Last Church Standing: Resisting Demolition in Ho Chi Minh City

by Erik Harms, author of Luxury and Rubble: Civility and Dispossession in New Saigon

This guest post is published in conjunction with the Association for Asian Studies conference in Toronto. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on March 19th.

Since January of this year, Ho Chi Minh City residents and intellectuals have been increasingly rallying around the fate of the Thủ Thiêm Catholic Church and the neighboring convent of the Lovers of the Holy Cross. These architecturally and religiously significant structures currently face the prospect of demolition. The church, which still fills its pews with worshippers at its regular Sunday masses, and the convent, which is still home to an active congregation of nuns who have diligently maintained their historic buildings and grounds, both stand in the middle of a major urban redevelopment scheme called the Thủ Thiêm New Urban Zone. Surrounded by the rubble of mass eviction, the story of these religious structures provides a useful counterpoint to the story of more than 14,500 individual households who have been displaced by the project over the course of more than a decade.


Thủ Thiêm Catholic Church and Convent of the Lovers of the Holy Cross, viewed from Ho Chi Minh City’s District One. Once surrounded by dense neighborhoods, all of which have been demolished, the church is itself threatened by demolition. Photo by Erik Harms. June 2016.


In 2010 the pace of eviction and demolition picked up rapidly in Thủ Thiêm as many residential areas were reduced to rubble. Photo by Erik Harms. September 2010.


The story of the Thủ Thiêm New Urban Zone is detailed in the recent UC Press book, Luxury and Rubble: Civility and Dispossession in the New Saigon. This new urban development, which is being built directly across the Saigon River from Ho Chi Minh City’s central commercial and shopping District, has been saddled with controversy. Throughout the project’s development, the biggest dispute surrounding its construction has swirled around the amount of compensation being offered to individual households who were asked to give up their homes and land to make way for the project. Luxury and Rubble details the ways in which the compensation process itself gradually drew residents into a largely monetized mode of negotiation with project authorities. This process, in turn, transformed how people in the area conceived of land and rights. Their negotiations over land-use rights framed their understanding of rights by focusing on “money and meters,” that is, how many square meters residents would be compensated for and how much money each square meter was deemed to be worth. In the process, evicted residents learned to fight for their right to receive just compensation based on market values. But in doing so, they also started to think of land primarily in terms of its monetary value, which in turn conflates the act of fighting for one’s rights with gaining the market-based value of land.

By contrast, the fight to preserve the Thủ Thiêm Catholic Church and the convent of the Lovers of the Holy Cross employs a very different idiom. Instead of focusing on the monetary value of the land, this fight is has been framed in terms of preserving the cultural and religious value of the structures. For example, in a post to its facebook page on January 12th, the Consulate General of Canada in Ho Chi Minh City posted the question: “Do you think it’s a good idea to demolish something that is even older than Canada?” In a follow-up post on January 25th, the consulate page noted: “Nearly 100% of comments made were in favour of integrating historic buildings such as the Thu Thiem Convent and Parish Church into new urban developments.”

The fact that the Thủ Thiêm church remains standing, while all the individual houses surrounding it have been demolished, makes it worth considering what strategies might be most successful in helping to resist eviction. In this case, resistance is most successful when it rejects the marketized idioms of land compensation and instead focuses on alternative idioms of justice that cannot be calculated in terms of money and meters.

Erik Harms is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Southeast Asia Studies at Yale University and the author of Saigon’s Edge: On the Margins of Ho Chi Minh City.

Luxury and Rubble is currently available as a free, open access eBook as part of our Luminos program. Read it online now.

Challenging the Notion of “Globalization” as a 21st Century Phenomenon

by George Dutton, author of A Vietnamese Moses: Philiphê Binh and the Geographies of Early Modern Catholicism

This guest post is published in conjunction with the Association for Asian Studies conference in Toronto. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on March 19th.

In the second decade of the twenty-first century it has become a truism that we have finally entered the era of the “globalized.” It takes little effort for historians to produce a wide range of evidence to suggest that this is not the case, and that the phenomenon of “globalization” is one found already in the ancient worlds. This is particularly true with respect to the various “world religions” that emerged between the 5th century BCE and the 7th century CE, each of which gradually, and occasionally rapidly, travelled to distant corners of the globe. A particularly good example is Roman Catholicism, whose initial spread was relatively modest, but which then took advantage of the sailing ships of the “Age of Discovery” to span the globe. Unlike the other world religions, Catholicism has developed an elaborated ecclesiastical hierarchy that reaches around the world with implications for local Christian communities.

