I WAS A SOOTHSAYER
Based on Lam Tan Phuoc’s story
In June of 1976, I was allowed, forced in fact, to discontinue teaching at a large private school in Cholon, as I was suspected by the communists of being a member of an anti-communist organization in the Saigon-Cholon area. Many of my close friends knew I had studied soothsaying for a long time, through French and Chinese books, and had actually practiced it for free on a number of people. Suddenly, I needed to practice it for a living, and this new vocation was not only inappropriate but dangerous. To the communists, soothsaying was regarded as a dishonest, unproductive, impractical, and deceitful method of making money – taking advantage of people who trusted you. Even pedicab drivers were forbidden to keep their jobs in those days, as the communists considered them to be another unproductive kind of labor. I was in a difficult situation because my soothsaying was neither productive nor practical, although in reality I had stacks of books in Vietnamese, French, English and Chinese to refer to. I had bought them with my savings, and I kept them hidden away in a corner of my house. This was a pity as in Vietnam books like that were outrageously expensive, and cost three or four times more than novels. But I’d saved up and bought them to improve my passion for this fanciful ‘science’ –apologies to true scientists inside and outside of Vietnam for my use of this term.
One day, on a visit to a colleague in Saigon, I happened to be introduced by his wife S. to her friend, a saddened woman sitting in front of his house.
“Mrs. T. has received bad news,” S. told me. “Her husband, who was in a reeducation camp in Long Khanh that was bombarded with mortar shells, was apparently among the casualties. She‘s very anxious about his fate. Please help her with your soothsaying talent!”
“This is not a proper time for such a thing,” I tried to refuse, realizing that I was in a delicate and risky situation. My conscience told me to help, but what about the ruthless rule of the communists?
While I was thinking, S. took her friend’s hand and showed it to me.
“Come on, take a look,” S. insisted. “Tell her the truth. She’s been desperate for days. Please help her.”
“I didn’t expect he’d have such a short life, Sir,” her friend said, “but he might have been killed. I’ve been unable to get a permit from the local police to go see him. I think the communists wanted to kill all ‘puppets’ by holding them in that camp and shelling it, then shamelessly blaming the atrocity and the casualties on the ‘puppets’ themselves. The new rulers keep saying that ‘our country has completely wiped out all the enemy,’ that means no more ‘puppets’ anywhere around.”
To please my hostess, I took her palm. Without the magnifying glass I usually used to help my eyes see clearly, I could only follow the main lines, crisscrossed by tiny ones.
“Don’t worry about your husband,” I said. “Looking at your age in this year and month, there doesn’t seem to be any mourning or mishaps in store. I’m not trying to console you, but that’s what I see. Please be assured!”
She thanked me and we continued to talk about the situation, until she eventually left. Since my colleague was not home, I decided to leave, but as I was about to ride away on my bicycle, S. called me.
“Come in for a minute, please!” she said. “I have an idea. Maybe we can get some money to buy rice for your kids.”
As I was entering the house, my colleague came home just in time to listen to his wife’s plan, which involved turning one room into a comfortable office where I’d perform my soothsaying three times a week. She would act as my public relations assistant by looking daily for clients among her friends and acquaintances. She believed there would be plenty of them in the Saigon area, unlike in Cholon. Talking about her prospective clients, she mentioned with excitement students living on Nguyen Dinh Chieu street; a lady near the Tran Quang Khai temple who she thought might be on a waiting list; then others on Truong Tan Buu street in Gia Dinh and on Pasteur street, and so on… She also talked about a female graduate from Japan who had performed this kind of job with great financial success for five or six years, and as an encouragement to me, she claimed that many people had taken the trouble to go as far as Hoc Mon and Ba Diem for her services.
My colleague was happy at my prospects, but he didn’t disguise his concern.
“Do whatever you want, but don’t get us sent to reeducation camps,” he warned. “The revolutionaries take a pretty dim view of things like this.”
So I became a real soothsayer at last, in a secret practice on Yen Do Street, rather than a public one on the sidewalks of Le Loi or Nguyen Hue boulevards. I put a drawing of a huge palm crisscrossed with lines in red and blue on the wall in my office, and on a large table, a stack of books on soothsaying in foreign languages, together with magnifying glasses, rulers and compasses. The display was intended to create a professional, impressive sight for my trusting clients, and increase my prestige as a talented, but unwilling soothsayer under the name of Lam Tan Phuoc.
