Women, Westernization and the Origins of Modern Vietnamese Theatre

By Wilcox, Wynn | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, June 2006 | Go to article overview
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Women, Westernization and the Origins of Modern Vietnamese Theatre


Wilcox, Wynn, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, magazines, newspapers and novels burst off the presses in Vietnamese cities at extraordinary rates. (1) As cities expanded and a small but not insignificant urban Vietnamese middle class emerged, city dwellers had to cope with class distinctions and discrimination, new forms of knowledge and population increases. A new Vietnamese middle class rushed to consider, and sometimes embrace, a sea of new fashions, goods, tastes and ideologies that were being introduced. (2) At first, these developments seem to have offered Vietnamese urbanites an inchoate and disjointed series of choices. By looking at even one page from two newspapers, for example, one could find advertisements for sausages, trains and diamonds among announcements of ship timetables, essays on colonial life and commentaries on the role of women in the family. (3)

Yet in the midst of all these new products and issues, three related themes emerged with greater frequency and greater consistency than the others: the changing status of Vietnamese women, Westernization and the meaning of being Vietnamese. Political debates over the status of women were important enough to become the focus of one significant and influential newspaper, Phu nu Tan van (Women's news), which ran continuously from 1929 to 1934. (4) In addition, debates on the changing role of women in newspapers dates as far back as commentator Pham Quynh's 1917 essay on the status of women, in which he warned of the moral degradation of women: 'when men lack virtue, it is harmful to society; but not so harmful as when women become unsound, because unsound women damage the very roots of society'. (5) Although Phu nu Tan van ran articles on any number of political and apolitical topics, they frequently debated and discussed the 'new girl', a Westernized elite Vietnamese woman who spent time playing tennis and ping-pong and shirking her Confucian responsibilities. The 'new girl' and the issues surrounding her were controversial enough in the pages of Phu nu Tan van that some editors and writers tempered the paper's progressive approach to the question of women by introducing exemplary characters from the Vietnamese past such as the Trung Sisters, who served as examples of assertive women that appeared to be consistent with a certain notion of the Vietnamese past. (6)

This article will consider these changes in detail as they relate to the development of Vietnamese theatre in the 1920s and 1930s. First, it will examine the development of concerns about Westernization and the status of women in Vietnam during this period. Next, it will examine how these two developments in early twentieth-century Vietnamese social history affected the development in the same time period of a modern Vietnamese spoken theatre, and will demonstrate how these two themes influenced both the form and the content of the first spoken dramas. Finally, the study will examine in detail one particularly significant play that highlights the concerns about Westernization and the status of Vietnamese women: Nam Xuong's Ong Tay An-nam (The Frenchman from Annam) (1930).

Women, the West and the nation: The concerns of the new Vietnamese literature

The new concerns about the status of women given the chaotic world of the 1920s and 1930s in Vietnam also formed a central theme in the newly emerging genre of the Vietnamese novel. In Nguyen Ba Hoc's Co Chieu Nhi. (Miss Chieu Nhi), for example, a young girl from a rich family, tempted by Western goods, squanders her money and becomes a beggar. (7) Similar themes dominate perhaps the most popular novel of the 1920s, Hoang Ngoc Phach's To tam (Pure heart). In this tragic story, a young woman who has recently graduated from a French school is forced by her parents to marry a man she does not love instead of the love of her life. In To tam, the perceived modern individualism of the increasingly Francophile urban elite comes into conflict with the 'traditional' bonds of the family.

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