This volume is a comprehensive study of Vietnam’s greatest and most controversial 20th century writer who died tragically in 1939 at the age of 28. Vu Trong Phung is known for a remarkable collection of politically provocative novels and sensational works of non-fiction reportage that were banned by the communist state from 1960 to 1986. Leading Vietnam scholar, Zinoman, resurrects the life and work of an important intellectual and author in order to reveal a neglected political project that is excluded from conventional accounts of modern Vietnamese political history. He sees Vu Trong Phung as a leading proponent of a localized republican tradition that opposed colonialism, communism, and unfettered capitalism—and that led both to the banning of his work and to the durability of his popular appeal in Vietnam today.
Vietnamese Colonial Republican The Political Vision of Vu Trong Phung
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Sources of Vũ Trọng Phụng's Colonial Republicanism
Weeks after Vũ Trọng Phụng's death in October 1939, the bimonthly journal Literary Circle memorialized him in a special issue, the content of which provides a useful introduction to his celebrated reputation and controversial political vision. Vũ Trọng Phụng's illustrious standing is reflected in the eminence of the eleven friends and colleagues who contributed to the issue. All but one were featured in the influential volume Modern Writers (Nhà văn hiện đại) published in 1942, Vũ Ngọc Phan's pioneering canon of contemporary Vietnamese authors. The oldest was Ngô Tất Tố (1894-1954), almost twenty years Vũ Trọng Phụng's senior and renowned by the late 1930s for a series of realist narratives about the northern Vietnamese countryside. Three contributors were roughly a decade older than Vũ Trọng Phụng: Tam Lang (1901-86), whose I Pulled a Rickshaw (Tôi kéo xe; 1930) established Vietnamese reportage as a serious literary genre; Nguyễn Triệu Luật (1902-46), a writer of historical fiction; and the novelist Lan Khai (1906-45), who edited Vũ Trọng Phụng's work while serving as the editor-in-chief of Megaphone (Loa) in 1934 and Literary Circle in 1939. Like their deceased friend, most of the remaining contributors were in their middle to late twenties. They included the prolific Marxist critic Trương Tửu (1913-99), the talented essayist and short story writer Nguyễn Tuân (1910-87), the "social novelist" Nguyễn Vỹ (1912-71), and the leading "new poet" Lưu Trọng Lư (1912-91). Rounding out the group were the poet Tchya (1908-63), the humorist Đồ Phồn (1911-90), and the popular author-journalist Thanh Châu (1912-2007). Just as Vũ Trọng Phụng's prominence is reflected in the roster of luminaries who contributed to the memorial volume, it is also apparent in his funeral procession, which, according to Thanh Châu, included "all the literary stars of the capital."
In addition to their youthfulness and stellar reputations, what united Vũ Trọng Phụng's eulogists is that they were regular contributors to the suite of periodicals published by the Tân Dân Publishing House, founded in Hà Nội in 1925 by the playwright and media magnate Vũ Đình Long. Many appeared frequently in Saturday Novel (Tiểu Thuyết Thứ Bảy), Tân Dân's flagship journal that featured short stories, essays, and serialized novels during its lengthy print run between 1934 and 1945. Writers affiliated with Tân Dân shared modest backgrounds, limited educations, and, perhaps as a result, a preoccupation with lower-class characters and populist themes. In short, the roster of contributors to the volume highlights Vũ Trọng Phụng's kinship with a well-regarded, loosely "progressive" subdivision of the literary community.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the vague social vision shared by Vũ Trọng Phụng's circle of friends and colleagues during the 1930s foreshadowed an allegiance to any of the partisan camps that came to dominate Vietnamese politics following World War II. Five of the eleven contributors to the special issue-Ngô Tất Tố, Nguyễn Tuân, Lưu Trọng Lư, Đồ Phồn, and Thanh Châu-joined the communist-led Việt Minh (founded in 1941) and worked for the Party's cultural bureaucracy during the following decades. Nguyễn Triệu Luật also joined the Việt Minh but he was killed under mysterious circumstances in 1946. At the other end of the political spectrum, Tam Lang, Nguyễn Vỹ, and Tchya opposed the communist movement and moved to the South in 1954. Lan Khai sympathized with the anticommunist Vietnamese Nationalist Party (VNQDĐ) and was likely assassinated by Việt Minh hit squads in 1945-46. Finally, Trương Tửu joined the Việt Minh but he led an infamous protest against communist rule in 1956 and was excommunicated from public life in the DRV until his death in 1999. The divergent trajectories of Vũ Trọng Phụng's closest associates attest to the complexity and fluid ambiguity of political allegiance during the late colonial era.
The most prominent theme expressed by contributors to the memorial volume was the immense sadness provoked by Vũ Trọng Phụng's premature death. "I grieve for you," wrote Nguyễn Vỹ, "I grieve for your friends. I grieve for the literature of our country [nước nam], of which you are the most worthy representative." According to Lưu Trọng Lư, the impact of Vũ Trọng Phụng's death touched not just fellow writers but "tens of thousands of anonymous and distant readers throughout the land." Nguyễn Triệu Luật claimed that the news brought him to tears for the first time since the death of his father decades earlier. Perhaps the most poignant account was Thanh Châu's description of the silent crowd of mourners attending the funeral. At the head of the procession, he observed the writer's widow dressed in white linen and cradling a baby girl in her arms.
