what the hell is Saigon going to do with the cuboid-sized void that Cargo has left behind? The music and arts venue helped to put Saigon on the map, attracting international artists that had previously had no way of adding Vietnam to their tours.
As if on cue, one of the musicians playing with the band in the outdoor dining area, decked in a tie-dyed t-shirt, ambles over to Quinton. “What’s going on with Cargo?!” he asks. “I heard the rumour a year or so back that there would be [another] space that you could build-up or shrink-back based on the show. Is that true?” They chat a bit, and the guy moves on back to the stage. “I get that question 10 times a day.” Quinton chuckles.
One Man’s Rubbish is Another Man’s Cargo
When Quinton and I get into the meat of what Cargo was, he speaks fondly about the beginning of the space’s concept, and how the whole thing was started by a rag-tag group that wanted to open a creative event space, with no real know-how except for their passion for creativity. They chased down some real estate and after a few failures, walked into what became Cargo.
“We didn’t want to change this beautiful building,” he says. “We just wanted to fix the [sound]. [We] spent a lot on acoustics. Bass traps and things like that. We didn’t have a lot of money. We fitted the place out with pallets, and a whole bunch of cheap stuff.
“We found someone with these big one-cubic-metre water ballasts for really cheap, and we used them as building blocks to fill with a DJ booth and lights. My wife had this lighting design book. These guys in Germany, in Munich, had a big sporting ground completely made out of these things. That was the inspiration. We used stuff like that out of necessity, not out of being geniuses.”
With the exposed brickwork, an intimate (and adaptable) stage setup, and an attention to acoustics and sound that pleased the most nit-picky of musicians, Quinton and company had turned some rundown, albeit valuable, waterfront property into a free-form creative space, where spray-painted walls and rearranging the feel was encouraged. It was representative of the chameleon adaptation of the country in which the venue was built.
“You’d get great performances by artists because they were legitimately buzzed about being in Vietnam. We always received an encore from every band.”
Packing up the Light Cubes
Around 20 months before they were expecting it, the Port Authority informed Quinton and co that they were going to have to give up their lease. Now, this is a simplification; real estate development had a lot more to do with the closing, but all in all the closure was unavoidable, although it wasn’t like there were sour grapes about it.
“We always knew,” explains Quinton. “We never spent a bunch of money on the building itself. We bought an awning, we built kind of an entrance, we did spend money on good toilets. Part of the reason for the lack of investment was that the real estate was far too valuable and our concept was on a limited leash…”
With the space closed, and the whole thing happening so quickly, Quinton still had plenty of positives to say about the experience.
“We still have a great relationship with the port. The day we closed, my wife Nham, myself, our team, and the port authority guys who worked with us since we moved in, we all hung out front with a bunch of beers and got drunk. I love those guys. They were always really supportive. They always helped us out.”
The original space may be gone, but Quinton has a few ideas in mind, and he would really like to make due on a contract he set up a while back when Cargo was still operating.
Time will tell, and the landscape is both figuratively, and literally changing swiftly before our eyes in this city.
Keep your eyes and ears open come September. We may all get the chance to jam out around a bunch of neon cubes and good rock n’ roll at a dearly missed fixture in the Saigon music scene.
Seamus Supervivre, of the band James and The Van Der Beeks, sheds some light on what Cargo’s closing meant for the scene here, and what he thinks the future holds:
“Cargo was many things to many people during it’s reign in Saigon. One thing it wasn’t, was boring. Playing with James and The Van Der Beeks allowed me to be witness to many fond memories that I’m sure can be corroborated. Great moments like watching Evan Dando meltdown backstage, getting so drunk with Barrie Cadogan that we couldn’t conduct an interview, and cutting wigs into devil locks with tiny scissors for a Misfits cover band.
“Saigon’s music scene is stronger than ever. Big indoor spaces are rare here. It’s really hard to replace Cargo, so I think music here will focus on either really huge events like what you see, with big-name acts, or small clubs hosting small events with enthusiastic patrons.
“As an indoor, 1,000+ person, air-conditioned venue, Cargo was a diamond. Easy for vendors, artists, musicians and organisers to throw an event. It was a multi-purpose space. With it gone, I see places like FCAC for the artists, La Canalla and Piu Piu for smaller club/live music, and the indelible Saigon Outcast for cheeky daytime events.”