A couple of years ago I posted about a book that is essential for understanding Vietnamese history which very few people have read or even know about, the An Nam chí nguyên/Annan zhiyuan 安南志原.

Compiled during the Ming occupation, it has been ignored by Vietnamese scholars because it is “Chinese.” However, in reality, it is an incredibly valuable source because it shows us what information the Ming felt was important to record about the Red River Delta.


What were the important sacred sites at that time? Which mountains were worth noting? Why?

All of this (and much more) is fascinating and deserves our attention, but a lot of the information in this text does not neatly fit with the information that we today take for granted, and that opens up a space to ask many questions about the past, as well as about how information about the past has been transformed in modern times.

For people who cannot read classical Chinese, they will probably have to wait a long time before this work is translated into modern Vietnamese or some other language, but for those who can read classical Chinese, here is the text:

Anzy 1

Anzy 2

Anzy 3

Anzy French introduction

I recently came across a small booklet that the South Vietnamese government published in English in 1973 entitled Vietnamese Studies and Their Relationship to Asian Studies.

Written by Nguyễn Khắc Kham, this booklet is wonderful for gaining a sense of where scholarship on Vietnamese culture stood in the academic world in South Vietnam at that time.

While from today’s perspective there are many faults that we can find in this book, for its time, it was quite good, and it is particularly interesting to see the scholarship that Nguyễn Khắc Kham cites.

In particular, we can see that Nguyễn Khắc Kham was building on decades of scholarship by French scholars, and adding to that the scholarship of Vietnamese researchers in South Vietnam, and finally, introducing work from the 1960s by scholars in the English-speaking world.

So in reading a booklet like this today, it is easy to start to wonder “what if this scholarly tradition had been able to continue. . .”


At the same time however, when one reads the conclusion to Nguyễn Khắc Kham’s booklet, it is also amazing to see the degree to which he shared key ideas about Vietnamese culture with scholars in the North.

Let us see what he wrote.

Nguyễn Khắc Kham says that starting in antiquity, three great cultures (Austro-Asiatic, Indian and Chinese) spread across Asia. “The result [is] that there has not been so far any pure culture in any Asian people including India[ns] and Chin[ese] themselves.”

“Thus the cultural past of Southeast Asia has handed down to us many valuable experiences in the various fields of cultural interrelations.”

“With regard to Vietnam especially, she can show us a very interesting case of cultural change.”

OK, so far so good. There is no such thing as a “pure culture,” only “cultural change.”


Then, however, Nguyễn Khắc Kham goes on to say the following:

“In successive contacts with exogenous cultures [such] as Austro-Asiatic, Indian and Chinese cultures, she [meaning “Vietnamese culture”] has taken over some elements from foreign cultures, while rejecting other ones. This process testifies to the preexistence of an indigenous culture in prehistoric Vietnam which must have played a decisive role in cultural selectivity on the occasion of each of her new acculturation[s].”

Ok, so according to Nguyễn Khắc Kham there has never been a “pure culture,” but there was “an indigenous culture in prehistoric Vietnam,” which predated contact with any exogenous cultures and “which must have played a decisive role in cultural selectivity on the occasion of each of her new acculturation[s].”

This may not be a “pure culture,” but certainly Nguyễn Khắc Kham is arguing that there is at least a “pure cultural core” in Vietnamese culture.

Nguyễn Khắc Kham then goes on to say “The most salient characteristic of Vietnamese culture, which is its profound originality in spite of the heterogeneity of its cultural borrowings in the course of its history, may throw much light on the mechanism of transculturation as well of neoculturation. At the same time, it proves to be very instructive for cultural anthropologists. It is the more so because Southeast Asian cultures are undergoing a grave crisis originated from their contacts with other new cultures, of the East as well as of the West, some of which are basically opposed to their traditional spirit.”

“What can we do before this jeopardy which is challenging our national cultures? Our only hope, we dare think, is in Orientalists and their welcome traditionalists to Humanistic sciences.”


OK, so if “the most salient characteristic of Vietnamese culture” is “its profound originality in spite of the heterogeneity of its cultural borrowings,” and if there was “an indigenous culture in prehistoric Vietnam which must have played a decisive role in cultural selectivity on the occasion of each of her new acculturation[s],” then why is there a “grave crisis” in the present originating from contact with new cultures? Isn’t the selective adoption of elements from foreign cultures supposed to be exactly what is so great about Vietnamese culture??

