In Saigon, A Cartoonist’s Life Is Certain to Be Uncertain
Published in American Report, November 25, 1974
The published version named Ly Chanh Trung as an opposition deputy and journalist. The person actually mentioned in the interview was Ly Qui Chung. The text below has been corrected.
By John Spragens, Jr.
Special to American Report
SAIGON — A Herblock or a Mauldin would undoubtedly go out of his mind trying to work in Saigon. R. Cobb or Gilbert Shelton would most likely climb the walls screaming at the censors. But despite the frustrations, a tiny band of cartoonists, working sometimes for love, sometimes for money, keep on turning out drawings that enliven the pages of several of Saigon’s dailies.
The pointed pen is wielded for Dien Tin (Telegraph), Saigon’s heaviest opposition paper, by a 27-year-old who works under the name Ot — meaning "Hot Pepper.” His “mild-mannered reporter” face belies the frustrations of his job, and as he speaks his voice sometimes trails off and vanishes in the noise of Hondas in the street.
“When I came to work at the paper,” Ot recalled, “Ly Qui Chung (an opposition deputy who has been active in journalism for some 10 years) asked me what I could do. I finished up by saying that I could draw some, too. He asked me to draw a ‘man in the street’ character, and I've been doing cartoons ever since.”
That “ever since” has been some three years now. Ot was one of the early comers to the staff of the “new” Dien Tin in the 1970–71 period when Saigon students were staging protests of unprecedented militance, burning American vehicles and warning Americans to wear the broken rifle resistance symbol for their personal protection.
Tieng Noi Dan Toc (Voice of the Nation) had collapsed after a short life typical of newspapers here, and after a series of twists and turns that only a Vietnamese journalist could explain, a group of staffers from that paper proposed to the owner of Dien Tin that he revamp his paper. He was game, and Dien Tin was transformed from a news-gossip monger into a decidedly political paper.
Along the way from Tieng Noi Dan Toc to Dien Tin, some of the people involved tried to publish their own paper, and achieved the distinction of being the first closed down under the new press law, number 007. Even with someone else’s money behind them, they haven’t been able to coast. When they opposed Thieu’s one-horse race for president in 1971, the paper’s offices were napalmed by an anonymous firebomber.
When the paper reopened after that, Ot joined them. Like many journalists in Viet Nam he had started out to be something else, but got sidetracked in the turmoil of a country at war.
After growing up on the outskirts of Da Nang, southern Viet Nam’s second largest city, about 375 miles north of Saigon, and finishing high school there, Ot came to Saigon and began to study architecture. He still likes that best of all his studies, but it was too expensive.
After trying out the Faculty of Pedagogy and the Law School, he wound up in the National Administration Institute, a sort of civil service academy, where students get a stipend. But he didn’t finish the course there, either. He couldn’t see the civil service as a way to serve the people — not under present conditions.
Meanwhile his spare time pursuits had shifted from hanging around coffee houses to hanging around newspaper offices. He wanted to see every part of the operation, and even got some dirt jobs like hefting trays of type from the composing room to the pressroom.
His loads are heavier now, at Dien Tin, where in addition to his daily cartoon he is responsible for writing some articles and laying out the whole eight-page paper, and is a member of the editorial board.
“If I could sit down all night and just draw, I could be as polished as Choe,” he says, referring to a cartoonist who sells his work to two or three Saigon papers, and even to the New York Times on occasion. “But at night I try to read through all the papers to keep up with things, and in the afternoons I like to go out to find out what ordinary people are saying and thinking. In the mornings I just have enough time to dash off something quick, and then there are articles to write and the layout.”
On the other hand, his simple style is appealing, and in any case he is more concerned with content than with technique. “I want to speak for the people,” Ot says, and his main themes are war/peace issues, corruption, and the daily life that people have to endure. “I want to speak about their problems, but bring them a little enjoyment at the same time.”
Cartoonists, however, have to bear with the limitations and frustrations imposed by Saigon’s stiff and often capricious censorship. Ot has been forced by censors to mutilate cartoons, gutting them of their meaning, and his drawings have even been the cause of confiscations. The way it all works is quite bizarre, but essentially there are two stages.
The first stage is in the newspaper office itself. Each paper is obliged to provide a position for an “adviser” on censorship matters and pay his salary. The “adviser” suggests changes or deletions which a prudent editor will make with a minimum of protest.
Then the press run is started, the first copies are sent to the censors, and the waiting game begins. About 3:30 in the afternoon attention is focused on a knot of police clustered outside the door of each paper’s print shop, waiting for their walkie-talkie to pronounce the day's edition either fit or unfit for the people to read.
The maddening thing is that confiscations can come even when the “adviser’s” instructions have been followed to the letter. In some cases, a competing paper will hit the streets carrying an item which your own paper was advised to excise.
Ot feels it is important to carry on, even in the face of such impossible conditions, but he has to restrain his opinions. As a result, for the last several months most of his drawings have been done under the name of Tho Co (draftsman). The Ot signature is reserved for cartoons that tell it as he really sees it.
One of the quirks of the cartooning trade in Saigon is that though the Nixon nose and features of other world leaders come through in unmistakable caricature, the face of Thieu never appears. That is not to say, though, that there are not Thieu figures instantly recognized by readers. Ot's Thieu figure is a Mr. Big, eye halfway down his nose, facial features running into each other in ripples of fat, more often than not staring contentedly off into the void, oblivious to the life of the common man at his feet.
Now the struggle with Mr. Big is on in earnest. The Catholic-led anti-corruption movement will soon be joined by the mostly Buddhist National Reconciliation Force, and a drive for press freedom has provided spectacular bonfires in the streets as papers choose “self-immolation” over confiscation. Many are hopeful that this might be Mr. Big’s last confrontation — that the U.S. will dump Thieu as a liability and let the Vietnamese get on with the work of putting their country back together.
Ot is in the fray with bittersweet acid in his pen, and sharing headaches over how to keep the paper in the struggle — spirited, but not too often confiscated. (Apart from the problem that confiscated papers don’t get to the readers, two or three confiscations can cost the publisher more than the profits that might be made from a year’s uninterrupted operations!)
And when peace comes? Ot isn’t incurably hooked on journalism. “I wouldn’t even mind working in the civil service of a good government — if I could really be a help to the people that way.”
Copyright John Spragens, Jr.
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