Review of The Birth of Vietnamese Political Journalism

Philippe M. F. Peycam, The Birth of Vietnamese Political Journalism: Sài Gòn, 1916-1930.

New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. Pp. xi, 320; maps, list of abbreviations, notes, bibliography, index. 

Reviewed by Haydon L. Cherry.

It was the spring of hope; it was the winter of despair.  On 21 March 1926, fifteen hundred people, including street vendors, school teachers, and students congregated on the Rue Lanzarotte in Sài Gòn.  At the meeting, Phan Trương Mạnh announced the illegal foundation of the Annam Youth Party and called for all of those assembled to join.  The young Vietnamese journalist Lâm Hiệp Châu distributed a new newspaper titled Jeune Annam to the crowd.  Leaflets, extremely critical of the colonial government and carrying the names of the radical journalists Eugène Dejean de la Batie and Nguyễn An Ninh, circulated.  On the morning of 24 March, the colonial authorities arrested the three journalists.  Thousands gathered that evening on the pier of the Messageries Maritimes to await the return from France of Bùi Quang Chiêu, the editor of the Sài Gòn newspaper La Tribune Indigène and a proponent of moderate political reform.  French agitators who opposed Bùi Quang Chiêu tried to start a riot as he disembarked.  The arrest of Nguyễn An Ninh had alarmed the increasingly incendiary youth who had also learned that the great patriot, Phan Châu Trinh, had died during the previous night.  At a rally the following day, Bùi Quang Chiêu failed to denounce the arrest of Nguyễn An Ninh, to the dismay of the restive youth.  On 4April, a funeral procession of seventy thousand people paraded through Sài Gòn to a mausoleum for Phan Châu Trinh in Tân Sơn Nhất.  Strikes and demonstrations against French rule broke out in the weeks that followed.  Radical activism had replaced more quiescent attempts at reform.  The press was transformed, as Vietnamese journalism became more dramatic and confrontational.  But by the end of the year political protest had moved from the pages of Sài Gòn’s newspapers to the pavements of its streets.  Contest in the press had given way to mass mobilization and militancy.

Political debate first emerged in Sài Gòn newspapers at the end of the First World War.  With the encouragement of Governor-General Albert Sarraut, Bùi Quang Chiêu and Nguyễn Phú Khai founded the French-language Tribune Indigène in August 1917.  It was the first Vietnamese-owned political broadsheet.  Bùi Quang Chiêu was the editor-in-chief and Nguyễn Phú Khai the publisher.  Both men were members of the new Vietnamese urban social elite of Cochin China.  Bùi Quang Chiêu was born into a scholar-gentry family from Bến Tre in the Mekong Delta and educated at the École coloniale and the Institut national agronomique, both in Paris.  After returning to Cochin China he worked as an agricultural engineer.  He involved himself in the Société d’enseignement mutuel and helped found the Association amicale des anciens élèves du Collège Chasseloup-Laubat.  By 1918, he was president of both.  Nguyễn Phú Khai, the son of a retired administrator in the colonial civil service, was born into a Catholic family from Bà Rịa to the southeast of Sài Gòn.  La Tribune Indigène described itself as “the barometer of Vietnamese public opinion” (p. 81) but usually took a moderately conservative approach to political and social issues such as the electoral franchise.

After the appearance of La Tribune Indigène, newspaper publishing in Sài Gòn flourished.  Within two years, the city boasted no fewer than seven newspapers in romanised Vietnamese and another one in French, all directed at Vietnamese readers.

Nguyễn Phan Long founded L’Écho Annamite with the support of the  colonial government in 1920.  He was the newspaper’s main contributor and eventually became its director and sole proprietor.  Born in Hà Nội, Nguyễn Phan Long returned to his father’s home region of Cochin China in 1916 and worked as a customs official before turning to journalism.  L’Écho Annamite, like La Tribune Indigène, opposed various government policies but adopted a conciliatory rather than a confrontational stance.

Over time, the tone of Vietnamese-language newspapers old and new, such as Nông C Mín Đàm [Agricultural Affairs], Công Lun Báo [Public Opinion], Đông Pháp Thi Báo [Indochina Times], and Nam Kỳ Kinh Tế Báo [Cochin China Economic Journal], became less didactic and moralistic and more politically engaged and critical.  The editorial influence of an older generation of writers such as Nguyễn Chánh Sắt, Lê Hoằng Mưu, and Hồ Văn Trung gave way to a newer generation of intellectuals, including Cao Văn Chánh, Nguyễn Háo Vĩnh, Cao Hãi Để, and Lâm Hiệp Châu.  They wrote for a small but increasingly educated, politically and economically aspirant, and censorious readership.

The Vietnamese press and its readership became more radical during les années folles of the early 1920s.  In 1923, Vietnamese readers learned that the colonial government intended to allow a consortium of French financial interests to develop new facilities for the port of Sài Gòn and to manage those facilities for a term of fifteen years.  Newspapers such as La Vérité, La Voix libre, Saigon Républicain, Nông C Mín Đàm, and Công Lun Báo opposed the proposal, while others, including L’Impartial, its Vietnamese-language counterpart Trung Lp Báo, Le Courrier Saïgonnais, Le Progrès Annamite, and Lc Tnh Tân Văn [News of the Six Provinces], supported the plan and suffered a decline in readership as a result.

