Stories from Below: A Review of “Down and Out in Saigon”

By Ziqi Wu

Cherry, Haydon. Down and Out in Saigon: Stories of the Poor in a Colonial City. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019.

Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, was once considered an exotic French colonial city, “The Pearl of the Far East.” From the 1860s to the mid-twentieth century, official records reflect the biased colonial perspective of the French administration. When it comes to understanding the lives of ordinary urban dwellers, these documents are often inadequate. In recent decades, however, social historians, moving beyond conventional sources and using the methodologies of micro-history, have tried to illuminate the lives of those commonly overlooked in historical accounts. Haydon Cherry’s new book Down and Out in Saigon is a step in that direction, providing a fresh perspective on colonial Vietnam from the point of view of the underclass.

71-cFRdw1oLDown and Out in Saigon is structured around six case studies, each a chapter telling the story of a poor or marginalized figure: a prostitute, a Chinese laborer, a rickshaw puller, a Catholic orphan, an incurable invalid, and a destitute Frenchman. At first glance these cases appear chosen at random, as these figures were born in different communities—within and outside Saigon, the adjacent province of Cholon, far-flung Europe. But they have enough in common to provide a novel perspective of social mobility in the early-twentieth century colonial city.

How and why did the author select these individuals? In most historical documents the poor appear not as individuals but as anonymous parts of the mass. How hard it is to give a comprehensive picture of the life trajectories of a specific person! Drawing on documentary fragments from various archives—including the Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer (Aix-en-Provence, France) and the Vietnam National Archives—Cherry reconstructed the lives of these individuals. What results is the beginnings of a social history of French Indochina.

As the colonial capital of Cochinchina (southern Vietnam) and the first headquarters of the government of French Indochina, Saigon was a place of rapid expansion and of encounters among adventurous Westerners, commercially oriented Chinese immigrants, and indigenous Vietnamese looking for jobs and opportunities in the growing rice trade. However, the rice trade was frequently disturbed by natural disasters, and the export trade could be quite unstable. Many Saigon residents were suddenly and unpredictably forced to leave the city as a result of economic recessions or the arbitrary enforcement of colonial regulations directed particularly against “the dangerous” and “vagrants.”

A rickshaw puller near Place Rigault-de-Genduilly, 1921. Manhhai, Flickr.

Tran Van Lang was typical—a marginal character unable to control his fate shaped by forces beyond his control. Like many others unable to find work in the countryside, Tran Van Lang was attracted to prosperous Saigon. Once there, however, he barely made a living pulling a rickshaw through the city streets. A registration system imposed by the colonial administration required all city-dwellers to carry an identity card. In the case of Tran Van Lang, the card had to indicate that it had originated in his home province. But Tran could not afford to travel home, much less to a provincial capital to complete the registration. When police discovered that he had also used a fake name related to his fingerprint records and photo and that he had been previously arrested, he was expelled from Saigon in 1922. From this real case, we can begin to see how regulatory enforcement and political surveillance were used by the French to control the urban population.

Down and Out in Saigon demonstrates how much Cherry benefited from training in Southeast Asian history at the National University of Singapore and in French colonial history at Yale. In drawing on various sources in multiple languages, he comes across as an empathetic and fluent storyteller. But the goal here is more than storytelling. Highlighting the dramatic modernization brought by industrialization, urbanization, and educational reform, Cherry has pieced these somewhat fragmentary stories together to provide a picture of the transformation of Vietnam during the colonial period.

The US Army occupied this former French colonial customs house in 1967. Manhhai, Flickr.

Cherry only partially succeeds in realizing this goal, however. He does discuss the political turbulence of Vietnamese nationalism, revolutions, and foreign interventions. What is missing is the kind of engagement with various historical viewpoints that might have given his own approach force and movement. In the Prologue and Dialogue, historical themes are outlined but appear vague. We never discover which research questions are to be resolved. There is a noticeable absence of academic citations.

Nevertheless, this is a book of elegantly narrated tales which should have considerable appeal for general readers. And given Cherry’s obvious talent as a researcher, we look forward to his future contributions to Vietnamese colonial and urban history.

Ziqi Wu is a MPhil student in the Department of History at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His research interests concern French colonial history, history of modern China, and historical anthropology. His current specific focus concerns socioeconomic interactions in the French-leased territory, Kouang-Tchéou-Wan, in South China, from 1898 to 1945.

Featured image (at top): A parade of French troops in Saigon. Manhhai, Flickr.


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