Heritage Travel, Historic Preservation, Recommended Readings, Weekly Reader
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Understanding and honoring difficult history

History is always under construction. The facts that we know now may be accurate, but incomplete. As we learn more, the way we tell the stories of our history and the way we preserve the physical reminders of the past changes. Our memories are shaped by forces outside ourselves which are often not acknowledged.

Haunting pictures from the War Remnant Museum in Ho Chi Minh City

That is especially true in a place like Southeast Asia, where America’s recent history is confusing, contradictory, evolving, and always ― it seems ― up for interpretation. MacArthur fellowship recipient and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, who was born in Vietnam and raised in America, speaks to this tension in his book Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War.

Nguyen notes that he counts himself among those Americans “who often do not know what to make of Vietnam and want to know what to make of it.” Confusing the country of Vietnam with the war, he suggests, adds to our uncertainty; in his own case about “what it means to be a man with two countries, as well as the inheritor of two revolutions.” Nguyen calls on us to work toward the creation of just and ethical memories by remembering others as well as our own people.

The issues facing the preservation of historic places and how we maintain and share collective memories from our past have constantly changed in what is rapidly approaching 50 years for me in the field of historic preservation. In a talk on our National Trust Tour of the Mekong River and in visits to several sites where we confronted very difficult history, I asked our fellow travelers to join me in considering how those changing perceptions affect the work to preserve our history in the U.S., and how these issues play out in places like Vietnam and Cambodia.

Tour of the Cu Chi tunnels, where Viet Cong soldiers lived underground to escape detection by the South Vietnamese and their American allies

When there are disputes about history, we often find that it occurs at places where the meaning and memories bring forward powerful emotions. Places where the underlying causes are either unclear or not recognized by some groups because to do so requires deeper introspection and changes in perspective than they are willing to undertake. Disputed or difficult histories can be tied to places of destruction, enslavement, exploitation, death, and remembrance even when that’s not the prevailing narrative being told or interpreted at those places in this moment.

Confronting difficult histories pushes us to think beyond simple frames and established timelines. Viet Thanh Nguyen confronts one challenge of naming the war in Southeast Asia by suggesting that it encourages selective memory as we remember the violence that spread beyond Vietnam’s borders; a violence which was administered not only by the Americans and their allies but also by the Vietnamese people against each other and to Cambodia and Laos, and which led to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia from 1975-1979 after the “Vietnam War” was “officially” over.

We saw several places on this tour where the history is difficult and can sometimes be in dispute.

It was a challenge for some to visit the Cu Chi tunnels outside Ho Chi Minh City, where many of those who fought against the South Vietnamese and their American allies lived in an extensive network of underground tunnels. The traps along with the crude tools used to injure, capture, or kill Allied troops were on full display. Our local guide did a good job of explaining the Vietnamese desire for independence, whether it be from the Chinese, the French, or the Americans.

Demonstration of one type of trap at the Cu Chi Tunnels
Extent of the tunnel network at Cu Chi in Vietnam

Some of our group recognized that there would be different interpretations of the Cu Chi tunnels. Fewer may have considered the disputed history of Saigon’s Notre Dame Cathedral.

The cathedral, built between 1877 and 1880 in the Romanesque style, was strategically placed to serve as a center of French power in Vietnam. The French came to Indochina to expand their territory, build wealth, and spread Catholicism into a country where Buddhism was the predominant religion. As Catholicism was introduced, a number Buddhist practitioners converted to the new (for the Vietnamese) religion, leading to natural conflicts. Catholic missionaries and priests were seen by many natives as abusing their power to destroy Buddhist temples and replace Buddhist symbols with Catholic ones.

Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon

The Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, for instance, was constructed on top of a Buddhist temple. Natives, Buddhists, and others see the perspective that religion was used as a colonial device and a social status symbol. For many French and Catholics, they see the perspective that the Roman Catholic Church used colonialism as an avenue through which Catholicism could thrive, and that the beauty of European architecture could spread to Southeast Asia.

Difficult and disputed history comes from varied perspectives and memories. Perspective is a point of view…not the whole view, and as the American poet Marie Howe notes, “Memory is a poet, not a historian.”

View of the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh
A former high school turned into the infamous S-21 torture center by the Khmer Rouge

When we entered Cambodia, the National Trust ensured that our group visited two of the places in that country with the most difficult of histories: the infamous S-21 torture center and the killing fields used by the Khmer Rouge. The fact that these atrocities are internationally known does not make the preservation and interpretation any easier.

Gallows used to torture prisoners at S-21
Site of a mass grave at the Killing Field outside Phnom Penh

During my talk and also in the conversations with our local guides, our group discussed how important it is to engage with local communities in understanding these places. Our Cambodian guide also mentioned that virtually every family in Cambodia was affected by the genocide.

At S-21, we were privileged to meet one of seven survivors of the prison, a man by the name of Chum Mey. As he tells in his book Survivor: The triumph of an ordinary man in the Khmer Rouge Genocide (2012), Chum Mey was fortunate. His life was spared because, as a mechanic, he was able to fix a broken typewriter for his captors, who then kept him alive in order to work on other machinery at the site. The book, told in the first person, is a raw and moving story of a poor Cambodian peasant, whose parents died when he was young. His dream to be a car mechanic led him to learn the trade, and then to go to Phnom Penh after the Khmer Rouge takeover because that was where the buses and cars were located. Like many in Cambodia, he was arrested under false pretenses and sent to Tuol Sleng, the name for the S-21 prison and torture center.

Building at S-21
Chum Mey at S-21 today, as one of seven survivors from the torture center

There he was interrogated and beaten. But once they learned he could fix broken equipment, his fortunes changed. His story of the arrest, interrogation, beatings, work, escape, and liberation brings a human voice to the understanding of history. He told us that he missed being selected to go to the killing fields to be executed due to a mix-up one day at the prison.

Had that not occurred, Chum Mey’s body would have been tossed into one of the mass graves at the site, and his skull could have been included in the haunting memorial. As he said, “had that happened, I would not be here today talking with you.”

Skulls of victims of the Khmer Rouge killing fields

Chum Mey’s story has had international impacts, as he traveled to Germany to see the Nazi camps of World War II, which reminded him of S-21, and then he testified at the Khmer Rouge tribunal. These stories are hard to hear, but so very necessary.

For far too long we have chosen to save that which reflects well on us ― beautiful buildings and sites that uplift. One of the challenges we face now, in the U.S. and in Southeast Asia, is to find ways to preserve and interpret sites that tell the stories of those who have traditionally been marginalized and often brutalized, harshly mistreated, or killed, stories that are not part of the long-told narrative.

Tree of shame, against which children were beaten
Memorial at the Killing Fields outside Phnom Penh

At the Cu Chi tunnels, the War Remnant Museum, S-21, and the Killing Fields we certainly were confronted with very difficult stories and histories. It was important for our group — and the world — to hear them.

More to come…


Image of a monument at the Killing Fields outside Phnom Penh by DJB


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