In addition to bemoaning his death, contributors decried the poverty and sickness that plagued Vũ Trọng Phụng throughout his life. Lưu Trọng Lư, Lan Khai, and Tam Lang each recalled his chronic tubercular cough and Nguyễn Tuân discussed his opium addiction, which deepened as he relied increasingly on the medicinal properties of the drug. Nguyễn Triệu Luật remembered his ghostly appearance six months earlier at the funeral of the poet Tản Đà, another beloved casualty of tuberculosis. While discussion of Vũ Trọng Phụng's illness tended to dwell on his final days, commentary on his economic difficulties focused on his childhood and teenage years. Ngô Tất Tố called Vũ Trọng Phụng's poverty a "family inheritance" since its origins lay in the death of his father when he was only seven months old. Trương Tửu suggested that his antagonism toward the rich stemmed from financial hardship that forced him to leave school early to support his family. For some contributors, a history of economic deprivation provided the subtext for his legendary tightfistedness: his scrupulous approach to debt payment, his fondness for cheap pens and substandard paper, and his simple taste in food. For Nguyễn Tuân, poverty helped to explain his "humility, moderation, and prudence," while Lan Khai linked it to his legendary work ethic. Others interpreted Vũ Trọng Phụng's hard life and tragic death as a cautionary tale about the wretched condition of all contemporary writers. "When I contemplate Vũ Trọng Phụng's death," wrote Tam Lang, "I can't help thinking of others who will soon follow. This makes me feel terrible for all poor writers."
Finally, contributors discussed Vũ Trọng Phụng's remarkable body of work, focusing on its extraordinary literary quality and perplexing political content. Lưu Trọng Lư lamented that Vũ Trọng Phụng's death reduced the sum total of talent in the Vietnamese literary world by one half. For Nguyễn Vỹ, Vũ Trọng Phụng's work was a national treasure that brought "glory to Vietnamese literature." Tam Lang acknowledged that his own celebrated achievements in the field of reportage paled beside Vũ Trọng Phụng's mastery of the genre. The closest analysis of his work was offered by Lưu Trọng Lư and Trương Tửu, each of whom employed a rudimentary Marxian analysis to liken Vũ Trọng Phụng to Balzac. Citing an argument about the revered French writer first put forward by Engels and embraced by communist critics throughout the interwar era, Lưu Trọng Lư argued that the virtues of Vũ Trọng Phụng's indictment of bourgeois society offset his failure to embrace a "constructive" revolutionary project:
Vũ Trọng Phụng's power is the power of opposition to everything that is unjust, depraved, rotten, disgusting, and ugly about the bourgeoisie. All of his work mocks and derides that which is cruel and depraved in this class of men. In this way, Vũ Trọng Phụng is to Vũ Trọng Phụng's era what Balzac was to Balzac's era. They have their differences but both speak in a sour and dissatisfied voice. Both aim to destroy rather than rebuild, but such destruction is necessary if reconstruction is to proceed on a newer and more beautiful foundation.
Trương Tửu provided a more elaborate analysis that characterized Vũ Trọng Phụng as a "vanguard servant of realism" and linked his "morally progressive work" to his lower-class background and poor material circumstances. But he also criticized the limitations of his political vision. Departing from the laudatory tone of the memorial volume, Trương Tửu chided Vũ Trọng Phụng for locating the source of Indochina's "social corruption" in capitalist culture and not capitalism per se. In short, "he ignored the origins of this culture and the fact that customs and morals are only the reflection of a more concrete foundation." As a result of this "mistaken sociological viewpoint," the criticism expressed in Vũ Trọng Phụng's novels dwelled upon cultural manifestations of capitalism such as dancing, fashion, bicycle riding, free love, and the cult of individual happiness. This led to an undeserved reputation for "conservatism." But Trương Tửu rejected this label. Like Balzac, Vũ Trọng Phụng diagnosed the ills of an emergent bourgeois society. While the shortcomings of his social analysis prevented Vũ Trọng Phụng from contributing to the liberation of his class, he followed Balzac in contributing greatly to the formation of a national literature. In conclusion, Trương Tửu speculated that "Vũ Trọng Phụng had moved recently toward socialism. What a shame that he died just as his pen and his soul were poised to raise his writing to a higher level."
The characterization of Vũ Trọng Phụng's writing as critical of capitalist society but insufficiently Marxist or revolutionary highlights the idiosyncratic parameters of his broader political vision. This vision, which I call late colonial republicanism, featured core elements of the moderate republican agenda pursued by centrist and center-left parties in France during the Third Republic. In addition to opposing both communism and unfettered capitalism, it expressed strong support for democracy, education, scientific and social-scientific inquiry, social justice, and an open public sphere. The culturally unstable colonial context in which Vũ Trọng Phụng's commitment to this vision emerged encouraged, in addition, a special preoccupation with the erosion within Vietnamese society of traditional learning, morality, and gender norms. Such a project-marrying republican values and colonial preoccupations-appealed to a significant segment of the interwar Vietnamese intelligentsia, including most contributors to the memorial issue. While subsequent chapters explore the elaboration of these concerns in Vũ Trọng Phụng's work, this chapter locates their origins in some of the major "contact zones" and institutions of French Indochinese society: the city, the school, the department store, the white-collar office, and the newsroom.
