- Patronage, Passion, and the Power of Networks
Beyond the rhetoric of patriotism and the persuasions of propaganda, what compelled so many Vietnamese to oppose French, communist, and American hegemony? The existing literature tells us much about the norms, habits, policies, and organizations that existed during the late colonial period, when dynamic, modern voices of dissent and resistance began to be heard. Students of political rule and resistance in twentieth-century Vietnam have rich resources available to them, including histories of official rhetoric, studies of grassroots political mobilization, and intellectual biographies of leading figures and institutions. Nonetheless, this scholarship, with a number of notable exceptions, generally identifies great men, basic economic factors and efficient organizations as the main historical agents in modern Vietnam. It is encouraging to see two recent books move, however cautiously, in a compellingly different direction. In various ways, both The Birth of Vietnamese Political Journalism and Passion, Betrayal, and Revolution in Colonial Saigon seek to understand the worlds inhabited by Vietnamese with a keen—even zealous—interest in political and social change. Though Philippe Peycam [End Page 521] and Hue-Tam Ho Tai might not necessarily describe their books as such, both are significant for their efforts to chart the untidy but vital personal and professional connections that drew Vietnamese into modern politics and, in many cases, revolution.
Both books are about roads not taken, about what might be called “constitutive failures.” Tai’s study examines the revolutionary road of her aunt, Nguyê̄n Trung Nguyệt (a.k.a. Bảo Lu̕o̕ng), whose passionate convictions found her embroiled in the infamous murder in Barbier Street in Saigon in 1929. The murder was the fumbled assassination of a communist rival by members of the communist Revolutionary Youth League (RYL), and the subsequent arrest of the vast majority of communist agitators in Saigon decimated the movement in the south in the same year that the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) came into being. Peycam briefly mentions the Barbier Street murder that features so prominently in Tai’s story, but his interests lie elsewhere. Less concerned with explicitly political agitation, Birth charts the early years of Vietnamese publishing of a political nature. Where Tai seeks to reveal the mysterious and intimate reasons for her aunt’s youthful involvement in the communist movement and her subsequent retreat from politics and public life, Peycam attempts to expose the world in which individuals not unlike Trung Nguyệt came to practice a decidedly Vietnamese style of political journalism. Drawing on work from the European experience, Peycam—like Tai—hopes to establish how the nexus of colonial rule and the colonial city shaped the particular form and efficacy of Vietnamese journalism. In this way his work bridges the divide between the colonial and postcolonial. Indeed, it is refreshing to see a historian of early twentieth-century Vietnam doing so. A great deal of our knowledge of Vietnam in the years after 1945 remains confined in the simplistic and troubled language of the war years.
What remains to be done, though, is to consider more rigorously the stories Tai and Peycam have brought forward. While provocative and productive, both books embark too cautiously on their intimate histories of revolution. This is true of both books in quite different ways, and it is worth examining each book in its approach to the question of the personal and intimate, on the one hand, and its connection with political networks (not to mention organizations and ideologies), on the other. It is in broaching these questions that these two books signal the current possibilities of Vietnamese history and the work that needs to be done. [End Page 522]
A revised version of his Ph.D. thesis, Peycam’s Birth differs accordingly from Tai’s Passion, showing the signs of being a dissertation edited for publication. Peycam ambitiously attempts to narrate the rise...