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EVICTION TIME IN THE NEW SAIGON: Temporalities


of Displacement in the Rubble of Development
ERIK HARMS
Yale University

HANGING
For the past several years, thousands of residents in Thu Thiem, the site of
an ambitious new urban zone slated to be built across the Saigon River from Ho
Chi Minh Citys central business district, have been living in the middle of rubble
piles. They live amidst the crushed bricks, smashed plaster, and broken ceramic
tiles that remain from the homes of former neighbors, kin, and old friends who
have demolished their homes after accepting the terms of compensation offered
by project authorities. By most accounts, the Thu Thiem project is taking a long
time, and eviction is proceeding slowly. Yet the ratio of rubble to residents has
increased steadily, if ploddingly and incrementally, over time. The central debate
is not, ultimately, whether Thu Thiem residents will leave, but when, and under
what circumstances. In the meantime large numbers of them are hanging (treo),
lingering (o l`), waiting (cho` do.i).
First approved by then Prime Minister Vo Van Kie.t in 1996, the Thu Thiem
project is supported at all levels of national and city government. Even residents
admit that the planned 735 hectare development is too big (and too symbolic)
to fail. In 2002, the Ho Chi Minh City Peoples Council declared Thu Thiem
one of the five key project [sic] of the city in the beginning of the 21st century
(Thu Thiem Investment and Construction Authority 2011). The citys commitment resonates throughout a video produced by project developers, which flies

C 2013 by
CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY, Vol. 28, Issue 2, pp. 344368. ISSN 0886-7356, online ISSN 1548-1360. 
the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. DOI: 10.1111/cuan.12007

EVICTION TIME IN THE NEW SAIGON

viewers above and around computer-generated renderings of upscale residential


zones, high-rise office towers, pedestrian promenades, landscaped canals, a large
central square, a three-hundred-meter watchtower, an artificial lake, and a network of multilane highways connected by five bridges and a tunnel. Zooming
in and out in circular sweeps, the video evokes the motion of a VIP helicopter
tour while a womans voice explains, in heavily accented English, that the government of Ho Chi Minh City is rolling out its red carpet for foreign investors
to come to cooperate with the city. The video concludes with animated fireworks bursting in the background, the voice assuring potential investors that
cooperating with the government will make one of the citys major projects
in the twenty-first century a success (Thu Thiem Investment and Construction
Authority 2004).
Yet while the Ho Chi Minh City Department of Planning and Investment
promotes this dynamic, diverse urban center as a statement about the future
of Vietnam, the project simultaneously thrusts 14,600 working-class households
facing eviction into a liminal state of ruptured time. Residents already displaced
and those soon-to-be displaced include recent migrants with tenuous land rights,
multigenerational families whose ancestors have lived in the area since before
the French colonial era, residents from before 1975 whose land papers still bear
the stamps of the old Saigon regime, and former revolutionary soldiers and
heroic mothers whose homes are decorated with certificates celebrating their
valor in the war against the Americans. The evictions interrupt vibrant shopfront enterprises: shops, cafes, food stalls, and watering holes, as well as service
businesses ranging from electronics and motorbike repair to hairstyling and flower
arranging. Relocation will and already does undermine the feasibility of commutes
for residents working and attending school across the river in prestigious parts
of District One. Motorbike taxi drivers, security guards, construction workers,
tourist boat captains, and water taxi drivers will have to rethink their livelihoods,
as will those engaged in the local trade in fighting cocks, gambling, and money
lending. Some are involved in real estate and others are teachers, nurses, priests,
and monks. There are manual laborers employed in ship repair, and beggars,
itinerant peddlers, and thieves. Like all districts in the city, good Catholics, devout
Buddhists, followers of Cao `ai, and adherents of the Mother Goddess religion
live alongside the occasional gangster, drug dealer, or sex worker. Most people
are more than one of these things at once. Many residents have left, but surprising
numbers wait in the rubble. For all of them, the citys future is being built on
stalled time.

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CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY 28:2

FIGURE 1. Thousands of residents continue to live in the rubble of Thu


 Thiem, 2010.
(Photo by author.)

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This article is about eviction time, the complex assortment of temporalities


that arise when people are displaced from their land and homes. While eviction is
of course primarily a conflict over land and money, people at all positions in the
project experience the process most profoundly as a set of visceral engagements
with time. The pressures and constraints of time infuse nearly every aspect of
the eviction process, impacting the way different social actors actually engage (or
in some cases, disengage) with the process. While most studies of eviction focus
on the overt politics of displacement, or on who gets how much and why (Olds
et al. 2002; Springer 2010), this article draws analytic attention to the ways people
involved at all levels of eviction are also deeply concerned with questions of when
and how long. I show how people in eviction zones must cope with and also
take advantage of unfamiliar and largely alienating temporal relations marked by
uncertainty, ambiguity, and contradiction.
Time is a sociocultural construction (Durkheim 1995:9; Evans-Pritchard
1969:103; Gell 1992). It is also an instrument of power with very real effects
(Greenhouse 1996; Thompson 1967; Verdery 1996). In spaces where politics
are largely rendered mute, experiences of temporality reveal the ways otherwise apolitical people engage with emergent, historically situated, and contested
spatio-temporal relations (Harvey 1990; Lefebvre 1991). Inspired by the work of

