Drawing from Experience

by Martin C. Evans

Source: The Orange County Registry (Thursday, July 7, 1994)

HO CHI MINH CITY – He once was among Vietnam’s most audacious editorial voices, skewering political leaders, local and international, with a cartoonist brush as sharp as any editorial’s pen.

His acerbic wit drew him such notoriety during the Vietnam War that he was written about in such far-away newspapers as the New York Times and the Chicago Daily News. A book of his cartoons, “The World of Choe” was published in the United States in 1993.

But these are quieter days for Nguyen Hai Chi, better known as Choe to thousand of Vietnamese here and around the world.

“I was very reckless in my younger days, which brought me a lot of problems,” Choe says, sitting in an art gallery here where he sell his work. “At 50 I’m a little more carriful.”

It is not hard to understand the cautiousness of this man of slight build and unruly graying hair. When Saigon’s society was turn upside down by the 1975 arrival of the communists, Choe was among more than 100.000 intellectuals, former government workers and activists shipped to “re-education camp” because they were considered a danger to communism.

Only two month earlier, he had been jailed by the South Vietnamese government on suspicion of being a communist.

“His caricatures became a weapon for the people to express their critical feeling about the war at that time, “ said Yen Do, a former colleague of Choe’s and publisher of Nguoi Viet, a Vietnamese-language newspaper in Westminster. “He was one of the most sensitive artist at that time.”

Today, many of Ho Chi Minh City’s business owners, artists, taxi drivers, guides and other residents are former work-camp inmates, who remain fearful of openly voicing opposition to Vietnam’ communists.

These days Choe, who live a quiet life on the outskirt of the town, flatty refuses to discuss politics, not even to describe the condition he lived under during his 12-year exile at the Gia Trung camp in Vietnam jungle highland.

When questioned on the subject, he just flashed a shy smile and gives a slight shrug.

But he was not given up cartooning. Released in 1987 from a prison stint that frequently found him shackled in solitary confinement, he picked up the pen again in 1990 and still manages to poke fun at bureaucratic sloth and other aspects of society with drawings produced for several newspapers.

In a drawing published on May 25, a turtle wearing boots that look like a horse’s legs spoofs “improvement” in Vietnam, suggesting that government moves just as slowly as ever.

But nothing in his cartoons can be recognized as of any of Vietnamese leaders these days. Nothing like barbs of 25 years ago.

Choe said he was reluctant to return to cartooning, which forced him to endure a dozen years of hardship, saying he didn’t want to do anything that might risk landing him back in trouble. But it was difficult to stay away.

“The fun was always there,” Choe said. “That’s why I started working again.”