Vũ Trọng Phụng was born on October 20, 1912, in Hà Nội, the capital of French Indochina and the headquarters of its northernmost Vietnamese territory, the protectorate of Tonkin. Together with the central Vietnamese protectorate of Annam, Tonkin was incorporated into Indochina during the early 1880s and conjoined with the southern colony of Cochinchina and the protectorate of Cambodia, both of which had been seized by France in the 1860s. The protectorate of Laos was added in 1893, becoming the fifth and final component of French Indochina. As a protectorate subject to "indirect rule," Tonkin remained under the titular authority of the Vietnamese Emperor and the administrative rule of a hybrid bureaucracy-part French colonial and part imperial Vietnamese-which insulated it, during the late nineteenth century, from many of the abrupt changes sweeping over the "directly ruled" "old colony" of Cochinchina. These included the replacement of Confucian scholar-bureaucrats with French officials and the development of a globally integrated market economy through the formation of a rice export industry in the Mekong Delta. In contrast, severe overpopulation in the Tonkin Delta and the preservation there of residual elements of the precolonial dynastic system discouraged economic development and administrative innovation. While Governor General Paul Doumer transformed the protectorates at the turn of the century through the rationalization of the tax code and additional state spending on public works, modernization advanced slowly in Tonkin until the end of World War I.
In spite of Tonkin's modest rate of development (especially in comparison with Cochinchina), the gradual commercialization of agriculture during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth forced farmers off their land and spurred migration to the cities. It was during this era that Vũ Trọng Phụng's parents migrated to Hà Nội from the lower Tonkin Delta, an old agricultural zone south of the capital marked by population densities that rivaled the most crowded regions of Bengal, Java, and southern China. Vũ Trọng Phụng's mother, Phạm Thị Khách, came from Vẽ village in the Hoài Đức district of Hà Đông province. In Hà Nội, she earned money as a seamstress, a career choice that may reflect her exposure to traditions of village textile production in her native Hà Đông. Vũ Trọng Phụng's father, Vũ Văn Lân, was a landless farmer whose own father had once served as the mayor of Hảo village in the Mỹ Hào district of Hưng Yên Province. After his family lost its land, Vũ Văn Lân found work in Hà Nội as an electrician at the Charles Boillot Garage. Many details of Vũ Trọng Phụng's background remain unknown but friends emphasize the poverty of his parents, a common predicament for recent migrants to the capital city. The death of his father during a cholera epidemic in the summer of 1913, when his mother was twenty-one, added further to his impoverished upbringing.
Because of its political significance as the seat of French authority in Indochina, Hà Nội modernized more rapidly than the surrounding countryside. Attentive to the theatrics of colonial power, the French remodeled the royal citadel during the 1880s, removing walls, moats, and a vast examination compound and establishing a grid of roads that linked the workshops and warehouses of the "old quarter" to the original French concession along the banks of the Red River. They also tore down the internal gates that had blocked circulation within the old quarter, transforming it into an integrated mixed-use neighborhood that was both residential and commercial. A separate French residential zone was developed as well through the drainage and filling-in of swamps and ponds south of Hoàn Kiếm Lake and the introduction of a modern sewage system. By 1895, electricity and gas streetlights were in operation throughout the city along with a system for supplying fresh water and a network of electric streetcars. Urban development intensified at the turn of the century when the Doumer administration initiated an ambitious program of municipal public works. It included the construction of a central railway station, a palace for the Governor General, a monumental Opera House, an expanded central prison, and the massive Doumer Bridge. The population of the city increased in tandem with the expansion of its infrastructure, growing from roughly fifty thousand at the time of the French conquest in the 1880s, to eighty thousand around the turn of the century, to more than two hundred thousand by 1940. In addition to drawing rural migrants from the chronically overcrowded Delta, Hà Nội maintained a steady ex-patriot population throughout the interwar era that included four to five thousand Chinese and an equal number of French residents, many of whom were naturalized citizens of France's West African and South Asian colonial possessions.
While he lived in different parts of Hà Nội throughout the course of his life, Vũ Trọng Phụng mostly resided in the city's old quarter. Known as the "thirty-six streets" (ba mươi sáu phố phường), this densely populated area featured a web of narrow lanes, each named after the particular item sold or produced there. Vũ Trọng Phụng lived for a time on Silver Street and Silk Street, where he shared small flats with his mother and maternal grandparents. Virtually all of the newspaper offices and publishing houses where he worked were located in the old quarter as well. Its central architectural feature was the tube house, a vernacular rural housing type inserted into the urban environment and modified by the addition of a narrow shop façade facing the street. Shaped by a precolonial tax calculated according to the width of each dwelling structure, the Vietnamese tube house evolved into an unusually narrow and deep urban shop-house. By alternating rooms, open yards, and common spaces, they generated dense residential patterns and gave rise to a lively urban atmosphere. The latter was magnified in the late nineteenth century by the laying-down of pavement and sidewalks, which provided a public arena for the neighborhood's colorful street life.
