TRYSTS IN VIETNAM, SOUTH AND NORTH, 1949-50
The following stories about two separate visits to Vietnam were recounted by English journalist Michael Davidson (1897-1976) in Some Boys (1969), his memoir of his Greek love affairs.
Conforming roughly with Davidson’s statement here that he knew Saigon “twenty years ago”, he says in his more general autobiography, The World, the Flesh and Myself (1962), that he arrived in Saigon just before Christmas 1949 and left in early 1950. His stay in Hanoi is there specified as having been for six weeks between October and the first week of December 1950.
The text is taken from pp. 171-180 of the unexpurgated American edition (New York, 1971) which, in this instance is identical to that of the earlier British edition except for one Americanisation of spelling.
Saigon and Hanoi
WHEN I read about Saigon in the newspapers, I think of the Saigon I knew just twenty years ago; and I see a tricycle—or rather dozens or hundreds of tricycles, and one in particular; and when I read the name Hanoi, I see a dainty, serpentine, willow-pattern sort of little lake, like a Chinese painting of a lake, with a diminutive pagoda at the tip of a minute promontory.
The tricycles in Saigon were in fact rickshaws—at least an improvement, from the point of view of human suffering, on the old kind drawn by men padding along on foot between shafts (there were still some of these, at that time, to be hired in Malayan or Indonesian towns); the passenger sat on a sort of invalid-chair slung between the two front wheels so that, unless he twisted his head round from front to back, he could have no idea what the steersman behind him was up to; and being whirled nose first, so to speak, among the traffic his sole sensation and preoccupation was a terrifying helplessness—the sort of helplessness of a man who loses his voice in the moment of needing to cry "Help!" These three-wheeled juggernauts were propelled mainly, it seemed, by pubescent boys and old men with legs all shin and gristle; and were owned by a handful of capitalists who paid these wretches a meagre living for doing the work of mules or motors. Just at that time a few tricycles were indeed running with motors—as novel a sight to the Saigonese as Bleriot's airplane was to the British and French in 1910: the rickshaw was becoming mechanized, an innovation which, bringing incalculable benefit to the rickshawmen, made for the passenger even the briefest of journeys a madman's nightmare. The one particular tricycle was ridden by a lanky Annamite waif in his early adolescence: I dare say he'd reached fourteen. How odd one's memory is—or rather, how strange that some impressions made on it, seemingly so light and casual at the time, should turn out to be imperishable. . . .
My visits to French Indo-China (the name Vietnam had just come in, I think, for the southern half of the country, with a nominal independence under the "emperor" Bao Dai) were far too filled up with work for me to go around looking for sexual adventure or emotional intimacy; but even the busiest of men can't help things happening. I resisted the temptations of the shoeshine boys who flocked like sparrows in the place du théâtre: an ample airy square linking the chief hotel—the Continental, was it called?—with the main street and the waterfront. The theatre stood like a church: a lofty piece of colonial-Parisian architecture, empty and neglected and ignored, except by the shoeshine boys who slept in its porches and played on the plinth of steps that magniloquently encircled it. I wonder if this sad edifice has opened its doors at all in the last twenty years of perpetual war? I wonder when it will next—if, indeed, it's still standing? War of a sort was being fought then: a war of bombs in the towns and guerrilla hide-and-seek in the swamps and paddy-fields: the war of Vietnam nationalists against the French, with, up in Tonkin, Ho Chi Minh running it; in Saigon explosions were fairly common and hotels and restaurants had wired their windows against lobbed-in bombs. But it was a very small war compared with what has come to the country since. . . . Then, the theatre stood forlornly, and yet with the air of an old prima donna who had her memories of applause; and under its walls the shoeshine boys sheltered. The square was deployed beneath its facade; and somewhere within the complexity of streets behind it, I remember, there was incongruously the "rue Roodyarr' Keeplang"—I used to wonder why Rudyard Kipling, the bard of British imperialism, should be commemorated on a street-sign in a French colonial town—or did the French honour him as the pure spirit of colonialism?
