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Vietnamese priest’s story will one day be told, thanks to UCLA professor
Professor George Dutton (Photo by Rebecca Kendall)

Vietnamese priest’s story will one day be told, thanks to UCLA professor

The story of Philiphe Binh is one that needs to be shared, says George Dutton

UCLA Today

There are many people in history who have set out to evoke positive change in their communities and who devote their entire lives to accomplishing their goals, but none have intrigued Professor George Dutton, vice chair of the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures, as much as a certain 18th century Vietnamese priest.

Philiphe Binh is the man at the center of Dutton’s current research, and one day Dutton plans to share Binh’s story with the world.

In 1796, Binh left his home in Northern Vietnam determined to convince the king of Portugal to assign a bishop to serve his community. Binh travelled to Lisbon because he knew that the Portuguese ruler held papally-granted authority to appoint bishops to Asia. “He never succeeded,” says Dutton, adding that Binh spent the rest of his life in Portugal, where he finally died in 1833 at the age of 74.

“He’s probably the first Vietnamese person about whom one can write a full-fledged biography, one in which you get a sense of what made him tick as a person,” says Dutton. “There are obviously many significant historical figures in Vietnam before him, but very few of them left a sense of who they were as individuals.”

For the past several years, Dutton has been sifting through endless amounts of documents in search for words written by or about Binh.  Fortunately, the priest left a vast collection of writings, including 35 notebooks containing letters, journals and other materials, which are archived at the Vatican.  “We know whom he liked, whom he hated and what he liked to eat,” says Dutton. “He writes extensively about his life in Portugal, his observations about Portuguese life and his experiences with Portuguese bureaucracy as he went about his mission.”

Binh was in Portugal during the Napoleonic invasion, which forced the Portuguese king to flee to Brazil. Still driven by his dedication to his community in Vietnam, Binh attempted to follow the king by boat. He was forced to turn back, but remained undeterred; later buying a ticket to Brazil to continue his appeals, but unable to travel at the last minute.

“He nearly became the first Vietnamese to travel to the new world,” says Dutton.

Dutton first visited Southeast Asia in 1987 as a junior at Brown University, where he studied history and international relations, and participated in a study abroad program that landed him in Singapore. He says he made the most of his time there by traveling throughout the region, making stops in Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma and Thailand.

“That was my first chance to explore the area, and I fell in love with the place,” says Dutton, who later earned a master’s degree in international relations from Yale University and a PhD in history from the University of Washington. “At an emotional level, Southeast Asia is a fascinating place. There’s such enormous diversity of people, culture, religious practices, tradition. It’s really a place where you can study human society in so many forms.”

Upon graduation, Dutton was hired by a non-profit organization in Washington that was developing and running smoking cessation programs in Vietnam. As part of that internship, in early 1990 he helped lead an American tour group to Vietnam, a nation where tourism was still very much limited.

His passion for Southeast Asia led him to UCLA in 2001. At the time, the university’s Southeast Asian studies program was still very much in its infancy, and Dutton was keen to support its growth and development.

One of the program’s strongest features is its language programs, says Dutton, adding that there are consistently strong enrollment figures for Thai, Vietnamese, Tagalog and Indonesian classes. “For most of those languages, we have the highest enrollment of any language programs in the United States.”

In addition to his research and teaching duties, Dutton, whose work has been published in Xua va Nay, South East Asia Research, the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies and The Journal of Vietnamese Studies, to name a few, served as director of the Southeast Asian Languages Program from 2006 to 2009 and chair of the Southeast Asian Studies Interdepartmental Program from 2004 to 2010.

In 2006, Dutton released his first book, The Tay Son Uprising: Society and Rebellion in Eighteenth-Century Vietnam. His latest book is a co-edited volume, Sources of Vietnamese Tradition, translates primary texts that explore the multifaceted history, culture, politics and society of Vietnam. The book, which is scheduled for release in June, is the latest title in the highly respected “Introduction to Asian Civilizations” series published by Columbia University Press.

In addition to his role as vice chair of the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures, a position he accepted in 2009,  Dutton recently became chair of the Southeast Asia Council for the Association for Asian Studies. At UCLA he teaches courses on Vietnamese history and aspects of Southeast Asia. Among these is “Religion and Society in Southeast Asian,” which covers folk-religious practices, Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism, spirit worship, Islam and Hinduism, all of which, says Dutton, have unique manifestations in Southeast Asia.

Dutton is also involved with planning and organizing a number of the free public talks offered by the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies, which promotes innovative, interdisciplinary teaching and scholarship, and sponsors research, student scholarships and fellowships, language instruction, public lectures and conferences, and outreach to schools and communities.

This includes talks by Lan Chu, an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College, who discuss ed religious protest in Vietnam on May 9 and Muhamad Ali, an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of California, Riverside, who spoke about diversity of religious pluralism in Indonesia on May 15.