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Thuận: Chinatown : tiẻ̂u thuyé̂t (Chinatown)

Our unnamed heroine is, at the beginning of the novel, a thirty-nine year old Vietnamese woman, living in Paris where she works as an English teacher, teaching children who conspicuously do not want to be taught and see no point in learning English. There are three men in her life, well two men and her twelve-year old son, Vĩnh. For all of the book she and Vĩnh are waiting on a train on the Paris metro which has been held up because a duffle bag has been found which might contain a bomb. Vĩnh is asleep on her shoulders. She spends the time daydreaming and ruminating about her life.

She met Thụy at school. Thuy was part Vietnamese, part Chinese. This caused problems as the Sino-Vietnamese War was taking place at the time and anyone with Chinese connections was placed under suspicion. The headmaster was summoned and told to keep a close watch on him. Soon, everyone in the school knew and he was completely isolated by both staff and fellow pupils, on the basis that he was probably a Chinese spy.

One person did, however, speak to him and that, of course, was our heroine. They became friends but only friends and when she went off to Leningrad after school for five years, they had no contact. Her parents were very ambitious for her so there was little time for frivolity in her life. (I never learned how to skip rope, how to play capture the mandarin, or chess card, or racing horses, or dominoes. In my parents’ educational book, those are useless things). ln particular, they did not approve of her relationship with Thụy, never mentioning his name and not giving her any news about him when she was in Leningrad. they both hoped that she would forget about him. She did not.

Thụy had no hometown. His filial ancestors were born in Hunan. His great-grandfather was born in Hunan. His grandfather was born in Hunan. But he was born in Yên Khê. At sixteen, a high school graduate, he took the entrance exams for the Polytechnic University but was assigned to the University of Architecture instead. With Chinese gunners threatening to fire five cannonballs a day over the border with Vietnam, the Vietnamese government would hear nothing of ethnically Chinese doctors and engineers.

They married (her parents were nor present at the wedding) when she was twenty-seven (he was around the same age). She was a teacher and he was an architect. They had a son, Vĩnh. When Vĩnh was one month old, Thụy said he was fed up with Hanoi and left. She has not seen him since then, twelve years later, and is not sure where he is but he is almost certainly in Chợ Lớn. the largest Chinatown in the world. He does have contact with Vĩnh and Vĩnh visits Vietnam and sees his father. As part of her daydreaming while waiting on the metro train, she imagines both Thuy’s life in Chợ Lớn and also how father and son would get on and what they would do if, by chance, he one day decided to visit Paris.

I didn’t know where he was, whom he met, what he did. Even now I still don’t know where he was, whom he met, what he did. For the last twelve years I have been wanting to see him, to ask. How he is living his life now. I don’t need to know. But I want to know where he was, whom he met, what he did, in those days. and I don’t want to write about Thụy. I spend a lot of effort not to write about him.

There is, however, another man in her life. We know him only as the guy. There is no romantic relationship but they seem close. He phones every Sunday afternoon wherever he is, He has two sons who are friendly with Vĩnh. The guy and she travel to work together. For fun he travels around Vietnam on a Soviet motorbike and has met her family several times. Her parents hope that she will marry him. He too was abandoned by his spouse. She walked out one day, leaving husband, two sons and cat. She has never contacted him since then. Hélène said I snored too loudly, smoked too much, bathed without soap, sneezed without covering my nose or apologising to those around me.

After Thụy left, she went to Paris to do a master’s degree and is now teaching English. She always seems to get assigned the worse classes. They call her Madame Âu to her face but, behind her back they call her la chinoise or la chinoise bizarre. Bù shì yuènán rén she says. I am Vietnamese.

As well as teaching, she is writing something which is currently a short story but may expand. It is clear to us that, despite having said she does not want to write about him, she is writing her story from the point of view of someone who is clearly based on Thụy. Not until my last novel will I be able to understand him. My last novel will be dedicated to him, she comments. The one she is writing is called I’m Yellow (Night. Night is yellow, the colour of that single small bulb in the corridor.) and the Thuy character appears to be an artist who gets fed up with his wife and leaves. Loan [his wife]’s conviction about her own immortality. I guessed this was what most fueled my disgust at our shared life. And it’s why I never repent the fact that every single day during that life, I silently wished for her death. I didn’t know what kind of death. I didn’t know and I didn’t care. All I cared about was this: she’d be gone from my life, gone forever.

At the end of the book, she is still on the train, wondering whether to wait or get off and take the bus, her problems still there, her son leaning on her shoulder.

Publishing history

First published in 2005 by NXB Đà Nẵng
First English translation in 2022 byNew Directions
Translated by Nguyễn An Lý