EVICTION TIME IN THE NEW SAIGON

Nancy Munn (1992), this article shows that careful ethnographic attention to the
temporality of everyday experience reveals how people organize themselves and
their actions in relation to the actions of others. The play of time (Hoskins 1997)
is inherently political yet rarely framed in overt political idioms of domination
and resistance. In Vietnam, despite sporadic protests over landrights, and some
individualized acts of direct resistance, overt manifestations of civil society and
collective dissent remain rare, especially in the south (Luong 2010). Dissent most
often takes the form of everyday politics (Kerkvliet 2005). But people are not
passive, and their experiences with time reveal a great deal about how they interact
with top-down development projects. Contests over time, like acts of noncompliance or nonpayment, offer alternative responses to the forces of eviction (that may
or may not develop into more formal collective action) (Desai 2002). Only time
will tell what these contests become, but the story of time can and must be told as
it unfolds. Watching time in Thu Thiem affords a view into more subtle and often
ambiguous forms of contested action that might not otherwise appear in a search
for more overt, politically dangerous, forms of collective action.
This article begins generally by describing the unusual temporality that
emerges in the rubble of an eviction zone. It then zooms in, describing the particular ways two different groups of residents react differently to what appears to
be a shared predicament. The first group consists of Thu Thiem residents whose
lives are temporally disrupted by the experience and see themselves as oppressed
by endless waiting. The second group of residents, by contrast, are surprisingly
resilient to the temporal effects of eviction and construe their days as filled with
time to hang out (choi).
 While both groups will eventually be evicted, it becomes
clear that some residents are oppressed by waiting whereas other residents manage
to transform waiting into an economically productive and surprisingly empowering form of social experience. The contrasting cases reveal that the temporality of
eviction produces different effects on different people, sometimes intended and
sometimes not. I conclude by arguing that the ability to respond to manipulations
of temporality depends on particular and highly gendered relationships to productive activity, which structures the way people relate to time and space. What one
does (for a living) conditions what one can do (with time).
 THIE M NEW URBAN ZONE
WAITING FOR THE THU
Turning the Thu Thiem peninsula into the Thu Thiem New Urban Zone has
been a long, slow process. It has been 13 years since Ho Chi Minh Citys chief architect approved the master plan in 1998 (Thu Thiem Investment and Construction

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CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY 28:2

348

Authority 2011); over 25 years since the first studies were conducted in 1983
by the postwar Ho Chi Minh City government (Saigon Construction Department
1995); and more than 60 years since models of a Thu Thiem development were
first proposed by Ngo `nh Die.ms Saigon government, now known in Vietnam as
the old regime (che d
o. cu) (N.A. 1957). The first actual evictions began in 2002
and have not been completed.
Slowness is relative. The project appears especially slow in contrast to Ho
Chi Minh Citys urban demographic explosion (Luong 2009:12). While the city
actually shrank in population from approximately four to 3.5 million persons in the
immediate postwar period (197579), by 2009 the population of registered Ho
Chi Minh City residents reached 7.1 million, not including unregistered residents
(Thrift and Forbes 1986; Ho Chi Minh City Statistics Office 2009). Despite increases
in overall living standards, the gap between the rich and poor has increased, and
growth has strained city infrastructure with precarious settlements linked to an
ever-worsening environmental crisis (Luong 2009). The state and many citizens
look to projects like Thu Thiem as potential solutions to seemingly intractable
infrastructure demands facing the city. Residents and urban planners complain less
about the idea of projects like Thu Thiem than on the failure of such projects to live
up to their promises, much less keep up with the growth of the city. People from
all walks of life regularly contrast the rapid spontaneous urbanization caused by
illegal building with the slow progress of the Thu Thiem project.
Vietnamese cities must accommodate extraordinary growth caused by ruralurban migration, much like Chinese cities. Yet Vietnamese cities do not have
the reputation for overcoming engineering and design obstacles with groundbreaking architecture or world-class developments. If Chinese developments lead
to awe-inspired terms like Shenzhen speed (Bach 2010:422), and attract worldfamous architects, Saigon developments remain derided for the myriad impediments that seem to slow development down. Vietnamese journalists blame Thu
Thiems slow progress on corruption, recalcitrant residents, inefficient management, and the vagaries of the real estate market. Planners and city authorities
largely cite the difficulty of attracting foreign investors, or blame greedy residents seeking inflated compensation, the bureaucratic flaws of the state, and in
some cases, even blame bad planning itself. Residents commonly assert that cadres
have been systematically undermeasuring and misclassifying plots of land in order to unfairly reduce their compensation payments. Some of the residents who
left in the earliest phases of demolition blame those residents who have not yet
left.

EVICTION TIME IN THE NEW SAIGON

The sense of time that emerges in Thu Thiem comingles with other senses
of time, such as the linear, progress-oriented temporality of planning, finance,
and development, as well as temporal constructions of the future and of the past,
which alternately construct Thu Thiem as an undeveloped wasteland in need of
modernization, or as a site of tradition in need of preservation (Ton Nu Qu`ynh
Tran 2010). The temporality of real estate development is itself conditioned by
the context of rapidly changing property rights, where Vietnamese now have the
ability to exchange land-use-right permits, which has led to a burgeoning real
estate market and land speculation, which plays out as a form of betting on the
future as well as a rush to capitalize on newly commodified land.
These temporal modes are all intertwined. Only a very long sentence with
multiple clauses can show how eviction, development, financing, and planning
ensnare each other and slow the project down: The lack of investors has made
it difficult to come up with the capital to compensate evictees, who would not
and will not leave because resettlement housing was and remains left in a state
of incompletion for lack of funds, which has made it difficult to clear the land,
which makes it nearly impossible to attract investors shy about becoming involved
with mass evictions, which has made financing the project drag on precisely at the
historical moment when land prices and popular consciousness about property
rights have been everywhere on the rise, thus leading to demands for higher
compensation as well as a renewed commitment to using land reclamation to
finance urban infrastructure projects, which depends on foreign property investors,
who, of course, are no longer just shy about, but now find themselves positively
repulsed by, the idea of getting tangled up in the kind of knotty mess Thu Thiem has
become. Every movement transforms every relationship, and most importantly,
slows the project down.
Eviction Time
The eviction and resettlement process for the Thu Thiem New Urban Zone
officially began in 2002, continued to drag on through late 2011, and proceeds in
fits and starts: a single house is knocked down today, another one a week thereafter;
sometimes a single shop-house disappears, leaving a gaping hole like a missing tooth
in a long row of others; sometimes an entire block of homes disappears overnight;
here a shipyard dating back to the colonial era, there a small hand-built boat dock;
a Cao `ai temple this week, a roadside shrine the next. Some weeks see multiple
demolitions, others none at all. The Thu Thiem Catholic Church and many local
community halls (d`
nh) with shrines to tutelary spirits all remain untouched, but