The imprint of city life on Vũ Trọng Phụng's writing has been noted by many critics, including Đỗ Đức Hiểu, who once dubbed him "Vietnam's most urban author." Given his long-term residence in the old quarter, it is no surprise that images of urban voyeurism and street scenes loom large in Vũ Trọng Phụng's writing and that well-known Hà Nội landmarks serve as crucial backdrops in both his fiction and nonfictional narratives. The façade of the Hà Nội Central Prison provides the setting for an important chapter in The Dike Breaks (Vỡ đê), and several famous episodes in Dumb Luck occur at West Lake. Much of the action in Household Servants (Cơm thầy cơm cô) and The Man Trap (Cạm bẫy người) takes place on familiar streets in the old quarter, and Venereal Disease Clinic maps, street by street, the precise geography of commercial sex in the city.
Vũ Trọng Phụng's views on his native Hà Nội were intensely felt and generally negative. He portrayed it as an inorganic colonial metropolis plagued by social atomization, crass commercialism, racial segregation, class exploitation, political corruption, and moral perversity. In The Storm and The Dike Breaks, alternating chapters set in Hà Nội and the surrounding countryside function to highlight the growing distance between urban and rural society. At the same time, Vũ Trọng Phụng wrote eloquently, in Household Servants and elsewhere, about the magnetic pull that the "light of the capital" exerted over people from the countryside:
Perhaps on nights when there are no moon and stars, the peasants of Nam Dinh, Thai Binh, Hai Duong, Bac Ninh, Son Tay, and Hoa Binh go out into their courtyards and see a shining halo each time they turn their heads and look far off into a corner of the sky. There, hovering over a thousand years of culture and glowing with easy riches, the peasants see a halo over Hanoi, and they are leaving their villages for it in droves. Soon they too will be able to lie in the corner of a courtyard beside a stinking drain amid the smell of chicken shit and human shit. Soon they too will lie curled up and starving as they look into the heavens on a night like tonight when bright moonbeams fill the sky.
Vũ Trọng Phụng was also fascinated by the heterogeneity of life in the colonial city. Many of his works describe the mottled human diversity of public and quasi-public urban spaces: sidewalks, retail shops, opium dens, brothels, racetracks, tennis courts, restaurants, and hotels. A good example is his portrayal of an opium den in The Storm, which emphasizes the promiscuous communion of strangers and members of traditionally segregated social groups: "A roar of laughter arose from this mass of people bearing different complexions: locals, blacks, and white Europeans. . . . The beds were filled with opium smokers: five Vietnamese, eight Chinese including two women, a white French soldier, three black French soldiers, and an elderly French woman." They included a "gambler, an unemployed and embittered school graduate, an elderly government clerk searching in vain for a second wife, an author of a recently banned book, an editor being sued for defamation, a reporter trying to craft a catchy headline, a jilted dancing girl, and a fading Cochinchinese opera star. Here we find a society of the aggrieved and the debauched taking collective action to dampen their sorrows. As in a loving family, feelings of misery and disgrace that are normally concealed are here brought into the open and loudly declaimed."
Vũ Trọng Phụng's urban sensibility was rooted in the capital, but he experienced daily life in another colonial city when he worked for the Hải Phòng Weekly (Hải Phòng Tuần Báo) during roughly seven months in 1934-35-his only period of extended residence outside of Hà Nội. Opened to French commerce by a treaty of 1874, Hải Phòng became the second most populous urban center in Tonkin as well as its "leading industrial city" owing to its multiple economic roles as a railroad junction and a seaport. It was also a hub for the transshipment and processing of Tonkin's abundant mineral wealth, especially its large coal deposits centered in Hòn Gai. When Vũ Trọng Phụng lived there during the mid-1930s, the city boasted a population of seventy thousand and provided a home for numerous medium-scale industrial enterprises, including an electric company, a shipyard, a glassworks, a brewery, a button manufacturer, a handful of rice mills and textile plants, and a massive cement factory that employed four thousand workers. At the Hải Phòng Weekly, Vũ Trọng Phụng wrote a series of articles entitled "Hải Phòng, 1934" that explored the impact of the global economic slump on the city and its residents. He also oversaw (and perhaps authored) "Through the Streets" ("Qua các phố"), a weekly column about public spaces in the city that appeared under the pseudonymous byline "Le Flâneur." Unlike his nineteenth-century Parisian counterpart who, according to Walter Benjamin, delighted in the frenetic spectacle of the French capital, the flâneur of the Hải Phòng Weekly drew attention to a range of problems plaguing Hải Phòng such as urban blight, social inequality, linguistic confusion, and the garish commercialization of the colonial cityscape.
