Saigon Ink #1: Tran Nhan Ton book street
Hanoi Ink spent a few days in HCM City over the 2nd September long weekend. This is the first of three posts on the trip, starting with a visit to Trần Nhân Tôn book street.
Trần Nhân Tôn street in District 5 is not too far from the centre of Saigon and is known as one of the main second-hand book streets of the city. I was staying fairly close by and headed over on Saturday morning for a look.
It was honestly a bit overwhelming at first: I made a lap of the street and counted around 15-20 different bookshops. I only had an hour or so free, which really was not enough to fully absorb even one shop. In the end, I chose a likely looking starting point and dived in.
Looking down Trần Nhân Tôn street
Tín Nghĩa Bookshop at 57-59 Trần Nhân Tôn has several tables out front on the sidewalk with magazines and periodicals as well as some Vietnamese novels and short story collections arranged in piles requiring a kind of complicated excavation to see what is available. Stacking up books precariously, I looked through around ten of the more promising stacks. I found a few interesting works here, including the collected works of 1930s wunderkind Vũ Trọng Phụng, published in the early Renovation (Đổi Mới) period which would have been the first time his writing was able to be printed in the northern half of the country at least for the first time since the 1950s. I already have that set, so in the end I just picked up a copy of Nguyễn Huy Thiệp’s famous short story collection, Tướng về hưu (The General Retires).
Tín Nghĩa Bookshop at 57-59 Trần Nhân Tôn street, D.5, HCM City
The interior of the shop turned out to be bigger than I first realized. It is lined with bookshelves down each side including a couple of locked cabinets up high displaying rare works. The middle part of the room contains further large islands of books stacked up in piles; books are fairly well organized into sections, but it was nearly impossible to know what might be found within each deep stack.
Towards the rear of the store I found a large number of English-language books, many dating from the 1950s through the 1970s. Barely scratching the surface, I ended up taking three volumes back to Hanoi with me.
My Country and My People by Lin Yutang—Chinese writer, translator, inventor and Nobel-prize nominee—was written at the suggestion of Pearl S. Buck, who also provided the introduction. Published in 1935, the book self-consciously aimed to be an informative, even-handed and appreciative explanation of China to an English-speaking audience, written by someone who had obviously spent a great deal of time pondering both China and the West. The book has a very wide breadth, moving from “the Chinese character”, “the Chinese mind” and “the ideals of life” through gender relations, social and political life, literature and the arts. The literature section addresses history and the important place of literature and particularly poetry in Chinese life, but also the relationship between literature and politics, modernization and the influence of Western literature.
My Country and My People, by Lin Yutang
One of his explicit concerns was the degree to which Western views of China were formed based on the accounts of so-called “Old China Hands”, despite their inability to speak Chinese, to read Chinese newspapers, or even to move far outside of the expatriate bubble within the various concessions and international settlements. His familiarity with the West made for some pointed comparisons, such as this comment on “Chinese courtesy” and queuing behaviour: “The Chinese have just as much good manners toward people outside their families and friends as the Englishmen in the colonies have toward people outside their race.”
The second book, Sarkhan, is a fictional novel by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, who are best known for their earlier collaboration, The Ugly American, which was published in 1958. The Ugly American was set in a fictional country in South-East Asia; the setting is a composite of several countries in the region (the subsequent film was shot in Thailand) but with a story based mainly on contemporary events in Vietnam. Published in 1965, Sarkhan takes a similar approach, relating the story of the manipulation of events in the fictitious country Sarkhan by an underground communist cell seeking to establish and control an anti-American nationalist movement in the country.
The book is forcefully written and provides an interesting example of propaganda by individuals rather than a state-sponsored initiative or an organized political or religious movement. The authors’ explicit purpose is to influence American policy away from an over-reliance on military might and intelligence service intrigue in Asia and toward the adoption of a ‘hearts and minds’ approach, spearheaded by idealistic young Americans who would immerse themselves in local cultures and languages to carry out humanitarian development activities throughout the region.
