Writing on Vietnam

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The Colonial History of Vietnamese Soccer 2: Two documents from the early 1920s.

These two documents provide a glimpse onto the timeline and activists who first popularized Vietnamese soccer.

In the last post I translated a summary history of the colonial era origins of Vietnamese soccer, and tried to contextualize it with passages from Goldblatt’s global history. I was particularly interested in trying to understand the sort of person who pioneered soccer’s transmission to the colony. I speculated, with some evidence of similar cases in other countries, that it had little to do with French identity per se, and more to do with an (at least aspirationally) cosmopolitan class of global elites that looked to the English as paragons of a morally disciplined and healthy life. I further speculated that this admiration corresponded to England’s imperial hegemony and consequent feelings of national backwardness on behalf of the early soccer afficianados.

The two documents touched upon in this post both appear after the first world war, and they both shed some light on how the game was experienced in this era. Since Võ Quang Hào’s brief history in the last post covers the development of major matches and teams (much better than I could), I’ll try to contextualize these documents with some reference to the broader history.

Almost  100,000 Vietnamese “volunteered” (often tricked and coerced) to serve in France during the First World War. The war was by any measure an extraordinary stress on the fabric of French society, and the lack of manpower, both laboring on the homefront and fighting on the battlefield, was remedied by the colonial powers by quite literally harvesting men from the colonies. Many didn’t survive, and many who did survive stayed behind in France. A fantastic documentary of these Vietnamese stay-behinds is Lam Lê’s Công Binh. Plenty of ink has been spilled on the wild atmosphere of interwar France: the lost generation, Orwell, Hemmingway, Henry Miller, but there were less debauched figures too, like Chinese revolutionary Li Lisan, and who could forget Ho Chi Minh…

The vast majority of these people—of no special literary and revolutionary fame–  came back to the colonies, and they brought with them an expectation of a better bargain from the colonial state, and a surge in soccer enthusiasm.

One 1921 article in L’Écho Annamite gives us a great glimpse of the atmosphere and didactic role of soccer in the period. But, first, what is the L’Écho Annamite?

The best historical account of (what he terms) the “birth” of Vietnamese political journalism comes from Philippe Peycam. In 1920, L’Écho Annamite was one of the two major Vietnamese-run francophone newspapers in Saigon. The colonial authorities had given it a greenlight because they were horrified by the increasing influence and political independence of the other Vietnamese francophone paper, La Tribune Indigène. Their hopes that L’Écho would counter the nationalist tone of the Tribune were dashed. The editors of the Tribune and L’Écho, Bui Quang Chieu and Nguyen Phan Long respectively, were both powerhouse political figures in the Constitutionalist Party, the premier vehicle for the political interests of the Cochinchinese (South Vietnamese) bourgeoise, who devoted most of their energy to contesting Colonial Council elections and organizing boycotts on the local Chinese. Long was a member of the Cochinchinese Colonial Council, and on November 16th of 1923, he lobbied the council to increase funding for Vietnamese sports clubs! 

Before branching out on his own with L’Écho in 1920, Nguyen Phan Long wrote for the Tribune under the pen name VănThế Hội. This means that the following 1921 soccer article, La morale des sports, was probably written by none other than Long himself.

Long begins the article by citing the very same floridly vitalist text by Paul Adam which I quoted, via Goldblatt, in the previous post. Long writes approvingly that Adam:

“reviews, one by one, all those outdoor exercises which contribute to man’s physical activity and lends him strength and health. The goodness [morale] of sports is easily brought into relief: it is, for the individual, endurance, temperment, courage and intitiative; for the society, it is racial viguor, discipline, which makes man strong, sound, and a good soldier.”

Long goes on to emphasize that the Great War has proven beyond all doubt the martial and racial utility of sports, and the speed at which such a physicial and spiritual transformation can take place. The subsequent peace has only increased the vogue and the honor given to sports. Sports celebrities now rival political figures for popular acclaim, and only this year have French athletes risen to international recognition.

The Vietnamese were latecomers to sports, according to Long, but their arrival to this decidedly worldly and modern phenomenon is apparent in their love for soccer. He sees it in the “passionate attention with which the dense crowds of indigenous spectators follow the soccer teams, the wild applause with which they hail the players’ exploits, and the marked disapproval, at times too boisterous and misplaced, with which they display their dissatisfaction with the inept.” By 1921 soccer’s familiar familiar large and rowdy crowds had also sprouted in Saigon and the provincial towns.

Long also describes players. After 1916 the Cercle Sportif led the founding of “numerous” football clubs across Cochinchina (perhaps also a result of the war?). But Long is dissapointed that “here, as elsewhere, our national shortsightedness has prevented us from enjoying all the benefits which are our right.” The majority of the members of the clubs were “employees”—which I suspect refers to bureaucrats and members of the professional class instead of primary producers—so on Saturdays they would try to compensate for the drudgery of six uninterrupted days of labor by partying. (I know that feeling!). For Long, this reduces the racial benefits of sports. Nevertheless Long champions what he sees as an incredible expansion in soccer, along with other sports, since 1916.

