IN THE CROSSFIRE
Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary
YEARS OF APPRENTICESHIP
C’est une grande destinée que celle de la poésie! Joyeuse ou lamentable, elle porte toujours en soi le divin caractère utopique. Elle contredit sans cesse les faits. Dans le cachot, elle se fait révolte; à la fenêtre de l’hôpital, elle est ardente espérance de guérison; non seulement elle constate, mais elle répare. Partout elle se fait négation de l’iniquité. (Baudelaire)
[Poetry has such a great destiny! Whether joyous or mournful, it always bears within itself a divine utopian character. It ceaselessly contradicts reality. In the dungeon, it turns into revolt; at the hospital window, it is the ardent hope for a cure; it not only records, it restores. Everywhere it negates iniquity.]*
One of my cousins, a real country beauty, had married an employee of the Saigon branch of Descours & Cabaud, a French metal products company. She was pleasant, a gambler (sometimes for rather high stakes), and she liked me. She took me in as a lodger for eight piasters a month in September 1926, when I left my hamlet for Saigon to prepare once again for the scholarship competition.
I was entering a city that had been shaken for several months by the winds of revolt.
All around me I heard the name Nguyen An Ninh whispered with respect. He had been thrown into prison three days after a memorable mass meeting right in the center of Saigon.
On Sunday, March 21, 1926, between two and three thousand people had responded to an appeal to protest the expulsion of a journalist to Annam. Despite an enormous police blockade, at dawn hundreds of coolies, factory workers, office workers and students streamed onto Rue Lanzarotte. In the Mango Garden, the assembly point, the crowd was so dense it was impossible to move; the branches of the mango trees sagged under the clusters of young participants. In this shoulder-to-shoulder fraternity, the common people of Saigon shouted their indignation, denounced deportations, and demanded freedom of the press, of education, of assembly and of travel, as well as the abolition of physical detainment for debt.
Three days later another assembly at the port, organized to greet the arrival of Bui Quang Chieu, the leader of the moderate-nationalist Constitutionalist Party,* on his return from France, turned into a huge demonstration of anger at the news that Nguyen An Ninh had been arrested after the previous rally. The entrance to the port and the surrounding streets were overrun by protesters as the offices, stores and workshops emptied. The authorities delayed the arrival of the ship carrying Bui Quang Chieu until nine o’clock in the evening, but the crowd refused to disperse and continued to grow. Some young people from the Jeune Annam [Young Annam] organization, together with some 800 Arsenal workers, surrounded Bui Quang Chieu as he disembarked to protect him from counterdemonstrators who had been mobilized by De La Chevrotière, editor of the newspaper L’Impartial, and who were shouting: “Kill him!” A crowd of demonstrators accompanied Bui Quang Chieu through the streets to his party offices, chanting: “Free Nguyen An Ninh!”
That same day, the venerable Phan Chau Trinh died after a life of relentless struggle against the “civilizers.” Condemned to death in 1908 after the peasant revolt in Annam, his sentence had been commuted to deportation to Poulo Condore due to the intercession of the League for the Rights of Man. He was then exiled to France in 1911. He was eventually sent back to Cochinchina [southern Vietnam], where, racked by tuberculosis, he died after eighteen years of penal servitude and exile.*
The popular emotion aroused by Phan Chau Trinh’s death, augmented by the arrest of Nguyen An Ninh, reached its peak. Thousands of men, women and young people, defying the omnipresent police, filed along Rue Pellerin throughout an entire week, lighting sticks of incense for the deceased. On April 4, 1926, Phan Chau Trinh’s funeral was transformed into a massive demonstration against the masters. Crowded around the hearse were thousands of coolies and workers from the rice-processing plants of Cholon who had abandoned their work, along with students from the city and the provinces, workers and employees of the Arsenal, and peasants from Ba Diem and Hoc Mon.
At his first trial (April 24, 1926) Nguyen An Ninh was sentenced to eighteen months’ imprisonment. When this sentence was announced, students in Saigon and from the primary school at Phu Lam in Cholon and from all over the surrounding regions (Ben Tre, My Tho, Vinh Long, Can Tho) deserted their classes en masse. More than a thousand of them were expelled.
I attended primary school from September 1926 to May 1927. But I was already fourteen, and I worried constantly about the eight-piaster monthly rent, which was too much of a burden for my mother. So I jumped at the chance of a job at Descours & Cabaud when a vacancy came up in the accounts department. I was hired for 35 piasters a month, which allowed me to live tolerably well. At that time coolies were earning only 15 piasters, or at most 18. Now it was my turn to help my mother — except on the all-too-frequent occasions when my cousin, usually in the middle of the night, begged me to hand over my pay, which she invariably proceeded to lose in the gambling parlors. Which is why I eventually moved to other lodgings.
That was the end of my formal education, but I continued to read everything I could get my hands on. I would buy used books from the Chinese bric-à-brac stalls across from the Saigon railway station, where French people sold their books before leaving the country. I read them all voraciously — books on science, history, philosophy. In this way one day I discovered with exaltation the writings of Rousseau. “The despot is the master only as long as he is the strongest. . . . Force is the only thing that keeps him in his position, and only force can remove him.”*
My overseer at work, a half-French young man who didn’t care for reading, gave me all the books he’d been awarded as school prizes. Among them was Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal [Flowers of Evil], a handsome volume with gilt-edged pages. I knew nothing about the poet or his times, but when I read that he had been condemned for offending public morality and good manners and that he had suffered censorship, which was so familiar to us in the colonies, I was strongly drawn to him. It was also said that during the 1848 revolution he had been seen among the raiders of an armory, carrying a rifle and shouting, We must shoot General Aupick!”