Over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, agents of the Christian church reached the farthest corners of Asia and slowly built up communities of local Catholics. One of these groupings was founded in the coastal reaches of the Red River in the northern part of what is today Vietnam, and was then often called Tonkin. Initiated by Portuguese Jesuits, this community of Catholics grew to several hundred thousand in less than half a century. These mission fields soon drew the attention of other orders – Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, and secular mission societies – and priests from a range of nations – Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Ireland, among others.

The Christians in coastal Tonkin found themselves both served by the European priests that were in their midst, and profoundly shaped by ecclesiastical conflicts and decisions emanating from the Catholic centers of power in Rome and the Iberian Peninsula. While local Christians experienced a substantial measure of autonomy imparted by distance and the logistics of communication, they were still subject to church politics in Europe. Thus, the papal recall of all Jesuits priests in Tonkin in 1678 sent shockwaves through the community. The order to divide Tonkin into two vicariates that same year further shook the local Catholic communities, who found themselves now experiencing elements of their faith in ways shaped by differentiated approaches to ritual and emphasis. A century later the formal dissolution of the entire Jesuit Order in 1773 further rattled Tonkinese Catholics, now finding themselves subject to new ecclesiastical leadership whose dictates and expectations were often at variance with their long-standing traditions.

While those loyal to the deep rooted Portuguese Jesuit tradition defied their new overseers, this was not sustainable and in 1796 they dispatched one of their own, the recently ordained Vietnamese priest, Father Philiphê Binh, to Portugal on their behalf. This community understood the global forces of Catholicism, and the nuances of its politics. They became active participants in defense of their traditions and sending their emissary to Europe was an indication of their engagement in the church politics of the period. Vietnamese Catholics recognized, far more than most Vietnamese, the degree to which they themselves lived in an era of “globalization.” What happened beyond their borders in remote political capitals had profound and measurable impacts upon both their material and spiritual lives.

Father Binh’s emergence as a priest and representative of his community on a journey half way around the world to defend its spiritual traditions is the subject of my book. While in substantial measure it is the story of a particular man and the complex contours of his life, it is also very much a tale of the ways in which eighteenth-century religious globalization had profound repercussions for Catholics in Tonkin. It is thus a reminder that peoples in seemingly remote corners of the globe were already then active participants in a world where the reach of ideas and politics was no less extensive than in the twenty-first century, even if it travelled at the speed of sailing ships rather than fiber optics.

George E. Dutton is Professor of Vietnamese History in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures and Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

A Vietnamese Moses is currently available as a free, open access eBook as part of our Luminos program. Read it online now.

Dealing in Desire

By Kimberly Kay Hoang, author of Dealing in Desire: Asian Ascendancy, Western Decline, and the Hidden Currencies of Global Sex Work

This guest post is published in advance of the American Sociological Association conference in Chicago. Check back every day for new posts through the end of the conference on Tuesday, August 25th. 

White guys are nothing in Vietnam. Back at home they think they are the shit but they got nothing on us Asians.” When I asked, “How?” Hiep responded, “It’s simple. White guys order beer, Viet Kieus order bottles, and, well, Vietnamese they order Blue.”



What new perspective does Dealing in Desire provide in the study of sex work around the world?

Dealing in Desire advances research on global sex work that tends to focus overwhelmingly on female sex workers and either overlooks the experiences of their male counterparts or focuses primarily on Western men. Interestingly, while most research assumes that wealthy Western men brokering capital deals command the high-end sexual markets, in this Asian-centered economy, local elites and Asian businessmen command the highest paying niche markets. Men in these different niche markets participate in different projects that involve divergent understandings of Vietnam’s place and future in the global economy.

What role does the Vietnamese sex industry play in the wider global economy?