S. and her husband agreed that two fifths of the consulting fees would go to their children, and the rest to mine. She suggested I see only five clients each morning, three times a week, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, since I needed rest to invigorate my mind. She set up the room very nicely, and half jokingly told her husband and me that we should place another huge palm drawing on the main entrance door, similar to a picture of two twisting snakes for doctors and pharmacists, scissors for tailors, and blinking neon lights for electric shops. It wouldn’t be too obvious but still recognizable.
Her husband smiled. “You’d better hire somebody to paint rows of thatched houses surrounded by barbed wires, with communist cadres nearby… the reeducation camp is where we’re going to end up…”
Thanks to S.’s efforts, clients soon began to appear, and as we had agreed I saw five each day by appointment. Most of them asked about the escapes of their relatives, whether they had been successful or had ended with detention in a reeducation camp; how they would be, and what would happen to their lives and their property, and so on. Lots of questions were asked about the future, for tiny amounts of money. Their trust was total. And frankly, I did perform quite well, thanks to my general knowledge and my reading of numerous books in the field, together with my sensitive reaction to each different hand. In addition, I kept telling my clients just enough, a little less than I should, for safety’s sake.
Most of my clients were ladies from previously well-off families, who had suffered under the communists, either suddenly losing everything, or feeling helpless due to their husbands being kept in reeducation camps with no hope of survival. In return, I learned many interesting and unique family stories – stories that only soothsayers ever got to hear.
One young man with a pale face, marked by the traces of two horrible escape failures, came to ask whether his coming third attempt would be any more successful, since in his first attempt he had lost eight taels of gold concealed in a bush near Nha Trang city, and another ten paid to the boat owner for his trip. In his second attempt, he had been hiding with other escapees in Ben Dinh near Vung Tau city when the communist police surrounded them, forcing them to spend two nights there. On the third night, when the coast was clear, the boat owner arrived too late and the trip had to be postponed. He went home to find his house sealed and his mother already thrown out by the police. He was advised to stay away, unless he wanted to be arrested and imprisoned, not reeducated, for his escape attempt, although imprisonment and reeducation were exactly the same. He had no choice but to hide with his friends, planning for a third attempt.
Other clients disclosed their relatives’ funny tricks in deceiving the local communist police and escaping safely. In one tale I was told, about 60 of them left at dusk from a seashore in Central Vietnam in a small boat that moved at full speed out to the open sea, chased at a distance by another boat with ten yellow-uniformed policemen, firing angrily at them. All the fishermen in the area prayed for the escapees in silence, hoping they would avoid arrest by the ‘yellow dogs’, as the communist police were popularly known. A few days later, they learned that those village youngsters had successfully escaped – the boat chasing them which had opened fire turned out to have been a trick played by other villagers disguised as policemen.
A business lady came to lament the bad luck that had dogged her last escape attempt. She said she and her fellow escapees had survived several scares, but the police had appeared from nowhere and searched everyone for gold. They took thirty-eight taels and US $2,000 U.S.before demanding the escapees sign a report to confirm that the gold and money were confiscated (for court purposes). Nevertheless, the police team leader changed his mind, not out of compassion for the victims but because he wanted to pocket the huge fortune. “I can see that all your passengers are useless women and little kids,” he said softly to the boat owner, “who will only waste the state’s resources, contributing nothing to the labor force. You may continue your trip, as a special favor. If you’re arrested again, keep your mouth shut about us. Remember?” The policeman calmly put all the gold and money in his pockets, declaring he would turn it in to the local treasury, and that the escapees were free to go. As soon as he left, the captain explained that the gold and dollars would be divided among the policemen themselves, leaving nothing for the local treasury. He tried to keep the ship close to the shore to avoid the police patrols, which usually operated on the open sea. But half an hour later they were stopped again, and searched more thoroughly. Suspicious spots on the ship’s walls, bottoms of fuel cans, and all escapees’ pockets and even underwear were examined, turning up sixteen more gold taels which were duly confiscated, again in exchange for freedom. The escapees were advised, if arrested once more, to say nothing about the gold. Everyone’s gold was completely lost. Six or seven kilometers further on, the escapees were stopped by four policemen who threatened to start killing the passengers if they didn’t find any dollars or gold. They found nothing, not even a speck of gold dust. Despite their anger, they let the ship go free, to the joy of the exhausted escapees who wondered how angels could survive among such evil. Later, they realized that they had been allowed to go by a bunch of roguish policemen who wanted to avoid being punished for arresting them without gold and dollars. They knew that their superiors would never believe the truth, and would be convinced they had distributed the gold among themselves, so they would have to pretend they had met no one at all out on patrol. The escapees concluded that they might as well continue, as their lack of gold meant they were unlikely to be arrested. But their luck turned, as the sea got the better of the ship and slowly forced it back to the shore. They split up in the darkness, and wearily set off on their journeys home.
