Le Minh Khai's SEAsian History Blog

Always rethinking the Southeast Asian past

Modern Southeast Asian History Seminar: Print, Fashion & Gender (Week 6)

In the 1920s and 1930s there was an explosion of print publications across Southeast Asia. These sources are invaluable for understanding many topics.

While early examinations of these writings sought to understand the rise of nationalism, current scholarship has moved on to such topics as fashion and gender, topics which are still related to nationalism, but which allow us to think about how people in Southeast Asian societies “refashioned” their sense of selves in ever more complex ways.

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Modern Southeast Asian History Seminar: Transforming Siam (Week 5)

This week in the seminar we read about the transformation of Siam in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This included examining the complex and fascinating topic of Siam’s condition of being “not entirely not colonized” while also being to some extent “imperial.”

This video contains some information about this topic, and the readings from this week are below.

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A Conversation With Art Curator Nguyễn Như Huy

Last summer Phan Lê Hà (founder of the Engaging With Vietnam conference series) met with curator Nguyễn Như Huy (founder of the art space Zero Station/Ga 0 in Hồ Chí Minh City) and talked about art, philosophy, linguistics, literature and travel.

I filmed the conversation and made the following three videos.

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Art, Liberal Orientalism and the “I Love Vietnam Fetish”

Last week an article repeatedly appeared in my Facebook feed. It is a critique by a Vietnamese photographer (Hà Đào) of the works of a French photographer (Réhahn) based in Vietnam.

Entitled “Smile For The Camera: Reconsider Réhahn’s Works,” the article has received lot of attention, and has been both praised and criticized.

I was unfamiliar with the work of both Hà Đào and Réhahn, so I tried to learn what I could from the Internet, and then after I had done so, I read the article.

In reading the article, I found that I really liked the author’s critique, and the eloquent manner in which it is made, but that I was also dissatisfied with some aspects of the author’s argument, and that made me think about how we can make such a critique more insightful.

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Emperor Tự Đức as a Reformer

In English-language writings on Vietnamese history, the Nguyễn Dynasty has long been depicted as resistant to reform. In this depiction, people like Emperor Tự Đức are said to have been so absorbed in the world of Confucian tradition that they did not recognize the need to change.

My suspicion is that this view of the past was probably first developed by French authors during the colonial period as a way to justify their rule, and it later fit the needs of twentieth-century Vietnamese nationalists as well, and has become part of the nationalist narrative of Vietnamese history.

In terms of English-language scholarship, I think that this view has persisted simply because there has been so little work done in English on the Nguyễn Dynasty, because when one looks at the historical record, it is clear that the depiction of the Nguyễn Dynasty as resistant to reform definitely needs to be revisited.

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The History of Domestic Tourism in Thailand

As is well known, in the 1960s and 1970s Thailand became a major destination for international tourists.

During those same years, Thailand’s domestic tourism market also expanded.

I was in the library the other day and came across a magazine that targeted potential Thai tourists in the 1960s and 1970s. In just looking at the images on the front cover of this magazine it’s interesting to see the kind of image of Thailand that was being promoted.

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Gia Long and Nôm

In his 1971 work, Vietnam and the Chinese Model, historian Alexander Woodside sought to demonstrate that there was a discernable distinction between a (Southeast Asian) “Vietnam” and a “Chinese model” of elite cultural ideas and practices that the Nguyễn Dynasty sought to impose in the nineteenth century.

In making this argument, Woodside indicates that without a deliberate effort to force Vietnamese to follow the Chinese model they would not do so. We see this with the issue of Nôm, or the demotic script that was used to record the Vietnamese language.

For example, Woodside argued that there was a return to the use of Nôm in the chaotic years of the Tây Sơn Rebellion in the late eighteenth century when it was difficult to impose the “Chinese model” and that Nôm continued to be used in the early years of the Nguyễn Dynasty under Emperor Gia Long.

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Việt-Nam Khảo-Cổ Tập-San #1

At the beginning of 1956, the president of the Republic of Vietnam ordered the establishment of the Historical Research Institute (Viện Khảo-Cổ) under the Ministry of Education.

This institute had a broad mission. It was to research about the history and culture of Vietnam from the past to the present and to do so in a multidisciplinary manner.

In 1960 the institute began publishing a journal, the Transactions of the Historical Research Institute (Việt-Nam Khảo-Cổ Tâp-San).

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The Absence of South Vietnam in “The Vietnam War” and in the American Consciousness

I just finished watching “The Vietnam War” by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. While I really disliked the first episode (as it was extremely reductionist and simplistic), I found the rest of the documentary to be of much higher quality.

Ultimately, this is a movie about “America” rather than “Vietnam.” What Burns and Novick try to demonstrate is that the deep divides in American society today can be traced back to the time of the Vietnam War.

In exploring how America became divided at that time, Burns and Novick try not to privilege any single person or group in/from America by showing the complexity of each person or group, and by doing so they change how these years are often presented. For instance, almost every time that Burns and Novick discuss a famous event in the history of the anti-war movement, they follow that by noting that polls at that time showed that Americans favored the actions of the police/the establishment rather than the anti-war protestors.

There are some who will see this as a conservative distortion of “the facts,” but if the goal of this documentary is to explain why America is so divided, then contextualizing the anti-war movement in this way is helpful.

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