The anecdotes Than related to me over the following week, snippets of information shared over the breakfast table, were often related with guffaws of laughter, as if he was telling me his favourite jokes.
Possibly it was a precaution. The walls might have long ears. The state was never far away. But possibly it was also a form of emotional defence. He had triumphed over formidable odds. He was a survivor – and there was a price to be paid for that.
‘When I was a boy, the French were in charge. I worked with my father, he sold and repaired bicycles and scooters. The scooters were Italian, but some Japanese motor bikes were appearing.’
Than had happy memories of his childhood.
‘Sure, we knew there was trouble. Out in the countryside, where the villagers lived, it was dangerous especially at nights. But we never went out there. We lived in Saigon. Why would we go to the countryside? To look at stupid rice paddies!’
My mental image of Saigon during the war was influenced by the reports from war correspondents who were competing with one another in the business of gross exaggeration. As my discussions with Than brought home to me, Saigon was by and large a remarkably well run, attractive and quiet city until the very last days of the American occupation in 1975.
It was a subject that he felt free to enlarge upon:
´Saigon was a beautiful city. No one was happy with the French you know, but they knew how to build cities and how to build houses. Saigon was well planned, with big wide boulevards with trees, there were parks and bridges….it was full of life because the South Vietnamese are more entrepreneurial than the Northerners….there were lots of shops and workshops and people selling all sorts of stuff on the big wide sidewalks….’
The war years were the best years of Than´s life. So many others suffered – and died – during the war, but for him it had been a time of limitless opportunities.
It´s rotten how Saigon is it now….too many people…all those farmers coming to the city….and too many motor bikes….´
It was an interesting irony: he of all people complaining about the motor bikes.
‘From the French we young people we learned to play football. We didn’t care about politics. We played it at school and on the streets, anywhere we could. We didn’t have a real football, it was a sphere made of woven bamboo strips. Later, we got a plastic ball….
With the Americans came money, more money than anyone could have imagined! My father´s business grew like new rice, we started selling a lot of Honda motor bikes. No one wanted to buy bicycles anymore…’
‘We were so busy. We had a lot of people working for us. My father became a rich man. It was then that he bought this place and our family moved here. I got married. My wife was working in the business, handling the accounts. She was real smart. My younger brothers, they got jobs working as mechanics for the Americans, helping to fix up trucks and jeeps. They started speaking good English and I picked up my English from them. Also, we started getting American customers too, they bought the bigger models of the Honda motor bikes….they´re a collectors items now….Honda were making some beautiful motor bikes then. …´
But his real passion though was football, not motor bikes.
´I’ll never forget the first time I bought a real football from the local Chinese shop. I was so happy! My brothers and friends and I….we played games out there in the street! I bought a radio and my brothers and my friends and I followed the games in Europe. South Vietnam had its own team then, most of the players came from Saigon, and it wasn’t a bad team either! They played against the teams from other Asian nations, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan…..they didn’t win anything but they did o.k., they didn’t get badly defeated or anything like that…there was some good players!…it was so exciting, we had the radio on in our shop real loud. Everyone followed the games! Even the people selling stuff on the sidewalks!’
The war years was a dream come true for Than; he was the eldest son of a rich man and in line to taking over a thriving business; he had a beautiful wife and two children and a motor bike and a radio and a real football. The last thing he wanted or expected was a communist victory. There were many others like him in Saigon; people who had done well out of the American presence.
They had all assumed that the Americans would always be there.
In 1975, as the North Vietnamese army mounted a major offensive on the South, the Americans decided that enough was enough and left. It was a dramatic departure and for many of the residents in Saigon, a disaster.
The communist army marched into Saigon. People like Than – and his family – were open season. Thousands of shops and small businesses were closed down. Anyone who did anything for monetary gain was a capitalist. The communists believed that money was the source of all evil. The first thing they did after marching triumphantly into Saigon (renaming it Ho Chi Minh City, a name which no one in Saigon uses today) was to round up the traitors and send them to ‘re-education camps’, i.e. gulags.
During my attempts to dig into Than´s past and find a coherent narrative, one thing stood out: it was his ‘re-education’ that made a far deeper impression on him than the war.
It was then that the suffering began.
What happened to him in that gulag?
I knew something about that from the books I had read. Starvation, beatings, long days of crushing work, sparse food, and at nights, being drilled with communist party propaganda. You didn’t fall asleep if you wanted to avoid a hiding.
This was what he told me: ‘Four years’. ‘Very hard’. ‘Many people died’. ‘Lots of insects, rats.’
‘Couldn’t speak English’.
