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
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 cult of romantic love. Others, like "The Ploy" and "Miss Mai Loves Spring" ("Cô Mai thưởng xuân"), conjoin social critique with pejorative depictions of unrestrained sexual desire. During this period, Vũ Trọng Phụng also published in Midday News translations of Guy de Maupassant's short stories "Fou" and "Solitude" as well as excerpts from "Le roman," his famous treatise on literary realism. Alongside this early engagement with French realism, Vũ Trọng Phụng exhibited a parallel interest in romanticism. In January 1932, he translated excerpts from Victor Hugo's romantic manifesto "Preface to Cromwell," which had appeared originally in 1827. An interest in romanticism may also be discerned in his translation of essays by Alfred de Vigny and the "late-romantic" poet Jean Richepin, both of which dealt with the mistreatment of writers by politicians and moralists. Although Vũ Trọng Phụng self-identified as a realist writer throughout his career, his engagement with well-known texts from both the realist and the romantic canon should come as no surprise since both traditions had entered Indochina at the same time and were similarly associated with colonial modernity.
The Midday News was an exciting place to work in the early 1930s. It was founded in 1927 by the pioneering newspapermen Hoàng Tích Chu and Đỗ Văn, who modeled it after French broadsheets that they had encountered while studying journalism in Paris. Hoàng Tích Chu introduced a simplified form of expository writing that eschewed the elaborate formal conventions of traditional Sino-Vietnamese prose. Đỗ Văn was responsible for the newspaper's high production quality and modern layout, which featured eye-catching headlines, parallel columns, thematic "sections," and a topical lead article on the front page. Both men embodied a new urban type-the hard-living newspaperman-who smoked opium, drank heavily, wore Western clothes, enjoyed dancing, and spoke easily in French. In an essay penned in 1935, Vũ Trọng Phụng recalled the glamorous aura that surrounded the Midday News at the start of the decade:
The glorious days of the Midday News are over. I remember that when Hoàng Tích Chu was still there, readers anticipated the noontime release of each issue like lovers waiting for each other at a park. In those days, the Midday News sold well and was well respected, unlike daily papers today. Hoàng Tích Chu's contribution to the reform of our literature enhanced the reputation of the Midday News. Inspired by Hoàng Tích Chu, Ngọc Thỏ denounced bad things in his column "The Dark Side of Life," and Tam Lang's series "Midday News Stories" employed psychological analysis and a new literary style to explore the misery in people's hearts. In those days, people much preferred the Midday News to its old-fashioned rivals: Civilize [Khai Hóa], North Central [Trung Bắc], and Profession [Thực Nghiệp].
The popularity of the Midday News also derived from its stable of talented writers. "I first started to like reading newspapers," recalled the writer Vũ Bằng, "when Hoàng Tích Chu, Đỗ Văn, Phùng Bảo Thạch, Tạ Đình Bích, and Vũ Đình Chí wrote for the Midday News." Vũ Đình Chí-aka Tam Lang-was an especially influential presence at the Midday News and his hugely successful nonfiction reportage narrative "I Pulled a Rickshaw" must have made a strong impression on Vũ Trọng Phụng. Upon leaving the Midday News for Đỗ Văn's new weekly New Day (Nhật Tân) in 1933, Vũ Trọng Phụng began to follow in Tam Lang's footsteps.
Vũ Trọng Phụng's move to New Day in 1933 marked a turning point in his life in two respects. First, it signaled the beginning of his career as a full-time journalist after a transitional period during which his writing served merely to supplement the primary income that he earned as a clerk. Second, he published two pieces of long-format nonfiction reportage-The Man Trap and The Industry of Marrying Westerners-that attracted critical approval and popular acclaim. When Vũ Trọng Phụng left New Day in 1934, he was a twenty-two-year-old media celebrity.
Vũ Trọng Phụng's emergence as a journalistic luminary was made possible by the explosive growth of the Vietnamese-language press during the interwar era. Studies of the colonial press highlight the injustice of a plural legal regime that subjected Vietnamese journals to licensing rules and prepublication censorship while applying the Third Republic's famously liberal 1881 press law to periodicals in French. But this discriminatory dimension of French policy fails to convey the lively republican ethos conveyed by the colonial press. Free from state control, French newspapers in Indochina were freewheeling and contentious, reflecting the diverse and conflicting interests of a fractious colon community of businessmen, bureaucrats, missionaries, lawyers, soldiers, and teachers. As early as the late nineteenth century, French newspapers attacked the colonial state for undermining the economic interests of the colon community. In the 1920s, state-subsidized newspapers such as Henry Chavigny's L'Impartial clashed openly with muckraking "scandal sheets" such as Vérité, Saigon Rébublicain, and Indochine-the latter founded in Sài Gòn in 1925 by the young republican novelist André Malraux. The rise of literacy in French provided educated Vietnamese with access to this lively marketplace of ideas. Activists in Cochinchina participated in this discourse directly by exploiting legal loopholes that allowed native subjects to run French-language publications free from government censorship. During the mid-1920s, local participation in the French public sphere was embodied by Nguyễn An Ninh's impertinent political weekly La Clôche Felée, which billed itself as an "Organ of Propagation of French Ideas" and attacked French colonialism for violating republican principles. The tradition inaugurated by La Clôche Felée peaked in the mid-1930s with the rise of a wide array of sectarian left-leaning journals such as the weekly La Lutte, which brought together a range of progressive writers in service to a common anticolonial and anticapitalist project. A dynamic tradition of quốc ngữ journalism also developed in Cochinchina, spurred on between 1929 and 1935 by the popular weekly Womens' New Literature (Phụ Nữ Tân Văn).
In Tonkin, the persistence of imperial Vietnamese law enhanced restrictions on free speech, but a vibrant print culture developed there as well. In 1917, Albert Sarraut authorized the establishment in Hà Nội of Southern Wind (Nam Phong), a serious intellectual journal edited by the conservative nationalist Phạm Quỳnh. While it supported the colonial project throughout its seventeen-year print run, Southern Wind addressed a wide range of current events, social problems, political questions, international issues, and cultural trends. It also intervened in public debates, including a famous controversy over the nationalist significance of the verse narrative The Tale of Kiều. Moreover, owing to the copresence of traditionalist and modernist impulses in Phạm Quỳnh's cultural nationalism, Southern Wind explored these issues in three languages: French, Chinese, and quốc ngữ. The legacy of Southern Wind provided a strong foundation for the development of a large, sophisticated quốc ngữ press in Tonkin. This growth accelerated during the mid-1930s when a leftward shift in French domestic politics (culminating in the formation of the Popular Front in 1934) eased censorship throughout the Empire. A result was the elimination of prepublication censorship for quốc ngữ journals in 1935 and the abandonment of discriminatory licensing rules in 1938.
