In the dusty book shelves of an unnamed Harlem resident’s basement we uncovered this letter written in 1912 from the man later known as Ho Chi Minh to his father back home.
I wanted to write to you because I know you must be worried about my whereabouts. I am safely living in America, New York City where I live among the most oppressed and exploited race of the human family. They call it, “Harlem.” I rent a room next to the most beautiful theater I have ever seen. It’s just opened this year and its’ the only one that allows black people to sit in the seats and not the balcony. I have hopes to make it to Paris next. I have been given some contacts of radical workers who I’d like to meet up with. I’ve been told that they can even help me secure a part-time job working in the kitchen of the Hotel Ritz where you can make okay money.
I hope you are not mad at me for leaving so suddenly and most importantly for not writing often. Turning 21 really changed my life. It felt that all the things you taught me caught up with me and I wanted to see the world with my very own eyes. You can understand that, right? After all you, yourself resigned from your post, choosing to not learn French and instead spent your life among the poor, writing letters for them and taking care of their families when they were sick. You have been my inspiration. Remember when I was 9 years old and I helped sneak messages back and forth through the old country roads of Nghe An? The older revolutionaries were so impressed by my deftness in navigating those mountain backroads and checkpoints that they even came to my naming ceremony a year later bearing small gifts. I wanted to continue doing that but mom’s death really took a toll on all of us. I still miss her and remember her smile and warmth especially on the long nights when the moon shines bright and the ocean is calm.
Well I just couldn’t take the academy anymore. I even chopped off my long hair and traded in my bamboo hat for those terrible trousers and tunics. Yet this didn’t stop them from making fun of me and my accent. When I finally had enough of them and shoved one of the spoiled brats down a flight of stairs somehow I was the one that was suspended. I have nothing in common with these kids who arrive to school in horse-drawn carriages helped by their poor servants. I instead stay close to the other kids who often walk miles to this hellhole they call school. Sometimes we can’t bear it so we cut class and smoke some cigarettes with the village peasants. One day when we were hanging out by the river we witnessed a scuffle between some peasants and the police. Some peasants were cutting the hair of passerbys, buns falling to the floor, the feudal past no more.
“Cut out the ignorance, Do away with the stupidity Snip Snip”
In subsequent days we joined everyone in the riverbank translating for our fellow countrymen in their protest of the French authority. Well, you can imagine participating in fist fights against the police didn’t land me in the school’s good graces. I never did tell you this but I had to even go into hiding at a friend’s house after some shots were fired at the French forces. I didn’t want you to worry. This was really the reason for my leaving. I hope you are not too disappointed in me. It’s not like if I had stayed I’d learn anything anyway. The French have replaced all the Confucian teachings with their stubborn focus on Western science and geography. Our people are only workers for their war factories. Modern Vietnam only means more wealth for the French imperial powers and for the sellout industrial elites of Hanoi. The South has been destroyed. I found this out when I was teaching in Phan Thiet. The brutal landlords own most of the riceland and our people toil on their large estates and starve. In Annam and Tonkin the situation doesn’t seem much better. Our coal, cement and textiles only enrich the lives of the French. It was when I arrived in Saigon that I further realized how much their modernity is the product of our labor. The wide boulevards and luxury mansions, the “pearl of the orient” as they call our star in the north, was built on the backs of our people. When they were no longer needed they were merely forced back into the surrounding rubber plantations to work until they died. Oh the French love their Notre Dame Cathedral but it seems they enjoy the opium factories and brothels even more. One day, Saigon will belong to the Vietnamese people–I promise you, dad. But I had to leave it behind for now.
I am sorry for not writing sooner but working aboard this steamship took up most of my time. The French captain is an insufferable man with beady eyes that watch over us and make sure we don’t take any rice or help ourselves to the food we help prepare. I start work at 4 in the morning. When I’m not chopping, cutting and stirring food in huge pots and carrying heavy bags of flour from the storage room to the kitchen, I am sent to the furnace to help the boiler room crew. He says he doesn’t have confidence in my small stature to pass the coal but somehow entrusts me to use huge shovels to move the coal around the bunkers. I am often called in the middle of the night to extinguish fires.
