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Passion, Betrayal, and Revolution in Colonial Saigon
The Memoirs of Bao Luong
By Hue-Tam Ho Tai
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
The Girl from the South
Nguyen Trung Nguyet's parents had named their firstborn child "faithful moon." In Vietnamese culture, whose rhythms follow the lunar calendar, the moon is the symbol of constancy. As the oldest child of Nguyen van Nham and his wife, Dao thi Chau, Trung Nguyet was known as Second Sister by her siblings and, much later, as Second Aunt by their children. This southern custom was said to derive from the belief that the first child should always be known as "second" to fool the devil, who loved to take firstborn children back to the netherworld; others claimed the custom honored the first lord of the South, the ancestor of the Nguyen emperors.
Nguyen Trung Nguyet's father had been one of ten children. When Trung Nguyet was growing up, she knew only three of her father's siblings: Fourth Uncle, Ninth Aunt, and Uncle Ut, the youngest. Only Uncle Ut seems to have been close to Nham in age, political ideals, and love of learning. It appears from Trung Nguyet's memoir that the French had killed one brother and a cousin. Nguyen van Nham was born around 1890 in the province of Ben Tre, one of three ceded to the French in the Treaty of Saigon of 1862. The remaining three provinces of the South were brought under French control in 1867 to form, together with those ceded earlier, the colony of French Cochinchina, but sporadic opposition to colonial rule continued throughout the 1870s. It is thus likely that Nham's brother and cousin died in some futile attempt at overthrowing the French. Whatever the exact circumstances, Nham nurtured a hatred of the French that he passed on to his children. Nham also seems to have blamed the French for abuses perpetrated by Vietnamese officials or landlords, which his daughter witnessed far more frequently than actual displays of French power.
Like many young men of his time, Nguyen van Nham went away to study; literate men were fairly scarce in rural southern Vietnam and good teachers even more so. His teacher was Dao Duy Chung, a man whose granddaughters remembered him as speaking with a "Quang" accent. To Southerners "Quang" was a catchall reference to the center of the country, where many provinces bore names beginning with Quang. His family claimed to be descended from the famous scholar Dao Duy Tu, who had left Hanoi because his birth as the son of an entertainer made him ineligible to sit for the civil service exams in 1592. Dao Duy Tu had offered his services to the lord of the South in Hue and had suggested building the walls at Dong Hoi in 1630 that divided the country for nearly two centuries. Dao Duy Chung's descent from this scholar and statesman could not be confirmed, but his progeny took great pride in it. Dao Duy Chung arrived in the South from "Quang" in the early 1880s, in response to the call of Emperor Tu Duc for scholars to mobilize peasants against the French. Enthusiasm for empire, which had diminished in the wake of France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1871, had revived in France. Apparently, Emperor Tu Duc thought that anticolonial activism in the South might undermine French expansionist efforts in the rest of the country. Dao Duy Chung's efforts proved futile, but he decided to remain in the South and settled in Tra Vinh. Of his wife, we know little except that she came from a large family surnamed Tran in My Tho and that she died in childbirth. Of her four children, only one, Dao thi Chau, survived to adulthood.
For a time Dao Duy Chung served on the Judicial Council of Tra Vinh, but he resigned in disgust at the abuses of power committed by those in authority, in particular their interference in the judicial process. His resignation earned him fame as a man "loyal to Vietnam" (Nam trung). He then opened an academy to teach Chinese classics, even though a new Franco-Annamite system of education had rendered the old curriculum obsolete. He was a stern taskmaster, holding himself responsible not only for inculcating knowledge in his students but also for their moral growth. He maintained this sense of responsibility long after his students had left his care and assumed positions of authority in society. According to a family story, he upbraided a prefect who had once been his student when the man came to extend New Year's greetings to him: "Peasants from your district passing through here recently complained of bad administration. The duty of every mandarin is to care for the welfare of the people. What have you to say for yourself?" Stories such as these enhanced Dao Duy Chung's reputation for both probity and patriotism.
Nguyen van Nham was Dao Duy Chung's favorite student, and to him Chung decided to give his surviving daughter, Chau, in marriage. The young people had not met before the wedding ceremony, which probably took place in 1908. Chau would say later that she was relieved to see that her bridegroom wore his hair in the traditional topknot. In the rest of the country young reformers were advocating the adoption of Western clothing and hairstyles as a sign of patriotic progressivism, but many in the South, the only region under direct French rule, clung to the old ways as an expression of love for their country.
The wedding rituals over, Nham brought his bride back to Binh Dai, where Trung Nguyet was born in 1909. Two more children were born to Nham and Chau in Binh Dai: their only son, Vien Dai, in 1910 and another daughter, Hue Minh, in 1913.
