December Lit: "Ho Chi Minh in Harlem" by Phong Nguyen

December 9, 2013

For December, we bring you Phong Nguyen's short story "Ho Chi Minh in Harlem" from his collection PAGES FROM THE TEXTBOOK OF ALTERNATE HISTORY.

Phong Nguyen's collection of short stories, PAGES FROM THE TEXTBOOK OF ALTERNATE HISTORY, due out by Queen's Ferry Press in January 2014, is an inventive, witty, and thought-provoking series that imagines what the world would have been like if some of our greatest heroes and villains had met much different fates. From Columbus discovering Asia to Hitler attending art school, the stories turn history on its head, turning events that almost could have happened into reality. Each story is complete with discussion questions, just like any good textbook might.

Hyphen is happy to present one story from Nguyen's collection, "Ho Chi Minh in Harlem", originally published by The Texas Review and reprinted with permission. The story tells of a very different fame Ho Chi Minh might have achieved if, instead of going back to Vietnam, he was lured in by the American Dream. -- Karissa Chen, Fiction & Poetry Editor

Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969), grandfather to the frozen food industry, was born and raised in the Nghe An province of Vietnam, the son of a civil servant. Born Nguyen Sinh Cung, Nguyen took on the name Ho Chi Minh (or “He Who Enlightens”) after moving to the United States. Ho began his American life as a pastry chef at Hotel Theresa in the year 1913, long before he began producing his specialty pastries as the first mass-market frozen food.

Ed Winston, an African-American prizefighter and a lifelong friend of Ho’s, asserted in his memoirs—excerpted below—that Ho had not intended to remain in the U.S., but planned to return to Vietnam and lead a revolt against the French colonial government. That he chose instead to become an American citizen and then an entrepreneur is a testament to the depth of his American idealism.

Ever since he returned from his tour of the heartland, Bac Ho wouldn’t leave the neighborhood. When I asked him what he thought about America, he nodded his head thoughtfully and said, “America is fine . . . but Harlem is my home.”

Three years ago, when he first arrived, all he talked about was returning to Vietnam—as soon as he learned the secret of how the Americans had cast off the yoke of imperialism to become the world’s first free and independent colony. He came to America to learn the art of revolution. Then the other America got to him—the America of aborted plans and good intentions left out too long in the sun—and though he continued to speak of his grand scheme, his heart was not in it, and eventually he stopped referring to any other “home” than Harlem.

Bac Ho was the pastry chef in our hotel, the Theresa, and I was deli. Mornings we spent arm to arm, slaving away at the slicer we shared, alternating cheeses and meats, while residue formed in the selvedges like sludge. The kitchens are always the rearmost and out-of-the-way location in the building, where food can be prepared on the cheap, which at least put us next to the icebox, so that a summer wind through the windows actually brought with it a temporary coolness.

Early afternoons we passed orders up to the lunch counter, which appeared a model of efficiency as the servers swerved proudly between tables like salmon, wantonly depositing dishes on customers’ tables like ovum in the gravel of a riverbed. But behind the scenes where we lived it was sort of a vaudeville performance, one that was so avant-garde it required no audience. Backstage, out of boredom, we scattered the dishes on the floor and lobbed food at them. We hung meat from the ceiling like lines of laundry and tenderized them with our fists, acting out the latest middleweight match-up (I was always Sam Langford KO’ing whichever white boy stood against him that week). We stuffed our guts with free food and held belching contests.

When he started at the Theresa, Bac Ho was so shy the staff called him “The Mute of Harlem.” He had a child’s habit of nodding his head when spoken to, but unlike a child, his eyes always met yours when he spoke. Whenever he stepped out onto the concrete, his head craned back and he’d stare at the jagged skyline of towers like they were ladies’ legs opening above him. There was a bit of Chaplin in him, I thought, a foreigner’s innocence and a contentment in rags.

In the late afternoon, when traffic slowed and the halls emptied, Bac Ho and I’d smoke a couple of torpedoes in the lobby, like captains of industry—and watch all the dames pass by on the street, as though we were window-shopping for a piece of kitty. And when a dame would eye us back? That was enough for a day’s worth of talk.

Nights we spent choking down what was left from an evening of restaurant service: we drank, literally, from the bottom of the barrel. The warm, foamy ale sloshed around the pails with the consistency and the vague smell of urine, but as it poured down our gullets, it had all the potency of mulled wine.

