Nguyen Hai Chi (Choé) Biography

Nguyen Hai Chi (Choé)





Despite numerous restrictions on the press during the Vietnam War, political cartoons flourished in southern Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s. One of the most well-known cartoonists of this period was Nguyen Hai Chi, popularly known as Choé, whose cartoons appeared in Newsweek and the New York TimesHe became famous for his grotesque depictions of American and south Vietnamese political leaders, and his scathing pictorial commentary on the savage war that was destroying so many lives. In addition to cartooning, he was a painter, writer, and musician. 

Choé was born on November 11, 1943, in Cai Tau Thong, Sa Dac province, Vietnam. Coming from a very poor family, he had to leave school at age seven and find paid work as a laborer and cowherd at age nine. In 1960 at seventeen, as members of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam began forcing young men into the mountains to perform guerilla activities, he fled to the city of My Tho. There, he found work at an advertising agency and was able to study painting.  

Throughout the 1960s Choé received acclaim for his short stories and poetry, and after being drafted into the Republic of Vietnam Army in 1964, he was awarded Best Short Story by the Front Line Newspaper. In the late 1960s he switched to cartooning for Saigon's Forum newspaper and began signing as Choé. The political nature of his work made him a controversial figure but gained him national attention, and he would go on to contribute to the Black Panther Daily newspaper, the New York Times, Newsweek, and more int he early 1970s. In 1973, American journalist Barry Hilton called him the "number one caricature artist of Vietnam" and planned to publish a book of his works, only to be thwarted by the American government.

His work criticizing US policy in Vietnam would eventually lead to his arrest - for ostensibly being a Communist - in 1975. Not one to waste time even in prison, he taught himself how to play instruments and compose music. The Fall of Saigon just three months into his sentence allowed Choé to escape prison, but in 1976 he was rearrested as the Vietnam government cracked down on journalists they deemed "culture commandos" and was sent to a re-education camp at Chi Hoa prison until the end of 1985, and was moved twice more until 1990 when the government could not find probably cause to keep him incarcerated.

After his release he became a freelance cartoonist for major newspapers in Vietnam including Labour. With the renovation of the print media in the late 1980s, cartoons and comic strips appeared regularly in many daily newspapers and magazines. The first paintings that Choe did were of his relatives and of wives, children and Vietnamese women. These subjects could be seen in his photo set, “Women of My Country” which consisted of ten paintings created for the Asian Cartoon Exhibition held in Japan in 1995. These paintings were created on poonah paper with iron pen and watercolour. Choé cared deeply about the fates and hardships of Vietanmese women from the past and hoped to express their dreams, perhaps the reason why he depicted them in a very carefree and peaceful nuance and setting.

Choé, who was denied an exit application due to his cartoons and writings, remaind in Ho Chi Minh city and was represented by Tu Do Gallery, where he sold oil and watercolor paintings. After suffering a stroke in 1997 he was temporarily paraliyzed, and never fully recovered. Losing sight in one eye by 2001, he quit pursuing visual art and focused on music and poetry. After another stroke, he was aided by a friend in finding treatment in the United States. He remained in Virgina for a few months, hopeful for recovery, but died on 
March 12, 2003. After a funeral service at Arlington Cemetary, his body was returned to Vietnam and he was buried in the cemetary at Thahn Mau Church in the Dong Noi province. 

Awards, Honors, and Recognitions:
1966: Outstanding Short Story, Front Line Newspaper
1973: New York Times' votes Choe as One of Eight Outstanding Cartoonists of the World
1995: Invited by the Deputy Consul General of Japan to exhibit in the international "Women of My Country" show which traveled throughout Japan
1995: Selected by France's L'Hebdo publication as one of six Vietnamese artists of note between 1975 and 1995
1998: Invited to meet Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, Rome, Italy
2004: An exhibition of Choe's twenty-nine portraits of Nobel Prize winners is held in Stockholm, Sweden on "Vietnam Day"