I have also not forgotten Jean Richepin’s La Chanson des Gueux [The Song of the Tramps], with its magnificent engravings protected by tissue paper. I can still see the illustration of the venerable old Goat with the two little vagabonds sitting on his bony back, laughing and trotting very gently so that they would not fall off. Above all, I was moved by the vibrant couplet that replaced the censored passage from the Idylle de pauvres [Romance of the Poor]:
Ici deux gueux s’aimaient jusqu’à la pâmoison,
Et cela m’a valu trente jours de prison.
[Here two tramps loved each other to exhaustion, and that got me thirty days in prison.]*
A workmate who was better educated than I secretly gave me a copy of Une histoire de conspirateurs annamites à Paris, ou La vérité sur l’Indochine [A Story About Annamite Conspirators in Paris, or The Truth About Indochina] by Phan Van Truong. In this book the author described the plot hatched against him and Phan Chau Trinh by the French government in Paris in 1914. He clarified, in a way that made my blood boil with revolt and set my brain on fire, the profession of being an Annamite, the unavoidably ambiguous and duplicitous attitude of the colonized:
It is said that the Annamite [another term for Vietnamese] is withdrawn and that his soul is impenetrable. But has France, supposedly the country of freedom of opinion, ever allowed the Annamites to freely express their ideas and their feelings? The Annamite is a cheat and a liar, we are told. But if the Annamite tells the truth and it is disagreeable, he is gagged, persecuted, smashed into a thousand pieces. The Annamite, we are also told, is obsequious, groveling, vile. That may be so. But when he allows himself to be justifiably proud and dignified, he is called arrogant, insolent, rebellious, and again he is persecuted. The conclusion is inescapable: “being an Annamite” is a vile profession.*
I began to follow news of underground revolutionary movements more closely. The first event that caught my attention was the Rue Barbier affair. On the morning of December 9, 1928, the Saigon Sûreté [colonial political police] discovered the mutilated body of a man in a room at 5 Rue Barbier. That discovery set in motion a vast dragnet of the underground groups Thanh Nien Cach Mang Dong Chi Hoi (Revolutionary Youth League) and Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang (National Party of Vietnam). I cycled past the scene of this drama.
In my new lodging I had an older roommate named Phung, who worked as an accountant at the Botanical Gardens. A former nurse in the rubber plantations, he taught me how to administer first aid. He was curious, but somewhat timorous. Nevertheless, despite not having a real spirit of revolt, he lent me a banned book that had appeared in 1929, Phan Van Hum’s In the Central Prison, which recounted the struggles of Nguyen An Ninh and Phan Van Hum and their lives in prison. I learned that upon his return from France in 1923, Nguyen An Ninh had refused a position as magistrate offered to him by Governor Cognacq along with a concession of land. I was extremely moved by those who voluntarily refused to integrate themselves into colonial society, to become functionaries, and who chose instead to live side by side with the common people. I tried as hard as I could to follow events, amassing piles of press cuttings which I hid in a shoebox. There was omnipresent police surveillance and I was constantly running into people who were much too curious. My roommate Phung was scared to death.
From October to December 1928, denunciations and torture-induced confessions led to the arrest of hundreds of peasants on suspicion of belonging to an imaginary organization, the “Nguyen An Ninh Secret Society.”*
I was struck with admiration for the daring of 35-year-old Phan Van Kim, who, disguised as a Chinaman, bluffed his way into court and shot Judge Nadaillat. When arrested, he declared that he had also wanted to kill the prosecutor and his deputy.
The second trial of Nguyen An Ninh began on May 8, 1929, along with that of Phan Van Hum and more than a hundred indicted peasants and day laborers. On the night of September 28, 1928, Phan Van Hum, while walking in Ben Luc with Nguyen An Ninh, had been stopped by the militia, who confiscated his papers. When he protested, a cai (militia chief) hit him with a cosh. Nguyen An Ninh reacted with his fists. Phan Van Hum was immediately arrested. A few days later Nguyen An Ninh turned himself in.
On the day of Nguyen An Ninh’s trial, dense ranks of guards surrounded the Hall of Justice. Nguyen An Ninh arrived barefoot, dressed in black like an Annamite peasant. More than a hundred people pushed their way into the court. They were expelled as soon as the hearing began, and the trial took place behind closed doors. Even though none of the other defendants identified him, Nguyen An Ninh was jailed for more than a thousand days and fined 1000 francs for having formed a secret society. Phan Van Hum got eight months in prison and a 500-franc fine; the others, from two months to four years behind bars.
In February 1929 in Hanoi, Bazin, the director of the Bureau of Labor Recruitment for the rubber plantations (he received a bonus of 10 piasters for every recruit) was killed by a revolver shot.* A high-school student, Le Van Sanh, already marked for having distributed leaflets denouncing this recruitment, was arrested.
My roommate Phung told me what he had seen in the unhealthy, mosquito-infested rubber plantations where he had treated the coolies stricken by forest fever, which was sometimes fatal. He described the beatings, the confinement in cells inside the plantations, the hunger, the impossibility of breaking the contracts, the attempted escapes that had been punished with torture. The living conditions and the work were so atrocious that the yearly death rate was sometimes as high as 40 percent.* In 1927 at the Michelin rubber plantation in Phu Rieng a hundred coolie conspirators, bound by a fraternal oath, had killed a notoriously brutal French overseer.
A ruthless manhunt was unleashed. Seventy of the coolies were captured. The others perished in the forest while fighting their executioners or were devoured by wild animals, if they did not die of hunger or fever.
