Q&A: Anthropologist Erik Harms on ‘luxury and rubble' in today’s Saigon

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Phú Mỹ Hưng, a commercial and residential development in Ho Chi Minh City, provides a home for members of Vietnam's rising upper-middle class.

“Luxury and Rubble,” a new book by Yale anthropologist Erik Harms, tells the tale of two urban developments in Ho Chi Minh City, the Vietnamese city formerly called Saigon.

Phú Mỹ Hưng, a luxurious commercial and residential development, provides a home to members of Vietnam’s rising upper middle class. Thủ Thiêm, a similar development under construction in a nearby district, required the mandatory eviction of 14,600 households.

Harms conducted intensive ethnographic research with residents of the existing luxury development, where he lived for nine months, and also with those being displaced. His book draws contrasts and connections between the two. It shows the human costs of master-planned urban development while exploring the effects of privatization in a socialist country.

“Luxury and Rubble: Civility and Dispossession in the New Saigon” is published by the University of California Press. It is also available to anyone as a free e-book, thanks in part to the support of Yale’s Department of Anthropology, Council of Southeast Asian Studies, Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Areas Studies, and Frederick W. Hilles Publica­tion Fund.

Harms, an associate professor of anthropology and Southeast Asian studies, spoke to YaleNews about the project. An edited version of the conversation follows.

What drew you this project?

During the socialist period in post-war Vietnamese society, private property was abolished and all land was socialized. But starting with a 1992 land law, the Vietnamese government began introducing what are called land-use rights. This eventually created a massive real estate market, which led to a lot of excitement among everyday Vietnamese, particularly in Ho Chi Minh City and other big cities. It also led to rapid increases in land appropriation and dispossession. I became fascinated with how to tell a story that might convey both the excitement and enthusiasm people have for the massive new urban developments that were transforming Vietnam into a “post-socialist” society, while at the same time paying careful attention to the acts of dispossession and disenfranchisement that often accompany building these developments.

How did you approach your fieldwork and research?

My fieldwork was based in the two developments. I rented an apartment with my family in the existing commercial and residential development, Phú Mỹ Hưng (roughly pronounced Foo Mee Hoong). We lived there for five months as a family. I spent another four months living there on my own, doing daily interviews with people who lived in this new upper-middle class residential district. At the same time, I would ride a motorbike each day with my Vietnamese research colleagues over to the second development, Thủ Thiêm (roughly Too Tee-um), where we interviewed people who were struggling against the mass evictions that were destroying their neighborhoods and forcing them out of their homes. This research method gave me a window into both worlds, what I call the “luxury” and the “rubble” of modern real estate driven urban development.

Erik Harms’ book looks at the changing face of Vietnam’s largest city.
I would have liked to live in the zone of eviction, but it wasn’t feasible as a researcher to live in a place that the city authorities were trying to clear. Everyday, at about 5 a.m., I would go into that district with my research colleagues, and we would initially just sort of hangout in the cafes and amid the rubble. Then we’d start walking around, and people would invite us into their homes or businesses and start sharing their stories. This snowballed into an extensive corpus of ethnographic interviews.

I had expected the research in the zone of eviction to be the most politically contentious, but in some ways it was the easiest part of the research because the people there wanted to talk about their houses being demolished and their disagreements with the compensation authorities over how much they would receive in return for their lost homes. By contrast, in Phú Mỹ Hưng, research was slower going; there I encountered more professionals whose lifestyles were a little more private. It made it challenging to cultivate the relationships needed to conduct classic ethnographic-style research. But ethnography requires persistence and time, and by conducting full-time research over all these months I was able to interview 148 informants in Thủ Thiêm and 187 informants in Phú Mỹ Hưng. Of those, 122 interviews were in-depth ethnographic interviews that provided a nuanced and multifaceted perspective on how different Ho Chi Minh City residents experienced the changes engulfing their city.

How did your perceptions of the situation change as you conducted your fieldwork?

I had many expectations going in, not all of which turned out to be true once I actually began conducting ethnographic research. That’s why we do ethnography, after all — to challenge our assumptions! The first thing I realized in the research is that the literature on master-planned urban developments around the world tends to focus too much, and in my mind slightly superficially, on the alienation that people experience. Many scholars assume that these developments will be necessarily sterile and devoid of sociality. They are viewed as foreign impositions on the local landscape. Of course, there are aspects of this that are true. Master-planned urban developments are more privatized. People’s lifestyles have turned inward in a way because there is more of separation between work and home that leads to new livelihoods and lifestyles. But I was totally surprised once I started to get to know people in Phú Mỹ Hưng. They were completely excited about living there. There was no sense of this alienation or loneliness. They had extensive networks of friends. Once you got to know people, this whole social world opened up within the new urban development that I had not expected to see because of the assumptions in the academic literature.

The second surprising thing about Phú Mỹ Hưng is that, although it is often styled as a symbol of privatization in a late socialist society, residents there constantly evoked what they saw as an emergent sense of collectivity. For residents, the private was not the opposite of the collective. Rather, they felt that their new sense of private rights fostered a renewed sense of obligation to others and a renewed ethic of civic engagement. This rise of rights, in surprising ways, is unwittingly tied in with the reemergence of property rights in post-socialist Vietnam.