Just as republican political culture in nineteenth-century France thrived in urban areas, the growth of colonial cities in early-twentieth-century Indochina nurtured the emergence of related sensibilities among educated Vietnamese. Cities served as the nerve center for the colonial press, which, despite censorship and police harassment, offered a lively forum for "pen wars" (bút chiến) about current events and issues of public concern. They were also home to the upper tiers of the colonial legal system and institutions of higher education. As the natural habitat of the colonial bourgeoisie and a magnet for the rural poor, cities dramatized social inequality and inspired charitable initiatives and reformist projects. They also provided the setting for civic rituals and limited representative institutions. During the interwar period, cities were the locus for a surprisingly robust form of electoral politics, as French and Vietnamese candidates vied for positions on the Colonial Council of Cochinchina and the Chamber of the People's Representatives of Tonkin and Annam. While the colonial state limited their powers and restricted the franchise by which their members were selected, these primitive representative institutions evolved, during the 1930s, into contentious deliberative bodies that attracted widespread coverage in the local press. Cities were also the centers of a modest associational life spearheaded by local chambers of commerce, religious organizations, professional groupings, consumer cooperatives, welfare societies, labor unions, athletic clubs, and regional fellowship associations. This nascent colonial civil society included progressive French law firms that championed the rights of native subjects in the courts and local chapters of fraternal organizations devoted to the promotion of republican values. Especially notable were the anticlerical Freemasons who admitted both French and Vietnamese members starting in 1925 and featured two all-Vietnamese lodges by the end of the 1930s. Another proactive republican group was the Tonkin section of the League for the Rights of Man, founded in Hà Nội in 1903. According to Christopher Goscha, the mission of this local chapter of the League was "to promote republican ideals in the colonies, to check the abuses of colonialism, and not without serious contradictions, to make known such new ideas as 'individual rights and liberties,' 'citizenship,' and 'egalitarianism.'"
Many scholars have rightly criticized the colonial state for restricting the development of civil society in Indochina by maintaining a racially discriminatory legal order and placing limits on freedom of association, expression, and political participation. While such restrictions prevented the realization in Indochina of a genuinely republican political order, they also inspired urban Vietnamese activists to articulate a reformist agenda in republican terms. Vũ Trọng Phụng provides a case in point. In an editorial published in 1937, he called directly for the introduction of a "democratic republic" in Indochina that guaranteed "a complete menu of freedoms" including "freedom to travel to France, freedom to go abroad, freedom of assembly, and freedom to do business." While he rarely expressed his political aspirations in such a forthright manner, the failure of colonial civic institutions to live up to the republican ideals on which they were based runs like an unbroken thread throughout his writing. Many of his works addressed the corruption of the press by money and political influence. In a published interview with a member of the Chamber of the People's Representatives of Tonkin, he raised questions about the frivolous factional infighting that plagued the Chamber and lamented its limited capacity to express the popular will. In a similar vein, Dumb Luck satirizes the hollowness of colonial civic rituals such as parades, sporting events, and political speeches, which were staged with increasingly regularity during the 1930s in his native Hà Nội.
Albert Sarraut, Franco-Vietnamese Schools, and Quốc Ngữ
Another source of republican energy in the protectorate that coincided with Vũ Trọng Phụng's birth and childhood years was the appointment of the Radical Republican politician Albert Sarraut as the Governor General of Indochina, a position he held from 1911 to 1914 and again, during an unprecedented second term, from 1917 to 1919. An exponent of a moderately liberal approach to colonial rule known as "association," Sarraut pursued a reformist agenda that set the terms for economic and political change in Indochina for over two decades. His vision for the colonial economy advocated state investment in infrastructure to stimulate economic development and, eventually, industrialization. Sarraut also favored the formation of a strategic alliance between the colonial state and enlightened sectors of the native elite. To forge (what he viewed as) this mutually beneficial partnership, he promoted the extension of education, medical services, and limited representative institutions to the native population. Consistent with his republican values, he broke with his predecessors by suggesting that France should prepare the Vietnamese, gradually, for independence. While numerous obstacles prevented the realization of Sarraut's vision, his two terms in Indochina's highest office transformed the public expectations and standards of government against which colonial rule was measured.
Saurraut's republicanism is most dramatically manifest in his reform of the colonial school system. Education was a passion of the leaders of the Third Republic-known colloquially as la république des professeurs-who viewed it as a weapon to fight ignorance, illiteracy, and the power of the Church. It could also promote republican virtues such as progress, rationality, science, and good citizenship. The school system Sarraut established suffered from serious shortcomings, but it was associated with republican ideals that touched the local population. During his second term in Indochina, Sarraut introduced a comprehensive education law that codified public support for mass schooling and led to the closure of thousands of traditional schools teaching Chinese characters. In their place, the colonial state established a centralized and standardized system of Franco-Vietnamese schools that provided instruction in French and Vietnamese. It comprised three years of elementary school in Vietnamese, three years of primary education in French, four years of primary superior education in French, and three years of French-language secondary education leading to an Indochinese baccalaureate. Managed by a newly created office of public instruction based in Hà Nội, Franco-Vietnamese schools featured a distinctive curriculum tailored to the colonial environment. Between 1920 and 1938, the number of students enrolled in the Franco-Vietnamese system more than doubled from 125,688 to 287,037, with especially large increases in urban areas. The absence of significant school fees-a republican innovation-enhanced access to the system for poor pupils like Vũ Trọng Phụng. Several years after Sarraut's reform, he enrolled in the Courbet School, also known as the Hàng Vôi School, located halfway between the French concession and his flat in the old quarter. According to accounts by Nguyễn Triệu Luật and Nguyễn Văn Đạm, he also spent time at the Hàng Kèn School several blocks south of Hoàn Kiếm Lake. Another friend and classmate from the era-the writer Vũ Bằng-claimed that Vũ Trọng Phụng completed six years of elementary and primary school before dropping out, at the age of fifteen, to find work to support his family.