This passage is filled with contradictions, but they all stem from a single issue – the tension between the desire to be original and the reality that one is not really original.

Nguyễn Khắc Kham was correct, I think, in arguing that humanists can provide a resolution to this tension, and their answer has been that there is no such thing as an original or pure culture, so stop desiring this!! However, that is a desire that still dominates Vietnamese academia.

So while there are aspects of Nguyễn Khắc Kham’s booklet that make one wonder “what if,” there are other aspects that suggest that such a “what if” would have still been very hard to obtain.

But I still wonder. . . what if. . .

For anyone interested, here is the booklet: Nguyen Khac Kham_Vietnamese Studies.

The following works are referenced in this video:

K. W. Taylor, “How I Began to Teach about the Vietnam War,” Michigan Quarterly Review vol. 43, no. 4 (2004): 637–647.

Robert Buzzanco, “Fear and (Self) Loathing in Lubbock: How I Learned to Quit Worrying and Love Vietnam and Iraq,” Counterpunch, April 16–17, 2005: http://www.counterpunch.org/2005/04/16/how-i-learned-to-quit-worrying-and-love-vietnam-and-iraq/

Edward Miller, “War Stories: The Taylor-Buzzanco Debate and How We Think about the Vietnam War,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies, vol. 1, no. 1-2 (2006): 453-484.

Mark Philip Bradley, Vietnam at War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

“H-Diplo/ISSF Roundtable on Mark Philip Bradley, Vietnam at War.”


Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

Pierre Asselin, Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War, 1954-1965 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).

Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York: Viking Press, 1983).

Inspired by the “Bed-In for Peace” that John Lennon and Yoko Ono held in 1969, this is a “Bed-In” review of the book Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam by Edward Miller.

This bed-in is held by two imaginary people, Ron Lemon and Koko Matcha. The book they discuss, however, is real.

The clips from the actual “Bed-In for Peace” are from the film, “Bed Peace.”

Many thanks to Yoko Ono for making this valuable historical source available on YouTube.

The historical footage of South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm comes from the British Pathé video archive.

Much of the narration at the beginning is a reading of the description of the book.

The purpose of this video, like the others that will appear in this series, is to cross/transgress/ignore the boundary between the worlds of academic knowledge and popular culture. Doing so, we think, opens up a space for new questions to arise and for people to see academic knowledge in new ways.

The digitization of archival materials, newspapers, etc., is fantastic for researchers, but I also find it a bit frightening as there is undoubtedly information that is now freely available that some people perhaps wish wasn’t available for the world to see.

So when I come across information about people whom I have never heard of, particularly when it is information from the twentieth century, I always try to be careful about what I say and reveal.

At the same time, by now I’ve had numerous people indicate to me that I’ve written about their grandfather, grandmother, etc., and are happy to find information that they were unaware of.

So with a couple of readers recently indicating that they are related to a Malay woman from Sarawak whom I previously mentioned in a post – a woman I referred to as “Munirah,” but whose real name was apparently Saerah – I decided to look a bit more into who this person was.


As I mentioned in the previous post, in the 1930s Saerah was married to an Englishman by the name of G. T. M. MacBryan who converted to Islam while serving as an official for the Brooke regime in Sarawak and who made the pilgrimage to Mecca together with Saerah.

The story of MacBryan’s life and his pilgrimage with his wife was recorded in a 1937 book by Owen Rutter entitled Triumphant Pilgrimage: An English Muslim’s Journey from Sarawak to Mecca.

Shortly after this book was published the couple returned to Sarawak via Singapore and there were a few articles that appeared in the Singapore press about them at that time. The Singapore National Library has digitized those articles and they can be easily found by searching for “Munirah” (the name that Saerah was known by in this book) at this site.

These articles are generally positive, although it’s clear that they relish in what was perhaps amusing to their expatriate readers, namely stories of the time that Saerah had just spent in England where saw snow for the first time, enjoyed weekend parties in London, etc.

Here is an example: 1937 article.

shabby pilgrimage

By contrast, there were clearly some people in Sarawak who were not as amused. In particular, the people who published The Sarawak Gazette “welcomed” the couple back with a short article in the October 1937 edition (available here) entitled “Shabby Pilgrimage.”