Meanwhile, residents in Thủ Thiêm, who are being stripped of house and home, are also mobilizing this language of property rights, which becomes conflated with rights more broadly construed. Although the “luxury and rubble” of my book’s title implies binary opposites, I also show that the emerging consciousness of rights and property is a thread that runs through the story both of the rise of urban civility and collective consciousness in Phú Mỹ Hưng and the story of mass dispossession in Thủ Thiêm.  

How do the residents of the existing development view the rights of those being evicted in Thủ Thiêm?

During their daily lives, it never occurred to residents of the luxurious housing developments in Phú Mỹ Hưng to imagine the plight of people being evicted from the other development in Thủ Thiêm. It wasn’t that they weren’t capable of empathy, but that the plight of others didn’t enter their daily consciousness. One of the tasks of the book is to show that the two developments are connected. In some ways, it’s like when you’re living in New Haven and teaching at or attending Yale. You’re often worried about internal concerns to Yale, but you’re not immediately thinking about the structural imbalances of Yale-New Haven relations. Nevertheless, they exist. I’m trying to show that there are similar connections linking the residents of Phú Mỹ Hưng and Thủ Thiêm, despite the way they are often rendered invisible by the spatial divisions of the city.

How did the residents of Thủ Thiêm view urban development in general?

I would talk to people who, on one hand, were extremely enthusiastic about the modernization of Saigon and urban development projects in general as a symbol of post-war regeneration. At the same time, they were facing eviction for the sake of pursuing these kinds of projects. That forced me to be a lot more complicated about the way I understood eviction or the resistance to it. There was no sense in my research that people were opposed to the idea of development or master planning in a general way. It’s not what people were worried about. They were worried about their own loss in the process of creating that modern development — of being excluded from the modernization process, rather than the process of modernization itself.

What would you like readers to be thinking about after they finish the book?

It depends who they are. For the people in the rubble, I want them to know that their stories are being heard in other parts of the world — that people are paying attention. They often told me that they wanted people to know what was happening. I want the elite in Vietnamese society to recognize that their aspirations for modernization and development, and what they call “civility,” are often founded on the deep sacrifices of their own countrymen. At the same time, I don’t want readers to develop a one-dimensional caricature of Vietnamese elites as inherently evil or self-interested. Many people in Saigon are dedicated to building an inclusive civil space that they believe is disappearing from Vietnamese society. What I tried to construct is a conversation between these two places. I truly believe the elites living in these luxurious master-planned developments, at the core of their developing ideas about urban consciousness and collectivity, will be sympathetic to the plight of those being evicted once they become aware of the connections between them.

I’m eager for the scholarly community to move beyond the knee-jerk critique of master-planned development and develop a more nuanced understanding of why it has become such a common model of development around the world. The critique of master planning has been very important, but I think we need to get to a stage where we start understanding why people are attracted to these master-planned developments. The first-level critique, which focused on foreign projects imposed on societies around the world, was useful to a point. Now, however, we need to pause and try to figure out why these developments are so popular. They are appearing all over the place in China, India, and Southeast Asia. If all we do is call them foreign impositions and leave it at that, then we’re not getting very far at understanding what they’re appealing to. Once we can take their appeal seriously, then we can have a dialogue about having more sustainable and inclusive forms of development.

Erik Harms

What did the people you met in Saigon find appealing about these developments?

I think they find them appealing because the form of governance in Vietnam has not been inclusive. It’s not a democracy. Critical perspectives that argue that corporate urbanism is anti-democratic might be true in an American context, such as a gated community run by a homeowners association that trumps the democratically elected officials of a city. In Vietnam, people don’t give a whole lot of credence to the democratic capacity of municipal governance anyhow. Thus, in their political context, they tend to see these corporate developments as a democratic alternative to existing governance. They’re disillusioned by the state so they prefer these developments where they can, in a sense, vote with their feet: If they don’t like the development, they can move to another one.

Can you talk a little about the open-access aspect of the project?

I was excited when the University of California Press offered the opportunity to make the book open access. There are challenges involved. By making it open access, an author renounces any rights to royalties, but I didn’t get into this profession for business reasons. It’s not a business. Being a university professor is about education and scholarship. I want my book to be available to anyone who wants to read it.

I’m in a fortunate position to be able to do this because Yale supported the project through the Department of Anthropology, the Council of Southeast Asian Studies, and the MacMillan Center, as well as the Hilles Fund, which helped finance the production costs. That support made the project possible, and it is a recognition of the changing landscape of how academic labor works. 

Academic research isn’t always driven by market imperatives. To make knowledge available, a range of new creative means are being developed to pay for the labor of the scholar and the costs of production. Yale pays me a salary as a professor, so there is no need for me to demand royalties for my book. But professional editors also need to be paid, as does everyone else involved in the production of a book, so there a real cost involved.

These new open-access models being developed by academic publishers are an attempt to recognize, and pay for, those costs up front. It’s an experiment. We’ll see how it goes, but I’m happy to know that anyone can read the book for free at the same time that the people involved in its production were paid fair living wages.

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