But I digress too far. Escapes were the preserve of youngsters, elders, women, children – any valiant hero who refused to live under a ruthless and loveless regime. The stories of these escapees would fill a comprehensive encyclopedia, bigger than the Chinese “Three Nations” story, or the French ‘Larousse’ dictionary, and many more. Stories revealing the communists’ crimes for all to see. But I didn’t want to escape. I would have been happy just getting back to my profession.
For a long time, many boastful communist cadres wearing checked shirts, nice trousers, and plastic sandals made in Cholon, came to ask for my service. Looking at their austere, pale, darkened faces, thin skinny limbs, and eyes that always looked down on the lookout for mines and snakes, I realized they were imported agents from their ‘Uncle’ and party, not officials or army officers of the former ‘puppet’ regime as they claimed. I had to be careful what I said, to avoid dangerous consequences… One cadre seemingly planned to leave his very ugly wife, forced on him by his party in North Vietnam, to marry a sweet South Vietnamese bargirl. Although I correctly guessed his intention, I advised him to “wait for some time to solve a couple of problems” and “be patient since he had no choice…” Another cadre disclosed that he had stolen a Honda motorcycle, a sewing machine, a radio, and some money and gold during his official inspections of people’s properties, and now wanted to hide his identity with a change of office. I checked his palm and told him he could only do so when his boss suddenly forgot his excellent revolutionary past. Worried and uneasy, he seemed to take risk with his intention… One cadre from Vinh in North Vietnam wished to transfer to Gia Dinh in South Vietnam to be close to his parents, but I guessed he was lying and was simply envious of his powerful comrades who quickly got rich by confiscating properties at will. I told him to be cautious since, sooner or later, he could be imprisoned. From my experience, the majority of communist officials would eventually become greedy and lustful, and inevitably be jailed.
One day, S. hurriedly came to see me after my last client had left.
“That guy, he’s a cadre,” she told me. “I can tell from his appearance. Did you say anything careless? I’m terrified you might have. It’s dangerous to fall into his trap.”
“Don’t worry,” I assured her. “I’m also a physiognomist, and with communist cadres who disguise themselves as ‘puppets’, I just play the psychological yes-man.”
“Ok. But how come the revolutionaries are still allowing soothsayers to practice, while nobody actually knows what will happen? You’d better watch out! I’m really starting to worry. I’ve been told that a lot of them are party members from North Vietnam, but they believe in soothsaying so much that we can get away with exploiting them financially.”
I was about to close my office late one morning when a woman of about 40 years of age, wearing simple clothes and looking miserable, stepped in without an appointment and begged me to help. She wanted to know if any problems were in store as a result of her change from being an owner of 10 plowing tractors to being a leader of a tapestry weaving team and the boss of a small barley mill.
“I’ve lost everything,” she said. “My plowing tractors were confiscated together with all the rolls of satin I had at my loom near the intersection of Bay Hien area. I have to borrow money from friends to survive and I don’t know how I’m going to repay them. Are these revolutionaries planning to confiscate more properties? Please tell me, so I can plan a future for my family, and save a little to pay back my friends.”
“Don’t worry,” I told her after a thorough examination of her palms and several minutes’ thought. “You said you had lost everything, but I see that you’re going to receive a huge sum of money. You won’t have to wait longer than a few months. Trust me.”
She listened with disbelief as if I had been making fun of her. She clearly thought I was being dishonest, and taking her money under false pretences.
“I hear what you say, but how can I believe it? I respect you, and I’m not trying to displease you, but I think only God would give me that much money, since I never buy lottery tickets.”
I forgot about her for a month, but one day she suddenly reappeared while I was busy with some clients. She handed S., my friend’s wife, an envelope containing some money.
“Please give him this money as a reward,” she said. “His prediction turned out right. He’s really great!”
Filled with excitement, she began to tell S. the story.
“At first the district officials confiscated my ten plowing tractors but then, without my understanding why, they called me back to their office to inform me that only five were nationalized while the rest remained in my ownership. Nevertheless, I had to let them be used by a state-run plowing cooperative. If I couldn’t personally work there on a ‘state-private’ basis, I would be reimbursed for each tractor for the exact total sum he predicted. The result is the state becomes the sole owner of the entire firm.”
She paused for a few seconds before taking a mysterious look.
