The following email interview took place over the last six months. It began shortly after the Journal of Asian Studies published my review of the monograph by Dr. Giang Nguyen-Thu (Nguyễn Thu Giang): Television in Post-Reform Vietnam: Nation, Media, Market (Routledge, 2019). Please click here to read the review. The photos below were provided by Dr. Nguyen-Thu.
Tuan Hoang: It was a pleasure reading and writing a review of your book. The review gives a summary of the book. Here, I wish to begin with a biographical bit. Reading the preface, I thought of my own experience of being born during the war and living in postwar Vietnam (albeit in the south) until the early 1980s. I too watched television with family and neighbors. Most of all, I remember imported movies and series from Eastern Europe (along with some domestic programs, mostly music and musical drama). Were those films, series, and programs still a part of the television and cultural landscape in the early 1990s, when new programs like the telenovela The Rich Also Cry began to appear? Or did they disappear entirely after the Cold War came to an end?
Giang Nguyen-Thu: I think the (dis)connection with Eastern Europe is a crucial subtext of Vietnamese television. On the one hand, it is not too exacerbating to say that Eastern European televisual products disappeared “entirely” from Vietnamese small screens after the Cold War. While one would ask for the exact statistics to confirm that statement, what I can say for sure is that during the 1990s, the advent of new television dramas (such as The Rich Also Cry) and fanciful game shows (such as SV’96) made it really “feel” like “socialist” programs were a thing of the past.
On the other hand, the influence of Eastern Europe ran deep, even when its direct influence on programming was no longer evident. The very cohort of post-Reform television “innovators” was largely trained in the Soviet Bloc. These “socialist” alumni were precisely those who introduced and advocated “non-socialist” television programs to Northern Vietnam. The Rich Also Cry, for example, was imported only after it became exceptionally popular in the Soviet Bloc, right before the 1991 dissolution. Many key television icons who represented the “new spirit” of post-Reform television, some of whom still hold top positions in the national television system, are alumni of Soviet universities. I would say that post-Reform television’s break-up with the “socialist” legacy was counterintuitively enacted through Vietnam’s distinctive connection with Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s, rather than a more direct “Western” or “capitalist” route.
Hoang: The Preface begins by mentioning the first postwar baby boom: Thế Hệ 8x, or The Eighties Generation. It then contextualizes the experience of this generation growing up with television, which became a means to bridge differences between wartime and postwar generations. For this question, I’d like to probe a little more about the wartime generation(s) and the transition between their experience of “socialist nationalism” to a new kind of nationalism.
What were the initial reactions among the wartime generation to The Rich Also Cry and other foreign series shown on television during the early and mid-1990s? The book provides ample evidence that they were very popular, mainly or partially because they helped to satisfy a “cultural hunger” at the time. Still, was there any contestation among Vietnamese, especially from the wartime generation, regarding the contents of those shows in the context of the Vietnamese nation?
Nguyen-Thu: I think the uncomfortable feeling of being torn between ideological continuity and disruption is the hallmark of the late-socialist subjects. But in the 1990s, popular television was generally associated with positive newness. I don’t think that back then, there was a lot of resistance against the arrival of new television series, game shows, MTV-inspired musical programs, and advertisements, even among the war generations. In my interviews with senior television producers who were born in the 1940s and 1950s, the sense of bitterness was often associated with the failure to innovate the television system early enough, rather than the other way around.
There was also saturation of welcoming discussion of new television shows in all major newspapers. So yes, the logic of “cultural hunger” prevails. I should also note that, in terms of content, collective bitterness and nostalgia were well represented in Vietnamese television dramas (as I explained in Chapter 2) but the new television genres and programs themselves were generally celebrated. With popular television becoming more and more penetrating in the 2000s, the association of television entertainment with shallowness and bad taste quickly gained its social weight. But such association did not occur with a significant cultural force in the early 1990s when the “cultural hunger” was still severe.
Hoang: You said that popular television was associated with “positive newness” during the 1990s. It was a massive shift from the fact that television had not been a part of normal life in the 1970s and 1980s, and now there was a “normalizing” process in Vietnamese society (p. 24 in the book). Turning specifically to The Rich Also Cry, which was perhaps the first major landmark of this shift, the book explains well the positive responses to it. A remarkable thing for me is that it is a telenovela, a Spanish-language soap opera rather than something from Hollywood, Bollywood, Europe, or East Asia. Do you know why or how broadcasters chose it in the first place (out of, perhaps, many other options)? Put it another way, from the government’s perspective, how were its contents acceptable for a mass audience?