Owing to this relatively favorable legal environment, accelerated urbanization, the growth of French-educated youth, and the economic boom of the 1920s, the number of serialized publications tripled during the interwar years. According to one history of the colonial press, the number of periodicals published in Annam, Tonkin, and Cochinchina expanded from 96 in 1922 to 121 in 1925 and 153 in 1929. In spite of the global economic slump, these numbers grew from 167 in 1931 to 267 in 1935, and growth enhanced diversity. In addition to general interest daily and weekly newspapers, the press of the period included titles focused on niche issues such as women, youth, politics, business, international affairs, literature, fashion, sports, cinema, popular science, and humor. While the French-language press survived during this era, with the aid of state subsidies, its development stalled relative to the explosive growth of quốc ngữ journals (with their exponentially larger pool of potential consumers). At the start of the 1930s, the most popular daily broadsheets in quốc ngữ reached ten to fifteen thousand customers. Between 1936 and 1939, the nine most popular quốc ngữ journals were purchased by a total of eighty thousand readers. Sales figures tell only part of the story, however, since single issues were typically read by more than one person. Vũ Trọng Phụng pointed this out in a review of the Tonkin press published in Evolution (Tiến Hóa) in 1935. "Currently, the newspaper French Indochina (Đông Pháp) prints ten thousand copies per day," he wrote, "but let's take a closer look. Everyone who buys one copy will typically share it with ten others. A subscriber will lend his paper to someone upstairs or out back and to neighbors on either side of his house or on the opposite side of the street. These borrowers, in turn, lend the papers to others. When the original buyer recovers his torn and wrinkled paper, he might send it to the countryside or up to the mountains. Hence, one buyer may represent one hundred readers. One hundred thousand readers per issue may be a more realistic estimate."
This general context is critical for understanding Vũ Trọng Phụng's peripatetic employment history, which began amid this period of unprecedented media growth and diversification. Between the appearance of his first intermittent submissions to the Midday News in 1930 and the publication of his final handful of short stories in Literary Circle during 1939, Vũ Trọng Phụng's writing appeared in roughly two-dozen periodicals. While most were based in Hà Nội, papers in Huế, Hải Phòng, and Sài Gòn also featured his work. The uneven rhythm of his publication record reflects the brief life span of the periodicals for which he worked and the short terms of the staff positions that he held. Such factors explain the concentration of his work at the Midday News in 1931-32, New Day in 1933, Megaphone and Hải Phòng Weekly in 1934, Hà Nội News (Hà Nội Báo) in 1936, The Future (Tương Lai) and Indochina Journal (Đông Dương Tạp Chí) in 1937-38, Thursday Novel (Tiểu Thuyết Thứ Năm) and The Mallard (Vịt Đực) in 1938, and Literary Circle in 1939. These affiliations did not prevent him from placing his work in multiple venues at the same time. Starting in 1934, his work appeared simultaneously in numerous journals: four in 1934, six in 1935, four in 1936, five in 1937, five in 1938, and four in 1939. This record of simultaneous publication may also reflect the low commissions and ad hoc structure of payment characteristic of the colonial press-well described in memoirs by Nguyễn Vỹ, Nguyễn Công Hoan, and Phan Thị Mỹ Khanh. What Theodore Zeldin observed about journalists in Third Republic France applied as well to their Vietnamese counterparts: "Journalists were ultimately wage earners with no security, at the mercy of arbitrary proprietors; many did not even have regular wages, but got paid by the line, and sometimes a small retainer." The penurious state of the profession in Indochina determined the parameters of Vũ Trọng Phụng's social life. Journalists often lived together in newspaper offices, pooling their resources, eating communally, and socializing together. According to Nguyễn Vỹ, journalists during this era lived "free and undisciplined lives" and spent their leisure time patronizing the same cafes, salons, brothels, and opium dens. Nguyễn Vỹ placed Vũ Trọng Phụng in one such homosocial journalistic clique, grouping him along with Lan Khai, Đỗ Thúc Trâm, and Nguyễn Triệu Luật.
Vũ Trọng Phụng expressed mixed emotions toward the journalistic profession to which he devoted his life. His novel Dumb Luck portrays journalists as pathetic and grasping and derides them for blurring the lines between news reporting and commerce. In a pair of essays published in 1935, Vũ Trọng Phụng scolded the Tonkin press for sensationalism and commercialism and for valuing timely scoops over accurate reporting. Elsewhere he depicted journalists as unprincipled muckrakers or as "whores" who traded positive coverage for money and favors. Vũ Trọng Phụng's portrayal of newspapermen during the Popular Front era was more sympathetic. Fictional journalists employed by the magazine Two Regions (Lưỡng Kỳ) in The Storm and the newspaper Labor (Lao Động) in The Dike Breaks are described as activists who "criticize inhumanity and attack those who use their power and money to exploit the poor." References to the Vietnamese press in Venereal Disease Clinic emphasize its oppositional posture toward the colonial state. The diverse portrayals of colonial newspapermen in Vũ Trọng Phụng's body of work mirror the range of images that circulated in postrevolutionary France. Depictions of French reporters as crusading social reformers date from the late eighteenth century owing to the high profile of journalists such as Marat and Mirabeau in the revolutionary leadership. "The Revolution established a tradition by which, in 1830 and 1848, journalists played leading roles in overthrowing governments," explains Zeldin. "The freedom of the press became a major political issue." According to Philip Nord, positive portrayals of journalists surged during the Third Republic owing to the consolidation of a political establishment marked by an "alliance of press and republic." At the same time, an aversion to the power of entrenched financial interests bred skepticism within republican discourse toward claims of journalistic objectivity and the corrupting influence of money on the press.