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FIGURE 2. The demolition of Thu


 Thiem proceeds in fits and starts. Downtown buildings of
Saigons central business district loom in the background, 2010. (Photo by author.)

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opinions differ about whether they will be spared, and several Buddhist pagodas
have already found new plots of land outside of the demolition zone. Large numbers
of temples (de`n) have been demolished, but many remain. Uncertainty is the rule
rather than the exception.
Most demolitions are done by hand. Land-use-right holders receive extra
compensation for clearing the land themselves. They either physically knock down
and dismantle their own homes themselves or enlist teams of recyclers who demolish
homes in exchange for harvesting the metal roofing materials; steel window casings;
folding, accordion-style metal security doors; and other remnants. This makes these
spaces at least slightly safer for the many children who play games of hide-and-seek
in the remaining rubble fields: the twisted wire, metal doorframes, or sharp-edged
galvanized roofing material have all been scavenged, sold off, reappropriated. The
biggest threats are nails, the sharp edges of ceramic tiles, andaccording to popular
rumorsthe heroin addicts who purportedly fix in the dark corners of demolished
homes.
Rumors of addicts crystallize a generalized sense among Thu Thiem residents
that their intimate community is becoming a place of strangers, as well as strangersin-the-making. The coming of strangers marks time. Strangers first came taking
pictures, measuring, documenting, surveying on foot, by car, by boat, and even by

EVICTION TIME IN THE NEW SAIGON

helicopter. They came dressed in suits, carrying clipboards, making phone calls,
asking questions. Then they came announcing plans, holding meetings, hanging
up colorful posters, describing the future. Then they came with construction
materials, hard hats, work clothes, and heavy machinery. And then they came
recording peoples stories: journalists and urban studies scholars (and at least one
anthropologist) interested in their anger and their stories of dispossession and
loss. The strangers were and are Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, and sometimes
Western. A Western artist stranger painted giant cartoons on the exposed brick
walls of partially demolished homes, generating feelings of sympathy perhaps, but
also marking the beginning of the long, liminal wait for the end. If Simmel defined
the stranger as one who comes today and stays tomorrow (1971:143), Thu Thiem
residents see these strangers as ominous agents who come today, disappear for a
while, and then reappear with grand plans for appropriating and making new use
of their land. Their closest friends and neighbors may soon become strangers too:
here today but gone tomorrow.
The proliferation of strangers in an intimate community is strange (Lingis
1994). Stranger still is the flow of time. Vietnamese verbs do not conjugate into
tenses, so it is possible to speak of the past using the present tense, not unlike
the ethnographic present I am using here. Speaking of Thu Thiem, residents
slip indiscriminately between the past and present. They proudly describe the
area as a place of intense neighborly sentiment and almost village-like solidarity
without distinguishing whether these forms have vanished, only recently appeared
as a result of eviction itself, or shall extend into the future. The timelessness of
the ethnographic present appeals to permanence. At the very moment when Thu
Thiem faces destruction, its social life simply is. Like in Nigeria in the 1990s,
residents exhibit what Guyer calls a combination of fantasy futurism and enforced
presentism (Guyer 2007:410). Residents simultaneously linger in the rubble and
speak favorably of the utopian future depicted on project billboards that promise
an ultramodern Thu Thiem New Urban Zone.
Eviction time becomes stranger still because residents know that the world
they describe using this eternal present-tense will disappear, making everything
familiar strange. But they do not know precisely when that tomorrow will come,
for whom, or in which order it will come for them. This does not prevent dreaming
utopian dreams but makes planning for the near future impossible. They experience
the systematic evacuation of the near future (Guyer 2007:410) precisely when
project planners promise a better world to come. The rubble itself indicates that
the evictions are not just impending but actually under way. Yet the act of lingering

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FIGURE 3. Residents continue living as if they are still waiting for evictions that have already
begun, 2010. (Photo by author.)

in the rubblerefusing to leave, coming back after one has officially relocated,
hanging out in makeshift cafes, playing cards, fishing, raising and fighting cocks,
selling ones wares, telling the same dirty jokes one has always toldconsigns
the evictions to the future. Residents continue living as if they are still waiting
for evictions that have already begun. The project timeline implies a linear march
toward an end time of sorts, but there is no notion of when that end time will
come. Residents go about their normal lives; yet nothing is normal. Nothing is
certain. For the time being everything is forever. Someday it will be no more (cf.
Yurchak 2003).