In the wake of the port monopoly affair, an eccentric young retour de France named Nguyễn An Ninh began to publish La Cloche Fêlée.  The newspaper became so popular that its weekly print run reached 2,000 and accounted for just under ten percent of the total sales of the Saigon press.  In issue after issue, Nguyễn An Ninh and Eugène Dejean de la Bâtie, the illegitimate son of a French diplomat and a Vietnamese street vendor, passionately attacked the venal governor of Cochin China, Maurice Cognacq, and his corrupt administration.

After the presses at La Cloche Fêlée stopped in 1924, L’Indochine, founded in 1925 by Paul Monin and the future French culture minister André Malraux, and Đông Pháp Thi Báo, edited by Trần Huy Liệu, became the two Sài Gòn newspapers most critical of the colonial administration.  But the tumultuous events of spring 1926 led the authorities to arrest muckrakers in the press and demonstrators on the streets.  Newspapers such as Tân Thế K [New Century], a Vietnamese-language daily which sold an average of six thousand copies per issue, directly criticized the colonial government and its censors.  Other journals, including Công Giáo Đng Thinh [Catholic Voice], marshalled readers around particular causes such as the social plight of rickshaw pullers.  Vietnamese newspaper became less and less venues for reasoned opposition and debate and more and more tools of political mobilization.

In The Birth of Vietnamese Political Journalism, Philippe Peycam describes the evolution of the “newspaper village” (làng báo) in colonial Sài Gòn in terms of the transformation of the “public sphere.”  This concept comes from German critical theorist Jürgen Habermas’s 1962 Habilitationschrift, entitled Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit. Untersuchungen zu einer Kategorie der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft [The Structural Transformation of the Public: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society].  Habermas argues that a “bourgeois public sphere” of open, rational debate among private individuals first developed in the absolutist states of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Europe and then declined during the rest of the nineteenth century and in the twentieth.  The Habilitationschrift was translated into French in 1978 and into English only in 1989.  It soon became an important theoretical inspiration for historians of early modern Europe, and later for historians of modern Asia.

Peycam’s interpretation of Habermas shares three important similarities with the works of other historians inspired by the German theorist.  First, Peycam is principally concerned with the first part of Habermas’s book, which addresses the emergence and consolidation of the public sphere during its early history.  Second, Peycam conceives of the public sphere mainly in spatial terms.  He relies on the French translation of Habermas’s Habilitationschrift, which renders the title as L’Espace public: Archéologie de la publicité comme dimension constitutive de la société bourgeoise.  The English translation of the work’s title, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Enquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, similarly imports a spatial metaphor by translating Öffentlichkeit (“public,” “publicity,” “publicness”) as “public sphere.”  The main implication of this spatial metaphor is to conceive of the “public” as having a location (in print, in this case), rather than being the quality of a group of individuals in association.  Third, Peycam is only superficially concerned with the economic basis for the changes in Vietnamese journalism that he describes.  Habermas, on the other hand, links his discussion of the transformation of the public sphere in Europe to the growth of capitalist relations of production.

Deeper engagement with Habermas has much to offer historians of modern Vietnam.  The newspapers that Peycam discusses published not only journalism and political commentary but also advertisements for Job cigarettes, Nestlé condensed milk, Citroën automobiles, French-educated Vietnamese doctors, the Pharmacie Solirène, jewellers, and the Eden cinema, among many others.  The economy of Cochin China and its capital Sài Gòn boomed after the First World War, buoyed by the growth of the Asian rice trade.  Vietnamese readers encountered not only new political ideas and debates but also new commodities and services, often on facing pages of the same broadsheets and tabloids.  They formed new political aspirations and new economic wants, needs, and tastes at the same time.  One of the strengths of Habermas’s theory is that it suggests that changes in political debate can be linked to economic changes, particularly changes in consumption.  At the end of the 1920s, as the colonial economy went into decline and then suffered the shock of the Great Depression, it became harder and harder for young, educated, middle-class Vietnamese to satisfy the new tastes and needs that they had developed in the preceding decade.  The shift from rational debate to radicalism in the press mirrored changes in its readers’ wealth and purchasing power.

The Birth of Vietnamese Political Journalism reveals the vibrant political debates that took place in the Sài Gòn press after the end of the First World War.  And it offers striking portraits of a range of French and Vietnamese writers, journalists, and intellectuals.  Historians of Vietnam will find in the volume abundant theoretical and documentary resources for making sense of the bewildering economic, social, and political changes that swept through French Indochina in the early twentieth century.

Haydon L. Cherry is Assistant Professor of History at the North Carolina State University.

References

Jürgen Habermas, Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit: Untersuchungen zu einer Kategorie der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft. Darmstadt & Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1962.

Jürgen Habermas, L’Éspace public: Archéologie de la publicité ́ comme dimension constitutive de la société bourgeoise. Translated by Marc de Launay. Paris: Payot, 1978.

Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Enquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Translated by Thomas Burger. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991.