Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Research Article

The curious memoirs of the Vietnamese composer Phạm Duy

John C. Schafer


This article reviews the memoirs of Phạm Duy, a famous Vietnamese composer, who in the late 1930s and 1940s composed some of the first modern Vietnamese songs. His memoirs describe his time with the anti-French Resistance, his break with it in 1950, and his years in Saigon and the United States. My review focuses on curious aspects of these memoirs: Phạm Duy's careful listing of his many love affairs; his insistence that he needed lovers to compose songs; and his failure to acknowledge that he profited from a culture that glorifies the self-sacrifice of women. After considering whether Phạm Duy's behaviour as depicted in his memoirs conforms to cultural norms for Vietnamese male artists, I argue that it is best seen as, in Judith Butler's expression, a ‘hyperbolic exhibition’ of the natural. I conclude by speculating about how Phạm Duy and his memoirs may be viewed in future years.

John C. Schafer is a Professor of English (Emeritus) at Humboldt State University, Arcata, California, USA. Correspondence in connection with this paper should be addressed to: I would like to thank Eric Henry, the translator of Phạm Duy's memoirs, for allowing me to quote from a pre-publication draft of his translation. I would also like to thank Jason Gibbs and the anonymous reviewers for JSEAS for their constructive criticism. All mistakes, of course, are my responsibility.