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TEMPORAL UNCERTAINTY AS MECHANISM OF CONTROL


Temporal uncertainty can work as a form of social control (Skidmore 2003:7
10). It ruptures socially expected forms of temporality (Bourdieu 1977:165). Waiting, especially when imposed by political actors with ambitions different from ones
own, can make time feel numb, muted, dead (Crapanzano 1985:44). Describing
evictions in Romes Monti district, Michael Herzfeld notes that timing is often
calculatedly unpredictable . . . . Fear feeds on an absence of clear and uncontested
information (Herzfeld 2009:260). This subtle management of time strategically
deploys uncertainty to undermine the will to resist (Herzfeld 2009:267). For many

EVICTION TIME IN THE NEW SAIGON

Thu Thiem residents, the temporal uncertainty of eviction upsets their attempts
to construct livelihoods and build meaningful lives. Most directly, uncertainty undermines their productive relationship to time as a way of structuring productive
activity.
The waiting is the hardest part. Residents described how waiting caused
uncertainty, which undermined their ability to organize their social relationships
within time and to direct their use of time toward productive income earning
strategies. After enduring several rounds of mobilization or persuasion (va.n d
o.ng),
one woman who had long made a living selling sundries from the front door of her
home finally accepted the settlement terms offered to her, only to find herself placed
in temporary housing, which dramatically undermined her livelihood strategies.
She explained how the gendered division of labor colored the experience of time;
waiting impacted her money-making endeavors more than those of her husband,
who had a construction job that took him to sites outside the district. My husband
has to follow his construction team, so [relocation] did not affect him that much,
yet relocating here made it so I could not sell anything anymore, making us lose
a portion of our income (Interview with the author, March 20, 2011). The
temporary housing was most problematic for the way it cut into this womans
productive activity. This was compounded by the fact that this temporary housing
was increasingly starting to feel permanent. She continued
I have temporarily lived here for three years and still dont know when we
will have a stable place to live. Right now Im worried about not having a
housewe have been waiting for it without end (do.i ho`ai) and still dont
know when we will finally have one. When we do have a house, then there
are still going to be many things to worry about: transportation, the kids
schooling. I also need to look for some work to do to make some decent
money. Everything is temporary now and I am very discouraged. [Interview
with the author, March 20, 2011]
Residents commonly insisted that the worst thing was the waiting, even though
there were plenty of other things to complain about. First, insisted one man, the
time we have been waiting to be resettled is too long. Then he added that the
compensation rate for agricultural land is too low, and the new resettlement place
does not offer job solutions for us to make a living (Interview with the author,
March 21, 2011). Waiting is always connected to concerns about money and
material resources: waiting to get higher compensation, waiting for stable housing,
and waiting to regain the ability to make a living.
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Waiting does not affect everyone in the same way, however. Although waiting
can oppress men and women, the womans story above indicates that waiting tends
to impact womens household labor more than itinerant male labor. Access to
capital or savings matters a great deal to both men and women, however:
Interviewee: Yeah, we agreed to move into the apartment, but the compensation rate is only two million do`ng per square meter.
Those people who have good cash flow (co do`ng ra do`ng vo)
choose to receive cash directly, at the rate of 16 million do`ng
per square meter, and if you multiply that, it will be a couple
of hundred million do`ng to go and buy another house, which
ay).
is better, right? Why bother waiting? (To.i g` phai cho` o d
Even if we opt to receive the compensation money in cash,
we still did not have enough money to buy a new house. Now
a house must cost something more than three hundred million
(do`ng), so we just live temporarily here and wait to move into
the apartments [shaking head in frustration].
Erik Harms: Have they notified you when you are moving to the new
apartment?
Interviewee: No they havent. The apartments are still being built, so we
just live waiting, waiting like this. [Interview with the author,
April 14, 2011]
Waiting places the greatest burdens on residents in precarious financial straits,
who suffered the most from the poor planning, slow construction, bureaucratic
paperwork, and deflection of responsibility by government agencies. Waiting produced a sense that they were wasting time and cutting into their productivity.
Insufficient compensation and waiting are often mentioned in the same, almost
always exasperated, breath. My research assistants and I asked one informant if
she was satisfied about anything related to the relocation process. She responded
tersely, as if we had failed to understand the depth of her frustration:
Satisfied? There is nothing to be satisfied about . . .
The government always keeps us waiting, as if we are going to have to wait until
death (cho` den chet). My family and the neighbors are listed in the compensation
roster for this day and that day, yet we still have to wait long and havent seen
any compensation money yet. When we ask, they say wait, when [your turn]
comes youll be called . . . as if they want us to die waiting so we wont take
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EVICTION TIME IN THE NEW SAIGON

the money . . . we are not beggars. [Interview with the author, March 14,
2011]
Most residents do not regret the idea of the project, which they generally
consider to be beautiful (cf. De Boeck 2011). They resent the way it has been
carried out, how it interrupts their ability to make ends meet by keeping them
waiting. Like many Thu Thiem residents, the following woman, who was living with
a husband and two children in temporary housing while waiting for a resettlement
housing block to be completed, showed a fairly balanced criticism of what was
positive and negative about the project. Yet, despite her fair-minded critiques it
was clear that everything was punctuated by frustrating waiting:
Interviewee: I dont know, it is good that they demolished the shanty houses
and built big ones. But they need a better policy. I do not like
the current situation.
EH:
The current situation? Can you elaborate please?
I:
The resettlement and compensation arrangements are unsatisfactory. We lived there for a long time. We became
acquainted with people for so long and had also established
business ties [so] that if they want us to move to another place
they have to compensate us deservedly so we can afford moving to another place. Or they should provide us a nice enough
place to live in, yet the compensation was barely enough [so]
we cant do anything with it. The new houses are nowhere to
ay cho` ho`ai).
be seen, we just wait here without end (cu o d
EH:
So for how long have you been waiting here?
I:
Our family has been living here for about a year, but we dont
know how long other people have been living here. Once in
a while were called to a meeting, then we continue waiting
(ro`i la.i cho`).
EH:
So life here must be a little hard for everyone, isnt it?
I:
Not exactly, its not exactly too hard (for us), yet no one
likes to wait for that long. Some people have waited for so
long that they get very frustrated. They kept reminding the
officials about the situation and scold them every time we
have a meeting.
[...]
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There are a lot of things that we are not satisfied about. Especially the way we are compensated, it was not satisfactory. The
compensation rate fails to keep up with todays skyrocketing
cost of living, so we cant afford to buy a new house. And also
the way they kept delaying the meeting days after days . . .
However, I dont want to talk in specific, since talking will
not change anything at all.
[...]
EH:
I:

