Nativism Reconsidered: Chinese Rice Networks, Commercial Crisis, and Cosmopolitics in Colonial Saigon, 1918–23

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 3:30 PM
Columbia 8 (Washington Hilton)
Anh Sy Huy Le, Michigan State University
In August 1919, a Chinese-owned coffee shop in Saigon—the colonial capital of French Cochinchina—raised the price of its coffee cups from two to three cents. Immediately after, Lục Tỉnh Tân Văn, the official gazeeteer of the six southern provinces, reported on the price surge, accompanying the news with accusations of the Chinese shopkeepers’ harrassment and discriminations against their Vietnamese customers. The simple incident quickly developed into a scandal covered by major southern Quốc Ngữ newspapers. It was soon followed by the eruption of massive sinophobic sentiment in Saigon within the entire month of August and a subsequent nativist movement to boycott Chinese goods that lasted until 1923. Utilizing colonial newspapers from 1918 to 1923, this paper explores the discursive construction of xenophobia that culminated in the formation of what I call an “anti-Chinese public sphere” within the colonial civil society. This process shifted from racially charged languages to a heated pen war that often bore the stint of anti-Siniticism but simultaneously allowed room for serious rethinking of the Vietnamese identities. By situating the Sino-Vietnamese debates in the context of the 1919 rice trade crisis in Cochinchina, this paper argues for the oft-neglected material dimensions of the public sphere in which anti-Chinese critiques operated as a viable political strategy with its manifold constructions in the specificity of discourses from which Sinophobia took on its meanings. These included Vietnamese criticisms of the Chinese’s monopoly of the rice trade, commercial self-strengthening, and its complex counter-discourses. It was ultimately through this process of constantly rational—at times, vitriolic—debates permeating the press that shaped an anti-Chinese consciousness and energized a particular juncture of the Saigon’s public sphere.
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