Negotiating Community and Nation in Chợ Lớn: Nation-building, Community-building and Transnationalism in Everyday Life during the Republic of Việt Nam, 1955-1975


Mok Mei Feng

PhD defended at: 

University of Washington



My dissertation examines everyday life of Chinese communities during the Republic of Việt Nam based on a variety of sources in Vietnamese, Chinese, French and English, most notably rare and rarely-used Chinese-language newspapers from Chợ Lớn. Focusing on social life ordered around markets, native place congregations and temples, schools and work places, hospitals and medicinal halls, sports clubs and restaurants, private homes and public leisure places, my dissertation provides a rich tapestry of Chợ Lớn's Chinese community, particularly its middle class, and the changes it underwent over time. I situate Chợ Lớn in multiple relations: as one center of greater Sài Gòn, economic conduit for the southern Vietnamese hinterlands, socio-cultural hub for Chinese communities throughout Indochina, nodal point in transnational Chinese exchanges linking San Francisco, Hong Kong, China, and Singapore, and contributor to Cold War-era and Taiwan/ROC-centric Sinophone articulations.

The dissertation is organized into four main chapters: 1) Chợ Lớn’s built environment and human geography, its lived and shared spaces; 2) Education from kindergarten to adult learning between local and transnational networks and the state; 3) Sports and competitions over disciplining bodies and controlling social time; and 4) young adulthood, women in the public sphere, and socialization into multi-layered networks through marriage, work, philanthropy, and other ways of accumulating and spending social capital. Here Chợ Lớn emerges as a site of contestation between diasporic community interests, a “nation-building” Vietnamese state, and the transnational Chinese world not easily negotiated by individuals and further complicated by war, violence, and ideological divisions.

My dissertation makes significant contributions to a variety of fields: social history (and here everyday urban life) of which Việt Nam Studies are still desperately starved, to the growing body of studies on the Republic of Việt Nam (and a rare one where the RVN simply “is” rather than “fails”), to conversations about diasporic/minority communities with multiple identities in Việt Nam (and elsewhere), and to knowledge of overseas Chinese and the dynamic currents in the Cold War-era transnational Chinese world.

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