“It’s incredible, isn’t it?” she spoke softly in S.’s ears. “Who’d have thought those thieves would return part of what they’d looted?”
A man about forty years of age, fashionably dressed with unsuitable leather sandals, came in when S. closed the office. He wouldn’t take no for an answer, and so, partly for my own amusement, I agreed to look at his skinny hands and austere and disproportioned face with irregular teeth. He was obviously a peasant cadre who longed to become a civilized Southerner. When he mentioned that he was head of an office, I began to feel frightened, but I kept calm to defend my profession.
“The reality is,” I told him, “you’re a high ranking revolutionary cadre and I’m a jobless teacher trying to use soothsaying to help my little kids survive. Please be understanding, and if you don’t consider my job a superstitious practice and a social burden due to its unproductiveness, I’d like to tell you what you want to know.”
“Of course I understand,” he said, “I know what it’s like for teachers here in the South. Don’t worry. I need you to tell me one thing. I have a young employee I want to transfer elsewhere because his views have changed significantly for the worse. The problem is that he has strong support from an influential power. If I go ahead with my decision to transfer him, will I face any obstruction or hatred?”
As a boss, he had the power to transfer anyone under his direction; so why was he afraid of this person? There was clearly more to this than met the eye.
“If you want everything to happen smoothly,” I said, “you’d better wait three months: your personal stars and his are in great conflict. And the life and heart lines on your hand are blocked at the moment. But in three months, things will be fine.”
His mood lightened considerably, and I felt encouraged to ask a favor in return.
“By the way,” I said, “I’m going to have to close down in a few days. I don’t want to be sent to reeducation for violating revolutionary laws…”
“Don’t worry! If anyone troubles you, you can contact me at the city food agency, on … Street…”
As soon as he left, S. walked in to see me.
“That guy,” she asked excitedly, “what did he want? Escape? He’s a powerful cadre, the relative of the city party Secretary. He’s notorious for a lot of things, including an affair with the wife of one of his employees who almost caught him red-handed. Instead of feeling remorse, he plans to remove the other guy, who won’t play ball. Don’t get involved – you could end up in gaol.”
Another morning, two middle-aged ladies stepped in, dressed in expensive colored blouses and well ironed pants, smiling and talking non-stop. While they were waiting, one of them pointed to the huge hand picture on the wall.
“Whose hand is that?” she asked her friend, and I could hear the disrespectful tone in her voice. “I bet he’s like that hand, exaggerated and blown up way out of proportion. Well, let’s try anyway.”
“I’d like to know,” the other lady said when it was her turn to show her palm, “how my family will be after our recent unexpected good luck. My husband, a former director, is allowed to keep working with the revolutionaries. Is he going to be all right?”
I concentrated as hard as I could and summoned up everything I had learned from books and my experiences. Almost at once, I let out a sigh.
“Judging from your joyful mood, I can’t believe you’ve had a terrible mishap in your family. But if it hasn’t happened yet, it won’t be long now.”
“You’re completely wrong,” she said without hesitation, in a natural voice. “My husband and kids are very happy.”
I felt uneasy dealing with a client like her, pretty and nice but stubborn and uncomplicated.
“Perhaps I’ve seen too many clients this morning,” I said, trying to defend myself, “so my mind can’t stay clear. But I’ll thank you to note that I haven’t made anything up. What I’ve said is based on books widely accepted from East to West as a science and an art. As a science, it has principles in accordance with Ying and Yang, the five basic elements, and the motion of the universe, without errors or mistakes. No one really knows about the relationship between the lines on someone’s palms that supposedly represent events and accidents, even dates of birth that fit well with metaphysical rules, and his own life. Many people think we’re dealing with the occult here. But books and experiments have proved that soothsaying is right, only human beings like me make mistakes. I’m sorry to burden you with all this, and I’ll stop here. Come back if you still trust me.”
That lengthy speech had been more to relieve myself than to provide her with information.
“Don’t be angry!” she said calmly. “Please go on, and be more accurate this time. I trust you, believe me.”
I said a few things to please her about her husband’s job. I didn’t really believe them, and I felt I had lost the mental concentration I needed. I apologized to the other lady, but told her I was unable to keep her appointment, and asked her to come back another time.
I was getting ready to go home when the first lady spoke.
