The Politics of Memory in 20th-Century Saigon

Saturday, January 6, 2018
Atrium (Marriott Wardman Park)
Lara Manbeck, New York University
My project emerges from my recent archival work in Vietnam, and centers on the politics of memory in Saigon (later renamed Ho Chi Minh City) between 1945 and 1975. Place-names were used as a tool for political contestation between different levels of administration and different political groupings, and help to reveal the ways in which various Vietnamese ruling parties and foreign governments sought to control the public meaning of the past. While the sculpting of these pasts was done in drastically different ways with each regime change (originally with the insertion of French culture and history, then with its erasure, then with the promotion of American ideals, and later with the commemoration of anti-Americanism and communist uprisings), each project sought to legitimize a sociopolitical order via commemorative renaming. In studying the post and pre-communist commemorative city-text of Saigon, and evaluating the role of place-naming in the social construction and contestation of public memory, I ask, ‘what was the political and cultural significance of the multiple renaming projects which occurred in Saigon after decolonization and the Vietnamese-American War?’ To answer my overarching question, I pose three smaller questions. Firstly, I am interested in the symbolic differences between each cycle of name-changing. What ideals did each set of names attempt to promote? During Vietnam’s colonial period (1887-1954), formerly numbered streets were replaced with French names, often commemorating ships, tanks, and generals which helped in the territorial conquest of Vietnam. I believe that these cartographic formulations served as a “technology” of imperial domination, helping to legitimize territorial conquest. After the fall of French Indochina, Vietnamese administrators sought to erase almost all traces of French history from Saigon, replacing French titles with American, neo-Confucian, or nationalist names. With the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese in 1975, these streets were named once more, often as direct responses to these former choices. My second question within this larger thesis concerns the decision-making processes behind these efforts to divest Saigon’s landscape of its colonial and democratic past. Who was in charge of such decisions, and what was at stake? Studying the identity of those who controlled these projects provides insight into why certain plans were made. Third, I examine the degree to which non-Vietnamese actors/ideals influenced such changes. To what extent did the United States influence certain name changes during Diem’s presidency? And to what degree did Marxism and a simultaneous international wave of decolonization influence the Communist Party’s renaming efforts? Studying Saigon’s name-changes and the decision processes behind them allows for a clearer understanding of Vietnam’s socio-political history during the twentieth century, as it reveals the deeper implications of such decisions - how they reified selective versions of the past, how each case incorporated a specific history into the spatial practices of daily life, and how this practice was a way of legitimizing a drastically new socio-political order each time.
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