Vũ Trọng Phụng's similarly complex attitude toward colonial journalism may be seen in the brief autobiographical essay "A Dishonest Deed" ("Một hành vi bất lương") which he published in the Hải Phòng weekly Life Stories (Chuyện đời) on May 7, 1938. It reveals the backstory behind the writing of Venereal Disease Clinic, a long piece of nonfiction reportage that he serializedin The Future during 1937. The essay opens with Vũ Trọng Phụng, brainstorming with colleagues, in search of a fresh writing project. "It was tough to find a topic," he complained, "because the good ones had all been done." The search was more difficult because the public had grown weary of reportage and skeptical of its claims to veracity. But then he hit upon an idea. "There was a lot of interest in prostitution at the time; everyone seemed to be writing about it. So I decided to investigate the municipal V.D. Clinic." Right away, the publisher of The Future began to advertise the imminent publication of the as yet unwritten series and requested permission from Mayor Virgitti for a site visit. When Virgitti failed to respond, Vũ Trọng Phụng approached Dr. Joyeux, the head of the clinic and the director of the Municipal Bureau of Public Health. Joyeux refused the request, but he forwarded to Vũ Trọng Phụng a collection of recent studies on prostitution in Indochina, including reports from the League of Nations. With a deadline looming, Vũ Trọng Phụng smoked a bowl of opium ("nothing strange here for a Vietnamese journalist") and crafted an opening vignette by knitting together material he had received from the French official with his own recollections of Hà Nội streetwalkers. Days later, a tour of the clinic was hastily arranged for the Popular Front Minister of Labor Justin Godard (who was visiting from Paris) and Vũ Trọng Phụng was allowed to tag along and to follow up with additional visits, which provided the basis for the early installments of Venereal Disease Clinic. Several weeks into the publication of the series, Mayor Virgitti abruptly terminated Vũ Trọng Phụng's access to the clinic, complaining that his coverage had been inaccurate and overly negative. During a meeting with Vũ Trọng Phụng to explain this reversal, the Mayor singled out sarcastic comments featured in the first installment of the series about a mnemonic poem taught to infected prostitutes to encourage good hygiene. While admitting to himself that he had, in fact, fabricated the offending passage during the period when he had been denied access to the clinic, Vũ Trọng Phụng (mis)informed the Mayor that he had made an error of mistaken identity since the passage in question had been published by a rival at Việt News (Việt Báo). Chastened by this deliberate falsehood, the Mayor apologized profusely and reauthorized Vũ Trọng Phụng's access to the clinic. "This is the most dishonest deed that I have ever done in my career as a journalist," Vũ Trọng Phụng wrote in the last line of the essay. "But who knows what the future holds."
Despite the farcical and self-deprecating depiction of journalism in "A Dishonest Deed," a serious commitment to freedom of speech and freedom of the press is apparent, both in Vũ Trọng Phụng's written work and in his limited record of political activism. For reasons that will become clear, most of his writing on freedom of speech criticized efforts to censor pornography. For example, his historical essay "A Literary Case" ("Một cái án văn chương"), published in 1932, provides an approving summary of the French poet Jean Richepin's defense against obscenity charges launched in 1876 against his scatological poetry collection Songs of the Down and Out (Chansons des gueux). After rehearsing Richepin's arguments in favor of a literature that exposes "the ugliness of social reality," the essay concludes: "Although he was jailed for a month and stripped of his civil rights, Richepin was never the object of public scorn. Among our writers, is there anyone who dares to follow in Richepin's footsteps? Go! Go! If you have talent and courage, go!" Five years later, Vũ Trọng Phụng engaged in a public exchange with the critics Thái Phỉ and Nhất Chi Mai after they denounced several of his works for violating public decency. "A journalist must write the truth for everyone to see," he wrote in his defense. "If a story is true, it is our duty as journalists to amplify it irrespective of the pain or the benefit that it may bring." In conclusion, he reiterated his belief in the social value of free expression. "People are often afraid of truths that are dirty or ugly," he wrote. "They often try to hide big, filthy wounds behind silk and velvet, but this will never cure the problem. Rather, wounds must be exposed and operated upon even if they smell bad and hurt our eyes. My work simply exposes the wounds of society in order that they might be cured." In another public letter, Vũ Trọng Phụng linked his commitment to uncompromising truth-telling to the cause of social justice promoted by republican and left-leaning writers in Europe: "It is not petty-minded to tell the truth about this villainous society, to attack the luxury and lust of the rich, to lament the misery of the poor, the exploited, the persecuted, and the oppressed, to want justice, and to work to bring an end to the kind of filthy stories that I relate. If it is, then Zola, Hugo, Malraux, Dostoyevsky, and Gorky are also petty-minded."
Vũ Trọng Phụng's commitment to the issue might be interpreted as a personal response to the legal persecution of his writing on multiple occasions during the early 1930s. In March 1932, newspapers in Hà Nội and Sài Gòn covered a suit brought against him and Nguyễn Văn Thìn, the editor-in-chief of a short-lived journal named Sound of the Bell (Tiếng Chuông). The suit charged that a piece of writing by Vũ Trọng Phụng had slandered an unnamed notable and violated public decency, while also alleging that Nguyễn Văn Thìn was operating Sound of the Bell without a proper license. At a trial held on March 22, Vũ Trọng Phụng and Nguyễn Văn Thìn were each fined fifty francs and the latter was sentenced to six days in jail. A complete run of Sound of the Bell has never been recovered, but Lại Nguyên Ân speculates that the offending item may have been a story entitled "Son or Father?" and attributed to the pseudonymous author "The Spittoon" ("Ống nhổ"). Together with the earlier attacks against "The Ploy" and "Life of a Clerk," this episode represents the third instance in which legal charges were raised against Vũ Trọng Phụng's journalistic activities.
In 1937, in his only documented foray into direct political activism, Vũ Trọng Phụng signed his name to a public petition that protested the arrest, on trumped-up charges, of the journalist Lê Bá Chấn. Although he was arrested for allegedly kidnapping his fiancé, mainstream papers speculated that Lê Bá Chấn had been jailed for attempting to contact the Popular Front Minister Justin Godard during his recent visit to Hải Dương. The twenty-odd signatories of the petition included many of Vũ Trọng Phụng's colleagues and employers such as Lê Tràng Kiều, Trương Tửu, Vũ Đình Long, Tam Lang, Ngô Tất Tố, Phùng Bảo Thạch, and Vũ Bằng as well as the future communist general Võ Nguyên Giáp, who worked, at the time, as a reporter for the left-wing journal Rassemblement. Lê Bá Chấn was eventually released but not before he staged a weeklong hunger strike, an episode that dominated front-page news throughout April 1937. "Not only does this case violate Lê Bá Chấn's personal freedom [tự do]," the petition read, "but it threatens the freedom of all journalists in our country." As with his opposition to the censorship of pornography, Vũ Trọng Phụng's action in support of this case indicates that a republican commitment to the protection of the right to free speech and a free press loomed large within his political vision.