* * *
1930 was the year of the memorable insurrection of the Yen Bai garrison, where around twenty French officers commanded a thousand Tonkinese infantrymen. During the night of February 9, right in the middle of the Year of the Horse Tet celebrations, the insurgents attacked and took over the garrison. At daybreak, the surviving French officers regained control. Twenty-six of the rebellious soldiers and twenty-five civilian partisans fell into their hands.
I followed the drama day by day. Five planes, after dropping around fifty bombs on the village of Co Am, raked it and the surrounding countryside with machine-gun fire. The indigenous security police then razed the whole of Kien Thuy, Tien Long and An Lao. Straw huts, pagodas, temples of guardian spirits, fruit trees, bamboos — everything was reduced to ashes.
Between February and April 1930, two thousand people were arrested. At Yen Bai three of the rebels were beheaded in May, and thirteen more in June. At Phu Tho five were beheaded in November. There were undoubtedly many other legal assassinations that were never publicized.*
In 1931 I was gripped by Louis Roubaud’s Vietnam: la tragédie indochinoise, a book that was eagerly grabbed up immediately on its arrival in Saigon. Roubaud’s account made me appreciate more fully the massive extent of the revolt, which, though ignited at Yen Bai, had that same night inflamed other centers of the Red River delta: Lam Thao, Hung Hoa, Hanoi and, in the next few days, Phu Duc and Vinh Bao.
On the morning of May 1, as I was cycling to work, I found myself caught up in the disgusting dragnet for people without tax cards. It was the deadline for payment of the capitation tax, and in the streets of Saigon and Cholon, as all the coolies, workers and office employees were on their way to work, the cops stopped us to demand our tax cards, which also served as identity cards. Anyone who had no valid card was immediately shoved into one of the police vans that suddenly appeared on every street corner.
In the countryside the notables and the militia did the tracking down. Agricultural day laborers, seasonal workers and poor peasants all lived in fear. As a village schoolboy I had already seen those poor devils with their legs in irons in the Communal House for tax delinquency.
The capitation tax (also referred to as the personal tax) hit every coolie or peasant between the ages of 18 and 60. It amounted to a month’s wages. The poor, already stripped of everything after the economic crisis of 1929, simply could not pay. And in Cochinchina, according to the Code de l’Indigénat, a mere delay in payment was punishable by imprisonment and a fine.
My workmate at Descours & Cabaud secretly handed me a zincographed copy of Co Do (Red Flag). I gleaned from it all the news I could about the processions of distressed peasants which, despite shootings and arrests, continued to form in practically all of Cochinchina, such as the May peasant marches in Cao Lanh, O Mon and Cho Moi. With women and children at the forefront, they demanded a reduction in the capitation tax, postponement of the deadline, payment for days of forced labor, and seizure of rice stocks from the landowners so they could be distributed among the poor peasants. A ferment not seen since the rural revolts of 1916! In the area of Saigon known as the red neighborhood blood ran in the streets: a dozen peasants were killed and many more were wounded.
Wholeheartedly at one with the starving people, I thrilled to news of their revenge. In July 1930, in Tan Tao village near Cholon, the huong truong (dignitary) Huot was gunned down. Toward the end of August, peasants attacked the Communal Houses where the notables assembled, including those of Xuan Thoi Tay, Tan Tru, Long Son, Chau Thoi and Chau Binh. In Tan Buu, they poured kerosene over the archives and set them on fire.
In Annam, on May 1, 1930, 1500 peasants from the Vinh area marched in silence, without placards, without flags and without arms, to the match factory in Ben Thuy to join the workers. The commander of the indigenous militia had stationed thirty men inside the factory and ordered them to open fire. Fifteen of the marchers were killed and countless others wounded. In the village of Hanh Lam (Thanh Chuong)* the peasants assembled to occupy the communal lands that had been annexed by a landowner, who was expanding his holdings at the expense of the village. Again, the same slaughter: 16 dead and 15 wounded. The villages of Yen Tha and Yen Phuc were burned to the ground.
The movement intensified across Annam, and from September on developed into an open insurrection. Demonstrators attacked the subprefectures of Nam Dan, Do Luong, Thanh Chuong, Nghi Loc (Nghe An), Can Loc, Ky Anh and Huong Son (Ha Tinh), cut telegraph lines, ransacked the native police stations, freed prisoners, set fire to railway stations and churches, and executed detested mandarins and notables. Two areas, Thanh Chuong and Nam Dan, were in total revolt. The militia no longer dared enter the villages. In October the insurrection reached Central Annam, where the subprefectures of Duc Pho (Quang Tri) and Son Tinh (Quang Ngai) were sacked.
In September 1930, in the villages of Nghe An which had been abandoned by the notables and the local militia, the peasants began organizing themselves into soviets [democratic councils]. They took over the administration and, without touching the landed property, proceeded to share out the communal land that had been annexed by the landlords. They confiscated the rice reserves and distributed them to the starving, allocated agricultural work collectively, abolished taxes, imposed lower farm rents on the landowners, and launched a literacy campaign. These soviets extended throughout the provinces of Ha Tinh, Can Loc, Thach Ha and Huong Son.
Repression matched the scale of the insurrection: aerial bombardment and machine-gun fire were used to disperse gatherings of peasants. The Foreign Legion, the Colonial Infantry and the Native Guard set villages on fire, hunted to death the fleeing villagers, and executed prisoners. On September 12, 1930, at Hung Nguyen, three kilometers from Vinh, carnage was inflicted from the skies; six bombs dropped from a plane killed more than 200 demonstrators.