Colonial schooling influenced students of Vũ Trọng Phụng's generation in a variety of ways. Perhaps most importantly, it helped to wean them away from what colonial officials perceived as the pernicious influence of Chinese culture. During a millennium of formal Chinese rule in the Tonkin Delta between 111 B.C.E. and 939 C.E., a bilingual and bicultural Vietnamese elite emerged that viewed itself as part of a common East Asian cultural zone of "manifest civility." While maintaining a series of independent dynastic states throughout most of the second millennium, the Vietnamese elite governed through tools of Chinese statecraft, including a Confucian educational and examination system that trained officials for posts in the state bureaucracy. Even as they employed a nonsinitic spoken vernacular belonging to the Mon-Khmer language family, the local elite continued to use Chinese characters as the standard medium for academic instruction, civil service examinations, government documents, and high literary culture. As a result, cultural developments in China remained easily accessible to educated Vietnamese up until the disruptions of the colonial era.
By the turn of the twentieth century, however, the growing circulation in Indochina of Chinese texts preaching revolutionary and nationalist ideas stimulated French efforts to destroy the ancient cultural and linguistic bonds that had long united the Vietnamese and Chinese elite. This effort was facilitated by the fortuitous availability of quốc ngữ, a little-used Romanized script for rendering spoken Vietnamese, first devised by missionaries and local Catholic priests in the mid-seventeenth century. Following its successful introduction into colonial schools in Cochinchina during the 1860s, French officials came to see quốc ngữ as a useful instrument both for promoting mass literacy and for breaking the grip of Chinese culture over the local elite. Consistent with this mission, Franco-Vietnamese schools emphasized the acquisition of literacy in French and quốc ngữ while neglecting instruction in Chinese characters. "In the elementary grades," explains Gail Kelly, "between nine and fifteen hours out of a twenty-seven hour school week were spent on languages, mostly on teaching Vietnamese. In the primary grades, between fifteen and eighteen hours each week was spent on language learning, mostly French."
By promoting fluency in French and quốc ngữ, the Franco-Vietnamese school system transformed Vietnamese culture. Most importantly, it created the first generation of educated Vietnamese unable to read Chinese-language texts. This reduced Chinese influence in Indochina, but it also had the deracinating effect of severing Vietnamese from their own premodern textual tradition, virtually all of which had been written in characters. Within a single generation, most educated Vietnamese lost the capacity to read anything that their ethnic forbearers had ever written with the exception of a tiny fraction of premodern works laboriously translated into quốc ngữ. To the extent that nationalist ideology depends upon the establishment of continuities between a "modern people" and an "ancient" historical culture, the colonial school system's assault on Chinese-language literacy diminished the capacity of nationalists to shape a Vietnamese identity via the strategic mobilization of such continuities. In addition, the disproportionate growth of Franco-Vietnamese schools in the cities enhanced social distance between urban school graduates and rural communities, many of which continued, through force of habit, to provide local support for Chinese-language education. As an early product of this system, Vũ Trọng Phụng's intellectual development reflected its particular dynamics. He never learned Chinese and he wrote exclusively in the romanized script. He also acknowledged that the elimination of literacy in characters, fostered by Franco-Vietnamese schools, functioned to sever his generational fellows from their rural ancestry. In a generous review of Ngô Tất Tố's famous novel Turn out the Lights (Tắt đèn), Vũ Trọng Phụng singled out the author's unusual fluency in Chinese as one of two "crucial conditions" that allowed him to paint a portrait of rural society that was both vivid and accurate (the second was an extended period of residence in the countryside). In contrast, he claimed that portrayals of the countryside in novels by Nhất Linh and Nguyễn Công Hoan seemed inauthentic because these writers did not know Chinese. "Without Chinese," he insisted, "it is impossible to understand what's going on in the rice fields, the communal houses, or the feudal law courts." This sentiment may help to explain the relative neglect of rural life as a subject of Vũ Trọng Phụng's work.
The promotion of quốc ngữ by the Franco-Vietnamese school system also encouraged the growth of a Eurocentric cosmopolitanism among educated youth. Since the romanized script had rarely been used outside of segregated Catholic circles prior to the late nineteenth century, Franco-Vietnamese schools promoted literacy in a written language that did not possess a corresponding literature. As a result, intellectually inclined school graduates had little choice but to immerse themselves in the French literature and journalism that were becoming increasingly available in Indochina through the growth of libraries and bookstores and the circulation of metropolitan reading material. Vũ Trọng Phụng was a direct product of these changes. "No one in our group followed international developments as closely as Vũ Trọng Phụng," remarked Vũ Bằng, "or tried as hard to understand the obscure terms that we read in Le Canard Enchaîné." An examination of foreign influence in Vũ Trọng Phụng's work reveals direct references to over sixty European writers, most of them French. They include classical dramatists such as Corneille, Racine, and Moliere; romantics such as Hugo, Rousseau, Goethe, Lamartine, Musset, and Chateaubriand; realists and naturalists such as Zola, Maupassant, Rolland, and Alphonse Daudet; and modernists such as Proust, Gide, and Malraux. Vũ Trọng Phụng read prodigious amounts of French pulp fiction as well as French journalism, criticism, and social science. Popular Freudian concepts influenced him greatly, as did the watered-down Marxism-Leninism that attracted numerous adherents throughout Indochina during the era.