In Vietnam, foreign direct investments are not disembodied flows of global economic capital. People broker capital deals. Foreign investments are embodied in entrepreneurial relations that are largely male-dominated and heavily influenced by existing practices established in China, Japan, and South Korea where men rely heavily on the sex industry to facilitate informal social relations of trust as foreign investors embed themselves in the local economy. Much of this has to do with the shifting sources of foreign capital entering Vietnam following the 2008 global recession. By 2010, the six leading contributors were Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia, Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong. These shifting sources of capital overtook both Western investments and overseas remittances, giving an Asian face to wealth in Vietnam for the first time.

For businessmen tied to Asian finance capital, the sex industry allows men to broker deals by projecting confidence in the Vietnamese market. For Western men and overseas Viet Kieus largely excluded from the segment of the sex industry linked to business transactions and FDI flows—as the vast majority of FDI into Vietnam comes primarily from Asia—the sex industry serves a different purpose, allowing men to displace their status anxieties onto women’s bodies.

How does this relate to the “Asian ascendancy” that you refer to in your book’s subtitle, and what complicating factors remain in studying this rising market?

Taken together, the niche markets that cater to local Vietnamese businessmen, Viet Kieus, Western businessmen, and Western budget travelers highlight how the commodification of sexual labors can have multiple and varied effects as male clients and female sex workers negotiate their changing status—either by embracing the shifts in global capital flows that bolstered Asia’s ascendancy or by reproducing old regimes of global power that hinge on Western dominance. Local Vietnamese men and their Asian business partners fall on one end of the spectrum in a niche market where relations of intimacy are tied to the trappings of East and Southeast Asian foreign direct investments. At the other end, intimate relations are tied to the trappings of paternalistic charitable giving from Western nations.

Dealing in Desire explores how high finance and overseas economic remittances are inextricably intertwined with relationships of intimacy. Madams in high-end hostess bars provided local elite Vietnamese businessmen with the space that was crucial for clients to build trust to secure business deals with investors from East and Southeast Asia. The bars in provide a window into the racialized sexual desires, competing status claims, capitalist greed, and hope for economic mobility that drive sex workers and their clients into bars. As such, different configurations of racialized desires, social status, business success, and hope for upward mobility all play out differently in the bars of Vietnam where shrewd deals are made to fulfill global fantasies.



Kimberly Kay Hoang is Assistant Professor of Sociology and the College at the University of Chicago.

Vietnamese Refugees as the Newest Asian American ‘Model Minority’?

by Yen Espiritu

The socioeconomic conditions in which most Vietnamese children found themselves have been greatly insecure, “comparable only to those encountered by children of the most underprivileged native minority group.”[i] And yet, since the late 1980s, scholars, along with the mass media and policymakers, have depicted the Vietnamese as the newest Asian American “model minority.” In Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refuge(es) (UC Press, 2014), I argue that Vietnamese American attempts at prosperity are often valiant, if not always successful, efforts to manage and compensate for the personal and material losses incurred by their families during and after the Vietnam war.

Having witnessed their parents’ economic anxiety and experienced its tolls on all of their lives, many of the sixty second-generation Vietnamese I interviewed felt deeply and personally responsible for realizing their parents’ dream of “making it” in the United States. Their investment in success and money is meant to improve the lot and status of their families, and not only or primarily about the pursuit of personal achievements. This investment in intergenerational economic mobility is thus much more than a reflection of “Vietnamese core cultural values”: their alleged strong work ethic, high regard for education, and family values. Rather, it exhibits the poignant and complex ways in which Vietnamese refugees and their children use public achievements to address the lingering costs of war, to manage intimacy, to negotiate family tensions, and to assure their social position and dignity in the racially and economically stratified United States.

I thus offer an alternative explanation for the postwar generation’s seeming drive to succeed: what appears to be an act of economic assimilation on the part of the “generation after”—an act of moving beyond the war—is in actuality an index of the ongoing costs of war, not only for the witnesses and survivors but also for their children.


[i] Zhou, Min. 2001. “Straddling Different Worlds: The Acculturation of Vietnamese Refugee Children.” In Ethnicities: Children of Immigrants in America, edited by Ruben Rumbaut and Alejandro Portes. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, p. 194.


Yen Le Espiritu is Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, San Diego. She is the author of Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refugees, and the award-winning Home Bound: Filipino American Lives across Cultures, Communities, and Countries.


Remembering JFK

November 22nd marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Few American figures are as iconic as JFK, and UC Press joins the millions of Americans today in remembering our admired president.

