When a brotherhood of revolutionaries grew across Asia

Underground Asia. By Tim Harper.Allen Lane; 864 pages; £ 35. To be published in America by Harvard University Press in January; $ 39.95.

IN JUNE 1919 a petition circulated among the delegates to the Versailles peace conference. The “Claims of the Annamite People” claimed to speak on behalf of the inhabitants of the part of French Indochina which is today the heart of Vietnam. The petition, writes Tim Harper, was one of many “into which the hopes of entire peoples were poured out.” Her demands seemed fairly moderate – things like freedom of the press, the right to education, the abolition of government by decree – and she was greeted politely by Woodrow Wilson and even the President of the French Republic.

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But his tone, seeming to speak directly to power, rattled the French authorities, who had built an empire in Indochina on the backs of forced labor, while the plantations ran their own private prisons. As the document circulated among diplomatic missions and, within two months, roamed the streets of Hanoi, the security services knew that its author, Nguyen Ai Quoc – a pseudonym meaning “Nguyen the Patriot” – was in some way important. . They were to maintain this conviction for more than three decades.

Briefly, Nguyen Ai Quoc took cover, for example to address political meetings in Paris, poorly dressed. Still, the growing secret police files on him reflected official frustration. He lied about his age, name, origins and profession. He changed his accent accordingly. Time and time again, Nguyen Ai Quoc has slipped like quicksilver through the fingers of the imperial powers. Its shadow has been found in libraries, cafes and boarding houses across France, in port cities like Singapore and New York, and even in the London suburb of Ealing; a rumor wanted him to be a pastry chef under the great Escoffier. His writings have surfaced in illicit newspapers in China and Korea. But when the General Security picked up his scent, he left.

Nguyen Ai Quoc is emblematic of a world underground of Asian nationalists and revolutionaries which is the subject of this superbly original book. In it, Mr. Harper, a historian at the University of Cambridge, describes how, in the first decades of the 20th century, dreams took hold of a continent free from imperial chains – British chains in India and Asia. from the South East, the Dutch to the East Dutch. Indies (modern Indonesia), French in Indochina and those of various European powers in China. These dreams were nurtured in the liminal cracks of the empire: in the steerage class along the new steamboat routes connecting Asia to Europe and North America, in the dormitories of the cities. swarming ports from Yokohama to Marseille, and among modernist and radical circles in metropolitan centers. like London and Paris.

“Underground Asia” breaks new ground by showing how a collective consciousness has emerged among revolutionaries on this shifting ground. Some were well off, sent to Europe with the Imperial blessing for a good education. Sumatran traditions encouraged young men like Tan Malaka to expose themselves to “the greatness of the world”; he went to the Netherlands. Others looked more like Nguyen Ai Quoc, whose father, a local magistrate, was a drunken violence cashier, whose sister dated pirates, and who made his way to Europe as a simple sailor. All nevertheless shared resources and knowledge, formed alliances, or “simply witnessed each other, drawing strength from a sense of co-presence”. Activists from China, Japan and Vietnam struggled to understand each other’s rhetoric. But through the “brushtalk” – by deploying the Chinese logograms common to all their writing systems – they laboriously exchanged ideas until the night.

Back home, this wave of consciousness fostered experiences of mass education and political literacy, a new culture popularized by radical “mosquito newspapers”. This generated a powerful belief that, as Narendra Nath Bhattacharya, the Indian revolutionary better known as MN Roy, said, Europe was not the world.

It was a fluid kingdom. Western ideas rushed to Asia, turning into action. Anarchism, “the quintessence of the ideology of exile”, has deteriorated into the republicanism of Giuseppe Mazzini and Sinn Fein. Sometimes Islam claimed to transcend borders.

Back to the future

After the abdication of Nicholas II from Russia in 1917, “storms from the outside world blew directly into the homes of Surabaya and Semarang”. In taking power, Vladimir Lenin turned to the European working classes to promote a broader revolution. When that hope collapsed, the revolutionary potential of the Asian peasantry – which Lenin, like the colonialists, had until then deemed backward – was reassessed. Asian radicals have been summoned to Moscow. Nguyen Ai Quoc, MN Roy and Tan Malaka were at the heart of what Mr. Harper calls the greatest missionary effort in Asia since the Jesuits set out to convert China, India and Japan in the 16th century.

In Asia, and even in the imperial homelands, the action sometimes took a violent form. Assassinations were attempted against the British Viceroy of India and the Governor General of French Indochina. At the beginning of 1925, a young Chinese woman in the square of the “Modern Girl”, an attitude popularized in Shanghai and Tokyo before Paris or New York, entered a social assistance office in Kuala Lumpur and coldly tried to blow up two British officials. .

Such violence has raised frightening fears of a “yellow peril”. In truth, strikes and boycotts targeting economies that required colonial subjects to be both producers and consumers had more effect. But in the late 1920s, the authorities had the upper hand. Finally, the borders were no longer porous, whereas the Sûreté and its counterparts had put in place usernames, fingerprinting and rigorous record keeping. They recruited narcos and guards from the same waterfronts and brothels inhabited by revolutionaries. International cooperation was regularized with the creation of Interpol in 1923.

Radicals caught in the colonial net were rounded up and sent to detention centers, such as Port Blair in the Andaman Islands in India or, in the case of the Indonesians, Boven Digoel, upstream of malarious New Guinea. Mr. Harper argues that these camps were a harbinger of the kind in which political undesirables would be held in Europe.

After the devastation suffered even by the victorious powers during World War II, revolutionaries in Asia saw new opportunities. Some seized the opportunity and rose to power. Today, Nguyen Ai Quoc, him with countless pseudonyms, bears his name in one of the most teeming metropolises in Asia: Ho Chi Minh City. Tan Malaka, on the other hand, was devoured by the revolution he helped spawn, killed alongside him in the fight against the Dutch and the British.

Yet the lives of the two men bear witness to an early premonition that, far from being a quagmire of backwardness requiring firm imperial tutelage, Asia was, as Mr. Harper writes, “at the forefront of the world. ‘human future’. And so, although many of the revolutionaries he evokes are now forgotten – or, for some Asian nations, too inconvenient to remember – their underground stories still resonate through time.

This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the print edition under the title “Brothers in arms”


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Thelma J. Longworth

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