The World of Choe
by Barry Hilton
Source: Foreword of “The World of Choe” – Glade Publications – 1973 – page 9-13
Among the more exotic background materials prepared by the American Embassy in Saigon for Henri Kissinger, during his hectic days in late 1972 and early 1973 when the Viet Nam Peace Agreement was being hammered into shape. Was a thick sheaf of Kissinger caricatures from Saigon newspapers. There is an earthy, peasant streak to Vietnamese humor which, combined with the deep suspicion most people in South Viet Nam felt toward the secret peace talks, made many of these far from flattering, it is a tribute to Doctor Kissinger’s good nature that – as the story goes – he was pleased by the artwork.
The bulk of the drawing all the best of them came from three newspapers: Song Than (artist: “CHOE”), Hoa Binh (artist: “CAP”) and Dai Dan Toc (artist:”KIT”). A remarkable concentration of artistic talent in one small country at one time, it might be felt. The truth is more remarkable still: all the cartoons published in all three newspapers are the work of one young man, Nguyen Hai Chi, whose primary pen name is “CHOE”.
Born in the South Vietnamese Delta in 1944 CHOE (pronounced “chew” – say “church wedding”. Without the “chur” and the “ding”) had to leave school at the age of nine. He contributed to the family income with various menial occupations for the next eleven years, before leaving for the bright lights of Saigon in 1964. in 1969 he won first prize in a newspaper short-story contest (to be a writer is still his ambition) and became acquainted with the contest judge, the novelist Le Tat Dieu. What happened next is related by Tran Da Tu, editor of a new-defunct Saigon daily paper:
One day in 1970, Le Tat Dieu came to me saying, “I’ve just run across this fantastic cartoonist – here, take a look at these.” He opened his briefcase and handed me a bunch of drawings. “Can you imagine? He’s never studied art a day in his life. I think we’ve really got something here.”
I agreed, and within a few days, drawings by Dieu’s friend, over the pen name CHOE, began appearing regularly in Bao Den.
Around the time of the one-man presidential election of 1971, Bao Den ran afoul of the Saigon authorities for its oppositionist politics and was forced to close down. But by then CHOE’s career was well launched. Within three years he has become the best-paid cartoonist in Viet Nam, earning about $400 per month for providing three daily newspapers and half a dozen periodicals with the captionless drawings that are his specialty. An occasional sale to U.S. publication – Times magazine and the Mew York Times are past customers – brings in another $40 or so per drawing. All told, at least 4,000 CHOE cartoons, bearing various signatures, have been published in the first three years of his career, a total which surely rates Honorable Mention in the Cartoonists’ Hall of Fame for productivity alone.
Three different drawings each day, for three newspapers, a heavy load to carry, anywhere. The scissors of state censorship make things harder still: Caricature of Kissinger, Nixon, Mao Tse-Tung? Sure. Lampoon the Watergate scandal, the Agnew accusations? Feel free, go right ahead. But when it comes to the powers that be on the home front in Viet Nam – watch your step. Papers can be confiscated, and publishers prosecuted; editors, sympathetic though they may be, can’t afford to look kindly on a boy cartoonist who brings on such calamities. CHOE’s work then, by necessity as much as by choice, leans heavily toward international topics.
On the other hand, within the bounds of permissible subject matter there is virtually no restriction on the treatment the artist chooses to apply as you will quickly see in the cartoons that follow. The Vietnamese people, who have lived under the thumb of one or another set conquerors or advisors for most of their history, have, like other peoples with similar histories, developed a sturdy anarchic tradition of disrespect for the high and mighty, a home-grown brand of mockery from a worm’s-eye viewpoint. There is a distinct leaning toward barn-yard imagery, a noticeable tendency to focus below the belly-button. The inspired insanities of CHOW are probably the best twentieth-century expression of that tradition.
For most Americans Viet Nam has, understandably, been pretty much a distant abstraction the Frontier of the Free World, perhaps, or the Play-ground of American Imperialism, according to our individual preferences. Men in business suits wrangle interminably around conference tables, men in muddy uniforms fight forever in the jungles and rice fields; dollars pour in, corpses pile up. There is more to Viet Nam, more to any country, than one or two scenes like this. The problem is, short of a full-scale cultural exchange program, how to tell the people of one country what the people of another country are like – how do they live, what de they think about, what makes them laugh? This book, a highly unofficial open letter from the Vietnamese people to the world at large, makes a start by addressing the third question. Here is CHOE, then, in all his zaniness, Viet Nam’s contribution to international understanding and peace. He is too funny a man not to share with everybody.