I again browsed the website of the National Library of Vietnam, and here’s one more post on humor under colonialism.
The following comic strip is from another Hanoi weekly in the 1930s. It isn’t satirical in the manner of the piece from Vịt Đực [Male Duck] described in my last post. Nor is it political. But it pokes fun at the colonial tax system while drawing (literally) the growing petit bourgeois mindset among Vietnamese during the late colonial period.
This comic strip was published in the July 18, 1935 issue of Loa – Megaphone – and takes a full page. It begins with the title “Dream of Gold” or “A Golden Dream”, which are not identical in meaning. But perhaps it was what the author intended.
The first comic shows two young men speaking. Their clothes indicate that their station isn’t high, but they are decidedly not among the poorer classes either. The hat and jacket worn by the fellow on the right foreshadow their economic aspirations in the next few drawings. Their pant sleeves are rolled, and they are squatting: a relaxing position conducive for sharing dreams.
From the caption, the fellow on the left imagines having a lot of silver. (The fact that he says “silver” rather than “gold” supports the “Golden Dream” translation.)
Imagine we’re getting ten thousands taels of silver…
Next comes the vision on what they would do with the riches, starting with new and modern Western attire. Note also the cigars. (Could they be cigarettes but exaggerated in size by the artist?)
First of all, we’ll purchase a few sharp, fashionable suits…
Clothes are followed by new and modern living quarters.
Then we’ll purchase a house with three floors.
Next is a modern means to get around – plus a chauffeur. Note the long nose of the fellow sitting in the back, the owner of the car. The size of the nose is possibly meant to suggest his Westernization.
And an automobile with eight engines in the duck-tail style.
Last but definitely not least is dreams of love and marriage.
Each of us will marry a modern woman. What else? I think that’s enough.
Then the punchline accompanied by the appearance of a colonial policeman chasing after our boys.
Two minutes later…
“Yikes, we completely forgot something: paying the head tax!”
“Head tax” means tax on each individual. It wasn’t a colonial invention, but had a long dynastic history. The clothing and posture of the policeman, however, suggests an indirect criticism at the unjust system of taxation that prevented Vietnamese from achieving their dreams of modernity.
Turning to the magazine itself, Loa was among the magazines founded partially in reaction to the first magazine of the Tự Lực Văn Đoàn, the Self-Strength Literary Group. The Self-Strength was known for advocating a thorough overhaul of “the old,” a complete modernization in “the new,” and strong support for the bourgeoisie. It also had an “us vs. the world” mentality, and the first of its magazines mocked and attacked prominent Vietnamese intellectuals of different stripes. As a result, Loa, Vịt Đực, and a few other magazines in Hanoi swung back: sometimes wickedly, sometimes comically, and often both.
I don’t know enough to ascertain that the author of this comic strip, the artist Côn Sinh, had intended it as an indirect criticism of the Self-Strength. One of the comics portrays the trophy wife wearing the áo dài promoted by the Self-Strength, so maybe there is a attack of sorts. (On the topic of the áo dài, check out Martina Nguyen’s recent essay in the Journal of Vietnamese Studies.)
But I think that this comic strip offers a nice little glimpse about the growing bourgeois mind regarding what constitutes tân thời or mô đen – modernity – for young educated Vietnamese during the interwar period. The 1930s was a dark period in world history: Nazism, fascism, Japanese imperialism, the Great Depression, etc.
There was darkness too for the Vietnamese, including the colonial system of taxation that became a rallying point for revolutionaries. But the Thirties was also an exciting time for at least a number of educated urban Vietnamese traversing in ideas and debates and, yes, humor. A number of studies – English and Vietnamese – have noted the sharpness of satire, parody, and other forms of humor during that decade. I hope that someone will do a study exclusively about this topic someday.