For a time, we were mere creatures of vice. Both of us holed up in the mess quarters like sailors on an endless loop of the world. In fact, that’s exactly what Ho had done for years before arriving here: Paris, to London, to Marseilles, to Casablanca, to Boston... and New York. And the stories he told made me feel that I was a part of the journey.

They were good times, I’m soft enough to say. The trouble was that, between the two of us, there was no money. I could never save a nickel, and Bac Ho had just emptied his billfold in the heartland. Once in a while, I’d hear Bac Ho talk like he didn’t need money, like it was no big deal, but then he’d get back to work earning his daily portion like the rest of us.

When I asked him what all his principles amounted to now, he’d just shrug and say, “A man’s got to eat, hasn’t he?” Three years in America, and Bac Ho was thinking like an American.


In France, Bac Ho had acquired a taste for cheese. Between all the American headcheese he was eating now, and his own talent for pastry-making, Bac Ho began showing some pink in his cheek. So that I could even imagine him breaking bread with the beer-bellied sons of Alabama. But when I pressed him on the trip, he said that in reality his sojourn into the heart of America had been like a fever dream. In Georgia, out in the western counties, Ho had been witness to a lynching, or so I gathered. His own report of the event was confused both by the trauma and the communication barrier. He tried to explain how they had burned a man, cut off his body parts, and then hanged him for good measure. But he couldn’t get over the fact that the white men and women and children who filled the crowd were smiling, like guests at a Sunday barbeque.

“Do they enjoy suffering?” he asked.

On Saturdays our usual distraction was to train down to the winter garden to watch the Minsky’s Burlesque. That night, I took Bac Ho out, gratis, as a sort of apology for the sad state our country was in. This was before Bac Ho told me how, in Vietnam, the French also executed the undesirables.

We were too late for seats, so we crowded out some kids for a close-up in the pit. In this particular classy production a young woman by the name of Baby Vamp came out first thing and showed off her strut, which looked a heck of a lot like a man imitating a woman’s walk. She gave a speech celebrating certain foods which, through skillful innuendo, served to stand-in for the male anatomy. There were acrobats and jugglers next, and one clown came in and made a big show out of trying to ruin the act, but the acrobats and jugglers kept on going, and it turned out this joker was really part of the show, because then he joined in the tumbling and juggling like he hadn’t ever realized that he’d been a master of the art all along. Later, Baby Vamp came back on stage as a coon shouter, cupping her hands around her painted-on big lips and calling out these zingers in what she must have thought was Negro-speak. Whatever it was, she made it look cute as all hell, and her country hat and nappy wig looked foolish on top of her small-featured face, even, as it was, stained black with shoe polish; so the whole thing was a gag, but when I turned my head there was Ho standing with his arms folded, stern as a wooden Indian.

The whole variety ended with a song, and since the cast was scarce they did a call and response to get the crowd going, and by the end nobody cared that they’d dropped two nickels just to make themselves look ridiculous. But the last act had ruined it for my pal Ho, so the walk home was quiet and made the city appear huge and anonymous, the way it did when you were new to it. “Shit, you’d think you’d just come from a funeral,” I said, trying to cheer up the sour Oriental.


A few weeks passed before Ho brought up lynching again. “Forget about it,” I said. “It’s a terrible evil thing, I know, but what does it have to do with you? Was he kin to you?”

He paused, and turned his chin upward pensively, as if considering the possibility. Then he timidly extended his fist, which contained a crumpled pamphlet advertising a meeting of a group of Negro activists called the United Negro Improvement Association, which he must have found plastered to a wall in the slums. “I wish to go here,” he said. “Would you come with me?”

I gave him a dodgy look, which meant I had no excuse but if he gave me time I could come up with one.

“I’ll pay,” he said.

“Whatever,” I said, because if I didn’t, then who would be there to save his ass if it got into trouble?

The UNIA met in a building not far from the Theresa. My own plan was to sneak in a pint of whiskey, sip it throughout all the speeches, and stumble home drunk. I meant no disrespect to my Negro brothers and sisters, but I saw in this new passion of his an implied threat to our idle nights and days, and was determined to undermine it. But what we encountered there was beyond my capacity to disrupt. Rather than an auditorium sparsely populated by dark-skinned men idling as they watched a parade of charismatic Negro intellectuals speechifying, it was not a stage at all, but more of a courtroom, where men and women in the crowd took turns making themselves heard. There was a town-hall feel to it, as if here were the true voices of Harlem.

