The Politics of ‘Good Reading’: Libraries and the Public in Late Colonial Vietnam Talk at Yale

Politics of ‘Good Reading’ Talk at Yale’s Southeast Asia Seminar

Last spring I was invited to give a virtual talk at Yale’s Southeast Asia Seminar. It was an honor to present a portion of my manuscript Misreading at the Yale seminar, and to be part of the vibrant Q&A, which due to its virtual format spanned institutions and continents. Thank you to Quan Tran for the talk moderation, Yale’s Council on Southeast Asian Studies for the kind invitation, and to all who were able to attend.


This talk examines the role of state-sponsored libraries within the landscape of print culture and reading public in late colonial Vietnam. I consider how library administrators and government officials defined ‘good reading’ as didactic, politically safe, and vulgarizing reading matter. Through the specific project of the Cochinchina Library bibliobus or xe sách [book wagon],* I reveal how colonial print control and book distribution drew inspiration from the Dutch East Indies Balai Pustaka and American libraries and publishing initiatives. This talk contributes two major interventions in the history of libraries and colonialism in Vietnam. Firstly, it situates the library within the landscape of print culture and peripheries of colonial control, and secondly it points to the administrative exchanges between imperial projects and international library sciences. This talk is part of my book manuscript Misreading: Social Life of Libraries and Colonial Control in Vietnam, 1865-1958. I examine the mechanics, discourse, and everyday practice of the library to fulfill its role as an official governmental institution, resource of public education, and cultural space for the practice of collective responsibility, urban civility, and public reading. I embed libraries within the multilayered landscape of print control—the politics of production, dissemination, and preservation of print matter. I follow the dynamic debates on print control among French colonial and post-colonial government administrators, librarians, archivists, translators, publishers, and readers. These diverse actors investigated the content, language, and influence of ‘good reading’ and initiated projects to disseminate reading matter through translation, publishing, and libraries. 

Link to Recording of Talk >

[TEACHING] On Digital Teaching During and After COVID-19

On November 9, 2020 I was invited to speak on the topic of digital teaching as part of the History Department, Center for Digital Scholarship, and 21st Century PhD Series at Brown University. The talk was well attended on Zoom from faculty, staff, and students from all over campus.

I talk through concrete activities, tools, and materials on remote digital teaching for history seminars. Drawing from my experience in critical digital pedagogy, inclusive design, and digital humanities, I share three guiding design principles: 1) variation of modality, 2) time/energy management, and 3) built in reflection and explain how I build in these principles into the class structure and assignments. The session concludes with time for Q&A and group discussion of challenges and experiences teaching during COVID.

Video Recording of Zoom Talk

Continue reading “[TEACHING] On Digital Teaching During and After COVID-19”

Translating Across Time and Space: Film Screening, Artist Talk, and Creative Translation Activity at Harvard

I was invited to speak at an innovative event on translation and creative expression organized by the scholar Catherine H. Nguyen from the Committee on Degrees in History and Literature and the Committee on Ethnicity, Migration, and Rights at Harvard University. Together with poet-scholar Quan Tran, we shared our scholarship and arts practice. I spoke about my scholarly research and its intersections with artistic expression and personal history. It was a refreshing and radical opportunity to speak honestly about my ‘historian-artist’ identity and diverse body of work–from research essays and teaching on Vietnamese history to film-poetry on translation and feminist performance art.

Continue reading “Translating Across Time and Space: Film Screening, Artist Talk, and Creative Translation Activity at Harvard”

Making Art in the Time of COVID: Why I Made the Film NONFUTURE

It’s been hard. My mind, heart, and body have been on overdrive. I made the film “NONFUTURE, Meditations on Time” to make sense of it all. If this strikes a chord with you, please share.

I hope that this film

  1. brings moments of lightness in a very dark and difficult situation
  2. inspires creative experimentation to make meaning of our changing realities
  3. reminds us that we are all connected in our collective struggle
  4. sparks playful movement, gratitude, and laughter
  5. moves us to be resilient, brave, and kind to each other
From my film “NONFUTURE

Continue reading “Making Art in the Time of COVID: Why I Made the Film NONFUTURE”

My Experience Living through History: War, Human Agency, and Non-Future

Update 4/10/2020: Thank you so much for the kind and loving words of support! As a grassroots deployment of our skills during this difficult time, we have now started a “Long Hai Feeds You” Campaign to feed frontline medical workers. Read more and donate here. Thank you for the love and stay safe!

As a historian, I analyze continuity and change. How do moments of upheaval affect people, states, institutions, across time and space? I consider the nuances of change for certain communities—the degree of rupture from previous ways of life and the resiliency of individual lives, social practices, and cultural norms.

I examine the history of Vietnam, where war haunts all aspects of life and sense of temporality. Disruption was the only constant, and fear functioned as a stimulus for survival. The prolonged state of uncertainty led to the utter abandonment of all trust in the socio-political fabric of governmental systems, economic stability, and sense of community. Vietnamese lived at the boundary of divine intervention and fated misery. A sense of a non-future and the loss of human agency shrouded the everyday. I have come to understand this reality through my mother and father’s life. They were kids forced to become adults in the midst of war, created a family out of tentative dreams and functional necessity, and escaped their war torn world in hopes for any kind of future for their family. I am deeply embedded within this traumatic history as a child of the Vietnam War, born in a refugee camp in Malaysia, and growing up in America the land of promise, hope, and hypocrisy.