Nevertheless, on the thirteenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, November 7, 1930, 1500 combatants launched an assault on the fortress of Phu Dien (Nghe An) and 600 attacked the military post at Can Loc (Ha Tinh).
In early 1931, insurgents killed the tri huyen (Subprefect) of Nghi Loc and threw his escort of militiamen into the river. In reprisal, 30 peasants were massacred and 200 arrested. In Quang Ngai province demonstrations multiplied, as well as marches on the local administrative centers, notably in Son Tinh and Mo Duc and in the center of the province.
In Cochinchina in March 1931 villagers sacked police stations, strung trip-wires across the roads, felled trees across the causeways, and dug little hollows in the road where they put planks full of nails to puncture the tires of any vehicles bringing reinforcements.
Parallel movements were taking place in the cities. Several days before May Day 1930 leaflets were already being circulated in the central markets and municipal workshops of Saigon, calling on workers to strike for the eight-hour day. Red banners appeared overnight in front of the offices of the Franco-Asiatic Oil Company and Standard Oil, bearing the slogans: WORKERS AND OPPRESSED PEOPLES OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE! DEMAND THE EIGHT-HOUR DAY! DOWN WITH FRENCH IMPERIALISM! WORKERS, PEASANTS, SOLDIERS, UNITE! INDOCHINESE COMMUNIST PARTY.*
The same day, the 250 coolies and workers at the Cho Quan central electrical works stopped work — an almost heroic act in the context of economic crisis and repression.
On January 13, 1931, a strike of 80 coolies broke out at Standard Oil in Nha Be in response to the firing of a fellow worker. Banners appeared in the districts of Da Kao, Tan Dinh and Khanh Hoi. In Saigon on Sunday, February 8, during the exodus from a soccer match a man spontaneously urged the crowd to commemorate the Yen Bai infantry uprising, which had taken place in February of the previous year. A Sûreté inspector, Legrand, tried to grab him and was killed by a revolver shot. That night, the zincographed pages of Co Vo San (Proletarian Flag) flooded the streets.
During March and April 1931, in Annam and Tonkin, committees and cells were broken up by the enemy. On May 1 alone, almost 500 demonstrators were massacred in Annam. Little by little, the movement disintegrated and dispersed into the population, which had been pushed to the limit by slow starvation as well as by the repression.
Between May 1930 and June 1931, I counted newspaper reports of no less than 120 peasant marches and more than twenty strikes in Cochinchina.
While the countryside was in turmoil, the trial in the case of the Rue Barbier crime opened in Saigon (July 15, 1930). Thirty-one members and sympathisers of the Thanh Nien (Revolutionary Youth League) had been indicted. Seventeen militants from other underground nationalist organizations were also appearing before the same court.
For me, the trial unveiled the mystery about the mutilated corpse found by the Sûreté in December 1928 and also revealed the implantation in Cochinchina of underground nationalist parties from Annam (the Tan Viet) and Tonkin (the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang — VNQDD). I was stunned at the verdict: death sentences for three of the Thanh Nien youth — Ngo Thiem, 22 years old; Nguyen Van Thinh, 24, and Tran Truong, 27; twenty years of forced labor for the prime instigator of the assassination, Ton Duc Thang, and eight years for Nguyen Trung Nguyet, 22, one of the two women implicated in the affair, whom I would later see in the Central Prison.
During the night of May 20-21, 1931, the guillotine was set up in front of the Saigon Central Prison for the three death sentences, while police cordons blocked off all the surrounding streets. Inside the prison during the hours and days that followed, the political prisoners — women and men — shouted unceasingly: Down with the white terror! Down with French imperialism! until fire hoses, bludgeons and leg irons finally enforced silence. On November 20, 1931, it was the turn of the teenager Huy (Ly Tu Trong), allegedly guilty of Inspector Legrand’s murder, to be beheaded. The prisoners set up an enormous din that reached beyond the prison walls and shook the whole area. The repression was merciless. The Central Prison was so overcrowded with the mass of detainees that new detention camps of straw huts were set up in the nearby town of Thi Nghe.
Every Sunday I biked back to my village with clandestine newspapers and leaflets hidden in the handlebars and read them to my peasant friends. Afterwards, I kept them in a bottle hidden in the bamboo hedge.
I continued my reading of Marx at the Saigon Public Library after work, registering under a false name. I struggled to understand Capital, but was fascinated by Marx’s notes giving concrete examples of capitalist barbarism.
I submitted an elegiac poem, Bien Ca Chieu Hom (Facing the Sea at Twilight), to an Annamite newspaper, and they published it as well as some short rustic vignettes about the hard life of the peasants. Some of my workmates reacted with friendly surprise. One of them, Phan Khanh Van, told me about what he had read at the My Tho high school — Balzac, Victor Hugo, Madame de Staël. He had written a novel and, wanting to submit it to a bourgeois journal, Nam Nu Gioi Chung, had met with one of its editors, Ho Huu Tuong. During their meeting Phan mentioned my attempts to translate the Communist Manifesto. Intrigued by this pastime, Ho Huu Tuong wanted to meet me. From the beginning his manner was trusting and friendly. He sensed my eagerness to act, and arranged a first meeting in an isolated corner of the Botanical Garden, behind the enclosure where deer grazed.
Initiating me into clandestinity, Ho Huu Tuong introduced me to Anh Gia (Eldest Brother), with whom I would work. Stunted in stature, Anh Gia looked older than his age to me. We soon became friends, and carried on numerous discussions sitting on the grass in isolated areas.
