Researcher Giang Quan, 84, has published eight books about Ha Noi. Phuong Linh talks with him about his work.
Giang Quan, whose real name is Nguyen Huu Thai, was born in Cam Giang Town, Hai Duong Province which is well known for its literary traditions. Although he is not from Ha Noi, he has spent over 30 years researching the city. His Stories of Ha Noi's Geography and Ha Noi's Street Dictionary are highly regarded in academic circles.
Inner sanctum: Why did you choose Giang Quan as your pen name?
My parents lost two children before having me so I was given the Buddhist name of Mong Ha (Dreamy River) following the Vietnamese belief that it would help my parents raise me more easily.
In 1943, I wrote my first poem and my girlfriend asked me to sign a pen name on it. I intended to use Mong Ha but she didn't like it. She said my given name sounded like a girl's name. I thought about the Giang River running through my hometown of Cam Giang in Hai Duong and decided my pen name should be Giang Quan – the man standing by a river. It somehow related to my given name and since 1944, it has been my official pen name.
I have many memories of the Red River since I arrived in Ha Noi and I think my life is very closely connected to rivers.
Inner sanctum: Why do you focus on researching Hanoians, especially the communication and lifestyle of Hanoians?
Ha Noi is a beautiful land with a wealth of material for researchers to discover. We unavoidably share some topics in our range of research. As for me, I focus on the communication and lifestyle of Hanoians. I believe that everyone has a role to play, no matter their circumstances. If Hanoians are not cultured, polite, and progressive, the city cannot be improved.
There is a considerable separation between some of the people who originate from Ha Noi and migrants from other provinces, but I do not agree with it. In my opinion, anyone who comes to the city to study, work and live is a Hanoian.
We cannot deny that a large number of migrants bring the bad habits of their roots to the city. They, as well as some people who are from Ha Noi, have to struggle to survive which is when the valuable lifestyle of a Hanoian starts to fade away. We should remember that "When in Rome, do as the Romans". The point is that they should try to become more polite and cultured in order to live up to the title of "elegant Hanoians". However, we shouldn't blame people for their shortcomings due to a few bad examples.
Inner sanctum: You often write about Ha Noi in general, but I know that you have written two books specifically about Kham Thien Street. Why?
Since I was a young man studying and working as a journalist in Ha Noi, I have lived on Kham Thien Street. For 61 years, I have watched it evolve from the streetlife under French colonials with its a dao singing (female vocalists), and when that art died, drug use and gambling. Then the street with its brave people, together with the entire country, fought for national independence and freedom during the French and American wars. Now it is one of the most crowed streets in the city. The street has a long history that cannot be told in a day. Vice versa, it has also seen the ups and downs of my life as a provincial student to a successful researcher.
I think I owe something to the street so I have written two books named Kham Thien – the face of life and Revolutionary road of Tho Quan Precinct [in Kham Thien Street].
Inner sanctum: Out of your 30 books on Ha Noi, which is your favourite?
My favourite is Ky Su Dia Chi Ha Noi (Stories of Ha Noi's Geography). This book includes 14 chapters which describe Ha Noi's 14 districts before 2008, when Ha Tay Province became a part of Ha Noi. Specifically, the book features the people, traditional customs and handicraft villages of the city.
This was my most time-consuming book. I started it eight years ago. I had to keep revising the book as new districts were created such as Tay Ho, Hoang Mai and Long Bien. Finally in early 2010, the book was published. Now I am trying to complete an updated version that includes the city's 15 new districts, created after the inclusion of Ha Tay. I hope my book will contribute something to the history of Ha Noi's geography along with other authors.
Inner sanctum: What have you gained from your research?
Researching Ha Noi for the past 30 years has been the most wonderful job I've ever had. It has given me invaluable life experience and I've learnt how to act like a true Hanoian. Many people don't know that I'm not from Ha Noi because I've adopted the Hanoian lifestyle in the way I think, walk, eat and the way I behave.
Through my research, I have also become more patient, careful, responsible and meticulous.
Inner sanctum: How much time do you spend working each day?
I am 84 years old so I can't work as hard as I used to. However, saying that, I try to work for four hours per day. Everyday, I wake up very early and work from 4am till 8am. At this time the city is sleeping and everything is silent. I am at my most fresh and productive in those hours. It allows me to work more efficiently and quickly.
Inner sanctum: In Viet Nam, researchers are not often very wealthy. Do you have any other sources of income to sustain your daily life?
Of course. Though I concentrate on my research, I still have to ensure an income for my family. I make money from writing poems and scripts. In festival season, local authorities often ask me to write scripts and some travel agents also hire me to write tour guides. In general, my workload is big but I think it provides for my family. — VNS