Current Institutional Affiliation
Assistant Professor, History, Northwestern University

Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2008
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
History, Yale University
Down and Out in Saigon: The Social History of the Urban Poor, 1880-1954

During the colonial period Saigon was increasingly integrated into the world economy. In times of uncertainty, dearth, and disaster the urban poor drew upon on a variety of social relationships to buffer themselves from harm. I contend that when want was met and calamity avoided the Vietnamese social order was powerfully reinforced. This social order was comprised of a hierarchy of relationships of mutuality and obligation: between governor and governed, landlord and tenant, master and servant, clergy and layman, among others. These relationships gave both credibility to the prevailing understanding of the social order and authority to those who ruled. I suggest, therefore, that the plight of the urban poor could sometimes fortify rather than erode the structure of Vietnamese society. My dissertation explains not why the urban poor took part in occasional outbreaks of disorder in colonial Saigon, but rather why they took part in so few. And in explaining how social order was maintained in colonial Saigon even in times of dearth, I also explain, at least in part, how the French were able to govern there for almost a century. My dissertation will draw upon a wide variety of sources in French and Vietnamese in Vietnamese archives and libraries. I will examine records of the exports of the city, chiefly rice and rubber, and the imports, such as manufactured textiles, to trace the economic integration of the city into the world economy. I will use contemporary descriptions in newspapers, literature, and in letters by the poor themselves to describe their understanding of the social order. Finally I will reconstruct the social relationships of the urban poor in times of trial using colonial studies of urban poverty, and sources that inadvertently describe the poor such as police and judicial records, public health reports, and pawnshop records.