‘When I finished my ‘education’, I left the camp. Our family was split up and we were all in different camps. When I came out….only a brother and sister were still alive…and my wife and children…’
He joked: ‘It wasn’t much better outside than inside! It was like everyone was in one big camp…’
Indeed. Life in Vietnam during the late 1970’s until the mid-1990’s wasn’t exactly a bowl of cherries. Impoverished, it became dependent upon the Russians. In the meantime, there was widespread starvation.
‘Only the farmers had enough to eat. For the people in the city, it was hard just to get one square meal a day’.
These were the years when thousands of Vietnamese tried to escape the country on leaking fishing boats; when the term ‘boat people’ became a ubiquitous term all over the world.
‘Boat People’ arriving in the waters of the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north of Australia.
When he was released from the re-education camp, Than had to begin a new life. The family home had been requisitioned and given to a North Vietnamese officer and his family.
‘There wasn’t much traffic on the streets then. The motor bikes and cars were the same ones from the American time. Mechanics were in big demand. Many of our competitors from the old days…they were dead!
He and his wife and children began fixing Russian vehicles as well as old motor bikes.
‘Most of the people were back on bikes. Petrol was scarce. No one had any money. It was mostly party members who had cars and motor bikes. We began working on the party vehicles….. working for the same people who sent us to the re-education camp! Ha! Ha!…’Lots of Russian stuff then, Russian motor bikes, trucks and autos …they were shit!’
‘No one could speak English. It was the language of the Americans. If you were overheard speaking English or seen reading an English language book, you were in big trouble….the kids were learning Russian then, but no one liked the Russians.’
Just as dangerous as speaking English was to show any interest in football.
For the hard line communists, football was bad: a bourgeois titillation and a hangover from the French colonialists. It was another evil Saigon habit which had to be eradicated.
Between 1975 and 1995 – 20 long years, no football was allowed.
There were no south Vietnamese teams.
‘I listened to my radio at nights in the room I shared with my wife and children. We had to keep that radio turned down real low’ he chuckled, ‘I wasn’t a spy! I didn’t care about that kind of shit! All I wanted to do was follow a game!’
Since the late ’90’s he said, things had got steadily better. The hard line Marxists had been replaced by pragmatists. It was OK to be a capitalist and: to play football, to watch football, to spend your life utterly addicted to the game. There was no democracy. No freedom. But life is always relative. In comparison with the past, the present was a giant step forwards.
Than got rich. He, his wife and siblings were in an ideal position to exploit the pent up demand for motor bikes, which exploded once the nation jettisoned its idiotic anti-capitalist theology.
Than became a Honda tycoon: he the man who hated what Saigon had become. His wife died. His brother died. He and his surviving sister sold the business. And so here he was, Than the survivor, revered by his children and grand children like a paternal Buddha, addicted to the game almost as if it was a kind of opium.
Making up for lost time.
He knew an awful lot; every team in just about every country in Europe and South America. He was a fanatic. Naturally, when it came to football there were plenty of them around. His obsession though, was more than the obsession of a sports nut. In the ‘re-education camp’ and the years afterwards, that interminable ice age, dreaming about football became a means of survival.
Waiting, waiting, hoping….for the day when he could lose himself in The Game.
My last image of Than was a peculiar one involving an TV advertisement for a sports magazine, which I saw on Dutch TV. It was in the days when football fans read football magazines – rather than subscribe to a web site – and when now and then, advertising agencies actually made an attempt to think up something clever. These days they don´t bother; TV advertisements are universally mindless, their aim being to lodge in people’s brains by sheer repetition.
In this advertisement – shot in black and white – an old man walks down the dimly lit passage of a doss house.
Slowly, step for step.
The sound of his boots, creaking over wooden floor boards, echoes in the silence.
Not a single word is spoken during the advertisement.
There is a close-up of a grizzled, whiskery, deeply lined face. The old man is wearing an long sleeved shirt and a pair of faded trousers with suspender belts strung over his shirt.
He opens the door to his room, takes off his boots, lies down on a stretcher bed. On the floor near the bed is a copy of the football magazine being promoted.
The room is empty. There are no cupboards, no drawers, no mirror and nothing hanging on the walls. This is a down and out place and this is a man at the end of his tether.
Down on his luck.
He pulls the blanket over him and falls asleep and experiences a vivid dream.
We see a scene of a young man dressed in T shirt and shorts running on to a football field, with the crowd cheering. The sound of the cheering gets louder and louder as he approaches a football on the grass in the middle of the oval.
At the same time, the legs of the old man change, poke out from under the blanket: his feet are in sports shoes and his muscular legs clad in coloured socks up the knees.
The camera moves back to the front page of the football paper lying the floor near the bed and focuses on the name of the magazine, which fills the screen – along with the words;
‘Live the game!’