“How is it that while we are in this city of ‘a thousand-year civilization’ there is for every thirty-five upstanding people one person working as a prostitute?”[i] Vietnamese reporter Vũ Trọng Phụng poses this controversial question in the first installment of his 1937 study on prostitution and venereal disease in Hanoi titled Lục Xì. Shaun Kingsley Malarney brings this important work to an English language audience through this careful translation and extensively researched introduction. Not only does this work contribute to the growing understanding of Vũ Trọng Phụng and his literary works, but it also offers crucial insight into the limited history on the poor, women, prostitution, medicine, and disease during the colonial period.
In his introduction Malarney offers a historical foundation to understand Vũ Trọng Phụng, his social justice imperatives, and his social critiques. Known as the “Northern King of Reportage”, Vũ Trọng Phụng (1912-1939) was at the forefront of Vietnamese reportage, a social realist type of investigative journalism popular in the 1930s that often focused on the marginalized and downtrodden. Reportage was attentive to a measure of objectivity, yet also included first-person commentary and suggestions for reform. Throughout Lục Xì and his other work Làm Đĩ (Prostitute), Phụng was concerned with the origins and pervasiveness of social vices such as prostitution within Vietnamese society. As evident in his question regarding “a thousand-year civilization,” Phụng often reflected upon the changing cultural and ideological norms in Vietnamese society. Ultimately Malarney argues that Vũ Trọng Phụng’s investigative journalism on prostitution served as a vehicle to express broader sociocultural discontent on the colonial rhetoric of progress and ‘civilization’.
Problematizing the Commercial Sex Industry and its Victims
Originally serialized in eleven parts in the Hanoi newspaper Tương Lai (Future) and later published as a book in 1937, Lục Xì offers an insider’s perspective to the Hanoi Municipal Dispensary—a center intended to treat women with venereal disease, but according to Phụng, elicited fear from all Vietnamese society. By emphasizing the intense fears women had of the dispensary, Phụng alludes to the deeper social problem of women’s structural vulnerability. He cites cases in which women were wrongly accused of prostitution and kept for an undetermined amount of time in the prison-like dispensary, or instances of physical abuses in the dispensary amongst the registered prostitutes and clandestine prostitutes. In his description of the harassment of a thirteen year-old girl by a Vietnamese detective of the police organization, the Girls Squad, Phụng again highlights the tremendous power imbalances between women and male authority figures. These cases shed light on the immense ineffectiveness of police, administrators, and the dispensary staff to address the spread of venereal disease and the real consequences upon often poor, vulnerable female prostitutes. In this way, Phụng develops a complex view of the commercial sex industry that recognized the both its social, cultural, and political underpinnings and its painful realities.
Rather than a complete condemnation of prostitution, Phụng takes a critical eye towards the development of the commercial sex industry—a multifaceted and overwhelmingly large-scale enterprise that Phụng argued included prostitutes, hotel boys, opium dens, clients, police, administration, and the dispensary. Determined to uncover the root of prostitution, Phụng examined legal documents and interviewed administrators, police, and prostitutes to understand their perspectives towards the regulation of prostitution. In this way, he provides a wide spectrum of debates on prostitution ranging from the inevitability of prostitution to a hardline criticism of prostitution and the condemnation of “changing customs” that corrupted the “solid morality and good character” of the Annamite woman.[ii]
Of Lục Xì’s reform agendas, the education of women on sexual hygiene and venereal disease in the School of Sexual Prophylaxis receive much of his attention. In his analysis of the spread of venereal disease, Phụng blames general ignorance and a culture of modesty that prohibited open discussions on sex education. His stance is quite progressive for his time, and Phụng concludes his report with a call to action mirrored after the Sellier’s draft law, which according to Phụng would emancipate women as the “sex slaves” of the prostitution trade. His final reform suggestions include the following actions: close the Dispensary, brothels, and Girls’ Squad, and instruct the youth about “the problems of sexual relations.”
Phụng’s Commentary on French Colonial Influence on Vietnamese Society
In his tenth installment titled “The Authorities’ Perspective,” Phụng reflects on the authorities’ system of classification of Vietnamese women in the prostitution industry. This section reveals as much about French colonial racial politics as it does about Phụng’s stance on the influence of the French upon Vietnamese. In this section, his commentary on the materialistic appeal of the sex industry alludes to his belief in the degeneration of a city of a ‘thousand-year civilization’ under colonialism. Phụng argues that the ‘cost of progress’ or of European influence was the unraveling of Vietnamese morality, obsession with material goods and sexual desires, which inevitably intensified the situation of prostitution and venereal disease in Hanoi.
As noted by Malarney, Phụng’s stance towards prostitution changes over the course of the work as Phụng develops a deeper understanding towards the plight of women prostitutes, particularly those constantly subjugated to indignant examinations and rigid confinement of the dispensary. However, Phụng is also careful to distinguish between the different types of prostitutes according to their registration, origins, race, and social status and he seems to draw conclusions on their moral character based on these designations. In this way, it seems that for Phụng only two types of prostitutes really existed—those who were structurally vulnerable and wanted desperately to escape the industry and those who were infatuated with materialism. Even in his interview with two prostitutes, Phụng’s impression of the two wavered between the two binaries, and he was not able to comprehend fully why certain women held papers while others did not. The agency accorded to women is thus quite marginal, and the attention instead is on structural and societal changes that have caused their current situation.
Thus while Lục Xì is an extensively researched investigation, the work also reveals Phụng’s perspectives on changing values of moral correctness, the limitations of the colonial government, and economic inequality. In particular, Phụng was disturbed by the immense socioeconomic vulnerabilities of women and how prostitution served as a desperate solution to poverty. Furthermore, Phụng’s obsession with why women chose to become prostitutes seemed to function as a basis to understand the demise of Vietnamese civilization under French colonialism. With any work of translation come issues of authenticity—how does one remain faithful to author’s literary intentions while properly considering the multiple layers of translation, cultural context, and historical significance? In this way, Malarney’s work is quite commendable in his detailed attention to historical context and Phụng’s word choice (such as his variations on the word ‘prostitute’). Together with insights on Vũ Trọng Phụng from Peter Zinoman’s new book, Vietnamese Colonial Republican: The Political Vision of Vu Trong Phung, Lục Xì provides an incredible window into the complexities of prostitution and venereal disease as well as the ways in which it was perceived within society.[iii]
Review by Cindy A. Nguyen, University of California, Berkeley (firstname.lastname@example.org)
[i] Vũ Trọng Phụng, Lục Xì: Prostitution and Venereal Disease in Colonial Hanoi, trans. Shaun Kingsley Malarney (Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2011). P. 47.
[ii] Vũ, Lục Xì. P. 45. He cites this argument in his first installment titled “A Blemish on the City”.
[iii] Peter Zinoman, Vietnamese Colonial Republican The Political Vision of Vũ Trọng Phụng. (University of California Press, 2013)