The final staff position that Vũ Trọng Phụng held before he died-as editor-in-chief of the Indochina Journal between August 1937 and January 1938-confirms the endurance toward the end of his life of the republican commitments that he expressed throughout his career. While featuring his name on the masthead on December 25, 1937, the Indochina Journal published a lengthy front-page manifesto that called for the formation in Indochina of a "social party with a national orientation." Its agenda included a demand for freedom to form political parties: "In civilized countries in Europe, a party is formed by the union of a big group of people who share the same ideas. This natural union is a sacred right of citizens who live in democratic countries. Our country is only a colony of France. Our people do not yet have the right to form a political party or to hold an open meeting." The essay asserted that the right to form parties was supported by the cause of "justice" and "human dignity." Consistent with its republican sensibility, it demanded that the state provide "mass education for all citizens of the country." It also drew attention to its republican vision by contrasting its rights-based agenda with the agenda of local conservative monarchists: "The principles of the Monarchy and the principles of the People are incompatible, especially when the People join together to demand multiple rights such as freedom of speech, freedom for organized labor, and the right to vote."
Vũ Trọng Phụng's republican sensibility may also be seen in his commitment to literary reportage, a cosmopolitan genre that thrived in many parts of the world during the interwar era. In 1942, Vũ Ngọc Phan defined reportage (phóng sự) as a literary form that fused objective observation of current events or milieus ("what the eye sees and the ear hears") with subjective commentary of a critical nature. He also emphasized the genre's inherent antagonism toward the politically powerful and its utility as an instrument of social reform: "In our country, journalism is a new profession; hence, real reportage, worthy of the name, has only been around for ten years. The political situation in our country has been intolerant of reportage, stunting the growth of the genre. This is a shame because no genre is as concrete as reportage, promotes reform as well as reportage, or contributes as much as reportage does to the work of officials, lawyers, and sociologists." Vũ Ngọc Phan implied that diverse national versions of the genre exhibited a similar crusading spirit: "In other countries, people believe that reportage has the capacity to modify the law, overturn unfair punishments, and reform society. Reportage there bears the responsibility of fixing what is flawed and eliminating what should be abolished. Writers of reportage are committed to the protection of rights and the defense of justice."
Leading practitioners of literary reportage during Vũ Trọng Phụng's lifetime included the Americans John Reed, Upton Sinclair, Joseph North, and John Dos Passos; the Russians Ilya Ehrenburg and Sergei Tretyakov; the Englishman George Orwell; the Frenchman Albert Londres; and the Czech Egon Erwin Kisch. Although the narrative conventions of the genre varied little the world over, national traditions reflected a range of left-leaning political agendas. Soviet reportage, for example, followed an orthodox "line" established by cultural officials in Moscow. German reportage grew out of campaigns launched by the cultural wing of the German Communist Party to establish a system of "worker-correspondents whose task it was to report on conditions in the factories, in the lives of workers and in the bourgeois state." Following guidelines devised by orthodox theorists such as the Hungarian critic Georg Lukács, communist reportage from different national traditions featured didactic commentary that guided readers toward "general" insights that they were expected to take away from "particular" scenes. In contrast, interwar Chinese reportage expressed an array of progressive projects associated with Lu Xun's noncommunist League of Left-Wing Writers and an indigenous pre-twentieth-century documentary tradition.
The most widely read reportage writers in interwar France married a left-leaning republican vision to a commitment to objective research that derived from the nineteenth-century feuilleton and Zola's naturalism. The most prominent French devotees of the form included the "staunch republican" Albert Londres as well as Maryse Choisy, Roland Dorgeles, Louis Roubaud, and Andrée Viollis. The latter three were moderate noncommunists with strong republican credentials, each of whom authored well-known exposés of French repression in interwar Indochina. Maryse Choisy's popular reportage-ethnographies of prostitutes, maids, monks, and female prisoners in interwar France expressed a similar social vision, although her thinking came to be dominated by psychoanalytic principles after she became a patient of Freud in the late 1920s.
Vũ Trọng Phụng was familiar with all of these figures. In 1934, he described Louis Roubaud as a "big shot journalist" and later appropriated him as a character in a short satirical play. In a letter written in 1935, he acknowledged reading Le Chemin de Buenos-Aires, Albert Londres's popular account of the "white slave trade" in Argentina. In 1937, he credited Andrée Viollis's book Indochine SOS with launching a powerful amnesty movement to free Indochinese political prisoners. In the preface to Household Servants, he referred approvingly to the work of Maryse Choisy: "Not long ago, Maryse Choisy donned the garb of a maid, and wrote a long reportage, Carnet d'une femme de chambre, which was not without value for social scientists." In 1937, he listed her as a major literary influence along with Jean Richepin, Victor Margueritte, Francis Carco, and Colette.
In a letter written in 1935 that contrasted real reportage based on "what the eye sees and ear hears" to phony "armchair reportage" derived from hearsay and secondhand reports, Vũ Trọng Phụng alluded to a progressive social agenda inherent in his understanding of the genre that resembled its left-leaning republican incarnation in interwar France:
What were the reasons that led me to reportage? When I was twenty-one, a thought sprang to mind: people do not want to see each other's pain or to revisit sad memories-in my case, memories from my childhood. I was fated from birth to become a writer, but the more I matured, the more I realized that many people are tormented by pain in their souls and their flesh. The gap between the rich and the poor grows wider each day. Rich girls curse when the silk hems of their skirts are soiled by contact with the patched skirts of poor peasant girls. Banquet tables are often hidden from view to conceal the tragedy of poverty and hunger. I learned recently that a match factory in Hà Nội plans to hire children who agree to chain themselves to machines because they lack food and clothes. As they are compelled to repeat the same gestures thousands of times per day, these children run the risk of turning into machines themselves. From North to South, innocent people languish in prison, "angels in hell" as Westerners say. Literature provides nothing but distraction if it only screams at the wind and yells at the clouds. For me, literature should serve as an instrument of struggle for writers who want to eliminate injustice from society or inspire sympathy for those whose dignity has been taken away or those who wish to help the weak, the damned, and the exploited or those who work all day to put food on the table but still must go to bed hungry. I am trying to explore the miseries of society. With luck, I may be able to find remedies that help to heal its wounds.
The approach to reportage described by Vũ Trọng Phụng contrasts with the more rigid and didactic communist variant of the genre. Of special interest is his insistence that reportage should address hardships experienced by a broad category of exploited persons including children, prisoners, and the poor rather than focusing narrowly on the proletariat. This dovetails with the neglect of the industrial working class in Vũ Trọng Phụng's reportage and its preoccupation with the plight of "nonrevolutionary" social groups such as prostitutes, concubines, actors, servants, and con artists. In addition, Vũ Trọng Phụng's modest call for "remedies" points to a commitment to practical antidotes to social problems and a preference for piecemeal reform over revolutionary solutions.
