In 1902, French colonial authorities in Hanoi had a rat problem. Worse, it was a problem of their creation, although nobody wanted to admit it. The construction of Hanoi’s sewer system, a project of pride for then colonial governor (and future French president) Paul Doumer, inadvertently created one of the greatest rat habitats in the history of the city.
Seeking to solve a problem they had created, French authorities declared a bounty on rats. Thus began a tragic-comedy of unintended consequences known as the Great Hanoi Rat Hunt.
Many decades later, a graduate student named Michael Vann was in France doing archival research on the socio-economic impact of colonialism in Hanoi. Bored of charts and taxation figures, he stumbled upon a dossier marked “Destruction of Hazardous Animals.”
Vann’s fellow grad students thought him a bit nuts. But he felt he had found an important window into the life and administration of Hanoi under French colonial rule. Vann pursued the story in archives in France and Vietnam and published an article in 2003, “Of Rats, Rice, and Race: The Great Hanoi Rat Massacre, an Episode in French Colonial History.”
For over 15 years, the story of the Great Rat Hunt became part of Vann’s lectures at Sacramento State University, where he teaches history and a quirky presentation at conferences. But the story took on a life of its own. Vann noticed that other scholars frequently cited his rat article. Then he got a call to do an interview with the radio program Freakonomics. But instead of writing a conventional academic book, Vann went in a decidedly different direction.
“The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt: Empire, Disease, and Modernity in French Colonial Vietnam” is a graphic history. “Don’t call it a graphic novel,” Vann says. “I understand why people use that term, they mean to be respectful, but novels are, by definition, fictional. This is real.” In collaboration with Oxford University Press and illustrator Liz Clarke, Vann presents his research in the form of a comic book.
Reading the book during the coronavirus outbreak in China and, now, neighboring countries, it serves a reminder as to the way we collectively deal with infectious disease and the panic surrounding it. While Vann’s novel looks to Asia’s past, the topics of hygiene, disease and modernity continue to strike a chord. The immediate – often unfair – association of outbreaks in countries like China or Vietnam with poor hygiene, exotic diets or a general ignorance suggests that the imperialist assumptions of the French colonial authorities portrayed in Vann’s book remain, if in coded language.
At one point in the graphic history a French colonial is asked how an outbreak of plague can be contained in Hanoi. His response sounds all too familiar: “How? We don’t even know how it spreads. But the Chinese are somehow to blame.”
The medium works well for such a twisted and odd moment in Hanoi’s history. From the unwitting colonials building a sewer-sized rat factory right under their homes and offices to a bounty on rat tails as “proof of kill” leading to the sudden appearance of tailless rats roaming the streets of Hanoi and even more enterprising folks who saw a business opportunity breeding rats for the bounties. Those who like their imperialism served with a scoop or two of farce and fiasco will find generous helpings of both in Vann’s book.
“For the story I wanted to tell, a graphic history worked so well. I wrote about the transformation of a city, and you can see that on the page. We [Vann collaborated with Oxford University Press illustrator Liz Clarke] could show in a two-page spread what might take 10-12 pages of standard prose,” Vann says. “We could also integrate maps and other images directly in the text.”
Van praised his illustrator, Liz Clarke. “I sent thousands of old photographs of Hanoi. When Liz would send pages back, I was blown away by how well she got it. The one thing I pushed back on was anthropomorphizing the animals. We can’t have cute mice or rats wearing pith helmets.”
Vann also credited Clarke for drawing realistic characters that weren’t caricatures. “Comics have a real racist history, and I was concerned that when creating images showing ethnic or racial difference, things can go easily awry, but Liz did a really good job.”
One of the main characters in the book is Vann, himself. The book is framed as a lecture. Vann moves in and out of the narrative, often breaking the fourth wall and answering questions from his students. Questions based on actual students’ questions Vann heard while teaching the story for many years. Vann’s character also introduces historical concepts and sources for readers looking to dive deeper into the French colonial history.
Asked about the reaction in Hanoi, Vann says that when he presented the book to audiences here this past spring, residents gave the book a resounding thumbs up. Many said it captured the spirit of the old quarter. Currently, Vann is working with his publisher and the powers-that-be to translate the book and publish a Vietnamese language edition locally.
For now, the book has found a broad audience. “It can be read at various levels of sophistication,” Vann says. “Grad seminars are using it in introductory history surveys and even some high schools [are using it].”
The Great Rat Hunt is available from Amazon.