Shooting KennedyTwo related books have garnered headlines around the anniversary, helping analyze the legacy and controversy around JFK and the Kennedy family.

David Lubin’s Shooting Kennedyexamines the allure of iconic images of the Kennedys, using them to illuminate the entire American cultural landscape. The author has been cited in the past week in the The Wall Street Journal, Business Insider, and BagNews.

Lubin is also a contributor to the catalog for Hotel Texas: An Art Exhibition for the President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy, which runs until January 12, 2014.


Deep PoliticsPeter Dale Scott’s Deep Politics and the Death of JFK, is a well researched inquiry into the shadowy world of politics that so characterized the Cold War and, especially, the Kennedy administration. Scott argues that JFK’s death was not just an isolated case, but rather a symptom of hidden processes within the deep politics of early 1960s American international and domestic policies.

Scott’s book was listed as required reading in the recent Salon article titled JFK Assassination: CIA and New York Times are Still Lying to Us.

Other excellent resources to learn more:

JFK exhibit at the Newseum in Washington D.C., on display through January 5, 2014

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, MA

The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, TX

Writing War Comes to Long An

When Jeffrey Race boarded a ship to Vietnam in 1965, he was not planning to write the ultimate resource on the Vietnamese conflict. As he notes in a recent article in Small Wars Journal, he had envisioned a quiet life teaching political science in New England, but history took a different course.

In the article Race recalls how a combination of intellectual curiosity and circumstances led him to write War Comes to Long An, the book that changed his life and possibly altered the course of history. “A lot of people are alive today”, he remembers a friend in the White House telling him, “who would be dead if you had not written that book.”

He explores how, by pursuing his own interests, he became an unintentional scholar of revolution and counterrevolution in Vietnam, and how War Comes to Long An, praised for its unbiased approach and unprecedented analysis of social and political movements in the province of Long An, became part of the official military doctrine. Race remarks on the larger message present in his work: the irrational thinking that can creep into political and economic decisions, and how avoiding the disastrous results of these errors is an individual responsibility.

Excerpt from the article:

“Now being reprinted in an updated and expanded edition, War Comes to Long An was first published in 1972 and was the book I longed to buy in 1965 as the most junior lieutenant in Vietnam—but could nowhere find. Thereby hangs this tale of my adventures then in Vietnam and since elsewhere—a tale with implications for the creative process in academic writing, for the study of institutional change and of the learning disabilities of military institutions, and of priorities in public policy-making in America and elsewhere.”

Read the rest of Jeffrey Race’s article War Comes to Long An, Back Story to the Writing of a Military Classic, in Small Wars Journal.

Stein Tønnesson: Counterfactual History: Could War in Vietnam Have Been Avoided?

In this post, Stein Tønnesson, author of Vietnam 1946: How the War Began, recalls a debate he had with a colleague about events leading up to war between France and Vietnam, and whether or not war was inevitable. __________________________________________________________

Last year I shocked my colleague David G. Marr, who is working on a monumental study of Vietnam 1945-50, by stating that if the war between France and Vietnam had not broken out on December 19, 1946, it would have broken out in 1947 instead, in October at the latest.

“Why?” he asked:  “What about Barjot et al warning about the costs in money and manpower?” He knew from reading Philippe Devillers’ and my books that Admiral Pierre Barjot and others had been warnings that France could not afford a drawn-out war, but they were disavowed by Chief-of-Staff General Alphonse Juin, and the mood in French politics was not such that it would let money decide in a question of national prestige.

On the Vietnamese side, Marr continued, “it’s possible that Ho Chi Minh and Giap would have lost authority over local militia who became fed up with talks dragging on for months and months, and started shooting Frenchmen of their own volition.” But if this happened only in the south, Ho Chi Minh might have washed his hands of the troublemakers and signed a settlement for northern Vietnam, plus a clause promising a referendum on union with Nam Bo [the southern region] in an unspecified future. Marr asked: “Could the French government of the day have proceeded on that basis?” I did not answer then, but I answer now that the French would have insisted on maintaining full control of the northern port city Haiphong as well, and I doubt that Ho Chi Minh was prepared to give up the south even temporarily in exchange for an agreement covering only the north. This was what he had resisted in 1946.