At first it took me some time to get used to being at sea—I must admit that for the first month I could barely stand the smells of the foods I was tasked with preparing, I spent most of my time hurling into the troubled sea waters. But I feel much better now especially after a sailor showed mercy on me and allowed me to use his contraption—a desk chair that vibrates. My nausea and vertigo are all but gone. Sometimes after lunch is served I take a break and hang outside with the children of the passengers in second class. Among them I encounter many immigrants and often we chat in French, and increasingly in English, which has been a great help to me in America. On the ship I go by the name Ba, which is relatively easier for most people to pronounce.
This year I arrived in New York, the second city I have visited in America. The first was Boston. A cook on the steamship told me that a hotel was hiring a baker. I have never made sweets but I thought I’d give it a try. It helped that I knew some French because they apparently hold the French in high regard. I was told by a cook that a French chef created some sort of pie for them and now that’s all they make. When the chef wasn’t around we stuffed our faces with the creamy custard sweets that melt into your mouth when you bite. The rich chocolate glaze goes very good with tea although Americans prefer to eat them with these huge cups of coffee. Maybe this is why they are so large. The hotel was constantly under construction and repair; the owner, Joseph Whipple, and his company were adding more floors but continued to cheat us and other hotel workers out of pay. I am proud to report that I didn’t last long in that job—I was fired when the head waiter found out that a few of us cooks were planning to walk out and have a smoke during dinner to protest the low pay they give us. Boston seemed to have once been a great American city. Many workers who seemed loud and boisterous in comparison to the mild-mannered people they work for talked about the time they worked in steel, iron and coal. The ports today however have collapsed and workers are following the money to the east: Philadelphia and New York.
I arrived in New York City months ago. What a sight. I have not seen another city like it. Tall modern buildings reaching up to the sky and shop girls, clerks, day laborers walking underneath elevated rails. All Americans do is work work work. I live with a family of eight. They are black but from the West Indies, which was ruled by the British. My board pays for their rent. They told me they moved from another area of Manhattan, a place called San Juan Hill where they left after a riot had erupted when the police killed a black man. I make good money, forty dollars a month, splitting my time among many odd jobs, one of which is a servant to a wealthy family in another part of Manhattan. I was wandering the streets one day after work and encountered a large gathering filled with loud speeches and crowds of people who I found out had gathered to pay homage to family members and neighbors that had perished in a terrible fire. Many European workers, all women, were caught inside of a factory and couldn’t escape when a fire broke out. They all died. I’m learning that not all Europeans are the same, here many are exploited and treated poorly but nonetheless some still think of themselves better than the blacks. At the rally I met a woman with round glasses who seemed to breathe fire as she spoke to the crowds. She was with a group of people who were handing out some magazine called Mother Earth and they addressed me by the word comrade. They called themselves anarchists which they explained to me stands for the liberation of people from tyranny and government control. Two men came up to greet her with hugs and kisses on the mouth. Apparently this is a thing called free love that they believe in which I still don’t understand.
What I most enjoy about living in this little pocket of the city is the wide boulevards that remind me of Saigon. These days when I am not working I read and stand on the corners listening to people make speeches. It’s the most exciting and unique thing I have seen thus far in America. Someone stands on a corner and talks, drawing large crowds, many of whom clap and shout in joy. Once, a guy everyone calls Father Divine talked about the unspoken horrors of white people killing and hanging black people. Not only that, dad. They even keep their fingers and body parts as souvenirs. And here I thought the French were the worst. All of this makes me think what has been the difference between the treatment of blacks in the sugar plantations of America and that of our people in the rubber plantations of Tonkin?
Well, dad, on this bitter note I must bid goodbye for now. I have been invited to a meeting of a great black man by the name of Marcus Garvey. A lot of people here like him. He is creating a movement for the independence of black people. I feel like I have a lot to learn from this great man. Both of our people are fighting for liberation and freedom. I may even work up the courage to talk to him afterwards.
I recently met a really cute girl and she promised to take me to some of these banned bars around Harlem that play music well into the night.
Send my love to Thanh and Khiem. Hug them close and tell them I miss them.
Your devoted son,
Harlem, America 1912
*PS the letter is largely the product of the author’s imagination but many of the historical details are true. Can you guess which?