Saigon and the Vietnamese 3

But to these legitimate methods of advertisement a new and, to me, improper element had, in many cases, been added; one that involved a confusion of function and an inexcusable distortion of the very essence of prognostication. This was the implication, in pictorial form, that fate can be cheated. There were warning sketches of the misfortunes that awaited those who failed to patronise the fortune-teller. Calamity had been brought up to date, for these wretched persons were being blown to pieces by a significantly mushroom-shaped explosion. Those on the other hand who had taken the precaution to keep informed of what the fates had in store for them, seemed to have been able to do something about it, since they were to be seen clasping members of the other sex under a token moonlight, or riding in what were recognisably American cars. It all seemed most illogical. If the future has been decided, then we will be atomised or achieve life’s crowning success in the shape of an American car. One can’t have it both ways. But perhaps a soothsayer dealing in such immutabilities would lose his business through his competitor, installed no more than three or four yards away along the street, who could show that there was some way of rubbing out the writing of destiny and that one could avoid the bombs and have the car, even if one’s horoscope had arranged for it to be the other way round.
The Vietnamese are fascinated by dentistry, and I should imagine that the dentist’s is one of the most crowded professions. Hard by the charts of the fortune-tellers, and at first sight easy to confuse with them, were those of the dentists; heads shown in cross-section, macabre and highly col¬oured, with suggested arrangements of gold teeth. Few races can resist embellishing the jaw with gold, and to the Vietnamese a good number of gold teeth, arranged according to accepted standards, are a discreet evidence of prosperity as well as showing a proper pride in one’s appear¬ance. The fact is that teeth left in their natural, white state have always shocked Vietnamese susceptibilities by their resemblance to the fangs of animals. Until quite recently – and even now in some country districts – they were camouflaged with black enamel. One of the old Emperors, receiving in audience a European ambassador, is said to have exclaimed in ungovernable horror, ‘Who is this man with the teeth of a dog?’ This mild phobia provides innumerable citizens with an artistic means of livelihood. Sometimes the teeth of both jaws are completely framed in gold, and neat shapes, often playing card symbols, are cut in the front of the framing of each tooth, thus laying bare a minimum expanse of the original bone.
In order of popularity after the dentists come the portrait photo¬graphers. It is interesting to observe that the beautiful Vietnamese ladies, shown as specimens of the photographers art, are less oriental than Caucasian. By local standards their lips are thin and that slightly prognathous appearance, so noticeable throughout the Far East, is avoided. Only the narrow, shallow-set eyes with the Mongolian fold of the lids reveal the origin of these faces. One wonders whether those features of the oriental appearance which we regard as most typical, and perhaps least attractive, are also least attractive to them … or whether this is yet another instance of the all-powerful effect of the cinema for standardisation.
There is no doubt that here, as elsewhere throughout the world, the films have been devastating in their influence. In these streets cinema posters had been plastered up wherever a space could be found. The subjects were bloody and horrific; a torture scene with the victim’s bowels being wound out on a windlass; soldiers being hacked to death on the battlefield or blown to pieces by bombs. Always blood. Rivers of blood. When a more domestic setting was depicted, it was with a sexual motive, the male being shown in full evening dress, the woman or women in camiknickers. These were the products of Eastern studios. The imported products, as I learned later, were nearly all Wild Westerns and their description has so much affected popular imagination as to have become almost synonymous with the movies themselves. The tendency now is not to say, ‘I’m going to see a film,’ but, ‘I’m going to see a Far Western’ or, as it becomes in Vietnamese or Chinese, a Pa-We. Buffalo Bill and his successors have been exhumed, or perhaps remade, to satisfy this local taste. One’s eye is constantly assaulted by scenes of Far Western pseudo-history, interpreted by a Far Eastern imagination, in which ferocious cowboys, armed with the tommy-guns the white man is always supposed to have possessed, do terrible slaughter among small, slant¬eyed and rather Vietnamese-looking Indians.

The variety of the scene was endless, and in the end exhausting. Retiring to a Chinese cafe, I was received by a waitress who advanced with a damp towel, held in a pair of forceps. This I took and following the example of the other patrons, wiped my face and hands with it. I ordered beer and was served a bottle with a snarling tiger on the label. It was very weak and slightly perfumed. The young lady left the change, a small pile of filthy notes, on the table. I learned later that particularly dirty notes are given to encourage customers to leave them as a tip. She then returned and joined the rest of the staff who were listening respectfully to the radio playing ‘When Irish Eyes are Smiling’. This was sometimes overwhelmed by the penetrating soprano of a Chinese crooner, broadcast from the gramo¬phone shop over the way. Looking in its window a few moments before I had noticed among the portable gramophones and the saxophones several neatly fitted crocodile cases containing silver-mounted opium sets for the chic smoker. Many small pink lizards, with black, bulging eyes, dodged about among this splendid window display.
While I sat in the cafe a funeral passed. It was preceded by a man with a flute and another with a drum. The hearse was so enormous that it passed with difficulty through this narrow street. The children of the family played happily about the coffin and the principal mourners in white robes were half carried and half dragged along behind. Among the officiants was a man carrying a bowl of cigarettes for the benefit of passing spirits. Apart from the funeral the traffic in this street was limited to ponies and traps on their way to market, with bundles of ducks hanging from their axles, their heads gently stroking the surface of the road.

A yard or so from the cafe door a herbalist had set up a stall and was selling the small, ugly, dried-up corpses of such animals as lizards, anonymous organs hideously pickled in bottles, desiccated insects, a great selection of animals’ teeth, and horns of all shapes and sizes. He also had bottles of mixture, cough cures and elixirs. The advantages of taking these were illustrated in series of pictures, on the comic-strip principle. Patients with chronic coughs were shown as deserted by all. Romance in Vietnam seemed to be as insecurely founded as the makers of dentifrice believe it to be in Europe. And only with his cough cured was the sufferer seen once again in the arms of his loved one. There was a medicine too that seemed to cure mediocrity, because a course of this turned the investor from a loafer into a public speaker at the microphone.

It was all very entertaining to a stranger completely fresh from the West, but from the experiences of these few hours I had learned one disturbing thing. This was that as a European I had been invisible. My eyes never met those of a Vietnamese. There was no curious staring, no gesture or half¬smile of recognition. I was ignored even by the children. The Vietnamese people, described by early travellers as gay, sociable and showing a lively curiosity where strangers were concerned, have now withdrawn into themselves. They are too civilised to spit at the sight of a white man, as the Indians of Central America do sometimes, but they are utterly indifferent. It is as if a general agreement has been reached among them that this is the best way of dealing with an intolerable presence. Even the rickshaw coolie, given, to be on the safe side, double his normal fee, takes the money in grim silence and immediately looks away. It is most uncomfortable to feel oneself an object of this universal detestation, a mere foreign-devil in fact.

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