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The City as Text: Chợ Trời and the Representation of an Invisible Hanoi

Despite being the largest marketplace in the city since the 1950s, and still the oldest temporary market in town, Troi Market (chợ Trời) doesn't appear in delightful pieces of literature or art like the Old Quarter, West Lake and Ba Dinh Square.

It seems that most older Hanoians consider the sound of the electric trains and the crowded nature of Dong Xuan Market in the subsidy era as part of their collective memory, but the bustling sounds of Troi Market are unfamiliar.

Since the middle years of this decade, and especially after President Obama’s visit to Vietnam in September 2016, people overseas have started seeing advertisements for Hanoi on CNN.

The city has been depicted in western media as a city of combinations: prestigious culture and industrialization, old pagodas and shopping malls, a veteran of the past, and mediator of the present and future. This also applies to the nation’s PR campaign on an international scale.

Tourists from around the world, many of whom only knew about Vietnam through war, were surprised by these depictions, not knowing that such representation of Hanoi was also common among citizens. Such identification has been present in the mainstream media for many years through the explosion of the internet and social media. That image has been so popular that it became some sort of "identity" of the city. Having said that, the construction of such an identity puts boundaries around the concept of Hanoi. It attaches Hanoi to a limited number of images and locations, therefore marginalizing other images and locations. Chợ Trời is such a case, even though it is only 2.5 kilometers from Hoan Kiem.

A crossroads inside Troi Market.

The goal of this article is to examine Troi Market as an example of marginalized areas and concepts of Hanoi; thus introducing other approaches to the city by looking at the market through the theoretical lens of cultural studies, and combining discourses about the market with the writers' real experiences at the location.

In 2010, images and narratives of the area frequently appeared in the popular discourse. However, these representations were mystified by an otherworldly Hanoi portrayed as a secret place with "occult rules" and that the only way to explore it was through “infiltration.” A tourist website even described chợ Trời as a place “not for the weak.”

Through the semiotic framework of the French structuralist Roland Barthes1, the old temporary market has been simplified as a sign. Barthes meant that in the province of meanings and representations, our ideas of a place, or even a city, are affected by other dominant institutions of thoughts which desire to expropriate these ideas for its own benefit.

In the case of the market, a location not likely to be found in historical texts, our interpretations about the place are limited because capitalistic ideas unintentionally prevent us from approaching its original root. Therefore, if we perceive a city as “text” which includes a system of signs, representations, mythologies and tonalities constantly in dialogue with ordinary life,we instantly recognize that the "book" making up Hanoi is made of many pages and each of them exists among us. This forces us to consider power relations and the efforts to govern the population that is embedded inside the city settings. The most debated dimension is a clichéd one: “Who are the Hanoians?”

Daily life on the fringes of Troi Market.

Intellectuals in northern Vietnam have been answering such questions in numerous ways, as has the media. Tremendous attention has been paid to analyzing the answers in order to find a “truth” about the concept of “Hanoians.” 

The recognition of a certain Hanoian identity legitimizes certain groups of people or places a certain culture in the center of the Hanoian discourse, and marginalizes others who do not share these particular traits. But instead of answering the question of "who," cultural scholars are asking "how" the Hanoian identity been constructed through history? By answering this question, we reveal the hidden dialogues between the constructed “Hanoi essence” and the lives of Troi Market residents.

A rare 2019 piece of writing by Nguyen Ngoc Tien3 about the history of Troi Market reveals the geographic precariousness of its community. In 1945, there was a flea market on the right side of the Tonkin Financial Department where merchants traded used French military gear. This flea market, however, lasted no longer than a month due to an Imperialist Japanese prohibition on social gatherings.

After the French resumed control from Japan, stolen-good traders started gathering again and formed another market on Kham Thien Street and Hang Dua Street, though they jumped from street to street to avoid the police.

