This video is the result of a month or so of a lot of work spent trying to learn how to use a DSLR camera, a Zoom h4n audio recorder, Adobe Premiere Pro, Native Instruments Kontakt, FL Studio, etc. I still have a lot to learn, but this video is a lot closer to what I am trying to achieve than any of the other videos that I have created so far.

In focusing so much on trying to get the technology right, however, I overlooked some important issues relating to the content of this video. In particular, I should have mentioned in the introduction that Hồ Chí Minh brought up the point in his letters to President Truman that the US had granted independence to the Philippines. By noting this point, Hồ Chí Minh was (I think) hoping that the US would pressure the French to do the same.

That was a wise and strategic statement to make at that time, but what I try to show in this video is that 1) the “independence” that the US granted the Philippines was a kind of “neo-colonial” independence, and that 2) the French granted the same form of “independence” to Vietnam.

As such, in what Hồ Chí Minh said we can’t see some kind of “shared worldview” or “opportunity” that somehow was unable to materialize at that time (a “lost opportunity”).

Hồ Chí Minh made a strategic statement in an effort to obtain something that he wanted. What Hồ Chí Minh wanted, however, was different from what the US granted the Philippines.

What the US granted the Philippines, meanwhile, was similar to what the French later granted Bao Đại. So that was an opportunity that was “fulfilled.”

However, many people see the fact that Truman did not respond to Hồ Chí Minh’s letters as a “lost opportunity.” This is the issue that this series of videos will seek to problematize.


I recently came across some images from the 1930s that were advertising “giraffe-necked women.” Apparently in the 1930s there were Padaung women from Burma who were put on display at various circuses in Europe and America.

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While these advertisements suggest that the Padaung women were a big attraction, there were people at the time who were upset about these advertisements.

In 1937 the Burmese Women’s League passed a resolution that condemned British newspapers for carrying advertisements for the Bertram Mills Circus that featured the Padaung women.

What upset the Burmese Women’s League was not what would upset many people today; that the Padaung women were being put on display like zoo animals, but that these advertisements referred to the Paduang as “Burmese.”

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The members of the Burmese Women’s League felt that by referring to the Padaung as “Burmese,” British newspapers were lowering the prestige of Burmese women.

As a report about this in The Straits Times from Singapore stated, “Daw Mya Shwe, Inspectress of Schools, said that the Padaungs were mistaken for Burmese because they were hill tribes of Burma. Actually, however, they were a race apart and with the Kachins could not be called Burmese just as Red Indians were never called ‘Americans.’”

protest

The article further noted that “Daw Ma Ma, honorary secretary to the Women’s League, said that Burma was quite up-to-date, her daughters being barristers, doctors, Government officers, municipal councillors and legislators and legislators. Nor were the Burmese girls behind the times in the matter of athletics.”

So Burmese women did not want to be associated with the Padaung, and were opposed to the way that advertisements for Bertram Mills Circus might lead people to think that the Paduang were actually “Burmese.”

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Related to this, I also found a letter recently in the National Archives of Australia from 1941 which contained information about a regulation that the British Foreign Office had passed concerning circuses in Burma.

That regulation apparently made the following point:

“. . . all applications by theatrical and circus artists wishing to enter Burma should be summarily rejected, unless the applicants are in a position either to deposit on arrival or to obtain satisfactory local guarantees for sums sufficient to provide for their return journey, either to the country of origin, or to the country in which their application is made.”

letter

I have no idea what had happened that led the Foreign Office to issue this new regulation, but my guess would be that circus troupes from various places had visited Burma and had then stayed there because they did not have the money to move on.

Colonial governments were not fond of having poor foreigners in their midst, and circus performers were perceived to be on the social margins, so poor foreign circus performers must have seemed like a particular threat to society.

in europe

Therefore, the colonial government in Burma and a Burmese women’s group shared something. They were both bothered in one way or another by circuses.

And while the way in which circuses bothered these two groups differed, the reason was the same. By the 1930s the members of both the colonial and colonized elite saw aspects of circuses as a threat to their way of life – the life of barristers, doctors, government officers and their athletic daughters.

This convergence in lifestyle and values is something that was common across Southeast Asia in the 1930s and early 1940s. After decades of colonial rule, there was much that the elite among the colonizers and colonized shared in this “late colonial” period.


