Recently, I came across a Vietnamese article about An Đông market where my family used to live, and it mentioned the fate of the owner of the famous Siu Siu restaurant there. For years, Saigon residents and celebrities as well as important politicians and military officers, enjoyed the fragrant and tasty Hainanese chicken rice of Siu Siu.
In 1978, during the eradication of bourgeoisie by the Communist, Siu Siu’s owner lost his three-house restaurant. He then was the sole survivor after a boat of hundred people – his family included – trying to escape Vietnam tragically sank. He lost his mind, and became a beggar who slept in front of his big restaurant night after night.
The author of the article was Nguyễn Tường Thiết, the youngest son of the renowned Vietnamese novelist Nhất Linh. Thiết told readers that his family’s house – 39 An Đông market – was next to Siu Siu restaurant and that meant that his house was just hundred meters from ours – 32 Hồng Bàng. What a shock to learn that for years I had been living near Nhất Linh’s family, yet I didn’t know it until when I am in my 50s and living overseas. I blamed my parents for not telling me. Disappointedly, Mum later let know that she watched when Nhất Linh’s coffin was carried out of his house.
In high school, we learnt about Nhất Linh as the Vietnamese writer who founded the literary group and publishing house Tự Lực Văn Đoàn (“Self-Strengthening Literary Group”) together with the literary magazines Phong Hóa (“Customs”) and Ngày Nay (“Today”) that published influential realism writings trending in social reforms and anti-French colonialists.
In 1945, Nhất Linh became the Foreign Minister in the Resistance Coalition Government. It was comprised of representatives of different political parties and Hồ Chí Minh was appointed as president. Nhất Linh was chief negotiator with the French for national independence in Vietnam but later left the Resistance Coalition Government.
Nhất Linh migrated to South Vietnam from the North in 1951 and later was accused by the dictatorial President Ngô Đình Diệm of involvement in the 1960 attempted coup. On 7/7/1963, Nhat Linh committed suicide a day before his trial by taking a mixture of barbiturate and whisky, leaving a note: “My life, only history can judge…..”
I read Nhất Linh’s son writing about his father (http://nguyentuongthiet.free.fr/NLChaToi/) until 2am. I felt a deep connection, affection and grief for the writer who fought for a modern and communism-free Vietnam.
I saw him sitting in his chair, head flopped and leaning to the left, arms dropped down on the floor. He was dead but looked as if he was sleeping. I saw his two sons standing in the room watching him, their faces were full of grief. My heart was heavy with sadness.
I saw him standing in my garden, looking at me and smiled. I beamingly told him: “We are neighbours!”. Suddenly he disappeared. I called out before suddenly waking up from the dream.
When Nhất Linh died, I was only a one-year-old girl, but I had just met him in my dream! Just the thought that he knew me gave me goosebumps. I thought he could feel I was reading about him, and because of the special link between us, he paid me a visit.
Low grey sky,
Chill gusty wind,
In a dream,
A late writer
Visited his young neighbour.
by Jody Sticca.