The Man Trap, Vũ Trọng Phụng's first major piece of reportage, was serialized in New Day in thirteen installments between August and November 1933. It was initially published under his pen name-Thiên Hư-which referred to a fateful star in his personal horoscope chart. Its subject was the community of clandestine con artists in Hà Nội who earned their living by manipulating popular games of chance played with cards and dice. The community was organized into a handful of overlapping syndicates, led by a criminal aristocracy of cardsharps and professional grifters. In addition to profiling the members of one syndicate and charting the course of their working lives over several months, The Man Trap revealed to its readers many of the cunning techniques that formed the industry's stock-in-trade. These included various forms of sleight of hand, doctored equipment (such as loaded dice, arranged decks, and deceptive shirtsleeves), and the use of decoys and strategic distractions. Indeed, the popularity of the series likely derived from the insight it provided into a forbidden, subterranean world. While the politics of The Man Trap were more opaque than in any of Vũ Trọng Phụng's subsequent works of reportage, it alluded to broader themes concerning the harsh and deceptive character of capitalist modernity. The central subjects of The Man Trap were not members of the poor or exploited classes, but many had taken up con artistry after losing their jobs at the start of the Depression. Moreover, editorial asides in the narrative return repeatedly to similarities between con artistry and "legitimate" professions in the capitalist economy. Like ordinary businessmen, con artists needed to hone their craft, make strategic investments, and work together with reliable partners to turn a profit. Success required ruthlessness, deceptiveness and a willingness to innovate. Another theme was the instrumental power of scientific rationalism, which Vũ Trọng Phụng associated with the intricate and well-tested techniques employed by con artists. Finally, The Man Trap promoted the paranoid idea that scams and con artists-like the forces of capitalist modernity-were omnipresent in colonial society, pulling invisible strings to determine outcomes that had previously been chalked up to the mysterious workings of fate.
The Man Trap earned rave reviews after it was republished as a short book in 1934. "Readers first got to know Vũ Trọng Phụng through realist stories that he published in this newspaper," wrote Thái Phỉ in Midday News in February 1934.
In these stories, this disciple of Gustave Flaubert described with great care the filth of society, in the manner of Guy de Maupassant. Vũ Trọng Phụng may be consumed with these two realist writers, but he has followed his own road. After tangling with a judge over a pornographic story in Sound of the Bell, he turned to criticism. But he grew dissatisfied with this approach and fell into reportage. With this genre, he is sure to reach his literary potential and to establish many benchmarks along the road. The Man Trap is valuable both as a piece of research and as a piece of literature.
An admiring notice from Literature Magazine (Văn) read: "Our country has never before produced such refined reportage. Indeed this inside account of con artistry should be considered the first real reportage in our country [nước Nam]." Positive notices also appeared in French-language journals including Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh's L'Annam Nouveau, which billed The Man Trap as "le reportage sensationnel." In a private diary entry from 1934, the playwright Vi Huyền Đắc recalled expressing admiration for The Man Trap after being introduced to Vũ Trọng Phụng through their mutual friend, Thế Lữ. "Ah, Mr. Phụng, the author of The Man Trap," Vi Huyền Đắc stammered upon meeting the twenty-one-year-old writer. "I just finished reading our people's best work of reportage; it is written with great skill. Most works in our national literature are mediocre. Not so with The Man Trap. I read it from start to finish without stopping because the writing is so good. It is seductive, impossible to put down."
During the following five years, Vũ Trọng Phụng published three additional book-length works of reportage, each of which is discussed at length in subsequent chapters. Also appearing in New Day, immediately after the conclusion of The Man Trap in December 1934, The Industry of Marrying Westerners (Kỹ nghệ lấy Tây) explored interracial conjugal unions in Tonkin, paying special attention to the lives of "professional" Vietnamese paramours of foreign legionnaires. For Household Servants, serialized in Hà Nội News between March and May 1936, Vũ Trọng Phụng worked undercover as a domestic worker to produce a conjoined ethnography of local maids and their middle-class employers. Published in The Future between January and April 1937, Venereal Disease Clinic detailed the segmented structure of Hà Nội's sex trade, the plight of female sex workers, and state efforts to regulate prostitution and prevent sexually transmitted disease. The Industry of Marrying Westerners was republished as a book in 1936, and Household Servants and Venereal Disease Clinic were packaged together in a single volume in 1937. In addition, Vũ Trọng Phụng produced two partial, shorter works of serialized reportage-Hải Phòng 1934 and a study of the theater in Hà Nội entitled Clown Makeup (Vẽ nhọ bôi hề)-both of which were left unfinished when the journals in which they appeared abruptly closed down.
As with The Man Trap, Vũ Trọng Phụng's subsequent works of reportage earned high praise for their gripping prose and progressive social message. "The Industry of Marrying Westerners is a masterpiece that will deeply affect modern society," wrote Mai-Xuân-Nhân in 1936. "Everyone should read this magnificent and original book. The talented Vũ Trọng Phụng should be proud to have reached the same level as Louis Roubaud, Andrée Viollis, and Pierre Suze [sic]." Vũ Ngọc Phan singled out the skillful and sympathetic portrayal of the underclass in Household Servants. Reviews of Venereal Disease Clinic underlined Vũ Trọng Phụng's fearlessness as a researcher. "Vũ Trọng Phụng deserves praise," wrote Nguyễn Vỹ in 1938. "He has a talent for reportage and he has produced a very fine example of the genre. When confronted with a difficult issue such as prostitution, Mr. Phụng grows curious and embarks on intensive research. As a social writer, he does not flinch before the most disgusting scenes. . . . Few writers possess this special virtue." Phùng Tất Đắc emphasized the value of Vũ Trọng Phụng's reportage as a historical document that will illuminate for "later generations" the "strange, unprecedented changes" occurring during the era. Lãng Tử compared the political power of Vũ Trọng Phụng's writing to the finest French reportage: "In France, reportage is well respected and journalists such as Albert Londres, Roger Martin du Gard, and Pierre Mac Orlan have written powerful books with the potential to overthrow governments or bring about fundamental changes in society. Literature in our country remains poor and reportage is underdeveloped. But with Vũ Trọng Phụng's The Industry of Marrying Westerners, we have reason for optimism. Long live reportage!"
