New book sheds lights on last Vietnamese Queen

November 05, 2023 - 09:43
The book, published by the Hồ Chí Minh City General Publishing House, introduces readers to the translations of 87 letters handwritten in French.
The book 'Hoàng Hậu Nam Phương Qua Một Số Tư Liệu Chưa Công Bố' (Queen Nam Phương through Unpublished Documents) is pictured with the original letters of the queen to her husband, Emperor Bảo Đại. Photo courtesy of HCM City General Publishing House

By Lương Thu Hương

The wish to clarify misperceptions about the last empress consort of Việt Nam, Queen Nam Phương (1913-1963) has inspired author Phạm Hy Tùng to write the book Hoàng Hậu Nam Phương Qua Một Số Tư Liệu Chưa Công Bố (Queen Nam Phương through Unpublished Documents).

The book, published by the Hồ Chí Minh City General Publishing House, introduces readers to the translations of 87 letters handwritten in French.

They include 74 letters from Queen Nam Phương, six from Madame Charles, the foster mother of Emperor Bảo Đại (1913-1997), three from Madame Agnès, the Queen's sister, along with five letters written in Vietnamese. All of them were sent to Emperor Bảo Đại between 1946 and 1954.

According to the author, who is also an antique collector, he was fortunate to obtain over 100 handwritten letters sent to former Emperor Bảo Đại while collecting documents related to the two Indochina wars.

The book also introduces documents, reports, and over 100 photographs documenting the activities and life of the last king in Việt Nam. The writer provides an overview of the historical context surrounding the creation of the letters.

Queen Nam Phương and Emperor Bảo Đại were married in 1934 and had five children. He abdicated in 1945 after the successful August 1945 Revolution against the French and Japanese, and then was invited to be the Supreme Advisor to the Provisional Government of the Democratic Republic of Việt Nam (DRV) under President Hồ Chí Minh.

In March 1946, the former king Bảo Đại, born Nguyễn Vinh Thụy, joined a DRV delegation on a working trip to Chongqing, China. However, instead of returning home after the mission, he went into exile. In 1949, Bảo Đại officially collaborated with the French and returned to Việt Nam and became Head of State of a puppet government set up by the French until he was overthrown in South Việt Nam in 1956.

Meanwhile, Queen Nam Phương stayed in Huế for some time before leaving Việt Nam to settle in France with her children in 1947.

Author-antique collector Phạm Hy Tùng. Photo courtesy of HCM City General Publishing House

“Over 10 years ago, after receiving and reading the complete translation of the letters, our initial impression was that there were quite a few books and articles written about Queen Nam Phương and former Emperor Bảo Đại from August 1946 to early 1954, containing inaccuracies or omitting significant content,” writes Tùng.

“For example, the specific timing of Bảo Đại’s move from China to Hong Kong? How did he secretly communicate with his wife and children who were living in Huế at that time? Where did he obtain the money to sustain himself during the over two years of living in Hong Kong and provide for his wife and children who had settled in France? ... Additionally, why did Nam Phương hold a suspicious lack of trust towards the contemporary authorities in France despite residing there?”

The letters published in the book revealed that Bảo Đại immediately contacted his relatives in France and Việt Nam upon arriving in Hong Kong. With the assistance of former Resident-Superior Le Fol, he completed the necessary administrative procedures. The Indochina Bank in France, which held a significant amount of his deposited funds, entrusted the Hong Kong branch to make payments to him.

Contrary to what many researchers believed, that the former emperor faced extreme poverty in exile, letters from Madame Charles to the former emperor showed that he was wealthy and owned valuable assets and cash.

For example, he owned a mansion at 13 Lambelle Avenue in Paris, purchased in 1939, and the Thorenc Castle in Cannes, which he acquired in 1934.

The letters also disclose that during her early time in France, the Queen received money from the former emperor, who was in exile in Hong Kong.

The letters from the queen, dated April 26 and November 30, 1950, affirm that Bảo Đại owned multiple properties in Cannes, Colombo, Nice, Côte d'Azur, and a residence in Morocco.

Queen Nam Phương (1913-1963). File Photo

After leaving Việt Nam, Queen Nam Phương took great care of her family. While she ensured her children enjoyed material comforts, she was strict when it came to their education, and held a deep respect for her husband.

This is evident in most of the letters, when she ended them with phrases like "Our family sends you many affectionate regards", or "I long to be reunited with you, filled with love."

In return, Bảo Đại also displayed immense love and care for his wife and children. Not only did he diligently participate in ancestral worship, visit and take care of his wife's parents' graves, but he also provided financial support and offered encouragement whenever Nam Phương requested it.

Some letters reveal her exact date of birth - November 17, 1913 – instead of 1914 as previously thought, and her meticulous preparations, from clothing, posture, spoken words when appearing before the media to uphold her reputation as a "model figure of the nation."

Readers not only see her love for her husband but also her intelligence and compassionate nature. In most of her letters, she reminded Bảo Đại to provide assistance to those in need, as well as to issue incentives that address the livelihoods, social security, and wellbeing of the impoverished, women, and children.

Additionally, they reveal Queen Nam Phương's love for her country, as well as her concern and perspective regarding the then situation of the nation.

"I feel distressed as I can't help but feel restless when thinking about our fellow countrymen living in a state of insecurity... You might even say that I am unwell. Perhaps that is the truth, and therefore, I prefer to remain silent rather than to lament, as it would only deepen the burdensome worries already weighing heavily in my heart. So please don't be surprised if occasionally I do not write to you. I wish to be like a wounded wild animal retreating to the depths of its den, silently enduring the pain alone," she wrote in a letter dated September 20, 1949.

The author hopes the book will give historians a chance to reassess certain perceptions about the royal couple.

“It aims to shed light on and clarify any misconceptions or negative assumptions that have been made about Queen Nam Phương in the past, thereby contributing a small part to illuminating the true character of this historical figure,” he says. VNS