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The Chinese in Southern Vietnam

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Vinh Chau Chinese in Saigon, 2018
Vinh Chau Chinese in Saigon, 2018
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In the 17th century, the Manchus conquered China, causing thousands of defeated Chinese soldiers and their families to flee to Vietnam, then divided between north and south. The Nguyen Clan, rulers of the south, granted these Chinese land in nominal Cambodian territory, paving the way for Vietnam's annexation of a third of Cambodia. This obscure history is just another example of how immigrants are used to serve rulers, and how de facto borders are often fluid, to be contested over.

In Bien Hoa, the competent and enterprising Chinese built a thriving port city that traded internationally, and for this achievement, their leader Chen Shangchuan [e' ä å ] was showered with accolades and honorifics. In the late 18th century, however, this Chinese city was looted then razed by Quang Trung, a rival to the Nguyen Clan. Thousands of Chinese were slaughtered.

In Bien Hoa, there is a modest shrine to Chen Shangchuan, but each Vietnamese town has a street named after Quang Trung, a brilliant general and king who instituted many key economic and social reforms. His butchery of innocent Chinese is but a footnote.

Through all the persecution, the Chinese are still doing well in Vietnam, thanks to their human capital. Never dwelling on historical injustices, they merely forge forward. Yesterday, I had coffee with Chan, a 64-year-old Chinese from Vinh Chau, a once miserable backwater on the coast. Visiting it in 1998, I had to endure a primitive ferry crossing plus miles of rocky road. Perched on a low chair in its main market, I had a regrettable bowl of soup.

Thirty years ago, Chan couldn't afford his morning coffee. Now, he owns four houses and a 22-employee business that buys and sells used chains, cables and pulleys, "My son worked for a guy who did this, so that's how we learnt the business. Now, we have clients from all over the country, even in Hanoi."

"Why can't they just buy their chains and cables up there?"

"We have the largest stock!" The mustachioed man smiled, "and the best prices. People trust us."

Vietnam's revival results from the economic reforms of Doi Moi. Once the state got out of the way, commerce blossomed, wealth was generated and abject destitution mostly disappeared.

Like most Chinese in Vietnam, Chan betrays an accent when speaking Vietnamese, and his usage of idioms can be slightly odd. Language bonds or repels in a continuum, and a Vietnamese can pick up immediately if you're from the Mekong Delta, Saigon, Hue or Hanoi, etc.

A hands-on boss who's not leery of getting his hands dirty, Chan's at work by 7:30 each morning. "I can't take a vacation. If I'm not here, my employees may pocket some of the receipts, you know, or neglect urgent orders."

During the decade and a half after the Vietnam War, over a million people fled Vietnam by boat, but not Chan, "I had a friend who was a boat builder, so I could have escaped for free, but I didn't go because of my aging father."

To get on boat, one normally had to pay eight gold taels, then risk capture, prison, hunger, thirst, sickness, storms, pirates and death, all in the hope of arriving in Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, China or Hong Kong, yet even then, one may be repatriated, as many were.

Although wealthy now, Chan has only been outside Vietnam once, "I have a business associate in Cambodia. He kept saying, 'You must come over!' but I never went, so once, he just showed up and basically kidnapped me! I spent three days in Cambodia. It was fun."

The cafe' was on a street with an unusually wide sidewalk. We leaned back and watch people stream by. Since it was around 6:30AM, the temperature was pleasantly cool. Seeing a slow-moving funeral procession, Chan laughed, "Once in a wedding car, once in a hearse, then it's over!"

I was about to joke that one can get in several wedding cars, then I remembered that Vietnam's divorce rate is extremely low. Though many men frequent prostitutes or have mistresses, they don't tend to dump their wives.

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Linh Dinh's Postcards from the End of America has just been published by Seven Stories Press. Tracking our deteriorating socialscape, he maintains a photo blog.

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