We can draw a couple provisional conclusions from Long’s account. First, being who he was, and saying what he did, we can conclude that professional and media sponsorship of soccer was closely tied to the nationalist (and racial) program of the increasingly powerful indigenous elite of the interwar period. It was of course a form of entertainment, but it was also a form of racial hygiene, military fitness, and implicitly a step toward that always receding horizon of national maturity with which the colonizing power justified its rule.

But we can also see that, already by 1921, the sport had grown quite popular, and featured a profusion of clubs and an animated fanbase, not just in the capital city, but throughout the larger provincial towns, if not the villages: the “masses” were forming.

While I clearly see a strain of Vietnamese nationalist support for soccer and sports more generally, we should be careful about framing soccer as simply latent anti-colonial resistance. The second document validates my suspicion by implying that elements within France were also broadly supportive of this transformation in Indochina.

In 1923 the Bulletin of the Tonkin Association for Mutual Instruction republished an essay by a Mr. V. Forbin from Le Miroir des Sports, a popular metropolitan French magazine of the period. The Tonkin Association for Mutual Instruction is itself an important and understudied Vietnamese organization. It was founded in 1896 and connected to many of the most influential North Vietnamese intellectuals of the early 20th Century, counting among it’s early associates such heavy-weights as Nguyen Van Vinh and Pham Quynh.  

The particular essay before us today gives us insight into the biography of one Vietnamese emirgré who was influential in bringing sports, including soccer, to Vietnam from France. We should be careful taking it at face value, because it is after all a Frenchman’s perspective on the colony which was originally written for a French readership. As will become obvious, it is clearly laden with the orientalist Civilizing Mission of French colonialism. Nevertheless it appears to be based on an interview, and since it was republished by a Vietnamese magazine run by influential modernizers among the colonized elite, I don’t think it should be simply tossed aside as just a colonial false consciousness. Rather, it should be read as evidence of how sports were a site of overlap between colonial and colonized elite interests.  

The essay “Sports, a means of civilizing Indochina” is a three page biopic on Mr. Nguyen Qui Toan, purportedly the founder of the “first physical education school” in Hanoi. The author remarks that the hot weather and passive oriental culture are major obstacles of sports in Indochina, but that Mr. Toan is notable for the role he has played in overcoming them.

Toan was educated in France, where he “soon became aware of his physical inferiority”. His lack of physical prowess in gym class hurt his pride, and he “vowed to himself that a Vietnamese could compete with a Frenchman in the field [of sports].” At 23 years old he began to train, and after only six months he was among the best. He trained for five more years, and in 1913 he moved to the Athletic College of Rheims, where he studied the Georges Hebert method. He was then assigned to Chalons-sur-Marne Primary school as an assistant PE teacher. In 1917 he returned to Hanoi, where he became an instructor at the Collège du Protectorat. He was determined to create an “establishment of physical education”, but was blocked by the supposed oriental prejudices of his countrymen. He ultimately found favor among “influential colonials” and “indigenous bankers”, and they lobbied the Municipal Council of Hanoi to support the project. They landscaped an overgrown “ancient elephant training ground”, which, after two years of construction, was inaugurated on December 21st1919– 6 months after the signing of the Versailles Treaty.

After describing the facilities, which included a pool, tennis court, cycling, and more; and after naming particular sponsors of the project, like “industrialist” and colonial alcohol monopolist A.R. Fontaine, the biopic includes some anthropometric data  which, allegedly, “proves, once again, the excellence of our French methods”. The author concludes:

“[Sports] contributes powerfully to raising physical standards, and consequently the moral standards of the Annamite. In Asia, as in Europe, sport is the great educator, the irreconcilable enemy of the merchants of alcohol and opium.”

Apparently the author didn’t realize one of the major donors was none other than the brains and brawn behind the catastrophically brutal alcohol monopoly!

So what do I take away from these two documents? First of all the growth of colonial soccer was bound up in complicated and contradictory political interests. This won’t come as surprise to historians of the era, because the colonial project itself was riven through and through with contradictions. Nevertheless the documents do give us a sense of the atmosphere and personalities behind the first wave of sports popularization within the country. It came on the heels of the mass mobilization of World War 1, when the colonized elite were promised and expected greater democratic control over the colony and a pathway, however distant, to independence. Some of the key popularizers were French-educated colonial elite, and in the case of the Mutual Instruction Society, intelligentsia of longstanding repute within the country. But the participation of key colonial economic interests, like Fontaine the dastardly alcohol monopolist, prove that the authorities couldn’t have seen it as much of a threat. The popularization was understood among both the colonized and colonial elite as means of developing the martial prowess of their race. And at both the grassroots and the elite levels, by 1920, soccer seems to have been quite popular; drawing large crowds of knowledgeable fans, commentaries in popular newspapers, and lobbies within the colonial councils. These councils, especially the Cochinchinese Council, functioned on a limited, and profoundly racially and economically unequal, but nonetheless very real, form of suffrage, which made them relatively responsive to popular demand.

Any responses or rebuttals? Leave them in the comments, I’d love to hear them! 

[P.S. The thumbnail image was taken from what may be the first detailed translation of the rules and tactics of soccer into Vietnamese. Unfortunately I don’t know enough about soccer strategy to do it justice, but here is a link for anyone who wants to try!
Also, for a hilarious Vietnamese satirical novel on the place of sports in interwar Hanoi, read Dumb Luck by Vu Trong Phung. I promise you will laugh.]

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