AAS Annual Meeting

Southeast Asia Session 108

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Session 108: Market Oriented Socialist Rubble: The Demolition, Reconstruction, and Remaking of Vietnamese Urban Space - Sponsored by the Vietnam Studies Group

Organizer: Erik Lind Harms, Yale University, USA

Discussant: Andrew Willford, Cornell University, USA

Piles of rubble and vast fields of debris litter the modern Vietnamese landscape, most dramatically in the cities. Concrete, omnipresent and highly visible, yet always elusive and on the move, the rubble piles of urban development offer an apt metaphor for processes driving Vietnam’s urban transformation. In this panel, we explore the ways in which urban development, like rubble, might best be understood as an increasingly persistent and enduring structure of constant change in Vietnamese cities. Urban development, in turn, provides a central insight into emergent urban economies. Instead of producing products for consumption, this central form of production and capital accumulation depends on constant demolition and reconstruction. As buildings are torn down to create new piles of debris, and as older rubble piles are carted off to form the foundations for new projects, capital is quite literally produced through the circulation of rubble. Transforming not only infrastructure and built form, these processes create new forms of social space and interaction; as new projects rise from the rubble of destruction they leave displaced populations in their path; they both eviscerate history and produce new trajectories of social experience with each load of demolished brick, concrete, and plaster. Based on new ethnographic research, panelists explore the contested meanings and emergent socio-political contexts associated with urban developments in Hanoi, Vinh and Ho Chi Minh City. Our discussant, building from a career studying urban Kuala Lumpur, will help contextualize the papers within the broader context of Southeast Asian urban development.

Transforming New Urban Space for whom? Negotiations between local residents and urban planners in Tu Son town, Bac Ninh Province
Phuong Cham T. Nguyen, Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences, Viet Nam

This paper describes the rapid urban development of Tu Son town, Bac Ninh Province, emphasizing the problem of “site clearance,” compensation procedures, and how these processes affect local residents. Although Tu Son officially became a part of Bac Ninh Province only in 2008, it is an ideal place to study the urban transition because it lies directly in the path of Hanoi’s strategic urban satellite projects, which the Vietnamese Government has been developing since early 2000. Based on fieldwork in Tu Son, this paper describes the various stakeholders in the urbanization process by answering the following questions: Who benefits from the New Urban Space in Tu Son? What benefits do local residents gain from the development of new urban areas? How do people in Tu Son adapt to the changes associated with Tu Son’s transformation from village space to urban space? What do advertised concepts such as “modern urban areas” and “luxurious condos,” “urban life style,” or “urban civilization” really mean in everyday life? I show how the tradeoff between the actual demands and needs of residents and the plans for expanding urban space in Tu Son has represented a major source of conflict. Through a discussion of what local actors describe as the “urbanization of a village” and the “ruralization of the city,” I describe alternative views of what “modern” development looks like. The official model of the modern urban plan does not meet everyone’s expectations and not everyone wishes to become urban in the same way.

Beauty as Control in the New Saigon
Erik Lind Harms, Yale University, USA

This paper details contested visions of development and land disputes associated with the demolition and reconstruction of Thu Thiem ward in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Sitting on soft soils crisscrossed by waterways, and populated by over 11,000 households, Thu Thiem is located to the south of Saigon’s historic city center in district 2, immediately across the Saigon River. City planners and developers seek to completely “raze this area to nothing,” and aggressively engineer the area into developable land, literally forming a blank slate from which they can build anew, unimpeded by the watery landscape or the vicissitudes of human settlement. The goal, simply put, is to build a new modern urban utopia from the ground up, to completely clear the land and make the dreams embedded in architectural renderings into reality. This paper describes the process of land clearance, and examines the discursive role aesthetics play in promoting new visions of urban order and spatial control in this New Urban Zone. Based on new ethnographic research among architects, planners, city authorities, and urban residents displaced by construction of this New Urban Zone, the paper details how notions of building a beautiful (dep, my quan) city guide and frame the negotiations over land use rights, resettlement, and compensation. I argue that this discourse of beauty provides a language for debating citizenship in a country where open debate over civic rights is circumscribed. This focus on beauty frames debates about rights and responsibilities between developers and residents in politically acceptable language.

Territories, Thresholds, and No Man’s Lands: Developing Saigon’s Water Margins
Christophe Robert, CET Academic Programs, Viet Nam

What makes territories? How do people claim and dwell in them? Alternatively, how are people removed from them? How are territories formed, unmade, and reconceptualized? In this paper I explore Saigon’s water margins. These rivers and canals, their banks and the neighborhoods which grew along them, have been essential vectors for trade and the movement of people and commodities in Saigon and southern Vietnam. French colonial authorities dredged canals and waterways in Saigon, and built infrastructure for maritime and riverine trade. Recently, waterways have also been sites of squatter settlements and slums. In the current redrawing of the relationship between urban cores and peripheries in Vietnam, these sites have undergone massive “slum clearances” for building highways and new real estate developments. These waterways and their banks are imagined as both central and marginal, spaces of flow, trade, and growth as well as zones of illegality, stagnation and decay that must be cleared. This paper is based on ethnographic research conducted since 1999 along the Saigon River, the Ben Nghe Canal, and other watery margins in Saigon and Cho Lon. I analyze the creation of no man’s lands in the middle of the city – rubble and razed lands as thresholds of development and speculation. I examine the emergence of new no man’s lands in previously dense urban fabrics, and how local inhabitants orient themselves to these new potentialities and imaginaries of urban development and “modernization” in the midst of their neighborhoods.

Socialist Ruins and Capitalist Debris: New Urban Imaginaries in Vinh City
Christina Schwenkel, University of California, Riverside, USA

This paper explores urban architectural ruins and debris as sites for managing tensions between remembrance and forgetting, mobility and immobility, and dwelling and displacement in contemporary “market socialist” Vietnam. Through ethnographic and archival research, it traces radical urban transformation in Vinh, a once-model socialist city that is now emerging as a regional center of capitalist trade and commerce. Following its destruction during U.S. bombing raids, Vinh was rebuilt with East German aid, technology, and urban design expertise. A primary focus of urban reconstruction was Quang Trung estate, a socialist utopian community that provided “modern” apartments and facilities for more than ten thousand residents left homeless from the war. In recent years, “dilapidated” sections of Quang Trung have been demolished and replaced with high rise condominiums, despite calls to recognize the site as architectural “heritage.” The paper examines competing urban imaginaries that have emerged in Vinh City in recent years as urban planners, city residents, and foreign-trained architects imagine new cultural and spatial patterns of living that integrate, and at times reject, older urban forms and aesthetic ideals. Intersecting “socialist” and “capitalist” logics of urban utopia and urban modernity represent not contradictory, but corresponding modes of urban governance and design that similarly aspire to aestheticize and civilize the city.