A memoir of Saigon & China
by Graham Earnshaw
I visited Saigon recently to attend the wedding of an American friend who has made Vietnam his home, and after checking into a hotel, I looked out of the window to find a war zone. Smoking hulks of burnt-out cars, flattened rickshaws and bloody bodies lying all over the square opposite the opera house.
A pall of smoke hung over the scene as a French ambulance raced up and medics scattered to attend to the dead and dying. Then they faltered, and an Australian voice blared out: “We have cut!!”
Oh, it’s a movie.
It was a location shoot for a film of the Graham Greene novel “The Quiet American”, set in Saigon in 1953 when the French colonial administration was facing increasing terrorist activity from the independence-minded Viet Minh. I first read the novel maybe 20 years ago, and for a several reasons have always loved it. It resonates for me because I think I love Asia for similar reasons to Mr Greene (to whose parents I have always been grateful for spelling his first name right). It’s a short vignette of a novel, a barebones description of a love triangle with a peripherally atmospheric feel for what Asia is, and how westerners and Asians interact, that rings true to me.
The narrator is an English journalist, Thomas Fowler, a stranger in a strange land, with a girlfriend named Phoenix, pretending to be a passive and objective bystander, world-weary and cynical, but really intensely involved and partisan. As for me, I am English, I was a journalist for many years operating in many parts of Asia, some of it for the London Daily Telegraph. And I know, as Greene knew decades before, that objective journalism is an impossibility.
My Vietnam was and is China. I first went to the China world in 1973 – Hong Kong – then moved to Beijing in 1979 as a journalist. I saw Democracy Wall and the Gang of Four trial, spent the night on Tiananmen Square in 1989 and currently run my own design and translation company in Shanghai. But mostly what I do is watch the events swirling around me. China changes faster than any other place on the face of the planet, and the daily soap opera is totally absorbing.
In The Quiet American, the journalist Fowler arranges for the murder of his love rival, an American intelligence operative named Pyle whose simplistically American analysis of Vietnamese affairs leads him to interfere by encouraging terrorist bombings, thereby causing the scene of carnage which greeted me in my Saigon hotel. Or maybe that was the excuse and he was really arranging for the American’s death in order to regain his girlfriend, Phoenix. In any event, he was certainly taking a position in a situation in which he was supposed to have been an objective and uninvolved observer.
I haven’t arranged for anyone’s death, honest. But in my little way I stray from the path of passive observer every day in a million ways. In every conversation I have with the people around me in China – taxi drivers, shop assistants, colleagues and friends – I both learn something new and pass on either directly or by implication my view of things. And one by one, a change takes place, on both sides.
I remember standing on the square in the center of Beijing on the night of June 3, 1989, and the sky was full of tracer bullets, the night was alive with the racket of gunfire and shouting. And I felt impervious to the danger, because it had nothing to do with me. I was not Chinese, I was not demonstrating, and therefore no bullets would hit me.
But I have my opinions, and if someone asks me a question, I answer it. The point is, as Greene indicates between the lines of his deceptively simple novel, the difference between involvement and non-involvement is one word, one tiny action. Even one tiny IN-action.
So I went down onto the streets of Saigon and took a walk around the area closed off for the filming, and was immediately accosted by street urchins selling pirated reprints of the Penguin paperback of The Quiet American. I bought a copy from a cute 13-year-old girl, who said: “Watch out for pickpockets,” then took the novel back to the hotel, and sat in my room reading it again and watching the scene of Saigon circa 1953 being recreated below me, while I recreated it in my head as well.
The English actor Michael Caine was playing the English journalist narrator of the novel, and I could often see him on the street corner littered with bodies as the complex choreography of each scene was enacted over and over again.
If you’ve read the novel, you’ll know that Caine is the perfect Thomas Fowler. I saw him in the lobby of the hotel the following morning, and thought about going over to him and saying “Michael, you’re playing it, but I live it.”
But I didn’t. I decided to remain on the sidelines.