“Please wait,” she said slowly with a bitter smile on her face. “Please sit down again. You were correct and superb. We just wanted to test you with by pretending to be in a good mood. Actually, my family has just had a very painful mourning, forcing my husband to take two days off to cry silently at home. You know, men rarely cry. To tell you the truth, we have two children, a boy aged 15 and a girl of 19 who was in her last year at the Gia Long high school, the one they now call Minh Khai. Seeing so many revolutionaries everywhere made her thoughtful and depressed. We tried to encourage her to think only about her schooling, and ignore the rest. We told her how much we loved her, and how much her sadness pained us. We promised we’d try to make her life much better and asked her to trust us. Last month, she kept complaining about headaches, then suddenly, after getting home from ‘socialist labor’ five days ago, she announced she was suffering severe pains in her head and heart. I was very worried, but she asked us to be calm and said she would be fine after a bowl of hot porridge and some rest. She went to her room at 9 p.m. and we heard nothing more. When I went in to wake her up the following morning, I found her unconscious, and already cold. A doctor friend rushed over, but after examining her, he shook his head. My daughter had taken an overdose of sleeping pills. I found a note in the drawer of her bedside stand explaining that her suicide was caused by her hatred for the regime and her dark future. She begged our forgiveness, and asked to be cremated dressed in white with the logo of her old school of Gia Long pinned on her chest. She wanted her ashes placed in her flower vase, and then spread in the sea near Vung Tau beach so the ocean would take her to Freedom. How sad her fate was! And how romantic she was! I cried so much I nearly lost my mind, but my husband was worse. It was too much of a terrible misfortune for my family.”
I sat there listening, speechless and deeply moved.
“You know,” she continued, “most students of the Gia Long school share the same desperation since the communist takeover of South Vietnam. I’ve heard that they have reportedly written the following lines about the communists and copied them on the blackboards in their classrooms:
The tire-rubber sandals are crushing youngsters’ lives
And the soft caps are overshadowing their future.
I’m never surprised when I hear about adults committing suicide. A former minister in the Ngo Dinh Diem’s government did the same thing, as did the owner of a private school in Tan Dinh, a doctor on Suong Nguyet Anh Street, a politician in Gia Dinh, even an army general… but what shocks me terribly is the number of teenage girls killing themselves out of despair brought about by the new rulers, who shamelessly call themselves revolutionaries and liberators.”
“Please speak softly,” I asked the lady. There were only three of us and I didn’t want to cause more pain to her.
“Did you hear about that whole family on Hoang Hoa Tham Street in Gia Dinh who poisoned themselves? And about those sisters killing themselves in near Railroad Gate No. 6 on Truong Minh Giang Street? The local police held an inquest, and they found three remarkable words with big question marks: ‘Independence??? Freedom??? Happiness???’ on a page dated 10-18-1976, torn from a notebook. I’ve also heard about the wife of an army captain, the daughter of a well known poet in Central Vietnam, and a teacher in Hoi An, province of Quang Nam, who have all taken their own lives. They’re just the ones I know; no one really knows how many people do it, since the communists have introduced that hefty ‘stupidity tax’ on families of the dead. There’s an expensive burial tax too. God! Please accept my admiration for your talent and allow me to apologize for my improper behavior towards you.”
She tried to remain calm although the tears kept rolling down her cheeks. As the person who had awakened so many painful memories, I could only keep speechless with my suppressed anger. I hadn’t been practicing long, but I had never heard a story so unforgettably painful.
Over the next few months, I collected enough money to enable my wife to ride her bicycle to the little market by the bus terminal to buy rice and vegetables for my family. One day, upon my return from a visit to a friend, my wife approached me with something on her mind.
“I stopped by to see S.,” she spoke sadly, “and asked her how you’ve been doing. She said you did fine, many people praised you, and she could therefore share some money to buy rice for her kids; however, she disclosed that two thirds of your clients were asking only about their escapes. I’m afraid the cadres and local police will learn about this, and soon, all of us will be sent to reeducation. How can we trust your clients’ sincerity?”
“Don’t worry,” I answered. “S. bribes the local police every month. Besides, the female clerk at the precinct’s office often comes to ask S. to buy satin for her without ever paying for it.”
“Well, I think it’s time you took a rest. You’ve done a good job during a difficult period. Even the former director of land and traffic police was accused by the communists of having blood debts and forced into indefinite reeducation. Your past is a thousand times more severe than his. Let’s not be greedy.”
She was right, of course. I decided to terminate my profession. Despite that, I still ended up going to jail (for providing false party identity). In 1980, after a series of difficult and risky escape attempts, I resettled at last, in a small free country where I’m writing this story about being an amateurish soothsayer.
 Sandals and soft caps were typical outfits for Vietnamese communists in the 1970s.