One day he gave me some pocket-format notebooks of handwritten texts duplicated on a jellygraph in violet ink. This was Thang Muoi (October), the theoretical organ of the Ta Doi Lap (Left Opposition). In it the Opposition criticized the Communist Party, a party that was oriented more toward the peasantry than to the workers, and the majority of whose leaders consisted of Moscow trainees”* who were peasants rather than workers. Rejecting the model of the professional revolutionary formed by the Stalinist school, Thang Muoi argued that it was necessary to bond with the rank-and-file urban workers and build a mass-based party.
Unfortunately, at work I found hardly anyone with whom I could discuss current events. The coolies, truck drivers, and office employees seemed unconcerned with what was going on. Even the workmate who sometimes surreptitiously passed me communist leaflets showed little interest. Yet the brute force of the colonial regime was ever present and increasingly provocative. Among other acts of bullying, my stomach churned at the spectacle of the French foreman violently kicking one of my coolie workmates.
The repression was so great that people were afraid to use words like cong hoi (labor union) and tranh dau (struggle). So I tried, not without difficulties, to discreetly bring together most of the coolies and the two truck drivers in a kind of mutual-aid association for the purpose of helping each other in cases of death, illness or other misfortune, as well as to foster a minimal sense of wage-slave fraternity. From time to time thirty or more of us would cautiously get together at one or another of our homes, on the pretext of celebrating a birthday or a marriage, or simply having a dinner party. (A meeting of more than 19 people without prior authorization was illegal.) I hid the record of the money collected in the lining of my cap.
One morning on arriving at work, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the coolies had refused to enter the workplace when the gates opened, and remained standing on the street. This was the first strike of the lowest-paid workers at Descours & Cabaud during the crisis-ridden years of endemic unemployment in the 1930s.
The next day they gathered again, sitting on the pavement on the other side of Boulevard de la Somme, 100 meters from the gates of the coolies’ entrance, presumably awaiting some response from the bosses. I put the money of our fraternal association at their disposal. In the afternoon they decided to go in and tell the Tay (the French) what they wanted. I acted as interpreter for the exchange between them and the company manager, Guyon, a snarling bald man with a huge paunch. Suddenly Péret appeared, my immediate boss, a thick, stocky guy who was sometimes rather paternalistic when he was in the mood. He grabbed me by the arm and dragged me to the corner where I worked in the other building. Jabbing his index finger in my belly, he shouted: Keep out of it, asshole, or you’ll be out on your ass! Understand?
The strikers demanded better pay and denounced the beatings and filthy insults. The slave-drivers gave no ground for the moment, but at the next payday the lowest wages were slightly raised.
At the beginning of 1932, Huynh Van Dam, who was alleged to have killed a Sûreté informer, was sentenced to death and guillotined. It was the third year of the economic crisis. Public works day laborers in Saigon were forced to accept a cut in their wages in exchange for no firings. Rickshaw pullers, who had been paying one piaster for a four-year license, were now obliged to obtain a new license lasting only one year for the same money. Reduced to beasts of burden, these men went on strike in Gia Dinh.
From August to November 1932 there were searches and arrests in Saigon-Cholon and police roundups in the provinces. Some sixty conspirators of the underground Communist Left Opposition group and a similar number from the Communist Party (which was in the process of reconstituting itself) were caught in the dragnet. Horrible statistics appeared in the Dépêche d’Indochine of February 2, 1933: between 1930 and the end of 1932, more than 12,000 political prisoners had been taken, of whom 88 were guillotined and almost 7000 were sentenced to years of prison or hard labor in the penal colonies. Three thousand detainees were still waiting in prison to learn their fate.
I was living beside the Cho Quan church in a partitioned apartment next to Anh Gia. One night in October 1932, I heard an alarming disturbance on the other side of the dividing wall: the Sûreté cops had broken in and were taking Anh Gia away, along with his eighteen-year-old partner Chi Muoi (real name Tran Thi Muoi), who had been one of the first Oppositionists within the Communist Party in 1931. The police turned the lodging house into a trap. I quietly slipped away, but when I pictured Anh Gia and Chi Muoi in the hands of the Sûreté torturers I felt like a part of myself had been captured. During the routine of my job, I rehearsed to myself the instructions in case of arrest. And as the days and weeks passed, I thought of the courage of those two, of all they must have suffered without breaking, since the police had not come to arrest me. I learned later in what condition the torturers had left Anh Gia. For a long time he was unable to stand up. I did not know then that my initiator, Ho Huu Tuong, had also been seized in the same raid. I learned what happened to my friends at their trial.
Anh Gia was one of the 21 militants from the Communist Left Opposition group (Ta Doi Lap) who were tried on May 1, 1933. Most of them were very young. He was sentenced to a year in prison, then sent to break rocks in the Chau Doc quarries. The main organizers, Ho Huu Tuong and Phan Van Chanh (but not Ta Thu Thau, who was tried later), who had both returned after some years in France, were given suspended sentences of three and four years. The others received prison terms of between four and eighteen months. But Nguyen Van Thuong and Pham Van Dong (who plunged a file into his throat when he was arrested) were hit with five and four years, plus restricted residence* of twenty and ten years, for the possession of revolvers. Pham Van Dong was kept until his death at Poulo Condore. Chi Muoi was acquitted. Despite the torture she had endured at the Sûreté, she did not hesitate to return to the struggle: it was she who, in 1935, distributed the clandestine pamphlets and leaflets of our Left Oppositionist group in the Stalinist-dominated rural regions.