So lets hope that they will solve things more quickly,


Yes, we can only sit here and wait now (gio` ch biet ngo`i cho`
thoi). [Interview with author, April 29, 2011]

This woman maintained a surprisingly positive assessment of the general idea behind the project. She said it was good they demolished the shanties. But her
will to work toward a positive outcome was undermined both by the personal
experience of waiting and the knowledge that her family was surrounded by frustrated evictees who had been waiting for several years already. Waiting gradually
erodes the will to plan for the future. Exasperation takes over: We can only wait
now.
Residents especially worried about the unsettling combination of waiting and
bureaucratic ineptness, which creates conditions residents describe as forever
temporary (o ta.m mai). Many people had been living in temporary housing for
more than three years. Some people who had been displaced to make way for the
EastWest highway project, which cuts right through Thu Thiem, had been living
in temporary housing for over ten years. Most of the people who accepted the
offer to move into resettlement housing were already mired in financial difficulties:
households with small plots of land or large debts, or the unemployed. Waiting
feels oppressive not because people, for some natural reason, simply do not like to
wait. Rather, enforced waiting becomes oppressive specifically when it undermines
subsistence or precludes the ability to plan for better subsistence strategies. For
many Thu Thiem residents, waiting makes it difficult to use time in ways that
might contribute to the normal productive activity associated with economic as well
as social life. The uncertainty and the time wasted jumping through bureaucratic
hoops threatened their livelihood. The poor are made to wait. And waiting keeps
people poor.
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EVICTION TIME IN THE NEW SAIGON

UNDISCIPLINED TIME: TEMPORAL UNCERTAINTY AS


RESISTANCE
If waiting makes some people poor, it can produce great wealth for others. Real
estate investment, after all, is a form of delayed gratification, and wealth accrues
to those who have the strategic vision and the ability to wait productively. Wealth
accumulates over time, and the investment strategies driving the Thu Thiem New
Urban Zone depend on a temporal separation between the injection of capital and
the recuperation of profit. If one lives from hand to mouth, paycheck to paycheck,
or in the case of many Thu Thiem residents, from small sundry sale to small sundry
sale, time spent waiting unproductively can lead to financial ruin. The large-scale
investment strategies driving the Thu Thiem project, however, capitalize directly
on planned waiting. Such disciplined waiting responds to predictions about rising
real estate prices, loan obligations, and profits to be gained from the sale of land
to overseas investors. Taking control of waiting can be powerful; letting waiting
control you is oppressive.
The effects of waiting might appear split into a simple opposition, posing
project planners and real estate investors who benefit from waiting against residents
who suffer from it. Yet some Thu Thiem residents manage to exploit the ruptures
of time that appear so oppressive and disorienting to others. These residents, to put
it simply, respond to enforced waiting by waiting on their own terms. Subjected to
enforced waiting by project authorities, they respond by doing nothing, asserting
themselves without exerting themselves, by simply being. Their weapon is a
cool indifference to time that redirects the disruptive effects of waiting back onto
project planners themselves. This indifference threatens project authorities because
the Thu Thiem project must pay four billion do`ng (about $200,000) in interest on
loan obligations each day (G.H. 2011). As the very long sentence earlier in
this article indicated, the temporality of everyday experience is intertwined with
the temporality of development, planning, and finance. Loans cannot be repaid
until parcels of land can be resold, which cannot happen until the residents have
departed.
Those who fight waiting with waiting can do so because they have a special
relationship to time, forged through a specific relationship to economic and social
life. Their financial security is tied not to place-based, petty capitalist exchange,
but to an alternative temporality that makes them less vulnerable to the temporal
ruptures created by the project. Their line of work makes them immune to the
tactics of temporal coercion because they organize their action in time differently.
Because of this, these residents can adapt their temporality to conditions of

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uncertainty much more readily than the very architects of that uncertainty. Let
me illustrate this with the story of Fourth Brother and friends.

358

Fourth Brother and the Cool Indifference to Time


Anh Tu (Fourth Brother) is a 56-year-old, third-generation Thu Thiem
resident with no formal occupation but plenty of income and spending money.1
He is generous, good-natured, and always offers to pay when people stop to visit
during the long mornings he spends sitting at Paris, an upscale, recently remodeled
cafe located just beyond the limits of the Thu Thiem redevelopment area. He is
well known as a great person with whom to ngo`i choi,
 which means to sit down
and spend aimless, undirected time smoking, drinking coffee or beer, spinning
yarns, telling jokes, and, perhaps most importantly, coming up with and executing
money-making schemes of various sorts. Tu spends nearly all his time in the cafe
or circulating about town among the cafe, his own home, and various errands at
all corners of the city. Whenever he called me or whenever I called him, our
conversations always ended the same way: See you at Paris. He signed off cell
phone calls with others in the same way. During a typical day at least four or
five different groups of people would stop by to visit him in the cafe, pulling up
a seat just for a few quick words or lingering for a meandering chat. Every staff
member in the cafe knew him by name, and the space immediately surrounding
wherever he sat down always took on something of an aura, undulating like a
flexible circle of conversation, expanding and contracting over the course of the
morning, with arriving guests borrowing chairs and combining tables from nearby
patrons as needed, putting them back when done. Although it initially appeared
that Tu was doing nothing all day, he was actually engaged in one of the most
profitable productive labors of the contemporary Vietnamese economy: he was
producing not things but connections.
Tu was in the business of producing social relations (quan h.e). He was also
an unofficial money lender, fixer, doer, and charismatic agent with a wide net
of connections that allowed him to turn possibilities into realities. His abundance
of time, rather than being unproductive, actually allowed him to cultivate quan
h.e that, like Chinese concepts of guanxi, enable people to develop a network of
associations and reciprocal relationships that facilitate social and economic development (Kipnis 1997). In the Vietnamese economy, which Nguye n-vo Thu-huong