The two years following Vũ Trọng Phụng's departure from New Day marked a temporary lull in his spectacular literary ascent. His most significant publication during 1934-35 was the naturalist play No Echo (Không một tiếng vang; discussed at length in chapter 2), but he is alleged to have written it in 1931. He also completed his first novel, Severed Love, an overwrought love story with a strong but diffuse political subtext. In addition, he published numerous minor pieces during this period, including short stories, one-act plays, news reporting, and editorials. In 1934, he served on the editorial staff at Megaphone and Hải Phòng Weekly, for which he likely produced anonymous copy. The shuttering of Women's Contemporary Forum (Phụ Nữ Thời Đàm), Hải Phòng Weekly, and New Youth by censors and creditors forced him to abandon promising works of reportage: Clown Makeup, Hải Phòng 1934, and Life of a Clerk. It was also during this period that Vũ Trọng Phụng published his first story in Vũ Đình Long's Saturday Novel, a move that signaled the start of his association with the Tân Dân group.
However, 1936 marked a sudden and startling climax to his literary career. During the fifteen months between January 1936 and March 1937, Vũ Trọng Phụng released four major novels: The Storm (381 pages), Dumb Luck (228 pages), The Dike Breaks (266 pages), and To Be a Whore (290 pages). All were serialized in weekly periodicals, the former two in Hà Nội News; the latter two in Tuesday Novel (Tiểu Thuyết Thứ Ba) and Perfume River (Sông Hương). Remarkably, Vũ Trọng Phụng also completed over a dozen short stories in 1936-37, the lengthy reportage Household Servants (considered his finest by Vũ Ngọc Phan), and a translation of Victor Hugo's five-act play Lucrecia Borgia. Is it any wonder that when he died three years later, rumors circulated that he had written himself to death? As notable as Vũ Trọng Phụng's productivity in 1936-37 was the critical acclaim that he inspired. "The literary style of Dumb Luck possesses a seductive power," wrote Hồ Xanh in Industrial and Commercial News (Công Thương Báo) in 1938. "I sincerely admire and respect it." Writing in Elite (Tinh Hoa) in 1937, Nguyễn Lương Ngọc praised Vũ Trọng Phụng's eye for detail, full-bodied characters, and exciting storytelling. "The author draws his characters with a fine pen," gushed Vũ Ngọc Phan in a review of The Storm penned in 1938. "But he is also capable of producing soft and sorrowful lines. . . . The Storm is one of our most valuable contemporary novels." The critical reception of the novels was enhanced by expressions of approval for their reformist social message. "To Be a Whore offers a powerful indictment of our narrow-minded society," wrote Minh Tước in Tomorrow (Mai) in 1939. "Its audacious truthfulness will give moralists food for thought."
In addition to their narrative ambition and acclaimed literary quality, the novels completed in 1936-37 are striking for their broad stylistic range. The Storm is a sprawling naturalist epic of rape, revenge, incest, corruption, class conflict, and communist espionage. Dumb Luck is an absurdist sex farce, satirizing the ignorance of the Vietnamese masses and the status anxiety of the urban elite. The Dike Breaks centers on a violent provincial labor struggle led by heroic political activists and reads like an earnest effort at socialist realism. And To Be a Whore stands as the first Vietnamese "psychological novel" structured explicitly by Freudian ideas. Indeed, the enduring confusion over Vũ Trọng Phụng's political and aesthetic orientation stems, more than anything else, from the extraordinary diversity of this novelistic quartet.
The novels of 1936-37 are also remarkable for their shocking portrayal of colonial Indochina as an immoral society plagued by sexual depravity, violence, corruption, and official abuse of power. Set in present-day Tonkin, all four novels depict sordid episodes of adultery as well as the deviant sexual habits of urban youth, modern women, and members of the nouveau riche. Dumb Luck and The Storm feature extended rape scenes and lurid accounts of nymphomania. Subplots involving incest and suicide figure prominently in The Storm and To Be a Whore. In an especially graphic episode in The Dike Breaks, colonial militiamen torture the novel's protagonist, subjecting him to a brutal beating, forced nudity, and anal penetration with hot candle wax. Both The Storm and The Dike Breaks include subplots about the corrupting influence of money on politics and government, and both novels feature characters who are political revolutionaries. Given this disreputable subject matter, it is no surprise that a sensational tone permeated public discourse about the novels. "Among all of our social writers, Vũ Trọng Phụng is the bravest," read a notice in Tuesday Novel announcing the publication of The Storm. "He alone utters aloud what nobody dares to say. He alone puts down on paper what nobody dares to write." The critic Mộng Sơn was more emphatic: "Gentle wives and parents who worry about the happiness of your children! Young girls who are still innocent and pure! Don't read To Be a Whore!"
By late 1937, at the age of twenty-five, Vũ Trọng Phụng's greatest works were behind him. Most of his output during the two years before his death in October 1939 comprised news reporting, short stories, and political commentary. His most intriguing political writing-including a series of essays and editorials attacking colonialism, capitalism, and communism-appeared between August 1937 and August 1938, when he served as chief editor at Indochina Times and wrote a regular column for Thursday Novel. With his health deteriorating, he began to produce shorter, less taxing pieces, including poems and playful sketches for the humor magazine The Mallard as well as psychological short stories for the Indochina Times and Literary Circle. Several of his stories lamented the modernization of gender norms and he referred to himself during an interview in 1937 as a "conservative on the question of women." Other pieces took issue with the arrogance of radical nationalism, a position that dovetailed with criticism he voiced of Japanese expansionism and militarism. His most substantial works during this period were two novels: Winning the Lottery (Trúng số độc đắc), serialized in Saturday Novel starting in May 1939, and The Prisoner Released (Người tù được tha), which was never published and remained incomplete at the time of his death. Depicting the grotesque transformation of a family after one of its wayward sons draws a winning lottery ticket, Winning the Lottery returned to the naturalist style and anticapitalist themes that marked Vũ Trọng Phụng's earliest published work. The Prisoner Released, on the other hand, resembled The Dike Breaks and The Storm in its romantic portrayal of the adventures of left-wing political activists. It has been widely cited as evidence for the leftward evolution of Vũ Trọng Phụng's political ideas at the end of his life. As chapter 3 will demonstrate, however, this thesis is not supported by Vũ Trọng Phụng's political writing of 1937 and 1938, which belittled orthodox communism in Indochina and the Soviet Union.
