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Le Minh Khai's SEAsian History Blog

Always rethinking the Southeast Asian past

A Conversation With Nhà Sàn Collective (Parts 1 and 2/of 7)

The eighth Engaging With Vietnam conference, held in Honolulu in October 2016, focused on the theme of “Engaging With Vietnam through Scholarship and the Arts.”

Our inspiration for that conference came from our realization that many people in the arts world in Vietnam are asking a lot of the same questions that academics ask, and are doing so in very sophisticated ways. We therefore wished to highlight this intersection between the arts and scholarship.

In preparation for the conference, Engaging With Vietnam conference founder Phan Lê Hà and I met in the summer of 2016 with Nguyễn Quốc Thành and Trương Quế Chi, two artists and curators from Nhà Sàn Collective, an art space in Hanoi.

Our conversation went on for well over an hour and it covered numerous topics, from discussing some of Nhà Sàn Collective’s projects to highly philosophical discussions about the contradictions between activism and the arts, and the difficulty over overcoming the limitations of discourse.

Continue reading “A Conversation With Nhà Sàn Collective (Parts 1 and 2/of 7)”

A 20th-Century Vietnamese Origin Story (Part 1)

In the summer of 2016 I gave a talk at Nhà Sàn Collective, an art space in Hanoi, on some of the historical ideas that the South Vietnamese philosopher/historian, Lương Kim Định, produced in the 1960s.

This was the abstract for that talk:

“Virtually every human society today has a story about where it came from, or what we can call an ‘origin story.’ In the case of Vietnam, one could say that the story about Thần Nông, Kinh Dương Vương, Lạc Long Quân and the Hùng Kings is a kind of origin story. However, there was a new origin story that emerged in the 20th century that argued that the ancestors of the Vietnamese were agriculturalists (người nông nghiệp) who migrated into the region to get away from pastoralists (người du mục) to the north. This talk will examine how and why this ‘alternative origin story’ emerged in the 20th century.”

Continue reading “A 20th-Century Vietnamese Origin Story (Part 1)”

Modern Southeast Asian History Seminar: The Cold War (Week 8)

While I’m not particularly interested in political history, I always find it important to keep up with developments in that field, as new scholarship can dramatically change long-held beliefs.

This week we looked at some new scholarship on the beginnings of the Cold War in Southeast Asia, and also took a look at some writings on the Bandung Conference. With China investing heavily in Africa these days, there is a growing interest among some scholars to look at the history of Afro-Asian interactions, and the Bandung Conference is an obvious topic of interest.

I predict that there will be some interesting scholarship that will emerge in the next few years on this topic, and so we took a brief look at the Bandung Conference to get a sense of what that was all about.

Continue reading “Modern Southeast Asian History Seminar: The Cold War (Week 8)”

Modern Southeast Asian History Seminar: Everyday Technology (Week 7)

Everyday, or common, forms of technology, such as radios, televisions, and sewing machines have had an enormous impact on human societies. Examining Southeast Asian history by looking at how various everyday technologies have been adopted and utilized can lead to fascinating insights.

This is the topic we covered in this week of the seminar. The reading list is below.

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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.

Continue reading “Modern Southeast Asian History Seminar: Transforming Siam (Week 5)”

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.

Continue reading “A Conversation With Art Curator Nguyễn Như Huy”

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.

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

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.

Continue reading “Emperor Tự Đức as a Reformer”

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