Old Saigon streets: lives of the down and out

Historian Haydon Cherry is currently an assistant professor in the Department of History at Northwestern University in Illinois where he teaches Southeast Asian history. Originally from New Zealand, his path to the US started back in his undergrad, when he was made an Asia 2000 (now Asia New Zealand Foundation) Scholar. He jetted to the National University of Singapore, where he fell into studying history. He talks to the AMC about what sparked his study, his book Down and Out in Saigon and his upcoming projects.

What drew you to study Southeast Asian – and Vietnamese in particular – history?

I decided to major in Southeast Asian Studies because it was a subject/area that I could not study in New Zealand.  I was attracted to the enormous diversity of the region - linguistically, ethnically, religiously, politically - really in every way.  Majoring in Southeast Asian Studies at NUS required taking several years of a regional language.

Historian Haydon Cherry. Image: Supplied/Haydon Cherry

I chose Vietnamese with the encouragement of my faculty mentor who said that exciting things were happening in the study of that country. I was 19 and impressionable!

For your book, Down and Out in Saigon, you follow the path of six different people in the early 20th century – why did you choose those six stories to tell? 

In my book, I wanted to bring to life the histories of those usually forgotten in the writing of Vietnamese history.  

That history has focused on political leaders and generals and the rise of communism and nationalism and the Vietnamese wars. I wanted to know how everyday folk made ends meet and fashioned their lives under colonial rule.

A fan peruses Cherry's book Down and Out in Saigon. Image: Supplied/Haydon Cherry

I was excited by the imaginative possibilities of writing about people who typically left only fragmentary traces in the colonial archive.

Where did you find the information for the six people and were there any surprises or moments that struck you along the way?

I spent two years doing research for the original dissertation in Vietnam and France and then once I graduated, I spent several summers doing follow up research in both places.  

I have seldom been happier than I was when sitting in the National Archives Centre II in Saigon-Ho Chi Minh City reading reports written by the colonial police.  Most of the means that the poor used to get by prostitution, begging, petty theft, swindling etc. attracted the attention of the police who sometimes conducted quite lengthy investigations.  

I chose my six characters because they represented a diversity of Saigon’s poor - a prostitute, Chinese coolie, a rickshaw puller, orphan, incurable invalid, and poor Frenchman - and because the stories around their lives seemed particularly interesting.  

Down and Out in Saigon finds fans across all age groups - accessible and easy to read! Image: Supplied/Haydon Cherry

One of the things that most struck me about the poor was the share diversity and complexity of their life stories - my rickshaw puller went by various aliases trying to evade the police and it was fascinating trying to piece together his story.

You’re currently working on another book, this one around the jazz age in Vietnam – what can you tell me about that?

I am at the beginning of my new project on the jazz age in Vietnam. I intend the book to be a history of the tumultuous 1920s that focuses on the cultural and social innovations of that period. I am interested in the new poetic forms, painting styles, musical works and political experimentation of the period.

Banner image: Wikimedia Commons

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