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Response to Review no. 1031

I am enormously grateful to Susan Bayly for her very generous and thoughtful review of Passion, Betrayal and Revolution in Colonial Saigon. Thanks are also due to Reviews in History for providing me with an opportunity to respond to her many thoughtful comments, and thereby to amplify on some issues involved in publishing someone else’s memoirs and using autobiographies in history.

I have long been concerned about the paucity of information we have about the daily lives of Vietnamese, even in the 20th century. Biographies of historically important men (and a few women) have been written, usually in a deadly dull hagiographic and ultimately uninformative style. But about ordinary Vietnamese men and women? Very little. In fact, we may know more about the lives of 14th-century Cathars (1), a 16th-century Florentine miller (2), or an 18th-century American midwife (3) than we do about Vietnamese closer to our own times. Compared with the wealth of information available to scholars of North America, Europe, China and Japan, scholars of Vietnam can only lament that most of the records we have of early 20th-century Vietnam are filtered through French eyes and ears: the colonial archives and collections of photographs taken by French, rather than Vietnamese. From a Vietnamese perspective, much of what passes for social history is written in abstract, general terms, under titles such as ‘the conditions of peasants’ or ‘the formation of the Vietnamese working-class’. Under the weight of so much collective historical significance, individual men and women are robbed of personality and agency.

First person memoirs by ordinary Vietnamese have in fact been published; but all too often, their authors resorted to either the heroic voice of Socialist Realism (see Peter Zinoman’s ‘Reading Revolutionary Prison Memoirs’ in my edited volume: The Country of Memory: Remaking the Past in Late Socialist Vietnam (4))) or the self-pitying tones of victims of fate more in line with Vietnamese literary tradition (The feminine voice of much of this literary tradition is highly unreliable: most of the authors were high status males). Few available memoirs actually provide sustained insights into the texture of everyday life. A notable exception is Dr. Dang Thuy Tram’s diary, (translated into English as Last Night I Dreamt of Peace (5)). Prof. Bayly rightly notes its iconic status as depoliticized memory; I would suggest that its popularity owes much as well to its vivid description of real war experiences and deeply felt emotion in contrast to standardized narratives of patriotic heroism and self-sacrifice.

It was with this in mind that I decided to publish the memoirs of Bao Luong, my mother’s older sister. During my adolescence, I had heard vaguely of her involvement, as a member of the anti-colonial Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth League, in a lurid murder known as the Crime on Barbier Street. But I only read the details of this involvement as a graduate student rooting in the French colonial archives in Aix-en-Provence. I was stunned by what I read and dismayed by what was left out. Unlike the inquisitor whose records furnish a vivid portrait of everyday life in the remote village of Montaillou and of the religious beliefs of its shepherds, the French Sûretéhad far narrower concerns, centered on rooting out opposition to colonial rule. What kinds of lives had those they interrogated led prior to their arrest? What did they believe in? What had motivated them to join the anti-colonial movement? On these questions, the French Sûreté files had very little to say. Perhaps these records are best used, as Patrice Morlat has done, to explore the apparatus of colonial repression in Le Crime de la rue Barbier: Saigon, 1928.(6)

The value of Bao Luong’s memoirs, which I got to read long after her death and my own graduate student days, resides not only in the fuller picture of Bao Luong that emerges, but also in the glimpses they afford readers into the lives of ordinary peasants in southern Vietnam in the first decades of the 20th century; they give us an insider’s view of the inner workings of Ho Chi Minh’s Revolutionary Youth League – the precursor of the Indochinese Communist Party. They illustrate the connection between feminism and revolution in Vietnam. They offer a fascinating account of life in a women’s prison, to stand side by side with studies of male incarceration, of which there are many more (see, for example, Peter Zinoman, The Colonial Bastille(7)). Students of collective action will find food for thought in Bao Luong’s description of the patterns of kinship and friendship that characterized recruitment into the Revolutionary Youth League.

I should make clear that the book is based on the manuscript memoirs as opposed to the various published versions. Every bit of dialogue comes from the memoirs or from the police interrogations. I have not invented any, even though at least one reader has commented online that the book is a work of fiction. However, there is a good possibility that Bao Luong invented dialogues; in fact she reconstructed whole scenes at which she was not present. One involves the confrontation between the eventual murder victim and other members of the Revolutionary Youth League in Ben Tre (pp. 77–8); another describes his attempted rape of a young recruit and friend of Bao Luong (pp. 72–5); and finally, Bao Luong claims that she was not present at the scene of the murder itself, but she certainly recounts it in vivid details. There are other such scenes in the memoirs; it is not clear whether Bao Luong was an eyewitness, an active participant or merely learned about them secondhand. Bao Luong probably did not invent these set pieces from whole cloth. But how much did she add to or subtract from what she was told, and who told her and when, must remain unknowable. My introduction was partly intended to point out Bao Luong’s flights of fancy and personal biases. To her niece, she was a beloved aunt. To a historian, she is not a wholly reliable narrator of her own life. Nonetheless her descriptions of life in the Vietnamese countryside in the early 20th century, her insider’s account of revolutionary recruitment and training, her vignettes of life in prison – all these ring true.