(2008) has called a hooking economy, one smart deal with a good relationship can produce more income than an entire year (or more) of formal employment or petty capitalist exchanges. Anthropologists have shown how economically

EVICTION TIME IN THE NEW SAIGON

active the apparently unemployed can be (Hart 1973). Idle activity is not only
connected to world-historic transformations but central to producing local social
relations (Hage 2009; Mintz 1974). But groups like these must also be understood as highly gendered groups that depend on and reproduce a masculine culture
of male bonding (Chakrabarty 1999; Jeffrey 2010; Mains 2007; Weiss 2002). It
matters that Tu is a man.
Besides his long daily visits to Paris, Tu hosted regular feasting and drinking
sessions (nha.u) at his home. He lived on more than one thousand square meters
of land, much of which was cut through by canals and overgrown grasses. To get
there, one needed to follow a narrow cement path, crossing over two skinny bridges
barely wider than a motorbike, curving around several bends, and finally navigating
a compacted dirt and gravel rut formed by the years of passing motorbikes tires
that cut this path through tall stands of elephant grass. The path meandered and
crossed over several of the small rivulets and waterways that formed a drainage
system for Thu Thiem and regulated the rising and falling tidal waters of the Saigon
River. On several occasions, especially during full moons when the rising Saigon
river waters would flood District 2, he had to delay meetings because the pathways
in and out of his home were obscured by floodwaters deeper than the wheel of
his motorbike. But this never seemed a disruption. He was always flexible with
time.
The feasting and drinking sessions at Tus
 home recall feasting patterns common throughout Southeast Asia, where the sharing of resources reproduces social
status and also engenders group cohesion (Kirsch 1973). It also recalls male feasting
behavior in China and Japan (Allison 1994; Zheng 2009), where male social connections are reinforced through exchange of food, drink, and masculine behavior.
Although the feasting at Tus
 house never included explicit sexual encounters,
it was filled with ribald discussion of sexuality and the occasions depended entirely on the labor of female members of his household, especially his wife and
his daughter-in-law, who together prepared and served the food and drink. Tu
had built a bamboo gazebo raised on stilts above a freshwater pond, indicating the
importance and regularity of these occasions. The structure mimicked the outdoor
dining areas of popular rural-themed restaurants scattered through all of Ho Chi
Minh Citys peri-urban districts. Despite, or perhaps because of, the expense these
feasts entailed, hosting them reinforced Tus
 position at the center of the network
of guests, mostly men but always at least several of the female money lenders
in Tus
 social network. Multi-hour feasts would often carry on from noon until
sundown.

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360

Tu was not pleased about the fact that he would be displaced from his land,
which had been in the family for three generations, and which held the tombs of
his parents, as well as a significant shrine (mieu) to his lineage. Yet he was not
visibly affected by the temporal ruptures that were so unsettling to other residents.
The project actually gave him and his friends more free time. Those who had
already accepted some compensation money now had more cash to contribute to
the feasts and beer money, and they could make ends meet by gleaning off the top
of the compensation monies they were supposed to be reserving for relocation.
If anything, the feasts were lasting a bit longer and occurring more frequently.
Whereas developers and planners ostensibly wield the uncertainty of time to
unsettle many local residents, residents like Tu are not unsettled. They respond to
enforced uncertainty with temporal nonchalance and indifference.
Tu explained that the Thu Thiem development authorities had opened a bank
account in his name to try and force him to sign the compensation papers and accept
deposit as a way of finalizing the deal. His response was simply not to use that bank
account, and to leave the funds untouched. He refused to sign paperwork. He said
that he plans to buy a piece of land in District 9, a peri-urban district with plots
of undeveloped land where he hopes to build a place just as peaceful as the one
he now owns, a place where he can continue holding extended parties, and where
his son can continue raising the beautiful fighting cocks for which he has earned a
justly deserved reputation. But because his livelihood does not depend on his place
of residence, he confidently resists all pressure to make any agreements at this time
or to actually start moving. He has not packed a thing. He showed me a pile of
letters from the Thu Thiem compensation authorities. They were all unopened.
Everyone in Tus
 circle expressed a similar kind of indifference to the project.
Their relaxed orientation to the temporality of eviction stems from the fact that
their own way of making ends meet operates outside the linear, goal-oriented spacetime of neoliberal capitalism. Furthermore, many of their livelihood schemes profit
from the fissures and gaps that emerge in a capitalist ordering of space and time
discipline. For example, when the difference between the bank rate and the blackmarket rate for exchanging U.S. dollars into Vietnamese do`ng hovered around two
thousand do`ng for a period in late 2010, one of Tus
 friends concocted a scheme to
travel to Cambodia and withdraw dollars from Phnom Penh ATMs and bring them
back to sell in Saigon.
Schemes like this worked because people in Tus
 circle could drop everything
at a moments notice, pick up and move, and take advantage of an opportunity.
Their relationship to work, labor, and subsistence capitalized specifically on the