As a consequence of the fanfare that surrounded his novels, Vũ Trọng Phụng became a household name. His public profile was enhanced by the simultaneous appearance of his novels in multiple venues and by their speedy republication as stand-alone books with attendant publicity. Notices and advertisements for his work appeared in scores of publications along with a wide range of criticism and commentary. Megaphone printed a full-page caricature of him dressed as a cardsharp, and Thursday Novel featured a photograph of him on its cover, in a space typically reserved for bathing beauties. On July 2, 1937, Youth Newspaper (Anh Niên) advertised an upcoming response, by Vũ Trọng Phụng, to the question "What is Love?" but it never appeared. In March 1938, newspapers posted congratulations on the occasion of Vũ Trọng Phụng's marriage to Vũ Mỵ Lương. The strong praise and bitter condemnation that his work provoked from professional reviewers thrust Vũ Trọng Phụng further into the public eye, as did the rejoinders he published in response to his critics.
Critical Discourse and Colonial Republicanism
In addition to reflecting his growing celebrity, the large critical discourse about Vũ Trọng Phụng that appeared during his lifetime draws attention to the significance of republican sensibilities in his work. For example, many reviewers praised his commitment to research and careful observation, a compliment that underlined his republican preoccupation with social-scientific enquiry. Vũ Trọng Phụng's passion for social science was also noted by his detractors, many of whom chided his tendency to lard his narratives with pop psychology and faddish social theories borrowed from Freud and the German sexologist J. P. Liepmann. "Vũ Trọng Phụng should stick to the new and useful job of reporting," wrote Thạch Lam in 1938. "We hope that he will continue to write and that his pen will grow still sharper. But we also urge him to abandon useless theories in both his novels and reportage. There is nothing wrong with following theoretical principles as long as one first takes pains to depict psychology and behavior in a truthful manner." Vũ Ngọc Phan raised a similar objection, advising Vũ Trọng Phụng to focus on "realistic description minus the theories and didacticism." With reference to The Storm, he especially disliked the "author's preoccupation with the sexualism of Freud" and his fascination with "environmental determinism." For Vũ Ngọc Phan, the quality of Vũ Trọng Phụng's novel was compromised by his ambitious but clumsy appropriation of social science to explain the depraved behavior of the novel's major characters.
Vũ Trọng Phụng's republican sensibilities may also be seen in the hostility that his work inspired among orthodox communist critics. In 1939, the Marxist critic Uyển Diễm attacked To Be a Whore for promoting the "petty-bourgeois thesis" that the growth of prostitution in Indochina was caused by inadequate sex education rather than the growth of capitalism:
The novel asks the question: Why does a girl from an "upstanding" family become a prostitute? It suggests that the answer lies in the lack of adequate sex education both at home and in school. But are we to believe that girls who receive a proper education will never become prostitutes? A thousand times no! Girls become prostitutes and boys become thieves because of the capitalist economic system! These rotten and disgusting things will continue to exist as long as the capitalist economy exists. In other words, we cannot eliminate the root of the problem unless we overthrow the capitalist economy and build socialism all over the world.
While Vũ Trọng Phụng's interest in sex education as a possible solution to the problem of prostitution disappointed budding socialist-realist critics like Uyển Diễm, it highlights the author's predilection for modest reformist measures (such as the quintessentially republican strategy of educational reform) as a preferred approach to solving pressing social problems.
Taking a tack similar to Uyển Diễm's, the Marxist critic Xuân Sa criticized Vũ Trọng Phụng's portrayal of class struggle and communist politics in The Storm for failing to conform to the recently prescribed dictates of socialist realism. In a bitter response printed in Sài Gòn Novel (Sài Gòn Tiểu Thuyết), Vũ Trọng Phụng defended his portrayal of these topics as more "realistic" than the mechanical models proposed by Xuân Sa. In conclusion, he rejected Xuân Sa's narrow, prescriptive approach to literary criticism, which he dismissed as a "dictatorial posture toward literature." Vũ Trọng Phụng's testy response to this form of criticism underscores his commitment to republican values of artistic freedom as well as his lack of patience with dogmatic efforts to enforce literary orthodoxy.
The most intense critical discussions of Vũ Trọng Phụng's novels, however, concerned pornography and realism-questions that touched upon standard republican concerns over censorship and free speech. "Recently, realist writers have adopted a new style for depicting the 'naked truth,'" wrote Phùng Tất Đắc in Faithful Friend (Ích Hữu) on October 27, 1936. "Realists expose what goes on in the dark and record the words and deeds of perverts. A debate has exploded in the North and the Center about pornography in literature. Some denounce pornography for stimulating uncontrollable lust. The realist group responds that it is better to expose the body of a scarred girl than to conceal it, although concealing it is certainly easier." Phùng Tất Đắc expressed sympathy for the realists, but he admonished them to keep their work out of the hands of children. Nguyễn Vỹ raised the same issues in a consideration of Vũ Trọng Phụng's preoccupation with sex and the grotesque. "Vũ Trọng Phụng is an artist of ugliness. His pen is like a nasty child who enjoys scandalizing society, especially the bourgeoisie, through shock tactics and vulgarity. The author of The Storm and The Industry of Marrying Westerners is a cruel satirist who rejects refined and polite language. His pen dwells on the grotesque, disgusting and ugly qualities of the people that he hates." Much of the remainder of the review addressed the novel's "strange obsession" (ám ảnh kỳ quặc) with sex, which, according to Nguyễn Vỹ, frightened away female readers. Vũ Ngọc Phan agreed that the novel's sexual content was its most notable feature:
Moralists have argued that cinema is not a true art form because its main objective is to stimulate lust. For example, Georges Duhamel criticized cinema as a depraved form of entertainment consumed in a darkened room after dinner and before bedtime. People responded in a similar way when The Storm was serialized in the newspaper. "This novel is only good for provoking lust," they said. Since I am not a disciple of Duhamel, I replied: "But it is still better than other books." To which they responded: "Artists should have dignity and self-respect. A virtuous artist would not try to stimulate lust to achieve popular success." This response calls to mind Flaubert's anger when it was claimed that people rushed to buy Madame Bovary only after it was put on trial for public indecency.