Ben Tre was one of the South's oldest provinces, but a lot of land remained uncultivated. The village of Binh Dai itself was located near the estuary of one of the Mekong's many branches. The house where Trung Nguyet grew up was one of four straw huts erected on land that her grandfather had cleared. By one side was a banana grove, by the other a field of sugarcane. In front was a large rice field. At the back was a jungle full of tigers, boars, monkeys, and foxes. Trung Nguyet recalled that her father and uncles often went hunting. She remembered being terrified one day when she realized that she was still in the jungle as the sun was setting. Luckily, her grandmother's brother, on his way to visit his sister's family, heard Trung Nguyet's cries of distress and brought her safely home.
Trung Nguyet was a carefree child, though she was expected to help out by spreading fertilizer made of dried fish around the banana trees and tending to the family's buffaloes. But her father also insisted that she get an education at the nighttime "school" run by Uncle Ut for the village boys who herded buffaloes by day. Of all his pupils, Trung Nguyet was the most diligent, for the boys were not entirely persuaded of the value of literacy. Some fell asleep as soon as they arrived. Others talked throughout the class at a volume more suited to the rice fields than a hut in the quiet of night. Uncle Ut taught them by lamplight, using banana leaves for paper and purple fruit juice for ink. He also taught them the rudiments of hygiene with the help of a cane. Students who forgot to wipe their noses or whose feet were caked with mud found the cane crashing on their legs before they had a chance to dance away.
One night a notable (a member of the village council) named Ngo came to visit Uncle Ut, ostensibly to remind him that the school he was running was illegal. But after whispering in Uncle Ut's ear, Ngo straightened up and said: "I have great respect for your father; when he was alive, we were good friends. This is why I've come to warn you. The French government has earned our gratitude; we must keep that in mind. So I won't report that you are teaching children in your house. A few kids won't matter, I'll protect you. But you need to prepare for the reception right away." This was the real reason behind his visit: the coming visit of the salt and alcohol inspector. In the imagination of the village children, the French inspector was a fearsome figure. He was tall, gaunt, and pale, with deep-set blue eyes and a sharp, prominent nose. And he carried a shotgun.
Salt was a state monopoly that was expected to bring in revenue to the colonial state, but the price set by the monopoly for this basic commodity made it unaffordable for most peasants and fishermen. For the inhabitants of Binh Dai, which was close to the sea, producing salt was easy, but the punishment for violating a state monopoly was severe. The previous year the inspector had taken away more than ten men for having illegal stores of salt. They had been marched out of the village, hands tied behind their back and roped together in a long file, followed by their sobbing wives and children.
When the estuary had flooded a few months earlier, Trung Nguyet and her mother had painstakingly carried the salty mud home and carefully sifted it until they had a sizable amount of pure white salt crystals that they stored in containers hidden in the orchard under a pile of dried banana leaves. As soon as the notable left, every member of the household, including the buffalo boys, was mobilized to move the salt containers to a better hiding place and covered the hole with grass. For good measure Fourth Uncle covered the lot with buffalo dung mixed with water. Barelyhad they completed the camouflage whenthey got word that thesaltinspector had arrived. Nham was then away in Rach Gia, seeking out sites where he might move his family to start a new life. His mother and older brother decided that, in case the salt's hiding place was discovered, his wife would take responsibility for it: "A woman will receive a shorter prison term," they said.
At four in the morning, the men convened in the communal house to await the inspector. When the inspector and his large entourage finally arrived, a steady drumbeat alerted everyone to his presence. After the preliminaries were over, the inspector visited each house. He soon uncovered the cache of salt on Nham's property. Just as Chau was about to confess, Uncle Ut arrived. He was unaware of the earlier discussions and took responsibility for it. He was immediately taken away. But to the great relief of his family he returned home a free man a few hours later. He had claimed that the salt belonged to his absent brother, and Notable Ngo confirmed that Nham had been in Rach Gia for some time. Trung Nguyet, who had absorbed her father's tales of French rapacity, was deeply influenced by this first encounter with colonial oppression. When the inspector left, Trung Nguyet and her mother set out to dig up more estuary mud to make another illegal store of salt.
After the inspector had taken away Uncle Ut, Trung Nguyet's grand mother rained invectives and blows on her daughter-in-law—as she often did—blaming her for Uncle Ut's arrest. His sister, whose own illegal store had gone undetected, joined her mother in hitting Chau and yelling at her. Only when Uncle Ut returned unharmed did the insults and blows stop. This was only one of many times when Chau's mother- and sister-in-law treated her badly. Throughout the first ten years of marriage, Chau was at the beck and call of all her in-laws. Trung Nguyet regarded the old woman as an indulgent grandmother and blamed "feudal" tradition for the mistreatment of her mother because it produced oppressed daughters-in-law who later became oppressive mothers-in-law. In the early decades of the twentieth century, progressive young Vietnamese were beginning to use the word feudal (phong kien) as a term of opprobrium for any practice or belief they disliked. Feudalism and colonialism would be the twin targets of Trung Nguyet's revolutionary zeal.
Nham was aware of the difficult relations between his mother and his wife, which was why he was exploring a move to Rach Gia. Several times during their marriage, Chau had lamented her husband's refusal to accept help from her father. Dao Duy Chung was famous not only for his patriotism and his erudition but also for his knowledge of herbs, and he had proposed to set his son-in-law up in an herb shop, but Nham had refused. When his wife, smarting from her mother-in-law's abuse, wept at his refusal to go into the herb business, Nham would retort, "Do you think it is fitting that a man should live off his wife?" Moving to Rach Gia would solve both problems.