While Saerah was referred to in this article with the utmost respect, as MacBryan’s “Malay wife of wondrous charm and surpassing manners,” MacBryan (or “David Chale” as he was called in the book) was not treated so nicely.

To quote, the article begins by stating that: “Very little will be done to improve the relationship between Islam and Christiandom by the publication of Triumphant Pilgrimage, an account by Owen Rutter of an English Moslem’s trip to Mecca. Trip is the right word. ‘David Chale,’ whose incredibly aquiline profile serves as frontispiece, was a young district officer in Borneo and developed a great liking for the Malays, which raised confused ideas in his mind of ‘giving a lead’ and in some obscure way promoting world peace by adopting their religion, a resolve bolstered up by a good deal of oblique disparagement of the Sarawak administration.”


Then a month later the critiques continued as The Sarawak Gazette published some critical reviews of Triumphant Pilgrimage, such as this one from The Spectator:

“David Chale (an assumed name), ex-district officer in Sarawak, over lunch at Quaglino’s, asked Mr. Rutter to write for him the story of his pilgrimage to Mecca. He explained, with a ‘strange exalted look in his eyes’ – ‘glittering blue eyes, strangely compelling,’ of course (see carefully posed studio portrait) – that he hoped to unite Islam and make it into a great force for world peace. ‘His lobster forgotten,’ he told [of] his conversion and of his marriage to a Malayan, and of the struggle he had had to reach Mecca.

“Exhausted by Chale’s intensity, and convinced that it was not another shameful journalistic stunt, Mr. Rutter agreed.

Triumphant Pilgrimage is as sickly with sincerity, as exhaustingly tense as its hero. Presumably Mr. Chale approves of his portrait, but if he possessed any of the judgment, modesty and sense of humor with which Mr. Rutter endows him, he would have refused to pass this account of his physical and spiritual adventures which nauseates by its smugness, its exaggeration of difficulties and its lack of any sign of real understanding of the Islamic world.

“After reading this book one sees the wisdom of Ibn Saud’s law (which Chale evaded) forbidding converts of less than six years’ standing to go on the pilgrimage.”


So G. T. M. MacBryan clearly had some detractors. Whether such criticisms were warranted or not, I don’t know enough yet to say, but the claim that he was “intense” does seem to me to have some basis.

It is also unclear to me what the relationship between MacBryan and Saerah was like after their return to Sarawak, but with the arrival of World War II, the relationship apparently fell apart, and the next time we find Saerah mentioned in the media is in 1947 when she was interviewed in Singapore as she was on her way to England with her new husband-to-be.

There was an article that was published in 1947 in The Singapore Free Press (18 April 1947, page 1) entitled “Malay Beauty Sets Sail for UK: Love Story from Sarawak.”

This article reported on a steamer that had set sail for England from Singapore the previous day. It noted in brief that such well-known people as the wife of the Governor of Singapore were onboard, but then it proceeded to discuss in detail two “not so well-known” passengers, “Sarah MacBryan, a lovely Malay girl, and young Mr. Derek [should be David?] S. Walford.”

The article then relates in detail “their story, which is as interesting as any which had come out of Sarawak.” Here I think it is perhaps best to simply quote from the article:


Mrs. MacBryan, a Sarawak Malay, 34 years old, mother of two children, wore a short think silk multi-striped European summer frock. Derek Walford, tall, young and serious – he is only 24 years old – an ex-Sarawak police officer.

Mrs. MacBryan was brought up on a Sarawak rubber plantation. Her story really begins in 1936, when Mr. G. T. M. MacBryan, a member of the Sarawak Government Service under the White Rajah, Sir Charles Vyner Brooke, asked her to marry him. The ceremony was duly performed under the Muslim marriage rites.

Mr. MacBryan, who supplied material for an author to write his life story, revealed that as a midshipman at the end of the Great War he threw up the Navy because “discipline chafed his spirit,” and “spiritual suffocation is worse than physical.”

Given a job in a shipping office he was so disgusted at being little better than an office boy that one day he threw a cup of tea in the face of the manager. Then he met an old friend of his father’s from Sarawak. The idea of running a district appealed him and he took a job in the Sarawak Government service.

