My book project, Down and Out in Saigon, reconstructs the everyday lives of the urban poor in colonial Saigon. It traces the itineraries of six destitute individuals – an orphan, a rickshaw puller, a prostitute, a poor Frenchman, an incurable invalid, and a Chinese coolie – from the countryside to the city, and sometimes back again. The urban poor creatively adapted to the new legal and institutional constraints of urban life – including the municipal police, the health and sanitation department, orphanages, the city’s venereal disease clinic – and they responded to the changing economic challenges and opportunities in early-twentieth century Saigon.
Down and Out in Saigon is the first social history of Saigon in a western language. The book shows how the progressive integration of Saigon with its rural hinterland and with the world economy led to the migration of Vietnamese peasants from the countryside to the city. Saigon prospered as it became the entry point to the world market for the rice that was cultivated in the provinces of Cochin China and southern Annam. The records of the Saigon Chamber of Commerce show that the city’s fortunes rose and fell with the demand for Vietnamese rice in the urban and industrializing areas of southern China and the cash crop exporting areas of Southeast Asia. Periods of rapid economic growth in Saigon created new employment opportunities that attracted migrants from the Vietnamese countryside, and sometimes further afield. But the number of migrants always exceeded the number of jobs available in Saigon, giving rise to a large floating population of the urban poor in the city.
Down and Out in Saigon will change the way readers think about modern Vietnamese and Southeast Asian history. As a work of colonial history, it shows that urban poverty in Saigon was a consequence of the Asian-dominated trade relations between Saigon and southern China, rather than a result of French economic extraction. As a work of social history, the book draws on the complementary techniques of economic history and microhistory to detail large-scale economic and social change and the ways that change shaped the small-scale lives of the urban poor. As a work of Vietnamese history, Down and Out in Saigon focuses on the important but often overlooked social and economic changes that marked the colonial period, rather than the frequently discussed development of communism and nationalism.
- Modern Southeast Asia
Country of origin
Period of stay at IIAS
Down and Out in Saigon: Stories of the Poor in a Colonial City, 1900-1940