I suppose I could have picked any one of the shoeshine boys; there was one attractive lad who daily fought the others off to work on my shoes—on the first day I'd given him much more than the usual fee because he had a pretty face and a sweet smile; he was reproachfully disappointed whenever I came to the square wearing sandals. . . . They were delightful boys, these elfin guttersnipes: engaging and good-natured and full of fun; but if one looked a little behind the fun, one could see the tragic marks of homelessness and hunger on their near-childish faces, and the bitter pathos of boyhood without love. All of them, I don't doubt, were proficient in the tricks of extortion and adept in every category of sin: yet I was certain, too, that affection and kindness, plus vitamins and protein, could have salvaged any one of them. But I hadn't got time: I was ham-strung by the compulsions and conventions of making a living. I didn't dare run the risk of finding myself made responsible by love. . . . Where are they now, those sparrows of the theatre square?
When, in the daytime, I had a spare hour which I could pleasantly waste, I would walk down to the waterfront, to a point in the bend of the Saigon River where the British legation stood. Further down the river, to the right, lay the docks where berthed, after their thirty-mile run upstream from the coast, the ocean steamers that still came to Indo-China, running the gauntlet of the guerrilla bullets that often sprayed them from the river-banks: ships of the Messageries Maritimes and the Paquet line, chiefly carrying reinforcements for the Foreign Legion and military material. A little way to one's left stood the wooden pier which, jutting out into the river like something at Brighton, supported an excellent restaurant that was a favourite of the French and other foreigners and of the Saigonese bourgeoisie. At the point where I chose to stand, leaning over above a narrow strip of muddy shore and gazing at the dark sluggard of a river which swirled slowly by, there were some rafts moored, connected with the shore by a rickety length of duckboarding, and used, so far as one could see, by nobody besides the innumerable boys who disported themselves there. The prospect beyond was beautiful, in the kitchen-sink manner; the sluggish, yellow river and general waterfront squalor; the decay and sadness of the war-neglected buildings and the dreary empty warehouses; the smoky silhouettes of the clustered ships, seen through a Turneresque mist of humid heat. Here, as I stood watching at the water's edge, I used to wonder what the British Minister, should he be peering out of his office window in a moment of unofficial repose, might think I could be up to, standing there for so long in the torrid afternoon. He was a nice fellow himself, and probably didn't give it a thought; but it tickled me to find this ribald scene set immediately below the Legation windows: British embassies, thought of as a whole and not broken down into their constituent members (who are usually charming people), are known to be the stuffiest places going, with the possible exception of American embassies.
The scene was the old and simple one which, until a century or so ago, had always occurred with the conjunction of warmth, water and boyhood: a hundred-odd boys, aged everything between seven and seventeen, bathing and romping naked and utterly unashamed and uninhibitedly performing, in full view of any of the public who happened to be about, every kind of bodily function you can think of. Now and then a chase, or follow-the-leader, or merely a boisterous stampede started by an explosion of spirits, would take a few dozen of them, bollock-naked, racing along the boulevard and through the side streets or around the extraterritorial walls of the British legation. Sometimes the frenchified Saigonese police would half-heartedly give chase, or occasionally even arrest one or two of them; but generally nobody bothered about them—to any French who saw them, they were indigènes, "natives"; to the natives—well, what did it matter? A century or more ago, scenes something like this, though perhaps on a less extravagant scale, occurred when the climate was right wherever there was water—in the river, by the dockside, among the seashore rocks; and even in the "civilized" view of Western society male nudity, so long as no females were about, was considered a normal and even "healthy" custom (look at the swimming-bath practice in most English public schools). But during the last century the bathing-pants complex has spread all over Europe and a large part of the Orient—actively encouraged, of course, by the drapers and haberdashers and manufacturers of "swimwear"; with the result that we've been made prurient by our acquired prudery, and the sight of nakedness elicits giggles, concupiscence, or police prosecution.
