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Street Cred: Duy Tan, The 8-Year-Old Emperor

When the French first enthroned Duy Tan, the youngest emperor of the Nguyen dynasty, their expectation was that a boy, at the ripe age of eight, would not take much interest in imperial rule.

However, while the young boy, born Nguyen Phuc Vinh San in 1899, wasn’t exactly laying down imperial decrees the moment he ascended the throne in 1907, Duy Tan proved that even the youngest of rulers can shake things up. His royal name alone – Duy Tan, meaning “reform” – gave a nod to the anti-colonial movement of the day, which included Duy Tan Hoi, or the Reformation Society, a group formed by revolutionaries Phan Boi Chau and Nguyen Tham.

From a young age, the boy emperor sympathized with anti-colonial efforts, particularly given the circumstances of his ascent to the throne: Duy Tan’s father, former emperor Thanh Thai, was unseated by the French and banished to a villa in Vung Tau in favor of his young son. This didn't sit well with Duy Tan and, as time went on, the young emperor grew more and more contrarian to French colonial rule.

Duy Tan’s career as an emperor lasted nine short years before he, too, was dethroned. In May 1916, the French caught wind of a plan to launch rebellions in Thua Thien, Quang Nam and Quang Ngai provinces. Duy Tan supported these acts of dissent, hoping his royal clout would drum up anti-colonial sentiment among the general public. Upon learning that he’d been exposed, the young emperor attempted to flee into the mountains but was captured by the French and exiled, along with his father, to Reunion, a tiny island off the coast of Madagascar.

Duy Tan’s years in Reunion were difficult: banished from his homeland and still under the watchful eye of the French, who controlled the island, he struggled to make a life.

During World War II, however, the former emperor joined the military of the very country he had once opposed, serving as Major Vinh San in the Free French Army. During his tenure in the armed forces, Duy Tan earned France’s highest honor for bravery and was one of Charles de Gaulle’s early followers.

At the age of 46, the former emperor-turned-military hero was killed in a plane crash. Duy Tan was originally buried in what is now the Central African Republic but was later re-interred in 1987 in An Lang. In today's Saigon, Duy Tan's namesake is a cozy neighborhood street located deep in Phu Nhuan District.


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