In addition to shaping his reading habits, colonial schooling may have influenced Vũ Trọng Phụng in other ways. According to his close friend Lan Khai, Vũ Trọng Phụng's lifelong sympathy for underdogs derived from his failure to fit in socially at school. Unable to afford the Western fashions favored by his wealthier classmates, he attended class dressed in a gown and turban-a traditional scholarly outfit that made him a target of ridicule among his more "up-to-date" peers. Fatherless, sickly, and poor, Vũ Trọng Phụng was ill equipped for the competitive school environment that emerged during the interwar years, in which male students vied for status and the attention of female classmates through displays of wealth and athletic prowess. "After all," Lan Khai continued, "this was an era in which tennis stars, wrestlers, and champion cyclists were applauded and adored by the general public." The humiliations of student life deepened for Vũ Trọng Phụng when economic hardship forced him to leave school early to help support his family. The sting of this episode endured throughout his career since many of his bitterest literary rivals-the members of the Self-Strength Literary Group (Tự Lực Văn Đoàn), for example-had earned postgraduate degrees or studied in France. When the Self-Strength newspaper These Days (Ngày Nay) dismissed Vũ Trọng Phụng as a "literary hack" whose "rudimentary education" (sơ học) rendered him unqualified to offer lessons about society and morality, his response betrayed more than a hint of class resentment. "You accuse me of misinforming my readers because I possess only a rudimentary education," he responded. "So, does this mean that I'm not even allowed to argue? How should I respond to the charge that I am an uneducated hack? If your only point is to trumpet your superior education, I have nothing further to say."
Life of a Clerk
After leaving school around 1926 or 1927, Vũ Trọng Phụng worked for several dispiriting years in clerical jobs, including an unhappy tenure at Magasins Godard, Hà Nội's largest and most posh department store. An ornate symbol of modern European consumer culture, Magasins Godard "followed the department store architecture made fashionable by the Parisian Galeries Lafayette and La Samaritaine with a domed ceiling, grand staircase and balconied upper floors." It was located at one end of the Rue Paul Bert-"the Champs-Élysées of the colonial city"-alongside a series of up-market French shops, a tramway station, Le Palace Cinema, and the absurdly grand Municipal Opera House. Reflecting the radical incongruity of life in the colonial city, this exclusive commercial boulevard was only several blocks from Vũ Trọng Phụng's cramped flat, situated on a run-down section of Silver Street, and described by Lê Tràng Kiều as a "dark corner" peopled by "rag-pickers, domestic servants, crippled beggars, and female street vendors with small children." The contrast between Vũ Trọng Phụng's downtrodden neighborhood and his elegant office anticipated one of his central literary preoccupations and prefigured the recurring juxtaposition in his writing of scenes depicting the very rich and the very poor.
Vũ Trọng Phụng provided an instructive description of the atmosphere at Magasins Godard in a little-known work of reportage entitled "Life of a Clerk" ("Đời Cạo Giấy"), part of which was published in New Youth (Tân Thiếu Niên) in 1935. It examined the sensational double life of Đoàn Trần Nghiệp-also known as Ký Con-a neighbor of Vũ Trọng Phụng from Silver Street who joined the insurrectionary anticolonial Vietnamese Nationalist Party in his early twenties and rose to become a chillingly lethal leader of its security bureau. After achieving public notoriety during the late 1920s as a fugitive with a five-thousand-piastre bounty on his head, Đoàn Trần Nghiệp was arrested in February 1930, tried before an extraordinary Criminal Commission, and guillotined outside of the Hà Nội Central Prison. At his interrogation, witnessed and reported on by the journalist Louis Roubaud, he admitted to having masterminded twenty assassinations of "enemies and traitors" plus a sequence of daring robberies and terrorist bombings. Due to the sensitive subject matter of "Life of a Clerk," colonial security forces shut down New Youth and seized all issues in circulation. Initial installments of Vũ Trọng Phụng's text indicate that he portrayed Đoàn Trần Nghiệp's mistreatment at Magasins Godard as a biographical prelude to his revolutionary career:
When I first encountered Nghiệp as a clerk, his lowly position provoked widespread contempt. No one could have predicted that such a person would become the head of an assassination committee for the Vietnamese Nationalist Party. It was 1927; I was sixteen and Nghiệp was only a few years older. He worked in accounting and I worked as a security guard in the Godard showroom. Everyone in the office considered him slow and dimwitted. He was from a poor family and could not afford fancy clothes. Many Godard employees were the sons of village notables and they dressed well. Most worked as salesmen and earned ten dong per month, which they showed off back in their villages as proof that they worked for Westerners. This helped them to attract marriage partners. They disrespected Ký Con because their clothes were better than his. He was also bad at soccer. With skinny thighs like two reed sticks, he could not control the ball and he was easy to manhandle on the field. . . . One day, while passing by the accounting office, I saw Ký Con being called stupid by a Western bitch who happened to be his boss. While cursing him, she denounced the Annamese race as dirty, stupid as an ass, lazy, thieving, and so on. . . . The following month, I happened upon a pamphlet written by Ký Con called The Parrot [Con Vẹt]. It was as biting and satirical as any of our current humor magazines. It featured veiled criticisms of our office mates such as the heroic Mr. Francois whose greatest talent was to clutch the skirts of Western women, and an Annamese clerk who earned plaudits for going to the boss's house to bathe his wife's dogs. From that day onward, I no longer disrespected Ký Con. Eventually, I quit my job and he was promoted.
