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Street Signs: Xô Viết Nghệ-Tĩnh

In this edition of Street Signs, we’ll tackle Xô Viết Nghệ-Tĩnh, which, in our humble opinion, is one of Saigon’s coolest streets, at least in name. And if you think Xô Viết is the Vietnamese version of Soviet, you’d be correct!

The Nghệ Tĩnh uprising, or Nghệ Tĩnh Soviet was a series of strikes and demonstrations led by Vietnamese intellectuals, peasants and workers against the French colonial government and the Vietnamese landlords who supported it. The action took place in the central provinces of Nghệ An and Hà Tĩnh from 1930 – 1931 where the uprising fought against heavy taxation and the prevailing opinion that many Vietnamese nobles were over-privileged.

Beginning in May 1930 in the towns of Vinh and Ben Thuy, the demonstrations quickly spread to the hinterlands where peasants demanded a moratorium on personal taxes and the return of communal lands taken by the French.

The economic policies of the French had already made life difficult and feelings of discontent had been simmering in the region for years.

Like much of the world, during the 1920s and 30s, communist movements were sweeping across the land, mobilizing the poor who had long been victims of colonial oppression (or in the West, unchecked capitalist exploitation).

A number of communist groups began to organize demonstrations in 1930, many of which resulted in the deaths of dozens of protestors. By August, their attention had turned to the depots and offices of the French alcohol monopoly which forbade the production of alcohol by Vietnamese (not cool).

On September 12, a demonstration in nearby Hưng Nguyên saw 6 French planes drop bombs on demonstrators, killing 140-200 and wounding hundreds.

In response, workers and peasants burned down military posts, administration buildings, town halls, railway stations and tax offices across Nghệ An.

Even with a large colonial footprint, there were few French in the region at the time so anger was directed at their vessels, the mandarins and village notables, many of whom were beaten, assassinated or executed.

With the destruction of the local colonial administration, peasants organized associations known as Soviets, hence the street name.

In early 1931, the French responded by issuing ID cards, installing a pro-French governor and deploying the French Foreign Legion. The repression was so fierce that protests from Saigon to Hue forced the colonial government to shutter their troops in their barracks. They were back out on the streets to suppress May Day demonstrations later that year where they killed over 500.

Within a few months, the revolt began to lose steam due to suppression and famine. By early 1932, tens of thousands had been put in prisons and concentration camps where 1,300 men, women and children died of disease and malnutrition.

Villages were burned, political cadres were executed and machines guns and planes cut down unarmed demonstrators.

Only one French national was killed during the revolt.

We know, not the most uplifting ending...


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