Vietnam's Most Potent Pen

by Larry Green

Source: Chicago Daily News, 1973

NGUYEN HAI CHI is barely audible when he talks, but he screams in anger, irony, bitterness, sarcasm when he draws.

He signs his name “Cap” or “Choe”, which means “the quark of a duck” or 
”the squeak of a mouse” in Vietnamese. What he says every day on front pages of three of Vietnam’s most widely read newspapers, however, is more accurately described as “the roar of a lion”.

He is shy, almost embarrassed to discuss his art.

“I think that I am reckless in doing some of the things that I do, since I do not have a voice, a say in the events of my time, and since I must express my feelings, I use my pen,” he says.

THAT IS NOT a very safe thing to do in Vietnam. Chi, adapting an old Vietnamese expression, says “being a journalist is as dangerous as touching the testicle of a horse.”

Free press expression is rigidly controlled by a government “press code” which amounts to censorship. Still, chi’s skillful, intricate drawings often say things writing journalists are prevented from saying.

Nothing about Chi indicates he should be his country’s most potent editorial voice.

The product of a Mekong Delta peasant family, he had only four years of school, quitting at 9 to help his family live by selling cookies and ice cream.

He knew nothing about domestic or international affairs until he was drafted and moved to Saigon nine years ago.

A SELF-TAUGHT artist, Chi, 29, is now an avid reader of almost everything printed in Vietnamese – the only language he knows.

His drawings run the range from simple line illustrations to complex scatological renderings of world figures, particularly President Nixon, Henry A. Kisinger and North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho.

Occasionally his work has been barred as being too obscene.

“World and domestic events affect me strongly,” he said. “Because I lived among the poor, I find corruption very tragic. It is like living in a family with a greedy person: He takes everything from the others.

“Because I have lived in a constant state of war, there is also a strong bitterness inside.”

CHI, MARRED and the father of three, began drawing at 5 (“as soon as I could hold a pen”) and has tried his hand at poetry and short stories.

The three papers – Song Than, Hoa Binh and Dai Dan Toc – give him a free hand each day to say what he wants. Daily he produces a different illustration for each.

“O think I have more freedom than writers,” he said, “because I can hide what I’m saying. I can often be more ambiguous.”