It was not until 1950 that these traders were allowed to congregate on Dumontier (modern Thinh Yen Street), a street far from the center of the city. In 1954, after the signing of the Geneva Convention, families who decided to migrate to the south brought their used goods to the market near Thien Quang Lake, transforming the area into a spontaneous market.

Nevertheless, when the Viet Minh took control of the government in Hanoi, they banned trading activities at Thien Quang, and traders scattered until 1955, when the government gathered all merchants at Thinh Yen Street and formed a market called Hoa Binh.

Thinh Yen Street, the gateway to Troi Market.

The reason why people now call this place Trời (Sky) rather than Hoa Binh was that in the beginning, none of the kiosks in the area had a roof (in English, chợ Trời can also mean 'flea market').

Nghia (not his real name), a man who has lived near Hoa Binh Market since 1955 recalled the precarious nature of life in the past. The reality continues today due to a plan to rezone Troi Market that has been approved. He claimed that the plan had moved many kiosks from the old space to Hue Street and Tran Nhat Duat Street, far from the market. Some traders even went across the Red River to form a new market in Long Bien District.

Unlike the boundary on the official map, which pinned the market on particular roads and lanes like Tran Cao Van, Chua Vua and Yen Bai 2, Nghia insisted: “Troi Market's position is for its people to decide. It's not a market anymore, but a spirit of some particular people and some particular techniques of trading." This attitude is somewhat similar to the attitude of many other merchants and curious journalists towards this place: "Wherever it moves, it will still be a flea market."

A woman walks along a lane inside the market.

Through the viewpoint of Deleuze and Guattari4, the movement of Troi Market is the process of de-territorialization, in which an object, a state of affairs, or a culture escapes from its pre-given geographic. Appadurai5 implied that the distance of a culture towards its locality is a condition of possibilities for the natives to expand their imagination about their own custom to surpass a particular space.

This imagination also allows them to accept the appearance of alien cultures in their space. Nonetheless, in the context of globalization and marketization, the de-territorialization process can lead to an identity crisis among mobilized communities like Troi Market. I recognized this crisis while interviewing Van (not her real name), another resident we encountered while conducting fieldwork there.

Van had a stall on a small lane. Her table was close to the pavement, while some plastic chairs, a table for guests, and a charcoal stove lie right in front of the line which divides the residential area and the extended road. When the rezoning of the market was finished, her stall and many other kiosks in front of the line would be removed. The middle-aged woman shared her fear of moving to a strange new place; however, many years have passed, and the project has yet to be completed. Thus, Van and her family live with the feeling that her stall could be removed at any time.

A stall inside the market.

Such is the situation of chợ Trời: a place of suddenness and mysteries, an identity united by memories and embraced by those who belong to such memories. We heard it first from the media, then from the memories themselves. 

But that is not what the market people think. From time to time, both Nghia and Van provided conflicting viewpoints from the mainstream media. Their memories about the past are very much different from "Hanoian" memories of the past: she recalled the time she was in her “hometown" on Hang Quat Street. She described it as crowded and busy, even though the whole country at that time was in the midst of the subsidy era.

This fragment of memory is somewhat different from the version of the past in which “everyone was poor, but happy” that we hear so often from the mainstream media.

Another strange message I heard from both of them was the manifesto of chợ Trời people for being “native Hanoians." In the dimension of collective memory and its formation, the manifesto claims that the people of the market were an undeniable part of the Hanoian community because they share the same pool of memories, even though the way they recall their memories deviates compared to the dominant discourse.

According to the founder of Memory Studies, Maurice Halbwachs6, when one memorizes the past, one’s memories are constructed and affected by the contemporary discourses and ideologies. Thus, it is not one’s decision to just forget something and remember another, but the real influencer is the power relations of the current time. Therefore, in order to understand the positioning of power relations moving within the documented Hanoi and its components — Troi Market, for example — we shall learn of how the concept of Hanoi has been constructed throughout history.

Hai Ba Trung Temple, near Troi Market.