EVICTION TIME IN THE NEW SAIGON

spaces and fissures in emerging capitalist space-time. They crossed borders, moved
monies, and profited by doing this before the gaps they were exploiting could be
closed. The distinction between work and home meant little, the units of labor-time
associated with wage earning did not apply, and the concept of production grounded
in a fixed, immovable place was irrelevant. They did not go to work, and never
calculated their incomes according to the numbers of hours worked. They played
emerging capitalism like a game, exploiting its contradictions and loopholes. As
Saskia Sassen has shown, the intersection of different kinds of economic activities
generates new profit opportunities at these interfaces of discrepant temporalities
(2000:222). They could capitalize on these opportunities because they were always
waiting, waiting for these kinds of opportunities to emerge.
Tus
 close friend, Thu, explained how this worked. Thu, who dressed in the
simple yet sporty, comfortable style of a motorbike-taxi driver (minus the sweat
and the grease), had made a small fortune by amassing and occasionally selling some
real estate just outside the boundary of the New Urban Zone. He was unemployed
but wealthy enough to pay for his daughter to study in Northern California until
she was ready for the University of California system. He had no regular income
and simply sold off parcels of land as necessary when new expenses arose. While
selling parcels of land to survive might sound desperate, he explained that the same
project displacing him from one part of Thu Thiem was increasing the value of
the parcels he owned on the edges of Thu Thiem. Waiting worked in his favor; the
longer he waited the more chance he had of getting higher compensation payments
for his property within Thu Thiem. And the more compensation went up in Thu
Thiem, the more values would rise in the areas where his properties were located.
The biggest challenge was finding buyers and orchestrating paperwork, which
required connections, which is precisely what one develops spending leisurely
days at Paris or passing time with all the networked friends at Tus
 house. The
point he repeatedly made was simple: He could make more money in a single
lucky day hanging out at the cafe with Tu than through a whole year of manual
labor, or petty commodity exchange. Hanging out helped him establish a network
of connections who could quickly turn a money-making scheme into a viable
reality.
A great deal of Vietnamese economic activity and social production depends
on this culture of hanging out. Social relations and business opportunities are
produced via invitations to drink and share stories in cafes and other places of
consumption. I call this a leisure mode of production, because livelihood strategies
are bound neither to discrete sites nor times of production but to circulation,

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362

constant movement, and a form of leisure that enables the production of total social
persons through socially meaningful interactions (Turner 1984). In the leisure mode
of production, people produce not goods but social relations; they do not primarily
buy and sell goods, but facilitate the relationships that enable the informal economy
of circulation. They provide informal, high interest loans, bring people together,
arrange shipments, find brokers, link buyers to sellers, and move across every
imaginable industry and money-making scheme. Among those facing eviction,
those engaged in this leisure mode of production form a class of people who
ultimately prove better at dealing with the temporal ruptures of eviction than the
authorities themselves. They practice what Craig Jeffrey, referring to universityeducated North Indian youths, calls timepass. They thrive on just passing time or
otherwise operating outside the temporal demands of an economic order marked by
social expectations of productive time use that advances forward in a linear fashion.
Timepass can be anxiety ridden for some, but others successfully transform an
overabundance of time into the empowering sense of having time to make social
connections (Jeffrey 2010). Dipesh Chakrabarty (1999:135), describing a similar
Bengali concept of male feasting, hanging out, and socializing called adda, explains
how this practice is both a product of modernity and understood as a threat to it.
Similarly, Vietnamese forms of sociality can be understood as economic behaviors
produced at the modern interface of socialist temporality and the opening up to the
market economy. The men who hang out in Thu Thiem are functional equivalents to
the networkers who populate the elite cafes, lounges, banquet halls, VIP rooms, and
karaoke rooms of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Their temporality is both adapted to
the connection-seeking behavior made profitable by market-oriented socialism and
threatening to imperatives of efficiency and goal-oriented time use. Some of their
creative money-making schemes are not unlike the financial instruments of high
finance. Nevertheless, like antiquated forms of patriarchal industrial capitalism,
the leisure mode of production depends on but largely conceals female household
labor (Massey 1994). Undisciplined time use may offer alternatives to neoliberal
time discipline, but it should not be glorified uncritically. It too rests on deeply
gendered inequities of its own.
While neither adda nor the English word timepass exist in Vietnamese,
similar ideas are signified by the multivalent word choi,
 which literally means to
play or have fun, but also means to hang out. Like timepass and adda, to choi is
to produce an expanse of featureless time in which men do nothing in highly
gendered, largely (but not exclusively) male settings such as cafes, inexpensive
makeshift drinking restaurants (quan nha.u), and the public, often outdoor spaces

