Captain of the 'ship with paper sails' sails into the great beyond

April 25, 2022 - 13:23

We basked in his presence.   I think everyone who knew Khuyến and/or worked with him will understand what I mean.


A portrait of  Mr. Nguyễn Công Khuyến, the founding father, former Editor-in-Chief of the Việt Nam News by Nguyễn Tiến Lễ, former deputy Editor-in-Chief of Việt Nam News. 

by Hari Chathrattil*

We basked in his presence.  

I think everyone who knew Khuyến and/or worked with him will understand what I mean.

Meeting Khuyến was certainly the most important turning point in my life.  I have described the meeting in the last chapter of the first edition of his book, A Ship With Paper Sails, but some of its salient features bear mentioning again.

It happened not long after Việt Nam News was launched. The newsroom did not have a single computer and this was mid-1994 or so. Senior staff came to the office on rickety bicycles. Stories were not typed, but written (and edited) by hand. An old, portly unkempt gentleman whose belly button always showed because the belly had outgrown his shirt long ago stepped in to proofread the paper early afternoon and a quietly dapper old gentleman with an immaculately placed fedora came in later to draw the dummy or mock-up of the paper using extraordinarily long rulers I had only associated with architects and engineers. The proofreader was proficient in French and English and his unassuming facade belied an encyclopedic knowledge of geography, politics and other subjects. The dummy man was a study in efficient motion. He walked in, smiled widely and politely at anyone who met his eye, hung his fedora on the stand, rolled up his sleeves and got to work.

Utterly charmed by the old world charm of the office and by Khuyến’s disarming nature, I began to hang out regularly at the newsroom as a volunteer. It became my favourite place to be, because Khuyến had the uncanny ability to enthuse everyone with his vision and verve without trying. It was obvious Việt Nam News was not going to be a four-page “rag” for long. Bright young graduates, now seasoned hands at the paper, were hired to generate more copy for an expanded version. Those were very exciting times and at the heart of all it was a really cool, classy dude – smiling and stern by turns, affable mostly but brusque when needed, studiously leafing through the most humongous dictionary I’ve seen to date, almost absent-mindedly picking up a guitar and playing a few notes and given to making unexpectedly generous gestures that showed he really cared for his people.

Khuyến’s ability to spot people’s abilities and instil confidence in them to build on it by giving them responsibilities and a free hand to fulfil them was a fascinating managerial talent to watch in action. Two prime examples are Robert Bicknell and yours truly. Bicknell was a proofreader who quickly became a golf columnist who regaled thousands of readers every week for decades with witty commentaries that they looked forward to. The column ran till Bicknell succumbed to cancer a few years ago.

Khuyến first surprised me one day by stopping briefly, just seconds, at my desk and saying: “Hari, big hole on page 5. Fill it. You have an hour.” I did. Without realising it, I had become a sort of go to man at the last minute, his confidence being the only motivation and muse needed. I ended up taking over the humor column, “Dragon Tales,” from Terry Hartney, and the regular editor of “Know Your Vietnam” – a column on Hà Nội’s streets that former managing editor Bình (another cancer victim) penned, blending history with contemporary anecdotes.

Every person that came into contact with Khuyến at work will have many stories of his or her own to narrate. I know I have enough to write a book.

Khuyến inspired loyalty and was fiercely loyal in return, but there was no drama to it. His courage and determination was phenomenal and inspirational in the same manner. No fuss. The way he battled Parkinson’s, never letting it get the better of him had to be seen to be believed.

Khuyến has left us, but the Việt Nam News family will continue to bask in his presence.

*Hari Chathrattil is a former copy-editor at Việt Nam News