This, then, was my pastime, when I could snatch a spare hour for dallying by the riverside and watching the charming scene which the British legation could observe from its windows every hour of its working day. But even the busiest of people can't help things happening. . . .
It was a tricycle rickshaw that caused the happening to me. I'd found a lodging just north of the cathedral—wherever I newly arrive, I try as quickly as possible to dodge out of the dictatorship of a hotel, preferring the humblest liberty to the most expensive discipline. This was a single little room at the top of a turret stair—an unlikely place to find in a French colonial town; it was almost empty of furniture and had no "conveniences" beyond the two important ones that it had its own shower and possessed what the French gracefully call entrée libre and the Germans more bluntly describe as sturmfrei—"storm-free": free, that is, from officious regard for one's coming and going.
Here I brought my tricycle boy. I'd found him waiting on a rickshaw-stand at the far end of the luxuriant jungle-green gardens which confined the governor-general's palais—today, I believe, the President's. I chose him because he was the youngest: not influenced by any ulterior hope but simply because, given my natural fondness for the male young, I naturally wanted to help feed him that day rather than one of his elderly colleagues on the rank. So I hired him; he pedalled me to my lodging; and I paid him—overpaid him, a bit—and thought no more about him, or so I believed. Yet that night I did think about him, as one does think about boys one's seen (or girls, I suppose, when they're appropriate): I found myself thinking about the curve of his rounded jaw, the brown softness of his look, the specially slender grace of his narrow loins. . . . And next day, the very next day (as if fate were working on the fact that my time in Saigon was running short), in quite a different part of the town, I looked round for a rickshaw, and there this boy was, at that moment cruising slowly by, leisurely pedalling, his slim buttocks alternately heeling over the saddle as his weight shifted from pedal to pedal. The magic of his smile of recognition left me without the power of choice.
Wooing, like any art, requires its appropriate instruments, its paints and brushes, paper and ink; for the dance, scope for the limbs and eyes. This last—latitude for meaning looks, for caressing movements of the hand—is, too, what wooing needs: it's difficult to make any sort of emotional approach when one has one's back to the beloved unable to gaze or converse; and when, for the moment, one's safety hangs upon the vigilance and skill of the beloved pedalling furiously behind one's back. As, that day, he propelled me through the streets of Saigon towards my attic lodging, while I sat clutching the sides of my hurtling chair and wondering how I could declare my passion, when we got there, in the minute or two of fumbling for the fare, my mind wandered for a moment, I remember, to Karachi, in Pakistan, where approach is easier to one's charioteer. There, an evening's promenade through the curry-scented dusk in one of those one-horsed victorias can be given an extra pinch of spice by standing up on the floor of the carriage and placing one's arms round the waist of the boy-cabman on the box—he is unlikely to show surprise. . . .
Yet these things arrange themselves. I can't now remember just how it came about but there he was at the top of the turret stair, and there was the tricycle at the bottom, parked in the small courtyard. His French went little further than the addresses his passengers wanted to be taken to; and I wasn't able to find out much about him. I discovered that his real home, if he ever had one, was in Annam, that middle country between Tonkin and Cochinchina where the women are so exquisitely chic in white satin trousers beneath slit skirts, but I never learned how he came to be alone in Saigon. But there occur situations in which communication is possible without such aids as language. . . . To me, after he'd found out I was British, he would say: "Okay, you bastard"—apparently he thought this was the English way of saying monsieur. "Okay, you bastard," he would exclaim gaily when I named the place I wanted to go to; "okay, you bastard," if I indicated it would be nice to go to bed. I felt a slight jealousy when I allowed myself to conjecture that some American must have known him well enough to teach him "okay, you bastard". . . .