EVICTION TIME IN THE NEW SAIGON

of homes. The ability to choi indicates a sense of being at ease and in possession
of unencumbered free time. Although the number of hours that tick by may be
the same, to choi and to wait is to experience the passage of time in fundamentally
different ways. To choi is a pleasure born out of opportunity and serves as a sign of
achieved status; being forced to wait represents oppression and disenfranchisement.
Many highly educated youths in North India become anxious when thrust
into a state of unproductive time. In the face of a dominant social vision of how
people advance through stages in a life, many young men feel that it is a problem
if they miss years or have gaps in resumes (Jeffrey 2010:468). Unemployed
Ethiopian youths also conceive excess time as a burden (Mains 2007). Tu and his
companions, however, consider themselves to be quite productive and successful,
and their alternative temporality produces no visible anxiety. Being flexible with
time is central to their everyday livelihood strategies, and the capacity to choi is a
sign of having made it in the world. For some observers, however, people who
choi are a threat to the moral order of society. The media, for example, describes
some of the people from Thu Thiem as players (dan choi)
 and condemns them for
their indolence, dandyism, and economic wastefulness (Kim Anh and Nguye n Nam
2009). The anxiety, in this case, is not expressed by the residents so much as by
the state-run media. Residents like Tu fight uncertainty with timepass. They are
able to hang out in conditions of uncertainty with expert skill, thwarting attempts
to phase them out by hanging out in the rubble fields of Thu Thiem.
CONCLUSION
Tu and his friends show how many Thu Thiem residents exhibit remarkable
resilience in the face of enforced temporal uncertainty. They frustrate project
planners with their indifference. In doing so, they redirect the pressures of temporal
uncertainty back onto those who wish to see them go. But not every Thu Thiem
resident is so resilient. For a great majority of them temporal instability dramatically
upsets their productive capacities and threatens their livelihood. The effects of
eviction time then, are multiple. Not all residents experience it in the same ways.
As Ghassan Hage notes, waiting emphasises a dimension of life where the
problematic of our agency is foregrounded (2009:2). There is a vast difference
between being forced to wait and transforming waiting into an expression of
ones own agency. Although the ways these temporalities play out are not always
predictable, there are specific structural features that condition the meaning of
something so apparently straightforward as waiting, in particular ones relationship
to productive activity. In the case of Thu Thiem, a poor, indebted motorbike

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repairman with a heavy debt burden whose livelihood depends on being able to
capture customers from the roadside in front of his home will be put into a very
vulnerable position if he is forced to wait until he can reestablish himself in a new
community. The temporality of eviction will disrupt his livelihood in material ways
that will constrain the kinds of choices and responses he can make. A man who
makes his fortune as a money lender, and who makes his deals in cafes or over
drinking sessions, by contrast, is highly mobile and can wait as long as he wants
before moving. Gender is also central. Many of Thu Thiems female residents have
constructed household livelihood strategies that depend on the particular position
of a house in relationship to the space around it. Eviction will require inventing new
livelihood strategies, a burden which will largely fall on womens shoulders. And
while much of the empowered hanging out associated with choi is a largely male
activity, the ability to choi depends on the concealed labor of female householders.
Waiting can be either a mechanism of domination or source of opportunity, but
the structural conditions framing a persons place in the world contribute to
the difference between them. All the Thu Thiem residents in this article are facing
eviction, and thus have similar reasons to oppose the state-backed project intending
to evict them. But their relationship to the project is greatly transformed by their
own particular relationships to space and time, in other words, where they live and
what they do.
Project planners, developers, and real estate investors ostensibly control the
project timetable and plans. Yet they themselves feel the pressure of time. They
feel the press of finance capital, as well as the demands of governments and
populations who often want to see results. They must attend to completion dates
and deadlines inscribed in planning documents and other celebratory visions of the
future. Evictions hinge on the completion of resettlement housing, which depends
on the fickle schedule and constant delays of construction contractors, as well as the
willingness of people to accept compensation and move. All of this is inflected by
rapid, often daily changes in currency, gold exchange, and interest rates, as well as
skyrocketing land prices that constantly impact the relative value of compensation
payments. All this takes time and plays out over time.
Temporal instability makes it difficult for people living in zones slated for
redevelopment to plan for the future. But planning for the future is precisely
the logic organizing the Thu Thiem project. In this context, a presentist mode
of livingwhat Guyer calls the evacuation of the near futurecan actually
challenge the very temporality that drives the project. Thu Thiem is, like so many
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EVICTION TIME IN THE NEW SAIGON

cases around the globe, one more in a global series of straightforward conflicts about
money and land legitimized by rhetoric of forward-moving development. The brute
exercise of power and influence to strip people of their land while compensating
them at rates well below the anticipated profits is founded on planning for the
future. One response to this is to fight for the right to plan for ones own future.
Another is to turn toward an alternative temporality less intent on planning than
on forging connections and social relations that operate in an alternative time of
spontaneous possibility, where nothing is ever happening but where opportunities
always seem to arrive. And those who live most comfortably in this presentist
time of always-impending opportunity prove the most troubling to the architects
and linear dreamers of urban development. They do not so much refuse as remain
indifferent to these future visions. Their indifference to time lets them play with
time. And the power of their indifference, although hardly a form of conscious
resistance, proves a strategy that is hard to resist.

ABSTRACT
This article describes the temporality of eviction in a rubble-strewn site of urban
demolition in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), where over 14,000 households are being
evicted to create an ambitious new urban zone. Eviction thrusts many residents into
an alternative time-world of enforced waiting, marked by an oppressive sense of being
suspended in time. For some residents, however, an alternative temporality marked by
indifference and disinterested detachment disrupts the projects timeline and thwarts
the temporal designs of planners. Attention to the play of time reveals important social
dynamics of everyday urban development and shows that acts of land clearance and
reactions to them are more complex than simple battles over land and money. Most
significantly, the difference between oppressive, alienating waiting and empowering,
socially productive hanging out (choi)
 is conditioned by the different ways social actors
understand productive activity as an expression of agency played out in time.
NOTE
Acknowledgments. Research for this article was supported by National Science Foundation
Award No. BCS-1026754 and a research leave from Yale University. Earlier versions were presented
at the Yale Postsocialisms Working Group, U.C. San Diego, Stockholm University, the University of
Copenhagen, and the College of the Holy Cross. I am grateful to Suzanne Brenner, Eli Elinoff, Tine
Gammeltoft, Timothy Karis, Johan Lindquist, Minhua Ling, Ann Marie Leshkowich, Ken MacLean,
Douglass Rogers, Edyta Roszko, Oscar Salemink, and Allen Tran. I would also like to thank Anne
Allison, Charles Piot, and two anonymous peer reviewers from Cultural Anthropology who provided
supportive, yet always incisive feedback.
1.

Names have been changed in this article.


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