Lamenting the loss of tradition is something that you hear all around the world, but there are some places that succeed in keeping the traditional world alive.

The way they do that is by changing tradition to make it fit the contemporary world.

This is easier for some places than others.

ubud

In the case of architecture, for instance, places like Bali and Thailand have been pretty successful at this. What is their secret? Well in part it is because they rely on the colors and textures of the natural world.

When someone in Chiang Mai or Ubud makes a boutique hotel, for instance, they use natural wood and surround the hotel with plenty of tropical green plants and the result is that they create something that feels both “traditional” but very contemporary and hip as well.

ctown

Contrast that with efforts to make Chinatowns in Southeast Asia look cool. . . When people think of things Chinese they think of bright red, and there is just nothing natural about bright red. . .

The result? It is more difficult to come up with something Chinese that feels both traditional and contemporary.

dan bau

With music you have similar problems. A traditional instrument like the đàn bầu in Vietnam has a sound that is associated with feelings of sadness, so it would be hard to incorporate that instrument into an upbeat contemporary song.

I say all this because recently I came across a video of a group of young musicians in Sarawak, called At Adau, that successfully combines together traditional and modern instruments to produce a hip contemporary song.

What is more, the video that they made for the song is also cool.

Clearly the traditional instruments that this group plays, like the sape, are easier to adapt to a contemporary sensibility than say the đàn bầu. So that helps. And to be fair, there are other people in Sarawak, like Jerry Kamit, who have already worked hard to make the sape meaningful for contemporary listeners.

So what At Adau has done is not entirely novel, but it is still very cool. And the video is really good as well. Good job!!


In early 1976, a book by South Vietnamese historian Tạ Chí Đại Trường was the subject of a long critique in the journal, Historical Research (Nghiên cứu lịch sử).

The name of the book was The History of the Civil War in Vietnam from 1772-1802 (Lịch sử nội chiến ở Việt-Nam từ 1772 đến 1802), and it was about the Tây Sơn Rebellion and the rise to power of the Nguyễn Dynasty. Tạ Chí Đại Trường researched and wrote this work as an MA thesis in the early 1960s and it was published, apparently with only minor revisions, a decade later in 1973.

lsnc

Tạ Chí Đại Trường’s book was critiqued by two scholars, Nguyễn Phan Quang and Nguyễn Đức Nghinh. In examining this book, these two men were interested in determining what the “guiding ideas” (ý tưởng hướng dẫn) behind Tạ Chí Đại Trường’s historical scholarship were.

In the end, they concluded that rather than demonstrating “guiding ideas,” Tạ Chí Đại Trường’s work revealed a “political motive” (ý đồ chính trị).

What was that political motive? Simply put, the way in which Tạ Chí Đại Trường wrote about the late eighteenth century was not the same as the way that historians in North Vietnam were writing about that period, and in the politically charged environment of 1970s Vietnam, that made his work political.

resolved

Nguyễn Phan Quang and Nguyễn Đức Nghinh stated that many historians in North Vietnam had already “resolved” (giải quyết) various issues concerning the period that Tạ Chí Đại Trường wrote about.

For instance, they had determined that the Tây Sơn movement had made great contributions (cống hiến vĩ đại) with their annihilation (tiêu diệt) of the reactionary feudal powers (những chính quyền phong kiến phản động) and in their glorious victories over foreign invaders (chiến thắng ngoại xâm oanh liệt).

Historians in the North had also determined that the the Tây Sơn leader, Nguyễn Huệ, had put forth progressive policies (chính sách tiến bộ), as was particularly evidenced by his movement’s unification of the country.

Finally, historians in the North had also identified the reactionary character (tình chất phản động) of the Nguyễn family, as could be seen in their betrayal of the people (phản bội) by selling the fatherland for a pittance to foreign bandits for their family’s own personal gain (bán rẻ Tổ quốc cho giặc ngoại xâm vì quyền lợi ích kỷ của một dòng họ)

norms

Tạ Chí Đại Trường wrote a response to this critique in 1978 while he was in a re-education camp. In this response, Tạ Chí Đại Trường made a comment that I really like.

He noted (and I’m explaining his point here rather than actually translating what he wrote) that the mixing together of the effort to explain the past with the effort to create norms or standards about the past makes it difficult to produce valid scholarship because one can never rise above fixed views to gain a deeper understanding of the past.