My family in the relocation camp in the Philippines after we were accepted to migrate to America. I am the infant in my mother's arms. My father is on the far left, my uncle next to my mom, my oldest sister (3) and older brother (2). A neighborhood kid on the far right.
My family in the relocation camp in the Philippines after we were accepted to migrate to America. I am the infant in my mother’s arms. My father is on the far left, my uncle next to my mom, my oldest sister (3) and older brother (2). A neighborhood kid on the far right.

Yet, it was not until COVID-19 that I now know what it means to live through history. While this moment is not the same as war, I have become familiar with its symptoms and side effects. The loss of human agency in everyday action. The inability to fathom a future. The surrender to fated defeat and existential misery.

Continue reading “My Experience Living through History: War, Human Agency, and Non-Future”

Why Study the History of Colonial Indochina? Talk at Middlesex Community College 2020

I recently delivered a talk  to 150 college students at Middlesex college through the Asian Studies Development Program. I was encouraged to prepare a talk which spoke to diverse students who might not have a background on Asian history. In preparing for the talk, I took a long time reflecting on the simple question, “Why study the history of colonial Indochina.” In the talk I explain three reasons:

  1. It is important.
  2. I am constantly learning and unlearning.
  3. It is hard.

Continue reading “Why Study the History of Colonial Indochina? Talk at Middlesex Community College 2020”

[TEACHING] Virtual Reality Module: Analyzing Representations of Angkor

This is a teaching module I designed for my course, “Contested Histories of Colonial Indochina” at Brown University, Fall 2019. [See below for full teaching module or Download Teaching Module Update: Remote Virtual Revised version below or Download Remote Teaching Module] I connected with an ambitious, award winning project “Virtual Angkor” which brings the 13th century Cambodian metropolis of Angkor to life through virtual reality and 3D simulation. Led by the talented team of Tom Chandler, Adam Clulow, Bernard Keo, Mike Yeates, and Martin Polkinghorne (SensiLab, Monash University, UT Austin, Flinders University), Virtual Angkor allows students to experience and pose questions about Angkor’s social life, trade networks, structure of power and kingship, as well as architectural layout.

Continue reading “[TEACHING] Virtual Reality Module: Analyzing Representations of Angkor”

[SYLLABUS] Contested Histories of Colonial Indochina

History 1978D – Fall 2019

Contested Histories of Colonial Indochina: Culture, Power, Change

Instructor: Dr. Cindy Nguyen, History Postdoctoral Fellow


Course Description

This seminar explores the history of French colonial Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos) from 1858 to 1945. Challenging Euro-centric narratives of colonialism, we will critically analyze the colonial encounter as complex exchanges, geographically diverse, and socially uneven. We will examine the mechanisms and limitations of the colonial state, capitalism, administration and institutions, and science and technology (maps, communications, transportation, medicine). Rather than position colonialism as an external agent of change, this seminar dedicates attention to local agency, and social and cultural transformations. We will focus on the creative production of new ideas, print media, and urban and religious communities especially in 1920s to 1940s Hanoi, Saigon, and Phnom Penh. By reading primary sources, we will consider how historical actors experienced and understood colonialism and social transformation. Key historical and theoretical debates addressed include the production and legacies of colonial knowledge, construction of modernity and civilization, development of civil societies, transformations of religious communities, and articulations of identities around gender, class, revolution, and nation. The final session will consider the legacies of colonialism on language, race, nationalism, and identity. A close analysis of French colonial Indochina will serve as a framework for a cultural and politically situated history of empire in Southeast Asia and beyond.

Continue reading “[SYLLABUS] Contested Histories of Colonial Indochina”

READING AND MISREADING – Presentation at ARI NUS, Singapore July 2018

This paper was presented at the 13th Annual Singapore Graduate Forum on Southeast Asian Studies on July 25, 2018 at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.

Presentation title: Reading and Misreading: From Temple of European Knowledge to Public Space of Vietnamese Modernity and Social Life, 1919-1941

Slides: Cindy Nguyen Hanoi Central Library Reading Room ARI NUS July 2018 Final

Please cite all images and parts of the paper to Cindy A. Nguyen

Video of Presentation:



This talk examines the transformation of library reading in colonial Vietnam from a symbol of French modernity to an everyday practice of Vietnamese modernity and social life. Focused on the 1920’s and 1930’s Central Library Reading Room in Hanoi, I demonstrate the ways in which Vietnamese students, urban readers, and administrators challenged and redefined the meaning of the library into a Vietnamese space of public sociability, self-learning, and global knowledge.

Continue reading “READING AND MISREADING – Presentation at ARI NUS, Singapore July 2018”

Orthodox v. Revisionist v. Vietnam-centrism in Vietnam War Histories

Photo by Eric Kim, Tuyên Quang 2016, Historically named by the Party as the glorious “Center of the National Revolution”

**A Note: This summary of key debates between Orthodox, Revisionist, and Vietnam-Centrism understandings of the Vietnam War will without a doubt, be interpreted as contentious. My aim here is not to cast value judgment on the ethics of war, but to push further the responsibility towards understanding HISTORY and its actors. 

Continue reading “Orthodox v. Revisionist v. Vietnam-centrism in Vietnam War Histories”