Philippe M. F. Peycam, The Birth of Vietnamese Political Journalism: S├аi G├▓n, 1916-1930.

New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. Pp. xi, 320; maps, list of abbreviations, notes, bibliography, index.

Reviewed by Haydon L. Cherry.

It was the spring of hope; it was the winter of despair. On 21 March 1926, fifteen hundred people, including street vendors, school teachers, and students congregated on the Rue Lanzarotte in S├аi G├▓n. At the meeting, Phan Tr╞░╞бng Mс║бnh announced the illegal foundation of the Annam Youth Party and called for all of those assembled to join. The young Vietnamese journalist L├вm Hiс╗Зp Ch├вu distributed a new newspaper titled Jeune Annam to the crowd. Leaflets, extremely critical of the colonial government and carrying the names of the radical journalists Eugène Dejean de la Batie and Nguyс╗Еn An Ninh, circulated. On the morning of 24 March, the colonial authorities arrested the three journalists. Thousands gathered that evening on the pier of the Messageries Maritimes to await the return from France of B├╣i Quang Chi├кu, the editor of the S├аi G├▓n newspaper La Tribune Indigène and a proponent of moderate political reform. French agitators who opposed B├╣i Quang Chi├кu tried to start a riot as he disembarked. The arrest of Nguyс╗Еn An Ninh had alarmed the increasingly incendiary youth who had also learned that the great patriot, Phan Ch├вu Trinh, had died during the previous night. At a rally the following day, B├╣i Quang Chi├кu failed to denounce the arrest of Nguyс╗Еn An Ninh, to the dismay of the restive youth. On 4April, a funeral procession of seventy thousand people paraded through S├аi G├▓n to a mausoleum for Phan Ch├вu Trinh in T├вn S╞бn Nhс║еt. Strikes and demonstrations against French rule broke out in the weeks that followed. Radical activism had replaced more quiescent attempts at reform. The press was transformed, as Vietnamese journalism became more dramatic and confrontational. But by the end of the year political protest had moved from the pages of S├аi G├▓n’s newspapers to the pavements of its streets. Contest in the press had given way to mass mobilization and militancy.

Political debate first emerged in S├аi G├▓n newspapers at the end of the First World War. With the encouragement of Governor-General Albert Sarraut, B├╣i Quang Chi├кu and Nguyс╗Еn Ph├║ Khai founded the French-language Tribune Indigène in August 1917. It was the first Vietnamese-owned political broadsheet. B├╣i Quang Chi├кu was the editor-in-chief and Nguyс╗Еn Ph├║ Khai the publisher. Both men were members of the new Vietnamese urban social elite of Cochin China. B├╣i Quang Chi├кu was born into a scholar-gentry family from Bến Tre in the Mekong Delta and educated at the ├Йcole coloniale and the Institut national agronomique, both in Paris. After returning to Cochin China he worked as an agricultural engineer. He involved himself in the Société d’enseignement mutuel and helped found the Association amicale des anciens élèves du Collège ChasseloupLaubat. By 1918, he was president of both. Nguyс╗Еn Ph├║ Khai, the son of a retired administrator in the colonial civil service, was born into a Catholic family from B├а Rс╗Лa to the southeast of S├аi G├▓n. La Tribune Indigène described itself as “the barometer of Vietnamese public opinion” (p. 81) but usually took a moderately conservative approach to political and social issues such as the electoral franchise.

After the appearance of La Tribune Indigène, newspaper publishing in S├аi G├▓n flourished. Within two years, the city boasted no fewer than seven newspapers in romanised Vietnamese and another one in French, all directed at Vietnamese readers.

Nguyс╗Еn Phan Long founded L’├Йcho Annamite with the support of the colonial government in 1920. He was the newspaper’s main contributor and eventually became its director and sole proprietor. Born in H├а Nс╗Щi, Nguyс╗Еn Phan Long returned to his father’s home region of Cochin China in 1916 and worked as a customs official before turning to journalism. L’├Йcho Annamite, like La Tribune Indigène, opposed various government policies but adopted a conciliatory rather than a confrontational stance.

Over time, the tone of Vietnamese-language newspapers old and new, such as N├┤ng Cс╗Х M├нn ─Р├аm [Agricultural Affairs], C├┤ng Luс║нn B├бo [Public Opinion], ─Р├┤ng Ph├бp Thс╗Эi B├бo [Indochina Times], and Nam Kс╗│ Kinh Tế B├бo [Cochin China Economic Journal], became less didactic and moralistic and more politically engaged and critical. The editorial influence of an older generation of writers such as Nguyс╗Еn Ch├бnh Sс║пt, L├к Hoс║▒ng M╞░u, and Hс╗У Văn Trung gave way to a newer generation of intellectuals, including Cao Văn Ch├бnh, Nguyс╗Еn H├бo V─йnh, Cao H├гi ─Рс╗Г, and L├вm Hiс╗Зp Ch├вu. They wrote for a small but increasingly educated, politically and economically aspirant, and censorious readership.

The Vietnamese press and its readership became more radical during les années folles of the early 1920s. In 1923, Vietnamese readers learned that the colonial government intended to allow a consortium of French financial interests to develop new facilities for the port of S├аi G├▓n and to manage those facilities for a term of fifteen years. Newspapers such as La Vérité, La Voix libre, Saigon Républicain, N├┤ng Cс╗Х M├нn ─Р├аm, and C├┤ng Luс║нn B├бo opposed the proposal, while others, including L’Impartial, its Vietnamese-language counterpart Trung Lс║нp B├бo, Le Courrier Sa├пgonnais, Le Progrès Annamite, and Lс╗еc Tс╗Йnh T├вn Văn [News of the Six Provinces], supported the plan and suffered a decline in readership as a result.