An article in Van Hoa Magazine titled “Constructing the polite, civilized Hanoi people: easier said than done,” shows that the construction of a Hanoi identity is still ongoing even today. From the beginning of the last century, the French had already tried building their own version of Hanoi as “Little Paris.” However, it was an unfamiliar concept for people.

In a book called Hanoi Old Stories, the late To Hoai wrote: “Streets in the French era were divided into different zones. There were no instructions or signs, no walls or barriers, and not even a restriction; but passengers have to understand the rules to watch their steps.” Vann7 demonstrates that the French brought modernity to Hanoi by building their own water system; the locals were hired only to kill rats. But despite the obvious gap between the colonizers and the colonized, Thanh Tam Tuyen still decided to depict the “Vietnamese Paris” as a place of the locals in his poem 'Serenade': “...There is a little Paris - For me be the poet…”

Discussing this “Little Paris” with a confrontational attitude, “The sluggish Hanoi” by Trong Lang or Vu Trong Phung’s documents have illustrated degraded and filthy living conditions under the French "civilization." Normally, a discourse will create the center position of the hegemonic system, thus marginalizing other groups of smaller discourses. In “Little Paris,” the French stood in the middle of the discourse because they created the norms of "civilized" and "politeness."

The locals could only choose to fit or not to fit into the discourse, unable to create new possibilities for new discourses. The subsidized era in post-1954 Hanoi indicated new discursive centers: "sunshine on Ba Dinh Square," "voice of the old Father," or "the ever-higher buildings," all of which represent the spirit of a subsidy economy. Meanwhile, on the margin of the discourses, people moved away from the concept of “a united world” through black markets:

Tong Dan street belongs to kings

The Church belongs to flatterers 

Dong Xuan belongs to merchants

The streets belong to the people.

From the loose ties in the construction of a Hanoi identity, we come to the conclusion on the framework of Hanoi as an imagined environment of an imagined community7 which views identity not as essential and eternal, but as representations and metaphors. However, Donald thinks that this framework only works if put in the framework of power, as he quotes Lefebvre: If there really exists texts, words, or documents in here [the city], it has to lie among norms, motives and regulations.

The case of Troi Market is remarkable because it represents illuminated identities that shall never be revealed in the regulated systematic market society of the west. However, those identities do not stay passive, but actively look for weak points in the system.

Through the stories of Nghia and Van, we recognize that Troi Market always seeks to stand in the same pool of memories of Hanoi. This leads to a methodological question: Is document study enough to understand a location or a city? Are we bypassing the roles of memories and emotions? In other words, as we make many marginalized parts of Hanoi less invisible, can we make Troi Market visible?

Shopping at Troi Market.

References

1: Barthes, Roland. 2009. Mythologies, translated by Phùng Văn Tửu, Hà Nội: Tri thức publisher.

2: Duncan, James. 2005. The City as Text: The Politics of Landscape Interpretation in the Kandyan Kingdom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

3: Nguyen Ngoc Tien. 2019. “Những Chợ Trời ở Hà Nội”. An ninh thủ đô.

4: Bui Van Nam Son. 2003. “Văn học thiểu số” và một cách đọc khác về Kafka”. Phê bình văn học.

5: Appadurai, Arjun. 1990. “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy”. Theory Culture Society 1990; 7; 295.

6: Halbwachs, Maurice. 1992. On Collective Memory (edited and translated by Lewis Coser, from parts of Halbwachs' Les Cadres and La Topographie legendaire). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

7: Vann, Michael. 2003. “Of Rats, Rice, and Race: The Great Hanoi Rat Massacre, an Episode in French Colonial History”. French Colonial History, Vol. 4, 2003, pp. 191-204.

8: Donald, James. 1992. “Metropolis: The city as text”, pp. 418-466 in Social and cultural forms of modernity, edited by Robert Bocock and Kenneth Thompson. Oxford: Polity Press in association with the Open University.

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