Philippe M. F. Peycam: The Birth of Vietnamese Political Journalism

Philippe M. F. Peycam, The Birth of Vietnamese Political Journalism : Saigon 1916-1930, Columbia University Press, 2012, xi-306 p.

Philippe M. F. Peycam completes the first ever English-language study of Vietnam’s emerging political press and its resistance to colonialism. Published in the decade that preceded the Communist Party’s founding, this journalistic phenomenon established a space for public, political contestation that fundamentally changed Vietnamese attitudes and the outlook of Southeast Asia.

Peycam directly links Saigon’s colonial urbanization to the creation of new modes of individual and collective political agency. To better justify their presence, French colonialists implemented a peculiar brand of republican imperialism to encourage the development of a highly controlled print capitalism. Yet the Vietnamese made clever use of this new form of political expression, subverting colonial discourse and putting French rulers on the defensive, while simultaneously stoking Vietnamese aspirations for autonomy. Peycam specifically considers the work of Western-educated Vietnamese journalists who, in their legal writings, called attention to the politics of French rule.

Peycam rejects the notion that Communist and nationalist ideologies changed the minds of « alienated » Vietnamese during this period. Rather, he credits colonial urban modernity with shaping the Vietnamese activist-journalist and the role of the French, even at their most coercive, along with the modern public Vietnamese intellectual and his responsibility toward the group. Countering common research on anticolonial nationalism and its assumptions of ethno-cultural homogeneity, Peycam follows the merging of French republican and anarchist traditions with neo-Confucian Vietnamese behavior, giving rise to modern Vietnamese public activism, its autonomy, and its contradictory aspirations. Interweaving biography with archival newspaper and French police sources, he writes from within these journalists’ changing political consciousness and their shifting perception of social roles.

 

Review :

Philippe M. F. Peycam’s vivid account makes a unique contribution to contemporary Vietnamese history and colonial studies. Until now, nothing of this scope has been attempted in English. Previous studies of the Vietnamese press have focused on the communist newspaper La Lutte and less systematic samplings of French-sanctioned publications. Peycam instead gives us portraits of writers, publishers, and editors who for months and years put out popular, often financially viable, newspapers to challenge the status quo. He makes judicious use of the reports of the French security police and brings these men and their peculiar mix of French idealism and colonial hypocrisy to life. His portrait of the rapidly changing society of French Indochina’s major entrepôt emphasizes the hybrid nature of Saigon politics with fascinating detail. (Review by Sophie Quinn-Judge, Temple University, author of Ho Chi Minh : The Missing Years).

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