On May 3, 1933, the enormous trial of 121 Communist Party members took place. The detainees were taken out of the Central Prison, handcuffed and chained to each other, and led across Rue Lagrandière to the Hall of Justice in the midst of chants, shouts and weeping from parents, wives and children, who were held back by the police. The courthouse was surrounded by a mass of civil guards and soldiers with bayonets fixed on their rifles.
This was the final act of the 1930-1931 peasant tragedy in Cochinchina. The majority of the participants came from the lower ranks of agricultural laborers, but also included coolies, typographers, electricians, lesser notables, teachers, office workers and soldiers, led by a handful of professional revolutionaries who had been trained in Moscow or Canton.
The tribunal accused them en bloc of constituting a secret society, plotting against state security, and criminal conspiracy”; disseminating propaganda leaflets and newspapers; clandestine formation of labor unions and peasant unions; organizing marches of the poor to demand reduction of taxes in 1930; stealing arms from the Camp des Mares in 1929; executing three police officials and killing a militiaman during a skirmish at Nha Be in 1930; and attacking a transport ship at My Tho. Rushed through in five days, the trial ended before dawn on May 7 with a verdict of death for eight of the accused. Ninety-eight were sentenced to the penal colonies — for life in the case of nineteen of them, including an 89-year-old man.
With the peasant movement decapitated, several insurgents, most of whom had passed some time in France — Nguyen Van Tao (a Stalinist communist), Ta Thu Thau, Phan Van Chanh and Huynh Van Phuong (Trotskyist Opposition communists), Tran Van Thach and Le Van Thu (Trotskyist sympathizers), and Trinh Hung Ngau (an anarchist) — regrouped around their elder, Nguyen An Ninh, and took the initiative of legally opposing the colonial regime during the Saigon City Council elections of April–May 1933.* They launched a weekly French-language newspaper, La Lutte [Struggle], thereby evading the requirement that every publication in the indigenous languages had to obtain prior authorization. Thus it was that the two communist tendencies, Stalinist and Trotskyist, formed a common front in 1933 within La Lutte. This unique alliance, at the very moment that in the USSR and everywhere else in the world Stalin and the Communist Parties loyal to him were hunting down anyone even remotely suspected of Trotskyism, lasted nearly three years. Stalinists and Trotskyists, in a joint struggle against their immediate enemies, the colonial regime and the bourgeois Constitutionalist Party, worked together to publish a newspaper for the defense of the workers, coolies and peasants. Nguyen An Ninh was the real linchpin. Every week, thanks to a network of well-placed sources, La Lutte assembled all the news and eye-witness reports it could find about workers (strikes, unions, wages, workplace accidents . . .) and peasants (plundering by landowners, extortion by notables, brutality of the colonists), and about trials, torture, police violence, and other abuses of the administration. For my part, I was also able to contribute news of movements in the plantations.
The Workers’ Slate (So lao dong) for the election was headed by the Stalinist Nguyen Van Tao and Tran Van Thach, who was close to the Trotskyists. I attended the meetings in April 1933 at the Thanh Xuong Theater, which was filled to overflowing by the common people of Saigon and infiltrated by Sûreté cops. The enthusiastic audience raised their hands to vote that Nguyen An Ninh should chair the meeting. Thus it was that I finally saw the face of the man whose struggles had gripped and inspired me since 1928-1929. He was flanked by Ta Thu Thau and Tran Van An.
For the first time workers and coolies heard through the voice of Tran Van Thach someone talking openly about the right to belong to a union and to strike, about the eight-hour day and universal suffrage. The candidates’ speeches were studded with taboo words — cong hoi (labor union), tu ban (capitalist), vo san (proletarian), bai cong (strike), giai cap tranh dau (class struggle) — which until then had only been secretly deciphered in clandestine leaflets.
In order to raise the large deposit needed for each candidate in the elections, Nguyen Van Tao had opened a small beer bar in the Old Market district. I took my workmates there in the evenings. On May 7, Nguyen Van Tao and Tran Van Thach were elected in the municipal elections. I, and I think many others, felt somewhat strengthened by this challenge to the arrogant colonial society — two candidates from a Workers’ Slate becoming part of the Saigon City Council. Nguyen Van Tao and Tran Van Thach became, as far as was possible, the voice of the dispossessed within this municipal body — until three months later when their election was annulled by the colonial regime.
At the beginning of September a third trial of communists began. Among the sixty-odd prisoners charged with reconstituting a party was Lu Sanh Hanh, a dissident who had been in touch with the Trotskyist Left Opposition in 1932. Meanwhile, I attended talks at the Center for Mutual Education given by Ta Thu Thau and Phan Van Hum on dialectics — a subject that, despite its difficulty, engendered enthusiasm in many young people, office employees, workers and teachers in those tumultuous times. But under pressure from the Sûreté, the Center soon closed its doors to these discussions.
I learned from the Dépêche d’Indochine that the spirit of rebellion had reached the forests. Unsubdued by civilization, the Moi tribesmen of the mountain area of Ba Ra had killed the Regional Administrator in October 1933. Militiamen and police responded by setting fire to all the straw huts in the Moi village and to the fields where the harvest was still waiting to be cut. Other recalcitrants of the forests, the Phnongs, retaliating for the pacification in the Haut-Chlong area, attacked military posts and inflicted severe losses on the colonial troops.
In 1934, I discovered Ta Thu Thau’s Trois mois à la Sûreté rue Catinat [Three Months at the Sûreté on Rue Catinat]. Ta Thu Thau described what happened in that gruesome building, situated on the liveliest and most beautiful street in Saigon. One evening, a cop pulled him out of his cell to take him up to the torture room at the top floor, shouting: Ah! This strapping fellow will be able to tolerate lots of blows! Ta Thu Thau started to yell. Lacombe, the chief, appeared, and assured him he would not be mistreated. Which turned out to be true. Lacombe preferred to work on him through his comrades, who were being tortured with no respite.