(Lẫn lộn giữa tính cách giải thích (explicatif) và tính cách quy phạm (normatif) thì khó làm việc khoa học, không thể vươn lên trên định kiến để tìm ý nghĩa sâu xa của sự việc hơn.)

The “norms” (quy phạm) that were being applied to the Vietnamese past in the 1970s were ultimately political norms. These days, many of the norms that Nguyễn Phan Quang and Nguyễn Đức Nghinh mentioned in their critique are not promoted anymore, and Tạ Chí Đại Trường’s book has been published in Vietnam, albeit with an altered title.

That said, many people still seem to struggle to rise above fixed ideas to gain a deeper understanding of the past. I wonder why that is.

For people who can read Vietnamese, the 1976 critique of Tạ Chí Đại Trường’s book and his 1978 response are attached below.

NCLS 1NCLS 2 & Ta Chi Dai Truong


There are a couple of bronze drums that have been found in the Red River delta that have Chinese characters on them.

One of them records a place name, Huihe zhou/Hồi Hà châu, and the weight of the drum (回河州鼓重兩千百八十二).

The other one records a place name, Jiuzhen/Cửu Chân, the weight of the drum, its name (Fu/Phú), and it also appears to indicate that it was the eleventh drum in series (甄甄重六鈞五斤八両名曰富第未十一).

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In the area of what we now call “China,” there was a tradition of inscribing writing on bronze ritual vessels that started very early, and it changed over time. During the early centuries of the Zhou Dynasty period, the inscriptions were at times quite long.

In the Warring States period (475-221 BC), however, most bronze inscriptions were short, recording such basic information as “the craftsmen’s names, that of the users, the region of use, and, in the case of weights and measures, also by the concrete indication of the weight or volume. A lot of items now also were inscribed with a concrete date on which they were fabricated or brought into use.”

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I don’t know much about inscriptions on bronze vessels, but if the above information is correct, then these two inscriptions on bronze drums seem to combine information that was inscribed on ritual vessels with information that was inscribed on weights.

As was the case with ritual vessels, both of these bronze drums mention places, Huihe zhou/Hồi Hà châu and Jiuzhen/Cửu Chân. I have never heard of the first name, but the second name is one that the Qin Dynasty used to designate an area of what is today Vietnam. However, that name is recorded in written sources with different characters (九真).

In addition to place names, these inscriptions both mention the weight of the drums as well. This is odd, because as far as I have been able to learn, only actual weights contained inscriptions that documented their weight.

So why would a bronze drum – a ritual object – contain information about how much it weighed?

weight

My theory is that these two drums were drums that had been taken to be melted down and forged into something else.

The Han Dynasty general, Ma Yuan, is said to have captured bronze drums in the first century AD and then had them melted and cast into the shape of a bronze horse.

As I see it, this would have been a way to take away symbols of power from local people and to create a new symbol of power for himself.

I have no idea if these drums date from the time of Ma Yuan’s expedition against the Trưng sisters’ rebellion, or if they are from earlier, but the fact that they record the weight of the drums strongly suggests to me that whoever inscribed those words on these drums was not using them for ritual purposes.

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My guess is that these drums had been captured and were supposed to be melted down, but for some reason they managed to escape that fate, while others were destroyed (this would also explain why so few bronze drums contain inscriptions).

Following this theory, the place names would have indicated where the drums were captured, and the weight was recorded to indicate how much bronze would be obtained when the drums were melted.

In other words, they documented the places that had been pacified, and indicated how much bronze was available to create a new symbol of power.


I haven’t paid much attention to the Thai music scene for a while, but the other day I was looking around at recent music videos and came across the YouTube channel for GMM Grammy International, a branch of the massive Thai entertainment conglomerate, GMM Grammy.

I was surprised to find there Thai music videos that had subtitles in English, Japanese and Chinese. And there were even videos in which Thai singers said “hi” to their fans in foreign countries.

friends

This made me think back to the early 1990s when satellite TV came to certain parts of Asia. MTV was one of the stations that you could watch then. The MTV at that time covered all of Asia, and mainly showed videos of Western music, but they did show some videos by artists in places like Japan, India, Taiwan, etc.