When the formal oratory had ended, and the scene devolved into an array of loosely related conversations, Ho made his way through the sea of dark faces toward the bench, where there sat a thoughtful and royal-looking Jamaican named Marcus Garvey, reminiscent of a lion in both the broadness of his face and the turned-down whiskers. Ho introduced himself as “a patriot from Vietnam,” as though he were a man of importance in his home country. Throughout his introduction, Marcus maintained a respectful but aloof expression.

“There is something in your speech that I cannot understand,” said Ho, the younger man, to his new mentor. “If you wish for there to be equality, how can you think of separating the races?”

Garvey smirked, visibly weary of this question. He turned to address me instead, saying, “Equality—the sort of equality your friend means—in America is an illusion. The struggle for equality is never about equality, but about power.”

Ho spoke again, “Power, yes, but it seems to me that the real issue here is economic. If the Negro of America were to acquire wealth to rival the Caucasian, then they would enjoy the most real form of equality.”

“Racial unity in the service of economic equality will never be a reality—not in this country,” said Marcus, finally turning to address my Oriental friend. “But never mind that. Consider this: you are trying to remove the French from Vietnam?”

“Not so,” said Ho. “We do not want to be ruled by the French, but neither do we want to remove them permanently.”

“Because Vietnam is for the Vietnamese?”

“Of course,” said Ho.

“Well, then Africa...” here he paused for effect, “is for the Africans.”

Ho’s face fell with disappointment. “I have heard a lyncher say that very thing.”

“At least the lyncher is honest,” said Marcus darkly. “Why did you come here? What does an Oriental care about the cause of the American Negro?”

If he was surprised by the question, Ho showed no sign of it. His eyes stared off into the distance as he recalled his childhood: “When I was thirteen years old, for the first time I heard the French words ‘liberté,’ ‘egalité,’ and ‘fraternité.’ At the time, I thought that all white people were French. Since a Frenchman had written those words, I wanted to become acquainted with French civilization to see what meaning lay in those words,”[1] Ho began. “When I learned about the American revolution, and the Civil War that abolished slavery, I wanted to understand what it means to be an American.”

“Look around this room,” said Marcus with a sweep of his arm that seemed to encompass all of the men and women of so many hues, unconsciously separated into discrete groups according to the lightness of their skin, “and you will understand what it means to be an American.”

Then he added, “If you are looking for equality in America, then you may as well go home.”

So Ho and I went home, to Harlem.


The lamplight outside the Theresa splayed out and fragmented as though seen through a cracked window. End-of-the-rain droplets tapped off-rhythm on the awning as we walked under it, into the lounge. Passing the other way through the mudroom, to our delight, was Baby Vamp, the new girl from Minsky’s, her face streaked with the remains of what had recently been a painted face. There was barely enough space for the three of us in the glass foyer, so that we blocked one another’s way, and stood on display for the saloon. Ho remained there, looking, in that piercing way that says he will not waver, he will not turn away. Baby showed, with a curl of her eyebrow, that she had the same way about her. I didn’t need a coon shouter to tell me that it was time to make myself scarce and let nature take over, but after all the talk of politics, my head was hurting and I just needed to lie down on my own mattress. I motioned for the lady to pass, as I tugged at Ho’s sleeve. She strutted past us, slow-like, smirkily twirling the end of her scarf.

Ho turned around to face her. “Excuse me,” he said. “Please tell me your name.”

“Mary Jane West, honey. Aren’t you adorable.”

To that, he replied with the same unwavering look. “And are you a guest here at the hotel?” he asked.

“That depends on whether I’m invited,” she said suggestively.

“My name is Ho. I am a dessert chef here at the Theresa; if you should ever need something sweet, please ask after me, and I will take care of you.”

That night I spilled into sleep as soon as we reached the room, while Ho stayed up smoking the rest of his pinch with a pipe, listening to the fading storm through an open window. I half-woke in the middle of the night to the sound of a gentle rapping on the door. A muffled Brooklyn voice from behind the door called, “Hurry up. You make me wait, and I’m gonna make you wait.”


In the morning, Ms. West stuck around, strutting about the room in her way, casually nude, like a Frenchie. She picked up a photo of a younger Ho standing by the doors of his high school in Huê. “So where did you say you were from again?”

“Vietnam. It’s near China,” he said.

“Yeah, I own a map,” she said, then added with a smirk.“Now I can check that one off the list.”

“I thought for a long time I would return, but now it becomes hard.”

Mae winked. “I know it does.” She picked through her purse for a brush. “So how’d the likes of you end up in Harlem?”