As he was preparing to move his family from Binh Dai, his mother urged Nham to sell a few acres (mau) in order to have some capital with which to begin his new life. After his father's death, Nham had continued to clear the jungle and opened up more land for rice cultivation. But he refused. He was a proud and unbending man, confident that he could provide for his wife and children without the help of either his or his wife's relatives. When Nham and Chau left Binh Dai with their three children, they took only some mosquito nets, three large trays, and a few earthenware bowls. They loaded their meager possessions onto a sampan and set off for Vinh Phu in Rach Gia. Trung Nguyet, then nine, never returned to Binh Dai and never again saw the friends of her childhood.
Much of Rach Gia (now Kien Giang) was marshy land only recently reclaimed from the sea. Land was still plentiful and only beginning to be brought into cultivation. The province had been incorporated only at the turn of the twentieth century. By the mid-1920s it would rank first among the Vietnamese provinces in rice production. Nham bought some land by a river at auction, having decided to earn his living from fishing. He proposed to stretch fishing nets across the river, leaving enough of an opening for sampans to pass through. No one in Vinh Phu had ever used that technique, and his proposal was easily accepted. But his success excited the envy of neighbors. One day a notable brought along a dozen of his Cambodian employees to destroy the dam and the nets. But Trung Nguyet and her siblings had made friends with the daughters of the wealthy widow of a magistrate. When Mrs. Magistrate, as she was known, heard the commotion, she walked out of her house and silently looked from the group of Cambodian laborers to Trung Nguyet's parents and back again. It was enough to unnerve the notable and his laborers, who feared that she would bear witness to the destruction of the nets. They left but continued to harass Nham throughout the rest of the fishing season so that he eventually decided to give up fishing and return to growing rice.
While Nham looked for suitable land, Chau supported the family by making pastries for Trung Nguyet to sell. Few rural women were literate in those days, and Trung Nguyet was much in demand for reasons other than her mother's pastries. Among her steady customers was an old Cantonese lady who loved to be read to from The Chronicles of the Eastern Zhou, one of several Chinese historical novels that were beginning to appear in Vietnamese translation. Mrs. Magistrate also often bought up all of Chau's pastries in return for Trung Nguyet's reading from a Chinese historical novel or reciting poetry.
One day Nham followed his daughter into Mrs. Magistrate's house just as two of her servants brought in a man of about fifty whose hands were tied. He was a tenant who had fallen behind in his rent, and she was sending him to the communal house for sentencing. It was a foregone conclusion that he would have to remain in jail until his family could pay up. Some men in his straits languished in prison for years; others left their bones on Con Son penal island. When Nham learned of the man's debt, he immediately said he would provide the thirty measures of rice the tenant owed. Mrs. Magistrate knew very well that Nham did not have the means to pay her; otherwise his daughter would not be selling pastries door to door. But after staring at him in silence for a while, she agreed to release her tenant without demanding payment. The following day the grateful man brought his teenage son and daughter to live with Nham as his assistants. Nham insisted that he would accept their help only if he could teach them to read and write. (The task actually fell to Trung Nguyet.) A few years later Nham heard that the tenant was again behind in his rent and once again faced prison. Nham sent the man's two children home so that they could help their father, and Nham gave them some money to pay off the man's debts.
Shortly after this incident a relative of Chau's came to live in the village. Chau no longer had living siblings, but she had many cousins on her mother's side of the family. One cousin was married to a man named Quoi, a canton chief and thus the most powerful figure in their area. Quoi and his wife built a substantial house of brick and tiled floor near the mud hut where Nham and his family lived. Trung Nguyet became fast friends with Quoi's daughters, but Chau and Nham kept their distance because they did not approve of Quoi. As canton chief he was in charge of interrogating prisoners, and Trung Nguyet, on her visits to his home, witnessed many scenes of interrogation. Prisoners would be kneeling in a row on the floor, their arms tied behind their backs and a metal rod inserted between their wrists. Every time Quoi asked a question, he would strike the man who answered with a rattan stick that had a spiny, rock-hard fruit on one end.
Excerpted from Passion, Betrayal, and Revolution in Colonial Saigon by Hue-Tam Ho Tai. Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations, vii,
Principal Characters, xi,
1. The Girl from the South, 12,
2. From Faithful Moon to Precious Honesty, 23,
3. Apprentice Revolutionaries, 37,
4. Vignettes from the Revolution, 53,
5. Prelude to a Murder, 62,
6. The Crime on Barbier Street, 88,
7. The End of the Revolutionary Youth League, 102,
8. The Road to Hell, 115,
9. Down among Women, 139,
10. The Verdict, 166,
11. Life and Death, 175,
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"This book will serve as a valuable means of entering the turbulent world of Vietnam in the 1920s and 30s."South East Asia Research