Browsing a Vietnamese periodical published during late colonialism, I came upon an amusing article about the Paracel Islands. “After France, Japan, and China,” states the headline, “It is our turn to demand the Paracels.”
First is some current context. If you followed Vietnamese affairs even remotely in the last decade, you would know that a major point of conflict in Sino-Vietnamese relations has been territorial claims over the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. In fact, the disputes involve also the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan. The subject has drawn plenty of policy interests, such as the annual conference, now in its sixth year, sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.
Most of the big headlines, however, have been about the problems between China and Vietnam. (Conflicts between China and the Philippines come in second, at least in the news.) Long is the history of these disputes, which were complicated by the wartime alliance between China and North Vietnam. The alliance kept long-standing claims under the table, but the disputes returned with a vengeance after China and unified Vietnam had a fall-out in 1979.
Even after rapprochement between the two countries in the early 1990s, the disputes have not gone away. In the last few years, China began construction on some of the Spratlys that led to a series of nationalistic protests in Vietnam: demonstrations against China but also against the Vietnamese state and the Communist Party for the perception that they did not do enough to counter China. These developments must have played a role in Obama’s announcement of arms sale to Vietnam during his recent visit to the country.
In any event, I found the article amusing precisely because it was intended to be amusing. The article appears in the satirical weekly Vịt Đực: Male Duck. When hearing a magazine running by the name of “the onion” or “male duck,” you must know that it isn’t serious journalism by any means. And yet one can’t help but have a distinct feeling that there is plenty of seriousness behind satire. Which is the case here.
Vịt Đực was published in Hanoi during the late 1930s, which was possibly the best decade of the twentieth century in term of political, cultural, and literary humor. Vũ Bằng was among its staff writers, and one should check out his memoir Bốn mươi năm nói láo [Forty years of lies and exaggeration] for some recollections related to this magazine.
Vịt Đực was published as a four-page broadsheet, and this article appears at the top of the very first page of the July 20, 1938 issue. The Second Sino-Japanese War had gone on for exactly a year by this time. Japan had yet to reach Vietnam, and France was still the colonial master of Indochina. Both countries therefore appear in the title alongside older claimant China.
On a different note, I happened to watch Lust, Caution (2007) the other day. It’s another gem, if slightly flawed, from the director Ang Lee. It takes place in Hong Kong and Shanghai during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The film made me want to read more about Republican Shanghai: a cottage industry in academic historiography and of course popular writing. Only if there were more time!
The article is signed by Bảo Sơn, which might or might not be a pen name of Vũ Bằng. The tone is quite serious at first, arguing that Chinese, Japanese, and French desire for the islands had to do with security first and foremost. Halfway through, the article shifts to the Vietnamese. “Truth is,” states Bảo Sơn, “the islands belong to our country… from the time of Gia Long” and Vietnamese “still possess historical records recording clearly that Annamese found the Paracels in 1816.”
Then the humor starts to kick in with a reference to the Gospels.
Before this important matter, Male Duck must make its voice heard: “Return to Caesar what belongs to Ceasar. Return to Annam what belongs to Annam. Return to us our Paracels Islands.”
Because of their sound and their walk, ducks are a great image for humor. Bảo Sơn employs the image of duck-raising by way of self-depreciation.
Male Duck demands the islands not for itself as a place to raise ducks. Male Duck demands it for both France and Vietnam.
Twenty-five million of our citizens!
We must demand the Paracel Islands.
Next is the proposal. Côn Đảo and Côn Lôn refer to the same islands in southern Vietnam that were notoriously used by the colonial French to imprison especially anticolonial and revolutionary Vietnamese. Annam and Tonkin are colonial designations for the central and northern regions, respectively.)
We can use them for military purposes during wartime.
We can use them in place of the Côn Đảo in peacetime.
We are not clear about the pros and cons of the Paracels for military matters. [So] we won’t discuss them [in wartime].
But on use [in peacetime], we can say that from now on the condemned won’t be sent to Côn Đảo Islands, which are too far from home!
The Paracel Islands are closer to the Annam and Tonkin. It will save the government some money [on transportation] when they release criminals.
We should receive the Paracels for the Center and the North.
Let the people in the South keep the Côn Lôn for themselves.
The humor appears gentle than biting, perhaps because the topic of imprisonment was politically sensitive to the colonial censors. Indeed, the word “prison” – tù – doesn’t even appear. Instead, it is đày, which connotes “exile.”
But I think the cut is just as deep. Common and frequent were the realities of arrest and incarceration among educated Vietnamese at the time. It is hardly a surprise to see prison in this proposal.
Moreover, the proposal sounds half-comical and half-serious. That is, it sounds seemingly reasonable and not too outrageous at all. But the seeming reasonableness is most cutting at the punitive nature of the colonial state. In this respect, the article fulfills the goal of Vịt Đực as a satirical magazine.
There was plenty of incarceration in twentieth-century Vietnamese history, and it could make for very grim reading. It is therefore refreshing, if for a minute, to spot the comical in the bleakness of these international disputes that go on to this day.