He was skin and bone, and pitifully narrow-framed for his height. Beneath the native glow of his pallor there was that faintly lemon opalescence, like gaslight seen through frosted glass, which comes with persistent underfeeding to the young of the Far East. He was as tall as a man, with a boy's body—he can't have been more than fourteen or fifteen; and seemed built of bone and sinew: thigh muscles swollen like the leg of a skinned lamb's carcass, and the flat of his stomach hard as a boat's deck. And yet he had a surprising grace and daintiness: the easy languor of a vine run riot; and under the shower he was a delight to look at—his body was almost without a hair. He had the Far Eastern love of cleanliness, and began every visit by tearing off singlet, shorts and sandals—all he ever wore—and wallowing under the shower. The beauty of his face was saved, so fleshless was it, from being the beauty of a skull by the natural fullness of both his boyhood and his race, and by the liveliness of his smile. The pathos of this body, this pinched, gay face, meant that half of my infatuation was pity—I suppose that all love, to a degree, contains pity: sexual love, to purify it of sheer carnality, requires compassion; and inert compassion is made dynamic by love. The vigor of one's compassion can reduce the other's unhappiness so long as there's no separation but when the parting comes, only money can help. I had to leave and, alas, when the time came and travel tickets and so on had been paid for, there was little cash left—but what there was, helped.
I never properly mastered his name; I could never properly explain why my compassion had to be cruelly withdrawn. I don't suppose he even wondered: for him, life was a row of unrelated parentheses, without a story.
That tricycle down in the courtyard, parked there day after day, must have puzzled a lot of people: a stray tricycle, "unattended," as the police say.
* * *
In Hanoi, one had the feeling of being in a different country; and so Tonkin does seem—as different from South Vietnam as Burma is from Siam; one may perhaps unify the two politically, as they were then supposed to be under French rule, but ethnologically they'll never become one. The people of Hanoi, up north towards the China border, were, as I remember them, rather Chinese than "southeast Asian" bigger-boned, perhaps, their eyes set deeper in their heads, and clothes more in the Chinese mode.
The picture I get at this distance of time from the syllables "Hanoi" is of a lake: a small, curling, carefully drawn lake with a stone bridge at one end, green parkland around it, and pleasantly eccentric trees bending from its banks over the water a willow-pattern style of lake—and I suspect that the trees were willows. For the sake, perhaps, of artistic symmetry, the lake at its other end was furnished with an elegant and diminutive pagoda, built on the tip of a short causeway running out from the shore. Here, inside this temple, I met the small and vivacious Tonkinese who became my companion during the couple of weeks of my stay. I'd wandered aimlessly along the causeway, and finding the portals of the pagoda open, had ventured in, supposing the place to be empty.
Inside this temple, it was, beside a gleaming brass image—Buddha, perhaps or Confucius or Lao-tsze: I'm shamefully vague about these systems of worship; inside the temple, it was, that I kissed this unknown acolyte—who, from his eagerness, seemed to have been waiting some thirteen years or so for this moment. Afterwards, thinking about this impious embrace, I recalled a letter written by Oscar Wilde from, I think, Naples, in which he tells Robert Ross with some relish how, visiting a church, he kissed a seminarist behind the High Altar. I've often thought it probable that Wilde, with an eye to posterity and a roguish desire to épater les bourgeois, invented this situation—artistically, it would have appealed to him as a decorative jibe at those who ruined him. But I didn't invent this embrace: it was given impetuously amid the odour of smouldering incense and the crimson shadows of a dim, hushed chamber, full of vague hangings and the glint of metal vessels, and faintly lit by great swaying oil lamps—it was given by a strange small barefooted boy, shaven-headed and wearing loose and not very clean Chinese-style trousers and jacket: he was eager to go beyond a mere kiss, but I didn't know what the penalties for flagrant sacrilege might be—at any moment some bonze or sacristan might silently glide in. . . .
I took him to my hotel, the most important of the European sort in the town, full of French officers, American diplomats, newspapermen of various countries, and prosperous Vietnamese conspirators—and through the crowded foyer to my room. Nobody seemed surprised, or asked him what his business was. . .