From his cell, Ta Thu Thau looked for a way to communicate with the other detainees. First he would hoist himself up to the spyhole at the top of the door to watch for the guards; then he would flatten himself on the cement floor, pressing his mouth and his ear in turn against the opening at the foot of the door. In this way he made the acquaintance of the young Nguyen Van Hoang, whose voice was so soft and so fragile. One evening Hoang, who had been horribly tortured, called out to him: Brother! I can’t bear it any more . . . They’ll start again tomorrow. I want to end it all tonight. With all his strength, Ta Thu Thau begged him not to let himself be broken. A little later, he heard a dull, heavy thud, then silence. The next morning, the cops found Hoang still alive; they left him there in his cell, naked, with his legs in irons, for two months. Every night, Ta Thu Thau would hear him rattling his chains weakly.
One night, there were dreadful moans again. The cops were bringing a woman on a stretcher back into her cell. Ta Thu Thau tried to speak to comrade Nguyen Thi My, but she was consumed by suffering. The next day she was transferred to the Central Prison, then to the hospital at Cho Quan. She died shortly after her release from prison.
On some nights Ta Thu Thau would hear other comrades, Nguyen Van Be, Nguyen Van Thuong and Dong, being dragged off for torture every two hours.
* * *
The wide world belongs to the vagabond (Nguyen An Ninh).
Saigon-Shanghai-Osaka, an account by a journalist engaged as a cabin boy on a Messageries Maritimes ship, was for me an irresistible invitation au voyage,* and I dreamed that some day I would take the same path toward the West (di Tay). Often, in the evenings after I left work (Descours & Cabaud was right on the port), I would sit on a bench at the edge of the Chinese Arroyo near the signal post and watch the comings and goings in the harbor, fearing that my dreams would all evaporate in the course of time like the plumes of gray smoke rising from the ships’ funnels.
But one day, among the straw huts next to the docks, I
managed to make contact with the wife of a sailor named Ty, who was in charge of
the laundrymen on the Aramis. If I coughed up 50 piasters — a whole month’s
wages — he would introduce me to his boss. This boss took me to the enrollment
office to obtain the necessary maritime passport, an impressive document which
featured all my fingerprints and described me in full anthropometric detail. And
there I was, signed on to the laundry team aboard the Aramis, the first
diesel-powered vessel of the Messageries Maritimes. I embarked without informing my family, my friends, my employer, or anyone else except my comrade in underground activity, Ho Huu Tuong, who gave me the address of a Trotskyist friend in Paris.
The ship weighed anchor in Saigon on March 3, 1934. The laundry team consisted of a dozen guys, natives of Annam and Tonkin except for Ty and me, who were both from Cochinchina. I was assigned to iron sheets. We worked in the poop and slept in the hold, lying on planks in rows like sardines. The Canton Chinese, employed in hostelry, and those from Shanghai who worked in the engine room, had separate sleeping quarters. The Italians were cabin boys and we saw them only rarely. Above the entrance to the Cantonese sleeping quarters was hung the inscription Bang huu nhu van (Friends are like the clouds), calligraphed on a strip of white muslin. The dark room, full of sleeping bodies, was fitfully illuminated here and there by the sputtering oil lamps of the opium smokers.
In the Indian Ocean, a heavy swell rocked the boat. The pitching and rolling made me so nauseous that I couldn’t stand up without vomiting. I dropped my work and ran to the hold to lie down. Annoyed at my desertion, my workmates came and pulled me from my plank berth. Finally I was transferred to sorting the linen.
On some days, the sea was so calm that a plate could float on it — bien tha dia khong chim, as my Tonkinese companions said. Flying fish, porpoises or dolphins preceded us, leaping out of the sea. . . .
After an interminable week in the Indian Ocean, the Aramis dropped anchor at Djibouti, an arid city of squat houses surrounded by wretched shantytowns. Not a single tree. The colonists took shelter, it was said, in the shade of palm trees made of zinc imported from France. . . .
The Red Sea; chains of black mountains, bare and torrid; then Suez. The ship slowly made its way through the canal bordered by deserts, passing silhouettes of camels advancing across the sand dunes. Then Port Said, where Arab peddlers clung to the topmost masts of their swaying craft, then leaped on board our ship to sell things to the crew — what, I don’t know. . . .
It was dark when the ship passed through the Strait of Messina, with its formidable currents, and it was there I saw for the first time a volcano: Stromboli, smoking in the dark sky. When we finally reached Marseilles, the journey had lasted three weeks.
Bassin de la Joliette. I was captivated by the animation of the port, the fast, decisive way men moved, and the women on high heels: clack-clack-clack . . . I had entered another time, another world, where life seemed accelerated.
But then I discovered that I had landed there in vain. In my haste to leave Saigon, I had not understood that you were only paid upon your return to the port where you signed on. My dream of going to Paris was crushed. It was a bitter blow. There was nothing I could do but resign myself to wandering around Marseilles for three weeks before embarking for the return. The Aramis was laid up and placed in dry dock; the guys in our laundry team showed up only to receive our rations of rice and nuoc mam [fermented fish sauce]. At night we returned to our sleeping quarters.