Perhaps the harshest charges of indecency came from religious officials such as Father J. M. Thích, the editor of Huế's largest Catholic Newspaper. He called on Perfume River to cease publication of To Be a Whore or risk triggering a boycott of the newspaper by Catholic readers. Vũ Trọng Phụng chose not to respond in print, but he was defended by his close friend Phan Khôi, the editor-in-chief of Perfume River. In an essay published on August 22, 1936, Phan Khôi ridiculed the charges against To Be a Whore, pointing out that there was nothing in the novel that could not be found in the Bible. "After all," he added mischievously, "even Jesus Christ had grown close to a famous prostitute." The following month, the conservative neotraditionalist critic Thái Phỉ charged local purveyors of pornography with hypocrisy and greed: "Pornographers sell their literature on the street. They take advantage of the fact that people who denounce pornography are secretly obsessed by it. Some claim that publishers put food on the table by selling filth like madams in a brothel." He then denounced the effect on the public of pornography posing as realism: "Even radicals recognize the damage caused by pornography on an uneducated reading public that does not know right from wrong." Thái Phỉ blamed the proliferation of pornography on European influence, Western fashions, and romantic literature. He mentioned no particular offender by name, but he singled out the journal Megaphone, where Vũ Trọng Phụng had worked during 1934, as a squalid trailblazer in Vietnamese "pornographic literature."
In a letter published a month later in Hà Nội News, Vũ Trọng Phụng defended himself "as a realist, not a pornographer," by distinguishing between the portrayal of two types of lust. The portrayal of "healthy lust," between husbands and wives, for instance, was pornographic and had no place in respectable literature. On the other hand, unhealthy lust that led to social evils such as rape, adultery, and incest must be exposed and analyzed in order to be combated effectively. Averring that his purpose was to inspire fury at social injustice (rather than fury at writers who expose injustice), he denounced Thái Phỉ, dismissing his arguments as "ignorant nonsense" and accusing him of being an old goat himself. Six months later, Vũ Trọng Phụng addressed the pornography controversy again in an "open letter" in The Future. In response to fears raised about the impact of his work on impressionable girls, Vũ Trọng Phụng insisted that his purpose was to dissuade them from entering the sex trade. He then drew a contrast between his own graphic reportage that served the cause of social reform and sexually suggestive works that did little but inspire romantic longing such as Hoàng Ngọc Phách's novella Pure Heart (Tố Tâm) and the novels Loneliness (Lạnh lùng) and Breaking Off (Đoạn tuyệt) by the leader of the Self-Strength Literary Group, Nhất Linh. He also defended his use of profanity by comparing it to the explicit language featured in public advertisements for aphrodisiacs and venereal disease medicine. "Why attack me and not the kings of venereal disease medicine?" he demanded. "I also wrote Venereal Disease Clinic in a scientific spirit. Over a century ago, Victor Hugo demanded the right to call a pig a pig! I am not trying to pull a fast one by arguing in the manner of Zola, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Margueritte, and Richepin, figures once condemned for obscenity but now considered great writers. . . . Unlike stubborn and shy men like you, most people in the twentieth century respect science and truth even if it is ugly and hurtful. Ugliness is not pornography. Pornography is the seminaked, semicovered imagery in the bourgeois film Music Hall or the magazines Beauty and Sex Appeal. It is a modern dancer in a see-through dress, or the kind of 'noble' love story that inflicts real harm on both children and adults."
Three days later, (the pseudonymous) Nhất Chi Mai of the Self-Strength Literary Group attacked Vũ Trọng Phụng directly in an essay published in These Days entitled "Pornographic or Not?" He opened by insulting Vũ Trọng Phụng as a "half-baked writer" with "a rudimentary education." Rejecting the defense of explicit prose based on the social utility of realism, he called attention to a notoriously lurid scene in The Storm, depicting the pregnant protagonist Thị Mịch assuming an awkward coital position to facilitate penetration from behind: "If that's not pornography, what is it?" Turning from the issue of pornography, Nhất Chi Mai targeted the unrelenting pessimism of Vũ Trọng Phụng's realist ideology:
Vũ Trọng Phụng's work leaves me annoyed, irritated, even furious-not at the wounds of society that it purports to describe, but at the writer's dark, hateful, and petty ideology. Writers have a duty to reveal human misery and ugliness, but they also need a noble purpose, an altruistic sensibility, a belief in progress, or a shred of optimism that humans can escape the darkness and grow better and happier. But Vũ Trọng Phụng's work is bereft of hope. The unhappy world that he depicts is a hell peopled by foulmouthed murderers and prostitutes. This is a mirror reflecting little more than the ideology of a writer who views the world through dark glasses and a darker mind.
In a letter published in The Future eleven days later, on March 25, 1937, Vũ Trọng Phụng responded at length to Nhất Chi Mai, his third intervention in the controversy within six months. Accusing the Self-Strength Literary Group of pursuing a vendetta against rivals at Tân Dân, he announced that he would answer Nhất Chi Mai's charges "line by line, word by word." He dismissed Nhất Chi Mai's claim that he was uneducated as an ad hominem attack. He criticized him for cherry-picking one unrepresentative salacious passage out of a three-hundred-page novel. He denied that his graphic prose was crafted for commercial reasons, while reiterating the virtues of straightforward description over poetic euphemism. Moving from defense to offense, he suggested that prurient motives lay behind campaigns for the liberation of women and modern fashion promoted by the Self-Strength Literary Group. In response to the charge that the preoccupation with sexual immorality in his novels was a reflection of his own sick mind, he noted that the recent growth of the sex trade and moral perversity had been widely documented by authoritative European sources: "Don't you know about Margueritte's exposé of prostitution in the book Prostituées? Don't you know of the sexual depravity of the old and new regimes in France as portrayed in the journal Craponillot? Don't you know about the disastrous pederasty movement followed by millions of Germans and spearheaded in France by Gide, Rostand, and Verlaine? What I describe is not merely a world of my own making." In conclusion, he rejected the sunny optimism of the cult of youthfulness, happiness, and leisure promoted by the Self-Strength Literary Group, which he contrasted with his own hard-nosed vision of social reform.
The critical discourse surrounding the four novels published in 1936-37 affirms the presence of republican concerns in Vũ Trọng Phụng's broader view of the world. While his clumsy engagement with sexology and Freudian theory irritated his critics, it highlights his commitment to social science as an instrument for crafting social policy and writing realist literature. His spat with leftist critics reveals an aversion toward the subordination of literary expression to political orthodoxy, a position with affinities to interwar republican anticommunism. A republican sensibility is also evident in his rejection of obscurantist attacks by conservative Catholics and Confucian moralists against the forthright depiction of sexuality in his work. His opposition to censorship and defense of the right to free speech may be seen in a similar light. Finally, the French figures that he invoked while defending his work-the writers Hugo, Zola, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Margueritte, Richepin, and Gide and the journalists Viollis, Roubaud, Dorgeles, and Londres-were all associated, in one form or another, with a broader republican vision. Vũ Trọng Phụng's commitment to a local variant of this vision, nurtured within the institutions and general political environment of French Indochina, forms the subject of the following three chapters.