The Birth of Vietnamese Political Journalism: Saigon 1916-1930

By Marr, David G. | Southeast Asian Studies, August 2013 | Go to article overview

The Birth of Vietnamese Political Journalism: Saigon 1916-1930


Marr, David G., Southeast Asian Studies


The Birth of Vietnamese Political Journalism: Saigon 1916-1930 PHILIPPE M. F. PEYCAM New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, xiii+306p.

The early 1920s in Saigon saw a florescence of newspaper publishing in the lively tradition of Parisian canards of the 1890s. French and Vietnamese language papers sprang up, took forthright positions, debated their peers eagerly, and tested the tolerance of colonial rulers. The French language press was largely free of censorship in Cochinchina, but circulation per day amounted to only several thousand copies total. Vietnamese papers were censored and sometimes shut down, yet daily circulation rose to 22,000 by 1924. This was a time when educated Vietnamese believed that it was feasible to secure more political space from the authorities by means of rational argument and mobilization of public opinion.

Philippe Peycam brings this story alive for today's readers, introducing us to a range of Vietnamese, French and métis actors, explaining press operations, and outlining the key issues of contention. A "newspaper village" (làng báo chí) emerged, composed of editors, donor/investors, writers, printers, vendors, and teenagers using the various offices as meeting place and library. A surprising number of French and Vietnamese participants belonged to the Masonic Order. I would have liked to know more about press finances, but recognize that sources are hard to find. A few wealthy landowners were willing to subsidize some papers until the government showed its displeasure at content. Editors pleaded with readers to pay their overdue subscriptions, while acknowledging that the post office sometimes chose to "lose" newspaper copies en route.

March-July 1926 saw a dramatic shift to the left in Saigon. The new socialist governor general, Alexandre Varenne, proved a distinct disappointment. The leader of the moderate Constitutionalist Party, Bùi Quang Chiêu, refused to call for the release from jail of Nguy?n An Ninh, the most charismatic writer and speaker of the time. Crowds cheered when Ninh's comrades insisted that the colonial regime be confronted fearlessly. Following the unprecedented national funeral for Phan Châu Trinh and resulting expulsion of students from school, membership in clandestine patriotic groups proliferated. While these momentous months have been canvassed by earlier scholars, Peycam is the first to examine vigorously the emergence of what he styles "opposition journalism." He also offers sensitive portraits of half-a-dozen key journalists beyond Ninh and Chiêu.

It's a pity that Peycam focuses solely on periodicals, when the 1920s also saw a parallel explosion of books and booklets, often published by the same groups. The monograph format gave authors more room to develop their arguments, even when only 16 or 32 pages in length. Peycam also says nothing about the way in which all these publications expanded the vocabulary and enriched the syntax of the Vietnamese language. However, I was delighted to see all the Vietnamese words in The Birth of Vietnamese Political Journalism carrying full diacritics.

Peycam posits the arrival of a new public sphere in 1920s Cochinchina, akin to what Jurgen Habermas famously depicted for eighteenth century Europe. Suddenly Vietnam possesses a "public political culture," and even "mass media politics" (p. 34). I question these characterizations on three fronts. First, the audience for Saigon newspapers remained small, even if one assumes that three or four persons perused each copy, and groups sometimes listened to articles being read aloud. Secondly, collaboration between Vietnamese and French or métis activist-journalists fell off during the late 1920s, partly due to Surete divide-and-rule tactics, partly the secrecy demanded by some organizations. Finally, Saigon's effervescent print media failed to trigger similar activity in Annam and Tonkin, at least in the short-term. …

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