My first encounter was with Tu Cao (Fourth Razor), a somewhat elderly barber. He came to the port with his little work case every time a ship docked. He was originally from Saigon, and asked me what was happening in our country. He cut my hair for nothing and that evening invited me to a local pub. Standing at the bar, side by side with men sweating from their day’s labor, I drank for the first time a white wine cut with lemonade while listening to Tu Cao’s advice to be prudent. He then entrusted me to his friend Hon, who had time to show me around Marseilles a bit.
A former sailor who had been fired for drug smuggling, Hon was a stocky man whose adventures and misadventures (including some prison time) appeared etched on his craggy face. He hung around the docks, waiting for suppliers coming in from Constantinople or the ports of black Africa. He was also sought out by certain French opium addicts — I sometimes noticed them sneaking into the hold of the Aramis, where the Cantonese sleeping quarter was transformed into a temporary smoking den.
What Hon lived on in between the arrivals of suppliers was not clear. Odd jobs, minor trafficking in blue denims from Shanghai or unmarked cigarette lighters from Singapore . . . He knew all the tricks for slipping things past the customs officers.
One night, when he was taking me through the slum areas clustered around the Old Harbor where the drawbridge still operated, he suddenly darted into one of the dives full of smoke and deafening jazz. I stopped in the doorway. A very beautiful young woman came out. With a seductive smile on her lips, she said, Hey, honey, do you want to come with me? She beckoned me to follow her up to her garret. Panic-stricken, I ran off as fast as my legs could carry me.
The Aramis weighed anchor late one afternoon. France slipped into the distance like the promised land. I arrived back in Saigon on May 13, 1934.
* * *
I was able to return to my job at Descours & Cabaud. My bosses swallowed the stories I made up to account for my disappearance. Back in the daily grind, I revived our fraternal association. Among my workmates, only the coolie Vo Van Don was awakened to social struggles, and we often found ourselves together during subsequent adventures.
I met again with Ho Huu Tuong, who introduced me one day to Lu Sanh Hanh, a former Communist Party dissident who had just been released from prison. On May 2, 1935, a thunderbolt hit the opponents of the imperialist order: Stalin and Laval signed the Franco-Soviet Mutual Assistance Pact, which officially approved of France’s development of military power. The French Communist Party would henceforth strive to stifle any antimilitarist spirit and to defend the integrity of the French Empire. The Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) gradually aligned itself with this position, despite inevitable internal resistance. La Lutte, the journal in which Stalinists and Trotskyists collaborated, kept silent. There was an urgent need to criticize the new line imposed on the ICP, but the legal Trotskyistes were bound by their agreement to a common front with the Stalinists in La Lutte. Faced with this submission to Stalinist nationalism, Lu Sanh Hanh and I and another comrade named Trinh Van Lau decided to create the League of Internationalist Communists for the Construction of the Fourth International.
We feared that the victory of Vietnamese nationalism over French imperialism would simply mean the rise of an indigenous bourgeoisie, and that the desperate condition of the exploited workers and peasants would remain the same as ever.
While providing for my daily rice kept me chained to Descours & Cabaud during the day, my nights were occupied in working with a young typographer to set up a clandestine printing press, which we put together with salvaged components. I learned to set type, and we were able to bring out one issue of a printed theoretical journal, Cach Mang Thuong Truc (Permanent Revolution), which circulated clandestinely. Toward the end of 1935, our group also started a mimeo newsletter, Tien Dao (Vanguard). Faced with La Lutte’s silence on the Laval-Stalin Pact, in our clandestine newsletter we denounced the alliance between the USSR and French imperialism.
The first practical action of our group was to support the striking wagon drivers. The drivers of the matchboxes (light two-wheeled carriages) were up in arms against harassment aimed at eliminating them in favor of the French Streetcar Company [Compagnie Française des Tramways]. By December 25, 1935, almost 100% of the workers had joined the strike. The next day, delegates representing some 3000 drivers from Saigon-Cholon and from the suburbs of Ba Diem, Phu Nhuan, Khanh Hoi, Cho Dui and Cho Quan demonstrated in Saigon’s Central Marketplace, demanding that the newly elected Stalinist and Trotskyist city councilmen intervene.
The repression was fierce. The Sûreté took over the La Lutte office and arrested Nguyen Van Tao, Tran Van Thach, Duong Bach Mai, and the recently elected councilman Ta Thu Thau, charging them with interfering with the freedom to work.
We were in increasing danger, and moved our printing press several times.
The attempt to rebuild the Communist Party in Cochinchina by a group of Moscow trainees led by Tran Van Giau was completely destroyed. At the trial of forty Communist militants, twenty-four were sentenced, most of them being deported to Poulo Condore.
For our part, we continued our underground agitation in the workplaces and continued to discreetly distribute — including in Stalinist circles — our newsletter Tien Dao and our journal Cach Mang Thuong Truc.
Then, in June 1936, explosive news arrived from France. With the coming to power of the Popular Front government, led by Léon Blum and supported by the Communist Party, French workers had gone on strike and occupied factories throughout the country. Had the days of hope also finally arrived for us colonial slaves? Our Internationalist League decided to call on our brothers and sisters to storm the gates of hell.
It was at that moment, Wednesday, June 10, just as we were going into action, that our group fell into the hands of the Sûreté.
*See Translators Notes.
Chapter 3 from Ngo Van’s book In the Crossfire: Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary (AK Press, 2010).
In the Crossfire is a translation of Ngo Van’s Au pays de la Cloche fêlée (Paris: L’Insomniaque, 2000) and of excerpts from Ngo Van’s Au pays d’Héloïse (L’Insomniaque, 2005). It has been edited by Ken Knabb and Hélène Fleury and translated by Hélène Fleury, Hilary Horrocks, Ken Knabb and Naomi Sager.