“I work for a shipping company, so I’ve been all over the world, but I come here to learn how to free Vietnam.”

“Well, aren’t you the patriot?” she said. “I’ve been all over the world too, but the only thing I ever set free was a fella.” Now she was moving the brush through her hair, tenderly, as though it were a separate animal. She caught me staring and shifted slowly, draping a sheet over her shoulder in a show of modesty which, under the circumstances, appeared comically coy. “So when did you give all that up?” She reclined in the bed, so that her upper back pressed against Ho’s chest familiarly.

“The statue of Lincoln in Union Square,” he said. “When I first saw it.” In response, Ms. West raised an eyebrow and cocked her head to the side to give Ho a view of her in profile. He continued: “There he was, a humble man, a man of modest tastes and means, turned into a god by history. If I ever did go back and free Vietnam, I realized, someday I would be made a statue too, and the blind worship of our flawed heroes would go on.” He paused. “Even in America, our leaders are untouchable.”

“Oh, they’re touchable, all right; take my word,” said Ms. West, springing forward in the bed and doing an about-face to look at him directly. “If you want to change the world, baby, go find the President—just walk right up to Woody Willie, shake his hand and say, ‘listen, me and you have got a date with destiny.’ Know what I mean?” Ho wore that distant look again.“At least that’s how I’d do it,” she said, standing up to dress at last. “But, hey, to each his own.”


In the center of Hanoi there is a lake called Hoan Kiem, the “Lake of the Returned Sword.” At the center, there is Turtle Tower, which commemorates the legend of King Le Loi, who, like King Arthur, received a sword imbued with divine powers from the bowels of the lake, in order to fulfill his destiny and triumph in war. And like Arthur, Le Loi was told that once his war was ended, he was to return the sword to the lake from whence it came.

This is how Ho answered when I asked him how he could, as a victim of French imperialism, spend his days cooking French pastries. “Don’t you hate the French?” I asked. We were at the slicer again, and he was cutting off pieces of cheddar.

“No,” he answered, surprised at the suggestion. “I admire the French. Once we have run their armies out of Vietnam, we will invite them back as guests. And the sword will be put away.”

“You may as well put away the sword now,” I said, thinking that my friend Ho, lost in his old dreams of glory, needed a rude awakening, “and take up the cheese knife. Because the French are there to stay. And this, right here,” I gestured to include the food, the stoves, and the whole hot kitchen, “is the American Dream.”

Ho stopped slicing momentarily, and the break in rhythm was punctuated by the sound of clinking glasses in the front kitchen. “You are right,” he said, resuming the action of the knife, looking down at the mess of color on his apron, which puffed out slightly with the new weight he had borne since becoming an American. “If there ever was another dream than this, I’ve already forgotten it.”


It was not until the 1950s that Ho’s real coup took place: Uncle Ho’s Ready-Bake Frozen Dough. With his natural ingenuity and canny business sense, Ho Chi Minh was able to capitalize on the broad accessibility of the refrigerator by selling the first oven-ready dessert pastries to the mass-market. His early dabbling in radical causes eventually made him a target of the House Un-American Activities Committee and a personal project of J. Edgar Hoover’s, but through his persistence Ho overcame these setbacks to become one of the richest and most influential men in America.

In marketing pre-frozen items, Ho revolutionized the food industry and ushered in a new era of packaging and distributing edible goods. Soon after Uncle Ho’s Ready-Bake Frozen Dough changed the way we buy and sell pastry, other food companies followed, domino-fashion, with their own frozen food lines. And America’s grocery stores have never been the same.


"Ho Chi Minh in Harlem"

Suggestions for Class Discussion:

In light of Winston’s memoir, did Ho’s decision to stay in America represent a sacrifice of principles? If so, what was Ho giving up by remaining in the United States? Ho Chi Minh was, at a very young age, determined to do good in the world; would you consider his impact on American food to be primarily a positive or a negative one? Which is the greater glory: food or politics?


[1] Ho Chi Minh qtd. in Duiker, William J. Ho Chi Minh. New York: Hyperion, 2001. Page 45.


Phong Nguyen

Phong Nguyen is the author of Memory Sickness and Other Stories (Elixir Press 2011) and Pages From the Textbook of Alternate History (Queen's Ferry Press 2014). He is Associate Professor of English at the University of Central Missouri, where he edits the journal Pleiades and the Unsung Masters book series, for which he edited the volume Nancy Hale: The Life and Work of a Lost American Master.