Kafka in Saigon

Connla Stokes

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Illustration: Janelle Retka

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In 1916, a mysterious young man by the name of Phan Xich Long claimed he should be Emperor of Vietnam and tried to overthrow the French of Cochinchina. Having studied sorcery and pyrotechnics in Siam and Cambodia, he concocted a potion so one group of devotees, armed with just sticks and spears, would be invisible as they marched on Saigon (apparently, it didn’t work). For his pièce de résistance, Long also prepared a batch of bombs (ingredients: cannon shot, carbon, sulphur, saltpetre, a sprinkling of supernatural seasoning), all of which failed to detonate outside various French military installations. Before either of these flops even occurred, Long had been arrested and, after a botched jailbreak, was executed along with scores of his followers.

For this wholehearted albeit calamitous coup, the twenty-three-year-old revolutionary would be remembered as a martyr for the nationalist cause, and many decades later, in a reunified Vietnam, his name would be resurrected by town planners looking to christen a road (more of a dirt track at the time) in Ho Chi Minh City. By the turn of the twenty-first century, Phan Xich Long, as an address, had a seedy, rundown reputation. Now, thanks to an ambitious urban renewal project, the street has been reborn as a wide, rather salubrious thoroughfare that’s the epicentre of a modern, thriving inner city neighbourhood.

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