The Stories of Kỳ Đồng and Gauguin
In September of 1901, fifty-three-year old Eugene Henri Paul Gauguin, weary of "everything artificial and conventional" and financially
destitute, landed in the village of Atuona, on the island of Hiva-oa, and capital of the Marquesas Islands (or Archipelago) situated
in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. A young Vietnamese greeted him in perfect French and took him on a tour of the Polynesian village.
Gauguin is now known all over the world for his post impressionist paintings, wood engravings and woodcuts, and Nguyễn Văn
Cẩm or Kỳ Đồng has a few streets in Vietnam named after him, but few outside of Vietnam are aware of the story
of the political revolutionary who, for three years, took on the role of nurse and companion to the French revolutionary artist during
the final years of his life.
For Gauguin, it was self exile from European civilization. He sailed to the Polynesian Island in 1891, where he first settled in Tahiti
and then in Punaaiuia in 1897, where he created several masterpieces depicting Tahitian life. On the contrary, for the then
twenty-six-year old Vietnamese, life in this isolated small island was in no way by choice; in fact he belonged to the first group
of Vietnamese sentenced to live in exile due to his subversive activities against recently established French colonial rule
The golden child
The story of Nguyễn Văn Cẩm (1875-1929) was very unusual even from the beginning. He was born in the province of
Thái Bỉnh (former Hưng Yên) in North Vietnam. His father, a traditional Confucian scholar, made him take the
screening exam to the prestigious and competitive provincial competition in Nam Định. The seven-year old boy's performance
was rated as excellent. The chief of Nam Dinh school district was so impressed that he submitted a report about this child prodigy to
Emperor Tự Đức, who even took the effort to personally congratulate him and give him a scholarship. Noting that the
child was still too young to be of any use to the government, Tự Đức instructed the local school authorities "to
educate him so that our government can use him when he grows up" and bestowed upon him the title name of "Kỳ Đồng"
which literally means "marvelous child" or "child prodigy," and the name by which he has been almost exclusively referred to since.