Some claim that Vũ Trọng Phụng was fired from Magasins Godardfor reading on the job, but the passage indicates that he left his position voluntarily. Although he doesn't explain the circumstances surrounding his departure, Nguyễn Văn Đạm recalled that Vũ Trọng Phụng resigned in protest after French managers accused his fellow Vietnamese employees of theft. The surviving passage from "Life of a Clerk" suggests that the harsh appraisal of the urban middle classes found in Vũ Trọng Phụng's work grew out of his experience in the white-collar world. Indeed, the sniveling, status-conscious "horned senior clerk" in Dumb Luck dovetails perfectly with Vũ Trọng Phụng's description of Ký Con's tormenters in "Life of a Clerk."
Toward the end of the decade, Vũ Trọng Phụng worked as an "anonymous secretary" at the Imprimerie d'Extrême-Orient(IDEO), the largest French publishing house in Hà Nội. The IDEO dominated the high end of the publishing market and handled the printing needs for many government offices. It also ran the largest bookstore in the capital. According to Vũ Bằng, whose uncle also worked there, Vũ Trọng Phụng was a quiet employee who kept to himself and spent his free time reading and writing. Another coworker at the IDEO, the future critic Thiều Quang, reported that Vũ Trọng Phụng was unhappy at the firm and complained about poor pay and toxic office politics marked by backstabbing, favoritism, and the vicious bullying of underlings by their superiors. This picture was affirmed by Trương Tửu, who recalled Vũ Trọng Phụng's depiction of the work culture there as a vicious Darwinian struggle in which "the big fish devoured the small fish."
Despite its evident drudgery, Vũ Trọng Phụng's position at the IDEO provided him with his first sustained exposure to the publishing world. Indeed, multiple accounts suggest that his first short stories appeared in print during the period that he was employed there. Tam Lang reports that, while working on the editorial board of the Hà Nội newspaper Midday News (Ngọ Báo) in 1930, he approved the publication of an unsolicited short story about a childless couple. After it appeared, friends informed Tam Lang that the story might have been based on a real couple currently residing on Silver Street. Thereafter, he received several additional stories from the same writer, but they were rejected by his editor-in-chief, Bùi Xuân Học, due to their prurient subject matter. Several weeks later, Vũ Trọng Phụng visited Tam Lang at the paper and revealed his identity as the author of the recently submitted stories. He voiced frustration with his job at the IDEO and expressed a desire to become a journalist for Midday News. No positions were available, but Tam Lang hired him as a typist, his first full-time job in journalism.
In an idiosyncratic memoir published in 1957, Thiều Quang confirmed the broad outlines of Tam Lang's version of events, adding that Vũ Trọng Phụng may have lost his job at the IDEO because of his extracurricular literary activities. According to his account, employees at the IDEO were scandalized when Vũ Trọng Phụng published a controversial story entitled "The Ploy" ("Thủ đoạn") in Midday News. It dramatized the homosexual exploitation of a Vietnamese office worker by his French supervisor and was considered shockingly graphic for its time. After the story came out, Thiều Quang reported that "a fierce exchange broke out; many sought out the story but others didn't dare to read it." In the midst of the outcry over "The Ploy," Vũ Trọng Phụng was charged with public indecency (outrages aux bonnes moeurs) and summoned to appear at court. He prepared a written defense that included a passionate appeal for free speech and realist literature (which he shared with Thiều Quang), but he was prevented from delivering it when his case was abruptly dismissed. Vũ Trọng Phụng was fired from the IDEO as a result of the controversy leading up his trial. If this account is accurate, it suggests that Vũ Trọng Phụng worked at the IDEO until early 1931 since "The Ploy" appeared in three installments during late January of that year.
While Vũ Trọng Phụng's employment history during the early 1930s is murky, he started to publish regularly during this period in the Midday News. Between October 1930 and March 1932, roughly a dozen short stories appeared under his byline, some serialized in two or three installments. Many explored pressing social issues in a realist or naturalist style. In "A Death" ("Một cái chết"), published on March 13-14, 1931, the son of a tax collector commits suicide after witnessing his father abusing a destitute beggar. Several stories such as "A Dishonest Person" ("Con người điêu trá") and "Love Trap" ("Bẫy tình") are misogynist in tone and belittle local incarnations of the "modern girl" and the cu