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The Underground Activists Who Fought for Freedom Across Asia

Underground Asia: Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire

by Tim Harper

On an evening in June 1924, a French colonial official named Merlin narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. He was visiting the city of Canton, in southern China, from Indochina, where he was posted. “The guests sat down to dinner at 8:30 p.m.,” Tim Harper writes in his new book, Underground Asia. Then, “just as the soup was being served, a man ‘rather luxuriously dressed’ appeared at one of the windows.” An eyewitness claimed this man surveyed the scene and then threw an attaché case through the window, which exploded, killing three people immediately, though not Merlin.

After an encounter with a police investigator, the activist jumped into the river. When his “bloated body washed up” on the shore, rumors flew and arguments raged over the assassin’s identity. The local French authorities balked at the notion that he was from Indochina, then a colony of France, despite the fact that the intended victim was based in Saigon. They insisted the attacker was Chinese and that China’s Nationalist Party, then in charge of part of Canton, was responsible for his actions. British diplomats insisted that the Chinese republican government fostered “anti-European societies of all sorts—Indians, Malays, Annamite [Indochinese], etc.” According to a September 1924 British Foreign Office report, Canton was thought to be full of “people’s bomb factories.” 

Ultimately, it became clear that the assassin was Pham Hong Thai, an exile from Indochina who wrote a testament explaining his motives. “I am a Vietnamese who was born under the brutal rule of the French,” were its opening words. “Since I was young, I began to find certain approaches to resist the French and liberate my homeland.” He joined the “Vietnamese Revolutionary Army” and became part of a group of “around ten members” who were charged with killing Merlin. He claimed that performing this deed would be a fitting punishment for the “evil deeds” the official “had done in Vietnam,” and that he would not be “regretful” even if he should die because of the act. The sacrifice would be worth it if the assassination made “other nations understand the suffering of my people and help us.”

Activists like Pham Hong Thai, working to wrest their homelands from foreign control, are the subject of Harper’s magisterial book, which traces revolutionary struggles across Asia in the years between 1905 and 1931. The locales that interest him are cosmopolitan ports that were at least partly incorporated into Western empires—cities such as Canton, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and Saigon, which were magnets for militants on the move. In these places, exiles from “lost countries”—a term Harper borrows from an activist of the time to refer to colonized lands—could evade arrest by the police by lying low in hard-to-patrol dockland districts. In subdivided cities like Shanghai, which had a British-dominated International Settlement beside a separate French Concession, they had another option: Base themselves in alleyway apartments in the jurisdiction of an empire other than the one they opposed, and take advantage of imperial rivalries that limited cooperation between the law enforcement arms of different powers.  

In many accounts of Vietnam’s liberation, figures like Pham Hong Thai appear only in the margins. Textbooks in present-day Vietnam and Cold War–era bestsellers in the West have tended to focus on Ho Chi Minh (whether they portray him as a hero, a villain, or a bit of both), the organization he led (a Moscow-supported party), and its guiding ideology (Marxism-Leninism). Harper encourages us to see things differently. He insists that the story of postcolonial liberation movements should be approached in a less top-down and teleological manner. The best narratives make room for false starts, the embrace and rejection of ideologies, and the founding and disbanding of organizations. They should also note the interactions between activists from different countries who forged cooperative arrangements, from small-scale study societies to international anti-colonial leagues, without help from Moscow or Washington.

Read entire article at The New Republic