In the wake of the port monopoly affair, an eccentric young retour de France named Nguyс╗Еn An Ninh began to publish La Cloche F├кlée. The newspaper became so popular that its weekly print run reached 2,000 and accounted for just under ten percent of the total sales of the Saigon press. In issue after issue, Nguyс╗Еn An Ninh and Eugène Dejean de la B├вtie, the illegitimate son of a French diplomat and a Vietnamese street vendor, passionately attacked the venal governor of Cochin China, Maurice Cognacq, and his corrupt administration.

After the presses at La Cloche F├кlée stopped in 1924, L’Indochine, founded in 1925 by Paul Monin and the future French culture minister André Malraux, and ─Р├┤ng Ph├бp Thс╗Эi B├бo, edited by Trс║зn Huy Liс╗Зu, became the two S├аi G├▓n newspapers most critical of the colonial administration. But the tumultuous events of spring 1926 led the authorities to arrest muckrakers in the press and demonstrators on the streets. Newspapers such as T├вn Thế Kс╗╖ [New Century], a Vietnamese-language daily which sold an average of six thousand copies per issue, directly criticized the colonial government and its censors. Other journals, including C├┤ng Gi├бo ─Рс╗Уng Thinh [Catholic Voice], marshalled readers around particular causes such as the social plight of rickshaw pullers. Vietnamese newspaper became less and less venues for reasoned opposition and debate and more and more tools of political mobilization.

In The Birth of Vietnamese Political Journalism, Philippe Peycam describes the evolution of the “newspaper village” (l├аng b├бo) in colonial S├аi G├▓n in terms of the transformation of the “public sphere.” This concept comes from German critical theorist J├╝rgen Habermas’s 1962 Habilitationschrift, entitled Strukturwandel der ├Цffentlichkeit. Untersuchungen zu einer Kategorie der b├╝rgerlichen Gesellschaft [The Structural Transformation of the Public: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society]. Habermas argues that a “bourgeois public sphere” of open, rational debate among private individuals first developed in the absolutist states of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Europe and then declined during the rest of the nineteenth century and in the twentieth. The Habilitationschrift was translated into French in 1978 and into English only in 1989. It soon became an important theoretical inspiration for historians of early modern Europe, and later for historians of modern Asia.

Peycam’s interpretation of Habermas shares three important similarities with the works of other historians inspired by the German theorist. First, Peycam is principally concerned with the first part of Habermas’s book, which addresses the emergence and consolidation of the public sphere during its early history. Second, Peycam conceives of the public sphere mainly in spatial terms. He relies on the French translation of Habermas’s Habilitationschrift, which renders the title as L’Espace public: Archéologie de la publicité comme dimension constitutive de la société bourgeoise. The English translation of the work’s title, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Enquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, similarly imports a spatial metaphor by translating ├Цffentlichkeit (“public,” “publicity,” “publicness”) as “public sphere.” The main implication of this spatial metaphor is to conceive of the “public” as having a location (in print, in this case), rather than being the quality of a group of individuals in association. Third, Peycam is only superficially concerned with the economic basis for the changes in Vietnamese journalism that he describes. Habermas, on the other hand, links his discussion of the transformation of the public sphere in Europe to the growth of capitalist relations of production.

Deeper engagement with Habermas has much to offer historians of modern Vietnam. The newspapers that Peycam discusses published not only journalism and political commentary but also advertisements for Job cigarettes, Nestlé condensed milk, Citro├лn automobiles, French-educated Vietnamese doctors, the Pharmacie Solirène, jewellers, and the Eden cinema, among many others. The economy of Cochin China and its capital S├аi G├▓n boomed after the First World War, buoyed by the growth of the Asian rice trade. Vietnamese readers encountered not only new political ideas and debates but also new commodities and services, often on facing pages of the same broadsheets and tabloids. They formed new political aspirations and new economic wants, needs, and tastes at the same time. One of the strengths of Habermas’s theory is that it suggests that changes in political debate can be linked to economic changes, particularly changes in consumption. At the end of the 1920s, as the colonial economy went into decline and then suffered the shock of the Great Depression, it became harder and harder for young, educated, middle-class Vietnamese to satisfy the new tastes and needs that they had developed in the preceding decade. The shift from rational debate to radicalism in the press mirrored changes in its readers’ wealth and purchasing power.

The Birth of Vietnamese Political Journalism reveals the vibrant political debates that took place in the S├аi G├▓n press after the end of the First World War. And it offers striking portraits of a range of French and Vietnamese writers, journalists, and intellectuals. Historians of Vietnam will find in the volume abundant theoretical and documentary resources for making sense of the bewildering economic, social, and political changes that swept through French Indochina in the early twentieth century.

Haydon L. Cherry is Assistant Professor of History at the North Carolina State University.


J├╝rgen Habermas, Strukturwandel der ├Цffentlichkeit: Untersuchungen zu einer Kategorie der b├╝rgerlichen Gesellschaft. Darmstadt & Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1962.

J├╝rgen Habermas, L’├Йspace public: Archéologie de la publicité ╠Б comme dimension constitutive de la société bourgeoise. Translated by Marc de Launay. Paris: Payot, 1978.

J├╝rgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Enquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Translated by Thomas Burger. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991.