Nguyen-Thu: First, I would like to justify a few things about the “normalizing” force of television as part and parcel of the emergence of postwar life in Vietnam. For me, television is a typical medium of peacetime, by which I mean it is hardly imaginable to have a sizable population regularly watching television at home under the condition of warfare. So, it is not too difficult to understand why Vietnamese people in the 1990s commonly associated television with “positive newness” because for many people, the banal pleasure of television signaled the arrival of an overall “better life.”
On the one hand, the sense of televisual “newness” in postwar Vietnam, at least in the North, is paradoxical. In the late 1980s, by various routes, people had already known, if not deeply felt, the embarrassing “belatedness” of almost everything in Vietnam—from economy, infrastructure, foods, to the exposure to world culture. The endless queuing time in front of a state-run store at the end of the subsidy era (thời bao cấp) was perhaps the hallmark of such embodied belatedness. The “positive newness” associated with television in the 1990s was thus never a kind of first-hand amazement toward new visual media, as seen, for example, in the mythicized reactions of French audience to the Lumière brothers’ arriving train. Instead, Northern audience enjoyed their new televisual experience in a mixture of pleasure, shame, and relief. “At last, we can now enjoy a basic thing that everyone else in this world have been enjoying for ages.” Television was welcomed and loved, but such enjoyment was always already tainted by the haunting idea of postcolonial waithood, in which Vietnam is tied to a perpetual mode of having to “catch up” with the world.
Back to the context of The Rich Also Cry, it is notable that Vietnam was not totally disconnected from the “outer world” of popular culture in the 1980s, although it might appear to be so from the Anglo-American perspective, due to the common association of pre-Reform Vietnam with Cold War blockage. New aspirations for the “good life” were not yet massified but already a forceful tendency that defined the memories of many Northerners about the 1980s and 1990s.
Most significantly, after joining the COMECON in 1978, Vietnam sent a significant number of guest workers (about 250,000 people until the end of the Cold War, according to the economist Đặng Phong) to Eastern Europe, on top of existing flows of socialist students and exchanged experts since the 1960s. Through this route, popular music by “Western” bands such as ABBA, The Beatles, Modern Talking were already considered iconic of the “urban cool” in Hanoi in the mid-1980s. At the same time (and quite oddly), pirated cassette tapes of “yellow music” (nhạc vàng) by famous diasporic singers like Tuấn Vũ, Chế Linh, Thanh Tuyền were easily purchased in the black market and widely embraced among youngsters in a semi-underground manner. In 1990, two very sentimental movies made by Southern producers, Thăng Long Đệ Nhất Kiếm and Vị Đắng Tình Yêu, were also screened and wildly applauded without much resistance from top-down censors.
By mentioning all these cultural forces, I want to emphasize that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the cultural landscape of Vietnam was already pregnant with new desires and aspirations. These latent transformations were intimately connected with the waning of the socialist dreams in the final years of the Cold War. In these “transitional” years, what television enabled was less the introduction of popular culture and domestic sentimentality (which were already there), but the massification and normalization of popular culture into the fabric of everyday life. I would say that thanks specifically to television, by the end of the 1990s, popular culture has lost its Eighties aura of cosmopolitan “coolness” to become a background of Vietnamese “normal” life. It is the insignificance of television, or its cultural banality, that is also its crucial achievement.
In this extended landscape of cultural transformation, the screening of The Rich Also Cry in 1991 was not so much a revolutionary thing, if not a relatively “safe” choice. As I mentioned above, The Rich Also Cry was brought home by a group of young and enthusiastic Vietnamese television practitioners who were already politically “screened” by state institutions before they could go to Eastern Europe to study and/or work in the 1980s. Seeing that The Rich Also Cry was so much loved by late-socialist audiences in Eastern Europe, their “natural” reaction was to introduce this drama to Vietnamese audience. This choice was “safe” because it was made “within” the socialist world. The fact that The Rich Also Cry was already accepted by big socialist brothers meant that there was much less political risk than, let say, the same kind of sentimental dramas brought home directly from the US, which was still considered an “enemy” at that time.
