Review of Passion, Betrayal, and Revolution

Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Passion, Betrayal, and Revolution in Colonial Saigon: The Memoirs of Bao Luong

Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2010.  Pp. xiv, 199; ills., list of principal characters, map, glossary, bib., index.

Vietnam is currently experiencing a memory boom, or at least a memoir boom.  The unanticipated, enormous public reaction to the publication of the North Vietnamese army doctor Đặng Thuy Trâm’s diary is the best example, but far from the only one.  During a visit to Hanoi some eighteen months ago, I came across many recent editions of memoirs originally published in the 1960s and 1970s, and many others written more recently by members of a generation that is fast disappearing.  The authors of many of these books spent the years between the mid-1950s and 1975 in the Republic of Vietnam; indeed, a number of their memoirs were first published there.  This trend says fairly little about the state of freedom of the press in Vietnam – politically speaking, most of the memoirs in question are benign, and they do little to fill the real voids in public memory of the divisive legacies of the civil war that ravaged Vietnam for decades.  What the memoirs do reflect, perhaps, is a growing sense that the political narratives of the colonial and revolutionary eras say little about what people’s lives and experiences were actually like during the period in which the Vietnam of history began to become the Vietnam of today.

Politics does loom large in one recently republished work of memoirs. Nguyễn Trung Nguyệt, better known as Bảo Lương, wrote her memoirs in Saigon in the 1960s, a few years before her death.  It was serialized in newspapers at the time as The Road to Revolution (Đường Vào Cách Mạng) and republished in Hanoi in 1996 and in Hồ Chí Minh City in 2002 with a more neutral title, The Girl from the South (Người Con Gái Nam Bộ).  And this was not the only alternation: a large part of the memoirs, focusing on an event that thoroughly changed Bảo Lương’s life, is left out of the recent editions.  The event was the so called Barbier Street affair, the 1928 murder of the corrupt and autocratic head of the Regional Committee of the Revolutionary Youth League in Cochinchina by four League members.  Bảo Lương procured the sleeping potion that helped those who committed the crime to carry it out. She and sixty other people were eventually arrested as anti-colonial conspirators, and a spectacular public trial followed.

The symbolic stakes of the Barbier Street affair were considerable.  Were the accused true revolutionaries who had simply taken a regrettable but necessary step to protect their movement, or were they (as the French tried to claim) vicious and impulsive agitators who did not deserve to be called patriots?  The stakes remain high even today, but for different reasons: it was probably a member of the Indochinese Communist Party, then in competition with the Youth League in Cochinchina, who denounced Bảo Lương and her comrades to the French Sûreté (secret police).  Her memoirs have clearly been republished in recent times because Bảo Lương is meant to be regarded as a true patriot who became Vietnam’s first woman political prisoner, and an example for revolutionaries, men and women alike, who followed her.  But it was censored even eighty years after its most crucial episode because her life still does not fit seamlessly into public narratives about the Vietnamese revolution and its leaders.

Passion, Betrayal, and Revolution in Colonial Saigon is the Harvard historian Hue-Tam Ho Tai’s effort to use all available sources about Bảo Lương – all versions of her memoirs, the newspaper accounts of the Barbier Street affair, French colonial police records, and interviews with people who knew Bảo Lương – to construct the most comprehensive, most accurate account of her life.  Hue-Tam Ho Tai’s most recent previous book, the edited volume The Country of Memory: Remaking the Past in Late Socialist Vietnam (2000), ranks as the best work to date about history and memory in contemporary Vietnam.  More importantly, Hue-Tam Ho Tai’s familial connection to her subject (she is Bảo Lương’s niece) allowed her to gain access to Bảo Lương’s surviving relatives more easily, and to draw from her own memories of the person whose life she seeks to reconstruct.  The result is a remarkable story, a book that is hard to put down, and one with no real parallel in English-language historical literature and source material on Vietnam.

The book is roughly divided into two main parts.  The first tells of Bảo Lương’s early life and upbringing in the Mekong Delta.  Her father grew rice and caught fish; he moved his family several times when Bảo Lương was young. He was an educated man with a strong sense of justice, and he taught his eldest daughter about history, literature, and the abuses of French colonial rule.  Bảo Lương left home at age eighteen.  Not long thereafter, she became part of the Youth League through the introduction of Tôn Đức Thắng, the husband of Bảo Lương’s distant relative and later the first president of re-unified Vietnam.  Youth League networks led Bảo Lương to Guangzhou, where she studied at the League’s training school and ate, drank, and breathed revolution.  When she returned to Cochinchina, Bảo Lương began organizing women into Youth League cells and became increasingly influential in the organization.  The second part of the memoirs relates the origins, execution, and aftermath of the Barbier Street murder, focusing mostly on Bảo Lương’s arrest, interrogation, and time in prison.  It ends with a dramatic account of the verdict against her and the other Youth League members.

