Mid-May 1975: Phạm Thanh Tâm Continues to Document the Liberation of Saigon

After documenting the liberation of Saigon at the end of April 1975, Phạm Thanh Tâm continued his observations into the middle of May. While revealing Tâm’s unique perspective of heavily Western-influenced Saigon, these sketches also give some insight into Tâm’s painting procedure.

Quick Sketches

We can see how Tâm developed on quick, preliminary sketches to include bursts of colour and extra details (figs. 1 and 2). Recording a typical street scene, Tâm drew a typical hawker stall serving drinks located on the side of the road. Tâm was constantly surprised to see life go on as normal despite the recent end of the war. People still went out to eat and drink, with tables, chairs, cups and glasses set up to serve customers. A woman dressed smartly holds an umbrella to protect herself from the sun.

Liberation of Saigon
Figure 1: Phạm Thanh Tâm, May 1975, Saigon, “15_Đường phố trong những ngày đầu giải phóng (ghi nhanh); Sài Gòn 5-75 (15_ Streets in first days of liberation (quick record); Saigon 5-75).” Ink on machine made-paper.
Liberation of Saigon
Figure 2: Phạm Thanh Tâm, 1975, Saigon. Print and watercolour on machine-made paper.

In each case, Tâm signs them as “Huỳnh Biếc” rather than Phạm Thanh Tâm. He used Huỳnh Biếc as his nom de plume from as early as 1950. Starting when he first started his career as a journalist writing for the army newspaper, Quyết Thắng. After being sent to China for divisional training 1953, Tâm returned as an official reporter, journalist and artist. He continued to use  Huỳnh Biếc throughout his life. His based his decision to use a nom de plume for security. While reporting from South Vietnam, concealing his identity evaded the threat of falling into enemy hands.

Normal Life During the Liberation of Saigon

Reaffirming that daily life continued as normal in Saigon was of key importance for artists such as Tâm. These tranquil street scenes combated American propaganda that claimed the PAVN were murdering the general population throughout the city indiscriminately. However, it has been documented that up to 400,000 southern Vietnamese who fought or worked for the ousted pro-American Republic of Vietnam government were forced into re-education camps. It is also important to consider the exodus of persecuted Hoa-Chinese from Saigon and Vietnam as a whole.

Liberation of Saigon
Figure 3: Phạm Thanh Tâm, 16 May 1975, Saigon, “Đường Đề Thám, Sài Gòn (De Tham Street, Saigon).” Print and watercolour on machine-made paper.

An aspect of change in Saigon that Tâm did note, however, was the installation of flags throuout the city. The gold star on red of Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and gold star on blue and red of National Liberation Front (NLF). The flags hung from balconies, TV ariels, lampposts and trees after liberation. They would have been impossible to miss. Tâm depicts the abundance of flags on Để Tham Street (fig. 3), a quiet residential street in what is now known as District 1.

Gia Long Street

Again, Tâm sketches normal city life punctuated by flags signalling liberation (fig. 4). In the scene, Tâm captures a car and a trishaw parked alongside one another. A reflection of the dizzying contrast between rich and poor so prevalent in Vietnam then. He also recorded a tailor (Nhà May Tài) and restaurant (Tiệm ăn Ngọc Sơn) with opening times in the morning and the afternoon (Sáng, trưa chiều).

Liberation of Saigon
Figure 4: Phạm Thanh Tâm, May 1975, Saigon, “Phố Gia Long – Sài Gòn ngày giải phóng (Gia Long Street, Saigon in days after liberation).” Ink on machine-made paper.

Interestingly, sketch above (fig. 4) details a building on Gia Long Street (now known as Lý Tự Trọng Street). It was on this street that apartment building 22 was used as an assembly evacuation point for Operation Frequent Wind at the end of April 1975. In the iconic photograph by Dutch photographer Hubert van Es, desperate Americans climb aboard a helicopter from a crowded rooftop. Many mistook the building as the United States Embassy. In fact, the building housed employees of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Its top floor reserved for the Central Intelligence Agency’s deputy station chief. The top of the elevator shaft was also considered one of the highest points in Saigon at the time, with just enough room to land a Huey helicopter.

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