Author’s note from the novel Sarkhan
Some aspects bear comparison with the works of the Ayn Rand-influenced James Clavell. The heroes of the story include two Americans–one a former navy officer turned businessman, the other an expert on Sarkhanese culture–as well as the brave, studious and religious prince who favours a neutral policy and is about to be crowned king. The American characters are pretty unrealistic in terms of their ability to combine a linguist’s facility in multiple Asian languages (and even the nuances of various dialects of these languages) with profound cultural understanding, effective business activities and a capacity for decisive armed action when required. I have not found any indication that either of the authors had serious Asian-language fluency themselves.
The third English-language book, Kids and Cubs by Olga Perovskaya, is another addition to my growing collection (see here and here) of English-language children’s books from the former Soviet Union from Progress Publishers in Moscow. This one is a collection of stories from the author’s idyllic and humorous childhood in Alma Alta, Kazakhstan. Each chapter focuses on different baby animal species brought back from the forest by their father from his hunting expeditions to be raised as a pet by Olga and her three sisters Sonia, Yulia and Natasha. The array of animals includes wolf cubs Dianka and Tomchik, Mishka the maral (Siberian stag), Frantik the fox, and Vaska the tiger. Ishka the donkey, Milka the chicken and Chubary the horse round out the menagerie. Inevitably, the wilder species are not so suited to domesticated life, and there are some challenging moments for the author and the animals as they grow up.
My copy of Kids and Cubs alongside the missing jacket and a jacket from a later edition
Kids and Cubs was first published in 1925, and is the author’s most famous work. She spent much of the 1940s and 1950s in labour camps and then in exile; this English edition came after her political rehabilitation in the late 1950s.
Like the book Cardboard Clock Square that I came across a few months back in Can Tho, this book was also translated from Russian by Fainna Glagoleva. V. Vatagin and I. Godin provided the small number of illustrations. It was first published in English in 1966 and has been reprinted several times; this edition is from 1981.
Vaska the tiger
Leaving Tín Nghĩa Bookshop, I briefly visited a few other shops on the street. Contrary to initial appearances, quite a few of the shops only or mainly stock new books; others are small, with a more specialized or limited range.
I spent a fair bit of time in one shop with quite a range of old magazines and periodicals dating back to the 1950s and 1960s. I was quite surprised by the number of pre-1975 popular magazines in Saigon that used Western rather than Vietnamese models on their covers. Unlike the set of Saigon weekly Huyền Bí (The Occult) magazines from the early 1970s that I came across in Nha Trang, with popular Vietnamese singers such as Khanh Ly on their covers, most editions of weekly magazines like Tiền Phong (Pioneer) from the same period that I found here had Western cover models, although inside the content and pictures mainly had a local focus.
French magazine from 1968, and Saigon magazine Tiền Phong from around 1973
I also came across several editions of the very smart-looking French journal informations & documents, a monthly review produced by the centre culturel américain in Paris from the mid-1950s onwards. I was seduced by the Issue No. 230, published in August 1966, which was a special issue focused on the contemporary jazz scene in North America, including a great series of black and white photos of jazz players. There was also another 1960s edition of this journal looking at perceptions of Vietnam from the media of neighbouring Asian countries.
Finally, I found a November 1988 edition of the slim Vietnam Courier newsletter, which was then a monthly publication in English, French and Russian languages from Xunhasaba Publishing House in Hanoi. I suppose this was a forerunner of the English-language Vietnam News (launched in 1991) as well as the Vietnam Investment Review, Vietnam Economic Times and various other publications like The Word and Time Out that are familiar to English-speaking expatriates and émigrés in Hanoi.
Vietnam Courier monthly news review from November 1988
The quality of the English is good, though with the occasional off-beat usage (e.g. people “toiling and moiling” in the countryside). Unsurprisingly, the Renovation policy provides the backdrop to several articles, including lots of references to the “non-state production sectors”, an interview with the director of the first officially sanctioned private enterprise in Hanoi that had opened for business earlier that year, and an article on piloting the selection of the head of a colliery by both moral and professional qualifications rather than through a political appointment. There is praise for the DPRK, and condemnation of the execution of African patriots by the South African apartheid administration. The cover picture features two pantomime actors from the Youth Theatre in Hanoi.
A few more shots from Trần Nhân Tôn street…