This zigzag South-to-South connection of cultural products (Mexico-Eastern Europe-Vietnam) was not all too strange, given the fact that Latin American literature was well-accepted in Northern Vietnam since the 1960s. Another essential and often-neglected factor that determined the popular fate of The Rich Also Cry in Vietnam was the installation of the national satellite in January 1991. Without this infrastructural change, the massification of The Rich Also Cry would be impossible. So basically, The Rich Also Cry carried within itself many historical traces of the socialist past, as well as the banal promises of a “better life” in the future. For such bridging quality, The Rich Also Cry were generally welcomed by both top-down and bottom-up actors.
Hoang: I was both enlightened and amused by your recollection and analysis of Simply Maria, another telenovela soap opera heavy on sentimentality and domestic conflicts yet opening up new space among Vietnamese for articulating personal feelings and desires. Like The Rich Also Cry, Simply Maria and other imported programs swiftly drew up a large audience and affected the trajectory of TV programming and production in the following years. Looking at the big picture, how did those imported programs affect the discourse about the relationship between Vietnamese citizens and the Vietnamese nation during the 1990s?
Nguyen-Thu: The thorough embeddedness of television into Vietnamese everyday life happened within just about ten years, from 1990 to 2000. In hindsight, we can say that such transformation was quite speedy, but it did not feel fast at all, at least not to me and my peers—it felt “natural.” Such quick but solid embeddedness means that, following Benedict Anderson, there was a new condition of possibility for reimagining the nation. The national community conjured into being when its members were watching Simply Maria was significantly different from, let say, the one imagined by readers of Nhân Dân newspaper or viewers of socialist epic movies. Banalization, sentimentalization, domestication, depoliticization are the key dimensions of the new styles of national belonging facilitated by post-Reform television. Underlying all these dimensions is the process of marketization, which is actively approved by the State, although the limits of such approval vary case by case.
Hoang: Banalization, sentimentalization, domestication, depoliticization… So they were among the outcomes of the transformation of Vietnamese television by the end of the 1990s and the start of the 2000s. This was a period that saw reconstruction of the past (including nostalgia) in shows like Hanoian and The City Stories that you discuss at length in Chapter 2. Also opening up during this period was “ordinary television,” a notion taken from Frances Bonner that is discussed in Chapter 3. Ordinary television includes quiz shows, talent shows, and others participated by ordinary Vietnamese. You made this point early in Chapter 3: “With no direct relevance to problems of corruption, dissent, or censorship, topics that have long occupied academic concerns of media practices in Vietnam, ordinary television silently alters the post-Reform television landscape without changing the way the world understands Vietnamese media.”
I think this point is very important and also very salient to grasping the evolution of television in the post-reform era. And it has influenced entertainment in the diaspora, as many Vietnamese in the U.S. have watched a good deal of “ordinary television” (through reruns or YouTube). There is a lot in Chapter 3 (and Chapter 4), and I certainly don’t wish to simplify the complex arguments that you make there. I wish, however, to ask the following question on the relationship between “ordinary television” and “lifestyle media.” How has ordinary television in the 2000s and thereafter contributed to the larger “lifestyle media” that promote and direct Vietnamese towards an individualized type of ethics? To what you’d call “market ethics”?
Nguyen-Thu: I think it is fair to say that television was the medium of lifestyle transformation during the 1990s and early 2000s. Together with television, we also witnessed the burgeoning of women’s magazine as the second important medium in terms of “lifestyle” content, but magazines’ impact is much less significant than television. In the late 2000s, we gradually experienced the increasing influence of digital platforms: first, the normalization of email and youth forums (such as TTVN-Online), then Yahoo360! blogging, and in 2008, finally, Facebook. As of now, in 2021, Vietnamese television has lost its position of the primary trend-setting medium to Facebook.
During its heyday in the 1990s and the early 2000s, popular television provided the ideological justification that was essential to the gradual formation of what could be loosely termed the “post-Reform middle class.” All dimensions of a middle-class lifestyle, from cooking, fashioning, travelling to dating and weight watching, were represented and promoted by various television programs that permeated the small screens days and nights. In Marxist terms, we can say that such “middle-classness” of Vietnamese popular television contributed significantly to the rising influence of market rules, and thus allowed the new economic order to be culturally installed and thus, appeared “natural.”