This was of course in the pre-email era, so viewers actually wrote letters to MTV at that time, and I remember how VJs would read some of the mail, and what was interesting was that there were people in places like India who wrote in and requested to see more of artists from places like Japan.

That was an interesting moment when it looked like some kind of new, transnational music scene would emerge. However, the business people at that time apparently felt that they could make more money by making music television less transnational.

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So MTV “broke up” its Asian-wide channel and established channels that fit smaller, more culturally and linguistically homogenous markets. Channel V, another music channel that was set up in the 1990s, did the same.

This of course didn’t stop music from crossing borders. Since the “break up” of music television in Asia there has been a Japan wave and a Korean wave that has influenced popular culture in many ways in places like Southeast Asia.

However, what GMM Grammy International is doing now strikes me as something different. And it reminds me of that “transnational moment” in the early 1990s.

The above video captures the current moment well. There is a Thai girl and a Japanese boy studying English together in Thailand.

They spend time together working on a project, and they do all of the things that countless young tourists from Japan and Korean do every day in places like Bangkok: take pictures, go to a market, try local food, etc. These of course are also all the same things that young Thai travelers do when they go to places like Japan and Korea as well.

In other words, the video shows the common transnational youth culture that has emerged over the past decade or so. That common culture is the result of many things: the expansion in English teaching (note that the teacher in the video appears to be a native speaker of some language other than English), the influence of Japanese and Korean popular culture, the growth of the middle class, the emergence of budget airlines, the Internet, YouTube, plastic surgery. . . the list goes on and on.

same same

That said, the existence of this common transnational youth culture does not of course mean that Asia is becoming homogenous. But to use a Tinglish (Thai-English) phrase, I would say that it does show that at least in urban areas youth culture is now “same same but different.”

And my guess would be that it is that “same same” which is leading a company like GMM Grammy International to try reach across national borders, whereas in the early 1990s it was the “different” that led MTV and Channel V to focus on what was within national borders, even though some of their viewers at that time could clearly see the “same same” already.



Every summer when the college entrance exams are held, the Vietnamese media is filled with articles that lament the fact that students are not interested in history.

Then every time a book comes out that attempts to do something new to attract readers, it gets criticized.

Recently there was a book on famous military figures in the Vietnamese past (Những vị tướng lừng danh trong lịch sử dân tộc) that included pictures, but it was fiercely criticized as soon as it came out as some of its pictures were in the style of Japanese manga images.

This publisher was fined 21 million đồng for publishing this book without officially registering it first.

heroes

Now there is another book about Vietnamese history that has come out with pictures that is being criticized (Trưng nữ vương khởi nghĩa Mê Linh). This is a book about the Trưng sisters’ rebellion, and it claims that the reason why the Chinese were able to defeat the Trưng sisters was because Ma Yuan, the commanding Chinese general, ordered that his men take off their pants. The Trưng sisters and their followers were embarrassed to see the soldiers’ private parts, and this apparently gave the Chinese the upper hand.

As Professor Lê Mậu Hãn is quoted as saying in VNExpress, there is no ancient source that records anything about this.

Shortly after this information was revealed, publication of this book was stopped.

chuong

While people opposed the pictures in these two works, last year there was a book on early history that was criticized for its content (Nguồn gốc người Việt – người Mường). I can’t remember if the publication of that book was stopped or not, but I do recall that at least one event where the author was to introduce his book was cancelled.

origins

So there is a problem here. People realize that the way history is presented in Vietnam does not interest young people, but when some people try to make changes, other people criticize it, and they do so to such an extent that these efforts to present history in a more interesting way are stopped.

I think the reason why this is happening is because history in Vietnam is treated like a science, but history is an art. Like art, it can be interpreted in different ways. At the same time, it is not entirely subjective, because any interpretation that an historian puts forth has to be supported by evidence for the interpretation to be believed by others.

art vs science

When history is treated as a science, that is, as something that has been proven already and cannot change, then history becomes incredibly boring. Adding manga images cannot make it interesting.

What makes history fascinating is that it can be looked at from different perspectives. When someone offers a new, well-documented, interpretation of the past, then it is interesting to people. There’s no need to create stories (with accompanying pictures) about Chinese men without pants.





Fifty Viss

a collection of thoughts and writings on Burma

mini myna

on knowing the past in Singapore

thinkvietnam

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

leminhkhaiviet

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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