Apprehending a murderer one day, Mr. MacBryan was so impressed with the stoicism of the man when he was captured – a Muslim – that he came to the conclusion that he could not live out his life without the help of such a faith, and to meet his spiritual needs he must make the pilgrimage to Mecca.

He resigned from Government service, went to India and in three years returned to Sarawak. It was then that he met lovely Sarah MacBryan – known as Munirah – and with her he planned his trip to the Holy City.

sarah 2

With the aid of his charming wife, MacBryan succeeded in his mission, and is one of the few white men who have kissed the black stone and so absolved himself from his sins, and he witnessed the mass sacrifice of the animals in all its color.

They examined the great library at the Mosque at Medina, full of the treasures of the Moslem world collected over the last thousand years.

Their happiness lasted for several years, and the Malay girl visited many of the capitals of Europe, had parties at the London Casino, the Berkeley, and the Savoy Hotel – and saw snow for the first time in her life.

Then came separation, the war, and in September 1946 – – a divorce.

A few months ago, she met Derek Walford.

“I was intending to join Rajah Brooke’s police force when war broke out,” he told me yesterday, “but naturally I went into the Army, and my service took me to India.”

“At the liberation of Malaya I was a half-trained policeman with the British Military Administration and I went there with the occupying forces. Then I was released from the services in the Far East and held a post in the Sarawak police force until I resigned recently.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Walford had met Mrs. MacBryan and together they traveled to Singapore on their way to England.

They remained here for three weeks staying with friends while they arranged their passage.

When I saw her in her cabin before she sailed today, I asked her: “Are you going to be married in England?”

She replied: “I have been divorced under both Mohammedan and English law, and I am, therefore free to marry whom I please.”

Mr. Walford added: “We cannot say we will definitely be married until we have studied the legal position in England, but if we are able to marry it will be in England and not in Malaya.”

“I plan to spend the next few years in Malaya if I can get a job, and I am going home on leave for a spell. My parents know about the situation as it stands at the moment, and they are not standing against my wishes.”

“Most of my leave will be spent in London.”

And they left to carry their luggage up the gangplank to the ship which will carry them to England where their future will be decided for them by the lawyers.


Why would a reporter for The Singapore Free Press in 1947 spend so much time talking about two “not so well-known” people?

My sense is that it is because they didn’t fit “the norm,” and this made their story potentially interesting for readers. They were doing something that “normal” people didn’t do, and they were taking a chance that “normal” people also did not take.

As the advertisement above indicates, late-colonial Malaya and Sarawak were places where there were supposed to be clear boundaries between the British and the Malays.

MacBryan, Saerah and Walford all crossed/blurred/ignored/challenged those boundaries.

The reasons behind their “transgressions” might have differed, and might have fallen across a wide spectrum from the ignoble to the noble, but ultimately crossing those boundaries at that time was an action that was ahead of the tide of history.

These were some very interesting people.

I recently started reading a new survey of Southeast Asian history by a well-known historian when I was surprised to come across this paragraph about women in traditional Southeast Asia in the introduction:

“Southeast Asia’s gender pattern was strikingly different from that of its neighbors and trade partners in China, India, and the Middle East. Up until the nineteenth century, Southeast Asian women played economic roles equivalent to though different from those of men, and therefore had more latitude and agency than their European, Chinese, Indian, or Arab counterparts. They monopolized textile and ceramic production, shared agricultural tasks (dominating planting, harvesting, and foraging), and most importantly did most of the marketing and business. The status concerns of Southeast Asian men made them particularly inept in managing money and marketing. European and Chinese male traders dealt largely with local women, and found their own local sexual partners extremely helpful in their business.”

Reid book

What surprised me about this paragraph were a couple of things. First, I was surprised to see this trope about the special position of women in Southeast Asia still getting repeated in 2015. My sense was that by now this concept had been challenged and deconstructed enough that it could no longer be held up as a defining feature of the Southeast Asian past, but apparently I was wrong in thinking that way.

The other thing that surprised me was the “slipperiness” of the language that was used to talk about this topic. If women engage in certain work because men are so concerned with status that they become “inept” at doing such work, then how can we call that work “equivalent though different” to the work of men? Who thinks that it is “equivalent”? Surely not the men who don’t want to engage in that work. . .