Hue-Tam Ho Tai’s reconstruction of the Barbier Street murder and subsequent trial will prove unforgettable reading for anyone interested in modern Vietnamese history.  Even if the murder and its aftermath may have represented the most important events in Bảo Lương’s life, that reconstruction is not the most important of the book’s contributions.  For Passion, Betrayal, and Revolution in Colonial Saigon offers one of the best accounts available in English of one individual’s path to revolutionary consciousness and mobilization in colonial Vietnam.  It provides a portrait of the sordid affairs and petty abuses of French rule that ruined lives and livelihoods, and the extraordinary demands that people made of themselves to fight these injustices.  To know that Vietnamese went to China to study to become revolutionaries is one thing, but to read about Bảo Lương’s harrowing trip as a stowaway in the belly of a steamer is quite another.  Bảo Lương’s account of her time in prison, perhaps the most unfiltered example in English of this important genre of Vietnamese revolutionary literature, is particularly powerful.  But Bảo Lương’s memoirs go beyond a personal history of revolution: they are a portrait of what people, especially women, faced as they tried to make sense of a changing cultural world.  How should she act when dressed up as a boy to escape unwanted scrutiny?  How should she feel about being the only woman in a room of men or sharing a bed with a stranger?  What kind of relationship should she have with her family?  Would she ever be able to have a family of her own?  Bảo Lương did not have easy answers to these hard questions, and the thoughtfulness and grace of her moral and emotional struggles give revolutionary Vietnam a human face for English readers.  Passion, Betrayal, and Revolution in Colonial Saigon will be read for a long time.

Hue-Tam Ho Tai faced a basic methodological problem in writing her latest book.  How should she analyze and integrate a variety of sources, and provide needed historical background and explanation, without losing the immediacy and intimacy of memoirs?  The result is, in her words, an “experiment in hybridization” (p. 10) instead of a more conventional historical biography.  She has recast the memoirs in the third person to make them more readable.  She has both integrated material into and replaced material from the memoirs with other sources when she has found a valid intellectual reason to do so.  But because she has chosen to preserve the narrative and tone of the memoirs, what Hue-Tam Ho Tai has included, from which sources, and where, is for the most part not accessible to the reader.  One often cannot tell, for example, if Bảo Lương remembered and decided to include a particular point in what she wrote, or if the author of this new book found credible evidence of said point in the newspaper Thn Chung or in French police files and chose to include it herself.  This aspect of Passion, Betrayal, and Revolution in Colonial Saigon is likely to provoke criticism from some historians – how can one evaluate Hue-Tam Ho Tai’s intellectual decisions, and their effect on the text, without a record of them?  In my personal opinion, such criticisms often rest on a misplaced faith in what the author calls the “artless tone” and “air of utter authenticity” (p. 9) of first-person documents such as memoirs.  Readers would have lost something very precious – Bảo Lương’s voice – if the author had written an historical biography full of footnotes, analyses, and qualifications, and they would have lost something else – critical accuracy – had she simply published a fuller version of Bảo Lương’s memoirs without treating them as a source to be analyzed, criticized and supplemented.  The end product is a compromise.   It might not make everybody happy, but the result proves more than enough to justify the approach.

To make the memoirs more accessible, Hue-Tam Ho Tai has also chosen to include a necessary amount of basic historical explanation within the narrative, “either to clarify what is happening or to provide a historical context for what Bảo Lương wrote.  These interjections appear in italics” (p.10).  This is, from a methodological perspective, a less weighty decision than the one noted above, but it led to what is, for me, the text’s only discordant aspect.  Simply put, there seems to be no clear boundary between what appears in italics and what does not.  For example, consider the following sentence: “Bao Luong was using a word, thuong, which meant both affection and pity in Vietnamese” (p. 109).  It is followed a few sentences later by this passage:

Bao Luong and Ngoc Anh spent their time talking about poetry, the miserable conditions of tenant farmers, how to deal with robbers, and Bao Luong’s grandfather, who was her ideal of honor and patriotism.  During one such conversation, Bao Luong gave Ngoc Anh her secret account of what had happened on Barbier Street on December 8, 1928. (p. 110)

The sentence from page 109 is explicitly in the historian’s voice, while the passage from page 110 is not.  But the longer passage appears in italics, and the short sentence does not.  Why?  Throughout the memoirs, there are many unitalicized words and passages that are clearly neither Bảo Lương’s words nor meant to be taken as such (would she really have used the word “postcolonial”? [p. 40]).  The presence of these words and passages renders the italicized passages at best moot, and at times confusing.  Given the author’s ability to integrate many diverse sources and voices into a credible and compelling narrative, italicizing anything at all was probably unnecessary.

Charles P. Keith

Department of History

Michigan State University

Previous installments in the TLC/New Mandala book review series on Mainland Southeast Asia are accessible at http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/category/book-reviews/nm-tlc-reviews/ .