Hoang: One of the most interesting phrases that I found in the book is “neoliberal remedy upon socialist pain.” It is a subheading in Chapter 5, which offers a fascinating analysis of the show As If We Never Parted about missing Vietnamese during and after the Vietnam War. A key point about the show is that it sidestepped politics, partially by breaking the sorrowful history of the nation and internalizing this history “into individual tragedies of family separation” (p. 107). This chapter is too good for me to try any summary in a few sentences. I wish, instead, to ask if you could think of other examples, media and otherwise, where Vietnamese have dealt with this long and extended history of family separation. Do these examples also reflect “neoliberal remedy” in the post-Renovation era?
Nguyen-Thu: Briefly speaking: No. There isn’t any media effort to unite separated families, except As If We Never Parted. More generally speaking, there isn’t any television show or sustaining public media series that is historically nuanced, widely followed, and professionally curated like As If We Never Parted. While there are many popular television programs inspired by the past (for instance, Giai Điệu Tự Hào or Ký Ức Vui Vẻ) and there has been a rising trend in appropriating the socialist past and churning it into a vintage vibe (a typical case is the success of the coffee chain Cộng Cà Phê), these attempts are either historically romanticized and/or commercially exploited. In saying so, I do not mean that the traumatic sensibility of being haunted by past national tragedies does not exist in Vietnam today. Quite the contrary. The point is that public media in Vietnam has been consistently silent about this, which is not a surprise, given the level of (self)-sensorship and the restriction in public funding.
Precisely because of the sustained public silence over historical pain that I genuinely respect the production team of As If We Never Parted. Recently, the show has been taken down from the airwave because it failed to sustain commercial sponsorship. It was disappointing to see good public television programs disappearing worldwide, and ironically, in a country like Vietnam where “private” media is not even allowed. Despite my somewhat critical analysis of As If We Never Parted in the book, I admire the production team. I have kept contact with the team since 2014 and shown support when asked. In many ways, As If We Never Parted exemplifies how Vietnamese media practitioners navigate their ways in an unfavourable condition of top-down censorship, funding restriction, and their own ideological limits.
Hoang: This is your first book, and it is based on your dissertation. Will you please share one or two experiences about your research? That is, was most of the work done in Vietnam, Australia, or both countries? Did you encounter any particular difficulties during research? Or, conversely, any pleasant surprises?
Nguyen-Thu: I stated in the Preface of my book that my dissertation was a mourning project. In 2012, I left Hanoi for my four-year doctoral study in Brisbane, just one week after my mother’s death. I had been her primary caregiver for about 30 months before she passed away. Flying away from the homeland to embark on a doctoral study was thus both a relief and a traumatic experience for me. I am grateful that the dissertation gave me some time to reflect on my connections and disconnections with my parents’ socialist generation. Such reflection was embedded in my analysis of Vietnamese television, albeit mainly in an indirect way.
I wrote the whole dissertation in Australia, except for a six-month field trip in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city when I interviewed many television producers and dwelled into the archives in the National Library. After the PhD, I spent another year in Hanoi to turn my dissertation into a book. I got it published in 2019.
I always think that a PhD is a risky journey, not only for me but for anyone else. Nobody knows what lies ahead when one embarks on a doctoral program, especially at a time of increasing academic precarity. For me, the PhD has led to a life wandering between Vietnam, the US, and Australia. Despite all the difficulties that come with my situation as an academic mother, the whole experience of learning, writing, and moving has been a pleasant surprise in itself. This first book is perhaps the most surprising thing because in 2012, when I started learning how to write in academic English, I never thought of publishing anything in English at all, not to mention a monograph.
My appreciation to Dr. Nguyen-Thu for the interview! Shortly before publishing this post, I learned from the organizers of the annual conference Engaging With Vietnam that she will give a keynote address at the 2021 conference (August 24-28) on the subject of “mothering the future” in the Vietnamese “digital mamasphere.” From the sound of it, the conference participants are in for an intellectual treat ahead.