Women Telephone Operators at Work (12)

In thinking about these issues, I tried to imagine what this same paragraph, with a few slight modifications, would look like if we used it to describe America in the late 1940s:

“America’s gender pattern was strikingly different from that of its neighbors and trade partners in Mexico, China, India, and the Middle East. In the mid-twentieth century, American women played economic roles equivalent to though different from those of men, and therefore had more latitude and agency than their Mexican, Chinese, Indian, or Arab counterparts. They monopolized the secretarial and telephone operator professions, shared factory work (dominating routine repetitive tasks) and most importantly did most of the grocery shopping and managed the household budget. The status concerns of American men made them particularly inept in typing letters and dialing telephones. European male traders dealt largely with local women, and found their own local sexual partners extremely helpful in their business.”

And to give a visual sense to this point, consider the following:

In other words, if we exchange “America in the mid-twentieth century” for “Southeast Asia,” this paragraph becomes (for multiple reasons) ridiculous. So what makes it believable when we talk about premodern Southeast Asia?

I wrote below about some materials that I came across in British Colonial Office records regarding some British citizens who sought a license to lease some islands in the East/North Borneo/Western Philippine/South China Sea in the early twentieth century. I wasn’t sure if this was new information or not, but a friend and scholar who is an expert on this topic just let me know that this is an episode which apparently has not been reported before.

So to follow up on what I wrote below, I did find some later documents. In particular, on the third of January 1920 a certain Commander G. V. Rayment of the Intelligence Division of the British Admiralty wrote a letter to H. Beckett of the Colonial Office to inquire about this issue.


Commander Rayment wrote the following:

“Some considerable time ago a British Company in Singapore applied for permission to raise capital with a view to starting a company to exploit certain small islands in the South China Seas. There was correspondence between the Colonial Office and the Admiralty on this subject: the latter proposing that the enterprise should be quietly and discreetly encouraged.

“Do you know whether anything really happened? Unfortunately I have lost track of the papers in the Admiralty, and as I cannot remember the name of the island I am at a loss to pick up the track! As you will no doubt realize, our interest in this particular affair is strategical.”


On the seventh of January 1920 H. Beckett responded as follows:

“Your letter of the 3rd of January – South China Sea Islands. The Admiralty reference is Admiralty letter of the 14th of December, 1917, [?].80146.

“Since that time we have had a good deal of correspondence with which I need not trouble you, the upshot of which has been that in September last we sent out a license to the Governor of the Straits to issue Messrs. Gudgeon, Bell and Shelley-Thompson to work the Islands. The license is on similar lines to others which have been granted in the case of unoccupied Islands.”

Beckett then listed the islands, and they are the same as in the previous communications (see the blog posts below).

A day later on the eighth of January 1920 Commander Rayment responded to H. Beckett by stating:

“Many thanks for your letter of 7th January. It gives me just what I want and has enabled me to get hold of the paper dealing with the subject.”


Ok, so that’s jolly good that Rayment got his information, but what actually happened? Did Messrs. Gudgeon, Bell and Shelley-Thompson actually do anything? I haven’t found any evidence of that.

Nonetheless, I find these documents interesting in the way that they suggest that those “islands in the Sea” were still very much a “no man’s land” at this time.

CO 273 57957

In is 1970 work, Việt Lý Tố Nguyên, Lương Kim Định presented an outline of his understanding of the early history of East Asia.

The main point that Kim Định wished to make about early history was that the “Viêm race” (Viêm tộc/Yanzu 炎族) had already inhabited the area of China before the Han race arrived on the scene.

This was important for Kim Định, because he believed that the Vietnamese were part of the Viêm race, and that therefore, they had just as legitimate of a claim to be the “owners” of various aspects of “Chinese” culture as the Han Chinese did (or in Kim Định’s eyes, even more legitimate of a claim).

While there are plenty of problems with Kim Định’s view of history, it is good material for “remixing the past.”

Fifty Viss

a collection of thoughts and writings on Burma

mini myna

on knowing the past in Singapore


Albert Einstein — 'What is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right.'


About Vietnamese Cultural History and Scholarship

Digital Southeast Asia

Ideas for employing digital humanities approaches to the study of Southeast Asian history


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