Wong How Man
Hong Kong

Ho rendering his calligraphy in Guilin.Exactly 80 years ago, right before Chinese New Year, Ho Chi Minh was released from Hong Kong’s prison. Dressed up as a wealthy Chinese merchant and taken out to sea by the Governor’s private launch, he boarded a ship, entered First Class cabin and set sail for Amoy, today’s Xiamen. Ho had just finished a twenty month prison term at Victoria Prison, acquitted through the effort of a dedicated English lawyer, and was on his way to freedom. He spent the lunar New Year of 1933 in Amoy. Why the special treatment?

Ho was detained in the British colony by request of the French colonialist authorities in Vietnam. However through a long court proceeding, he was finally freed and let go into China, spoiling the intrigues of the French. Britain had in the past given shelter to foreign revolutionaries, as long as the person in question had not stirred up trouble within her own territories. She had given refuge to Karl Marx, to members of the failed Paris Commune, to Lenin’s party from Russia, even allowing them to hold a congress, and now to Ho Chi Minh. Such reasoning was cited in Ho’s own words of gratitude in his self-composed purported biography.

Ho Chi Minh, less known by his Vietnamese pen-name Nguyen Ai Quoc, and many other aliases when he was a young revolutionary. By whatever name, he had an interesting web of connections to China, including close ties to many within the Chinese communist leadership. After the China-Vietnam relationship went sour in the late 1970s, there were good reasons why his native country did not want to highlight Ho’s long and extensive ties to China, nor the many poems he wrote in Chinese during his jail terms. He was first jailed in Hong Kong between 1931 and 1933 for eighteen months, then again later between 1942 and 1943 for thirteen months in various prisons in Guangxi Province under the nationalist regime of the Kuomingtang.

Ho Chi Minh with Zhou Enlai, General He Long, and Foreign Minister Qiao Guanhua.Ho with Chairman Mao and Peng Zhen.

My own interest in Ho Chi Minh started during the Vietnam-American War when I was a student in the U.S., observing anti-war protests and demonstrations at campuses throughout the country. Later, during my years with the National Geographic, 

Recently, I led a CERS expedition through the border region between China and Vietnam and visited a museum dedicated to Ho Chi Minh in Longzhou township of Guangxi Province. There, we saw the house he had lived, organized his comrades within the early Vietnamese Communist Party, his study where he scripted letters and documents, and saw relics including his pen, his mug and his chamber pot. There on exhibit were also many early pictures of Ho Chi Minh in China.the liaison person assigned by the Chinese government to assist me, Mr Wu Tianfu, had told me of his many contacts with Ho Chi Minh, meeting him when the then President of Vietnam used to visit China yearly. His pictures with Ho rekindled my interest. In fact Wu, who became a close friend, not only accompanied Ho Chi Minh on his travels, but also escorted Che Guevara on his visit to China in 1960. I was fortunate to hear some untold stories of those secretive years.

When detained and sent to Hong Kong’s Victoria prison, Ho Chi Minh was known by the Chinese name of Sung Man Cho, an alias he used for extended periods of time while operating in China. He must have honed his Chinese, in particular Cantonese, during his time in prison, and left 133 poems written in that language. I will attempt to recount and interpret some of his poems written when he was interned at several prisons in Guangxi China, which I do not think have been translated well before.

Witty and eloquent, many terms he used in his poems came right out of Cantonese rather than from the Mandarin spoken in the north. For example, giving one poem the title “Prison guard stole my See Dick” in reference to a walking cane, he borrowed the term from commonly used Cantonese. In two other poems, he refers to himself as “Lo Fu”, yet another Cantonese colloquial term, often used in Cantonese operas.

Ho with General Zhu De at Ye’an.Ho with General Ye Jianying.

To “Lie”, with the meaning of being captured, is another Cantonese term used in his poem on Gambling. It is also interesting to note his humor in this poem, comparing gambling outside of jail being illegal to it being allowed and common place within prison. He described prisoners lamenting that they did not enter prison earlier so as to play the game in peace. Calling a prison cell “Lung”, and using “Yao See” to mean “sometimes”, were also very much the Cantonese style of those days.

Ho’s calligraphy of poem.

Even before the Vietnamese communists were organized as a formidable force, Ho’a poems already gave indication of a future militant, as he compared prison bed bugs to tanks and mosquitoes to a squadron of planes. In another poem, after having read the anthology of a thousand famous Chinese poets, he reflected that in contemporary times, even scholars should learn to charge on the battlefield.

Bored as he was during his long jail term, he took up Chinese chess. In a poem, Ho compared the game to a battle with a thousand soldiers and ten thousand horses. In that poem, he presciently took note that given the right opportunity and fast action, a small move by a tiny figure can change the entire game and defeat those with multiple armored chariots. His last verse of this poem noted that though both sides started as equals, only one side would prevail at the end, and the victory belongs to the bravest general.

Romantic satire was also of note in his poem. In one case, he mentioned old inmates welcoming new inmates, just like fair clouds chasing rain clouds in the sky. He was also very observant while in prison and interpreted some mundane situations into philosophy. In one poem “Midnight” probably written while awake in the middle of the night, he mentioned how everyone asleep looked peaceful and kind. The difference between good and bad persons can only be discerned when people are awake.

His outstanding knowledge of the Chinese classics gives us a hint of his scholarly pursuits. One poem referred to Chinese history, when a prisoner of Qi Kingdom would not eat the Zhou Kingdom’s corn and thus died hungry at Mount Shouyang. He compared that to his days when a gambler would not eat the congee of the government and thus starved to death. In another poem titled “Qing Ming”, he reproduced one and a half verses of a famous Tang poem, while substituting the people in jail as the personalities. It recounts how during the festival, people visited their ancestral graves. In another poem an old court official was referred to as “Gong Hing”, a phrase again only used by highly literate Chinese.

Ho’s literary pendulum swings from a mastery of Chinese classics to his command of street talk and mundane observations. Though his collection of Chinese poems are little known to either Chinese or Vietnamese, they form an important study of Ho Chi Minh’s early years when he developed his intellectual, literary and subsequently revolutionary mind. His two prison terms, both in confinement with Chinese inmates, must have allowed him much focused time to learn the 

Chinese language and learn about things Chinese. Nonetheless, his command of written Chinese makes me suspect that he may have had some form of study in Confucian schools in Vietnam, which in his days were some of the best schools besides colonial institutions.

Ho’s scripted letter to Chairman Mao in Chinese.

Many of his poems during that period of incarceration lamented about his hope of regaining freedom. When he was free in between the two jail terms, Ho Chi Minh visited Yan’an, wartime Capital of the Red Army. There he met with Zhou En-lai and Deng Xiaoping, old acquaintances from his early Paris days.

Later he traveled in disguise as an attending soldier to Lin Biao and went south where he served as cultural and propaganda officer within the Eighth Route Army of the Chinese communist. A little later, he joined General Ye Jianying’s New Fourth Army and was elected general secretary of his Party cell. There is no question that he held these relationships to the Chinese communists dearly and gained much important experience as part of his developing years as a revolutionary, not least in how to fight guerilla warfare. His many visits to China in the 1950s and 60s are testimony to this close relationship.

It is also quite natural for Ho, like Mao and Castro, that upon success of the revolution, each of these revolutionary leaders’ native countries would turn with the tide. Hailed for their success, each respective country and its people would gradually turn from being internationalists to becoming nationalists. Perhaps as a result, Ho Chi Minh’s connections to China, and his eloquence in Chinese, are largely forgotten today, by design rather than by chance.