I originally considered presenting the memoirs telles quelles, as primary source for social historians. I soon abandoned this approach when I realized that the memoirs would make little sense to anyone not already familiar with the history of Vietnam in the first half of the 20th century. Furthermore, Bao Luong was not aware of the contents of the police file – but I was, and could not ignore them. So I decided to augment her narrative with information culled from my own research into Vietnamese political and social history, from the Sûreté file and from the unpublished memoirs two of her siblings wrote long after her death. I am fully aware that far more could be done to situate the memoirs historically or to expand on them. Still, I had set out to publish her memoirs rather than a full-scale biography, warts and all, or a ‘Life and Times of Bao Luong.’ The resulting book contains multiple voices: besides Bao Luong’s and my own, there are those of her siblings; through their confessions, we also hear from some of her colleagues in the Revolutionary Youth League. While my scholar’s instinct was to flag every change of perspective, my editors were concerned about narrative flow. Using too many different fonts and mentioning every source of information in the text might be too distracting, they believed. As a result of the decisions made by myself and my editors, the book is neither Bao Luong’s nor mine alone; neither purely a memoir nor a piece of scholarly research, but a hybrid. Professor Bayly is not the only reader to observe that it is not always clear whose voice we are hearing at particular times, so perhaps my editors and I have not been entirely successful in striking the right balance.

I found translating the memoirs fairly easy; Bao Luong’s language was generally quite straightforward. I decided against including the discussions on Confucianism because they are long set pieces that break up the narrative flow without contributing to our understanding of Confucianism. The same goes for the highly selective and hyper-patriotic reading of Vietnamese history. Bao Luong and her friends were not erudite scholars but adolescent girls who lamented their limited education. Her love of poetry has much to do with her love for her father,  who, having received a classical education,  would  revere the Book of Poetry, one of the Confucian Four Classics. Additionally, the ability to write poetry was the mark of an educated person, much as playing a musical instrument was expected of young ladies in Jane Austen’s time. But it was not the case in post-colonial Vietnam. More important, the collection of Bao Luong’s poems that was put together by one of her sisters does not contain the dates of their composition. While some were obviously written in prison, it is unclear whether it was before or after she was sentenced to eight years’ hard labor, one year after her arrest and the point at which the memoirs end. Bao Luong was 20 when she was arrested. Reading some of those poems, I was reminded of Verlaine’s ‘Le ciel est par dessus le toit’ with its poignant  closinglines ‘Qu’as-tu fait de ta jeunesse, Toi qui es là?’ Perhaps I should have included at least one.

Anonymous poems (more accurately limericks) were a widespread tool of anti-colonial propaganda as their inclusion in several anthologies of anti-colonial writings attest. In a society where illiteracy was very high, poems would be easy to remember and to pass along orally, circumventing the censorship that limited what could be discussed in print. Alas, Bao Luong did not record examples of the poems she and her friends wrote. Poems were useful for inspiring and spreading patriotic fervor; they were poor means for discussing ideology and strategy. The Sûreté observed that southern recruits did not come from the ranks of workers and peasants. Bao Luong’s memoirs lend support to this observation. Recruits into the southern branch of the Revolutionary Youth League came mostly from the ranks of petty urban professionals and well-to-do farmers; their politics ranged from nostalgia for the monarchy to anarchist sympathies. This made the transition from Revolutionary Youth League to Communist Party less smooth than in northern and central Vietnam; the crime on Barbier Street was one facet of this rocky transition.

I would have liked to have available the verbatim transcripts of the interrogations of Bao Luong and her fellow prisoners. Not only are the Sûreté reports bowdlerized (there is no reference to any form of coercion, let alone torture, in them) but they are in French rather than Vietnamese. How accurately were questions to prisoners translated from the French, and how accurately were their answers translated into that language? Who did the translating? The pivotal role of interpreters in court cases has been noted by various scholars. What about the role of interpreters in police interrogations? Unfortunately neither Bao Luong’s memoirs nor the Sûreté records address this issue. Bao Luong reports some exchanges between herself and her interrogators, but it is not clear whether these men, one a Frenchman fluent in Vietnamese and another half-Vietnamese, spoke French or Vietnamese. Neither do we know whether other interrogators were employed to extract confessions from her fellow prisoners. The Sûreté reports purport to render verbatim – though in translation – their statements but do not include the name of the interrogators or their questions.