If December 19 had not happened, then France and Vietnam would probably have maintained a kind of uneasy modus vivendi for a few months longer with a series of unsuccessful talks, while both parties prepared for war. And once the French communists had been forced to leave the French government in May, and the position of the Socialist Minister of Overseas France Marius Moutet was so much weakened that he had to give up his portfolio to the more bellicose Christian Democrat Paul Coste-Floret in October, the French government would have decided to strike out. It was only then that the French government excluded any prospect of resuming talks with Ho Chi Minh and launched Operation Lea on October 7 in an attempt to capture the Vietnamese president and his government.

After I had presented my arguments, it was my turn to be shocked when Marr asked: “If war would have occurred in 1947 anyway, what’s the point of your exquisite analysis of Nov-December 1946?” Ahem! It’s true that I’ve spent much of my adult life researching the circumstances of the outbreak of the First Indochina War in 1946. Why have I prioritized my life in such a silly way if I don’t think the war could have been avoided?

Well. First, the story of how it happened is a fascinating tragedy. I’ve been consumed by it the way you can be consumed by a tragic novel. Second, it does provide a case study of how lower level bureaucrats and commanders can obstruct a government’s decision-making; this is useful political science. Third, the hesitations on both sides before the prospect of a drawn-out war are interesting in themselves, especially for peace researchers who would like to see more such hesitation. Fourth, even if the war could not probably have been avoided, it would have made a difference if the fragile peace of 1946 had lasted half a year longer. This would have given President Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap more time to strengthen their forces, institutions and support both nationally and internationally.

Yet it would of course have been neat if I could have said in my book Vietnam 1946 that if war had not broken out on December 19, 1946, there would not have been any Indochina War, no Dien Bien Phu, no Diem murder, no Tonkin Gulf incident, no Vietnam War, no Tet offensive, no Kissinger sideshow, no Cambodian genocide, no need for Deng Xiao-ping to teach a lesson—just a peacefully decolonizing Southeast Asian Yugoslavia with Ho Chi Minh as Asia’s Tito. Neat, but not honest.

Oslo, February 28, 2010
Stein Tønnesson

Stein Tønnesson: When Will Vietnam Provide Access to Sources?

Stein Tønnesson wrote to us from Oslo about launching his book, Vietnam 1946: How the War Began, at a press conference in Hanoi.

When Vietnam 1946: How the War Began was launched with a lunch and press conference in Hanoi on 30 November 2009, many veterans and Vietnamese historians raised objections to my claim that something had gone wrong with Vietnamese top level decision-making on 19 December 1946. While I say this was the worst possible time to attack the French, since the peace-loving Léon Blum had just taken over as French prime minister, and decided to send his Minister of Overseas France on a peace mission to Hanoi, my opponents claim – in support of General Vo Nguyen Giap, who was in charge in Hanoi on that fateful day – that it was impossible to delay the attack any further. War was unavoidable. My critics also maintain that all the Vietnamese decision-makers agreed that day.

Why then, did not President Ho Chi Minh personally sign his famous appeal? Why was it only broadcast with considerable delay? And why did not all Vietnamese forces attack at the same time, as had been planned? The reason, I was told, is that there was technical trouble with the radio, moreover it was perfectly normal for others to sign Ho Chi Minh’s texts before they were sent to the radio station for being read out by an announcer. Well. I’d like to see the archival evidence before accepting these arguments, but the archives of the Vietnamese Communist Party remain closed. Anything that may show internal disagreement on the Vietnamese side remains taboo in Vietnam. And this prevents Vietnamese historians from undertaking scientific research on their own history. The true research and most interesting writing of Vietnam’s national history is left to foreigners and Vietnamese in exile. Isn’t this a problem? I asked at the press conference.

To my pleasure the need to provide access to historical sources in Vietnam has been taken up afterwards by several Vietnamese commentators. Many of them claim that I’m wrong in some of what I say about Vietnamese decision-making at the time, but they agree that the best way of providing for a correct understanding is to open access to the original documents – to the extent that they have survived. As long as my Vietnamese critics cannot back up their arguments with references to sources, I will stick to my hypotheses and conclusions. If they prove me wrong, I will be more than happy to change my mind.

Oslo, February 25, 2010
Stein Tønnesson