Vương Duy Bảo, a descendent of the Hmong king of Ha Giang and the legal representative of the Vương family, sued the provincial government for lying about his family’s mansion being donated to the state and taking away his family’s heritage. Bảo was only able to win back the ownership (Red Book) of the Hmong Palace in Sa Phin, Vietnam. This was big news in the country back in 2018.
Vương Chí Sình, born Vàng Seo Lử, was Duy Bảo’s great grandfather and a highly respected man in the waning days of the Nguyễn dynasty when the French empire and Qing empire fought for control over Vietnam. His father was the king of Hmong, or Vương Chính Đức — a title elected by his community, a tribe of the Hmong people who live in Vietnam’s Ha Giang province. Chính Đức had a difficult job serving as a reliable and trusted ethnic leader of the Hmongs in his province. One of his main responsibilities was maintaining his people’s independence from France while also ensuring their survival.
Not only was he a leader, but he was also a shrewd businessman. Chính Đức had found something everyone wanted: opium.
He collected all the opium harvested by his people for the French and got rich quickly. His most trustworthy associate was his son Chí Sình, who followed him into China and French-controlled areas to do trade. From the township of Đồng Văn, Chí Sinh brought opium and other products to the cities of Hanoi and Hai Phong to sell. He then used the money he made to buy cloth, kerosene, flint and everyday utensils to bring back to Ha Giang. He bought a house in Hanoi to transship goods and became a noted figure in the country’s capital. The young man became someone akin to a gentleman, blending the charms of the people with the style and decorum of high society and speaking both French and Mandarin fluently. He was talented, well-educated and loved by his people; thus, his father chose him as his successor.
Chính Đức started building his palace during the opium trade, which lasted until the beginning of the Viet Minh revolution — also known as the August Revolution — in 1945. The expansive residence, which consisted of three architectural influences – Chinese, French and Hmong – took 12 years to construct among the mountains of Ha Giang province. It had three main buildings: the front, the middle and the back.
Chí Sình’s daughter, Vương Thị Thiá, married Hùng Ứng Lâm (known as Sùng Mi Chiu), an extremely wealthy and renowned businessman who helped Chí Sình in many ways, such as by helping him protect his homeland. Sùng — a man of capability, integrity and loyalty — became his most trusted associate.
Around eight years before Vietnam proclaimed its independence from France in 1945, the French prepared to invade Chí Sình’s territory with guns. He responded by directly attacking them, routing them in combat and making them regret their decision to venture into his land.
As a result, the French tried something new: they lured Chính Đức and several Hmong leaders to Hanoi before arresting them. After hearing about his father and the other prisoners, Chí Sình had to sneak into the capital and use his connections to free them, not realizing that most of these relations were ordered by the French to drain Chí Sình’s coffer.
During his time in Hanoi, he placed a bet during a horse racing festival and won 1,000 piastre — a large sum, as one French Indochinese piastre was worth roughly 200 to 600 Vietnamese coins at the time. He used that money to get acquainted with high society members in French Indochina — the head of French intelligence André de Laborde de Monpezat, in particular — and impressed them so much that they invited him to Paris to make his case. There, he was said to have become a sensation among Parisian high society and managed to get into contact with the French government. He convinced them to give a pardon with the signature of the French president to his father and the other Hmong leaders, as well as a protected trip back home.
With his father free, Chí Sình became friends with the French for some time, which put him in a tough spot when the Japanese invaded French Indochina in 1940. Knowing that Chình Đức controlled the strategic Đồng Văn area, the Japanese decided to invade, burning villages and slaughtering many Hmongs. Chí Sình set up an ambush for the Japanese at the Battle of Phố Bảng, and alongside a few fighters and veterans of the war in China, he defeated them all. The Japanese were so frightened that they signed a separate peace treaty with him, acknowledging his right as ruler of the Hmong. They allowed him to continue his business and sent yearly tributes to him as compensation. This was the biggest and most resounding victory over the Japanese on the Indochina battlefield at the time. After the battle, Chí Sình then set up poles along his land’s border with a note warning any Japanese soldiers who dared to come near. This act of brutality secured the Hmong people’s independence until 1945.
Years later, when the First Indochina War began, the Việt Minh sent a delegation to Chí Sình asking for him to join forces with them. In 1946, he was elected as a National Assembly member at the first National Assembly of the party, and to recognize his efforts in helping then-president of North Vietnam Hồ Chí Minh, the Vietnamese government awarded Chí Sình with the “Order of Great National Unity.” Additionally, Hồ gifted him a sword forged of fine steel with a hilt of horns embossed with a 5-pointed golden star and engraved with the words: “Tận trung báo quốc, bất thụ nô lệ” (“Loyalty and to protect the country, never a slave”). Hồ also gifted Chí Sình an honorable protection vest. Afterward, they became sworn brothers and fought alongside each other, following the revolution wholeheartedly until Chí Sình’s death.
Over the course of their lives, Chính Đức and Chí Sình experienced many successes. One of Chính Đức’s greatest missions was when he gathered forces named the “Deer Organisation” and created a base within the mountains of Đồng Văn. The name of the organization was inspired by the Hmongs, who would often tell each other to “go work as a deer” and join the army of Vương Chính Đức against the Black Flag Army. Chính Đức completed his mission of leading the Hmong people by defeating two powerful empires and protecting his homeland. The orphan boy who loved to play the flute and wear torn clothes had become the elected leader of the Hmong people of Ha Giang (Hmong King) and eventually led the Deer Organisation against the Black Flag Army and its commander, Liu Yongfu, in 1885. As for Chí Sình, one of his greatest successes was rescuing his father and the other Hmong leaders from the French and directly commanding the Hmongs to defeat the Japanese soldiers in Ha Giang.
In 1947, Vương Chính Đức died of old age. He was buried in his homeland.
In 1962, Vương Chí Sình died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 76, leaving behind a legacy.
About the author: My name is Jenna, and I am currently a 17-year-old student living in the U.K. My mum is the great-granddaughter of Vương Chí Sình. I wrote this story of my family because very little of it is available on the internet. I just want to inform people about my beautiful family history, as it has been unrecognized and underrepresented for a long time.
Featured images via the Vương family.