On one point of language, I can respond to Professor Bayly. In The Colonial Bastille, Peter Zinoman has mentioned the different treatment accorded to male political prisoners and their own self-image as superior to the common criminals who shared their prison (but not necessarily their cells). As a young woman of ‘good family’, Bao Luong was treated with deference by the Vietnamese prison staff who called her ‘Miss’ rather than by one of the many derogatory terms used to address low status individuals. But then, her French interrogators also called her ‘mademoiselle’ even as they beat her until she fainted. Other political prisoners – my father included – reported similar deferential treatment from Vietnamese prison wardens. Bao Luong considered herself above her fellow inmates, who ranged from women who owed money or had been accused of petty crimes to hardened, violent criminals. They all seemed to have been illiterate and rather in awe of her. She also seems to have stood her ground in confrontations with the French prison authorities. At least, this is how she wants to be remembered: defiant to the last, as her mug shot shows her.

This leads me to the issues of memory and self-narration. Eager though I was to make available this primary document, I also wanted to alert readers to the pitfalls involved in using memoirs to write history. Bao Luong wrote her memoirs a full 40 years after she left home to take part in the anti-colonial movement. Not only would her memory of specific incidents, names and conversations have become fuzzy, but her interpretation of what happened and her own role in it would have been colored by subsequent events in her own life and in the life of her country. Why did she choose not to reveal where she was and what she did on the day of the murder? How much did she know about informers within the ranks of the Revolutionary Youth League and about the tensions surrounding the formation of a communist party? She obviously knew, or at least guessed, the identity of the person who had betrayed her and her friends to the police, but she refused to divulge it. One can only speculate about  her reasons for maintaining silence to the very end of her days.

As I worked on the book, I was struck by a recurring theme in Vietnamese memoirs. Vietnamese are rather cavalier about certain biographical facts that are important to Western scholars, such as exact birth dates, the dates of their marriage (and the name of their spouse) and even the number of their siblings. It is difficult, reading these memoirs, to gauge the importance of family dynamics to the formation of an individual’s personality. Freud is absent from  the telling of lives by Vietnamese.

Professor Bayly comments about the collective production of memory are entirely correct. As I said in my introduction, however, Bao Luong’s involvement in the crime on Barbier Street was not a topic of family reminiscence. Family gatherings tended to bring out memories of happy, uneventful girlhoods. While  familial recollections of unproblematic childhoods bathed the shared past in a nostalgic haze, Bao Luong’s memoirs show the precariousness and brutality of rural life in colonial Vietnam, just as they provide a counterpoint to the sanitized records of the Sûreté. But if neither freely produced familial recollections nor coerced confessions are entirely reliable, neither are memoirs.

 In the 1971 introduction to the memoirs in serialized form, the newspaper Dan Chu Moi (New Democracy) suggested that she had been approached by young political activists to write an account of her involvement in a movement that predated the Communist Party. Her daughter told me that she was actually urged to do so by Communist activists whom she had met in prison and with whom she was still in contact. I am wholly unable to decide which of the two scenarios is correct. Having decided to write her memoirs, Bao Luong must have gauged carefully what she could say. It is noteworthy that the crime for which she paid so dearly was included in the serialized versions published in Saigon in 1967 and 1971, but totally expunged from the book published in Hanoi in 1996 under the innocuous title The Girl from the South. By then, she had been dead 20 years, but the past remained explosive.

My original goal was to make available some unpublished materials, provide inspiration for the preservation of family documents and stimulate further research into Vietnamese political and social history. I had not considered a comparative study of memoirs. Professor Bayly’s suggestion that the memoirs of Bao Luong can be usefully compared with those of authors from different societies is particularly welcome, and I thank her for making it. I hope that some enterprising graduate students will use her questions and suggestions as a springboard for their own forays into Vietnamese social history, memoirs, and memory.


  1. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou, village occitan (Paris, 1975).Back to (1)
  2. Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: the Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (Baltimore, MD, 1976).Back to (2)
  3. Laurel Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (London, 1990).Back to (3)
  4. Peter Zinoman, ‘Reading revolutionary prison memoirs’ in The Country of Memory: Remaking the Past in Late Socialist Vietnam, ed. Hue-Tam Ho Tai (Berkeley, CA, 2001).Back to (4)
  5. Dang Thuy Tram, Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram (New York, NY, 2008).Back to (5)
  6. Patrick Morlat, Le Crime de la rue Barbier: Saigon, 1928 (Paris, 2010).Back to (6)
  7. Peter Zinoman, The Colonial Bastille (Berkeley, CA, 2001).Back to (7)