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China AbroadTravels, Subjects, Spaces$

Elaine Yee Lin Ho and Julia Kuehn

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9789622099456

Published to Hong Kong Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5790/hongkong/9789622099456.001.0001

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The Chinese and the White Man's Burden in Indochina

The Chinese and the White Man's Burden in Indochina

(p.191) 11 The Chinese and the White Man's Burden in Indochina
China Abroad

Marie-Paule Ha

Hong Kong University Press

Abstract and Keywords

In the nineteenth century, a sizeable Chinese labor cum trade diasporic community was established in Indochina, where they occupied a dominant position in the local economy until the arrival of the French. Upon the completion of colonial conquest and pacification in the 1880s, the French embarked on the mise en valeur of their new possession by setting up a state-sponsored and state-backed “imperial diaspora.” This chapter discusses cultural practices of the Chinese and the French in Indochina, and shows that the Manichean schema not only fails to account for the complexity of the colonial reality, it has also created a form of the “White Man's Burden” that differs in an interesting way from the one eulogized by Rudyard Kipling, the British imperial bard.

Keywords:   China, labor, trade diaspora, Indochina, imperial diaspora, France, Manichean schema, White Man's Burden, Rudyard Kipling

One of the enduring legacies Frantz Fanon bequeathed to postcolonial studies is his powerfully scathing representation of the colonial world as a “Manichean” space unevenly inhabited by two different species of beings: the colonizer and the colonized, the white and the black, the settler and the native, the rich and the poor, and the oppressor and the oppressed. While this Manichean schema no doubt corresponds to the view many a colonialist had of the colonial world, it may not, however, do full justice to the exceedingly complex multi-ethnic and multicultural composition of many of the former colonies which are home to a wide variety of peoples. Such is particularly the case with Southeast Asian countries whose ethnically diverse population could hardly be accounted for by the simple, if not simplifying, colonizer and colonized divide. Among the various ethnicities settling in Southeast Asia, the Chinese have traditionally been singled out as the group that exerted the most considerable cultural and economic influences in their host countries before, during, and after the colonial era. In the nineteenth century, a sizeable Chinese labor cum trade diasporic community was established in Indochina, where they occupied a dominant position in the local economy until the arrival of the French. Upon the completion of colonial conquest and pacification in the 1880s, the French embarked on the mise en valeur of their new possession by setting up a state-sponsored and state-backed “imperial diaspora.”1 Yet, interestingly enough, instead of marginalizing the Chinese who were their most formidable (p.192) competitors, the French allowed and sometimes even invited the latter to serve as their intermediaries in their dealings with the indigenous peoples. Such a triangular arrangement, I have argued elsewhere, was necessitated by what Partha Chatterjee calls the “rule of colonial difference” (18), which requires not only that people be identified according to imagined categories such as race and nation, but also that the constructed differences would serve as grounds for instituting a hierarchy according to which people labeled as “whites” were positioned as superior to those designated as “non-whites.”2 In this chapter, through a comparative study of the cultural practices of the Chinese and the French in Indochina, I will show that the Manichean schema not only fails to account for the complexity of the colonial reality, it has also created a form of the “White Man's Burden” that differs in an interesting way from the one eulogized by Kipling, the British imperial bard.

I The “indispensable” Chinese

Of the three countries that made up French Indochina, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos,3 the former two have had a long contact history with China dating back to the Qin dynasty. For two millennia, the Chinese had made their appearances in the peninsula as invaders, traders, and refugees.4 By the time of French occupation in the second half of the nineteenth century, Indochina counted already a fairly important Chinese population. Prior to the French rule, both the Khmer and the Vietnamese governments had instituted a system of indirect rule to manage foreign populations. Each foreign group was headed by a “chef” whose job was to look after its own members. In the early part of the nineteenth century, the Vietnamese Emperor Gia-Long (1802–20) issued an edict that further organized the Chinese into associations or bangs based on their respective languages such as Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, Hainanese, and Teochiu. Each bang was managed by a leader called bang-truong, who was responsible for collecting taxes and maintaining law and order among his members. These bangs were retained by the French who called them congrégations. Upon their arrival, all Chinese immigrants had to join one of the congrégations.5

Given the fact that the Chinese had been the former colonizers of Vietnam for a millennium (111BC to 939 AD), one would have expected that they would not have been well received by the territories' new colonial masters. Yet interestingly enough, instead of expelling them or reducing their numbers, the French administration in fact welcomed the “Celestials” and showed a keen appreciation of the numerous services they rendered during the period of conquest. When the French expeditionary forces reached the shores of Annam (p.193) in the mid-nineteenth century, they had the greatest difficulties persuading the indigenous people to provide them with the sorely needed supplies. Invariably it was the Chinese who came to their rescue by showing up even in the most remote villages delivering provisions as well as occasional treats such as cigarettes, razors, and liquor to the great delight of the soldiers.6 It was not only in the far-off regions that the Chinese served as suppliers to the French forces; even in large urban centers such as Hanoi, where there existed already a few French businesses, the army, according to the military medical officer Dr. Hocquard, still preferred the services of the Chinese merchants.7 The reason is that Chinese stores offered more and better quality goods at a cheaper price than their French counterparts (Hocquard). In short, the Chinese were considered, as the veteran Indochina hand Paul Boudet put it, the fournisseurs providentiels (“heaven-sent suppliers” 457) of the French occupational forces.

The dependence of the colonial administration on the Chinese did not end with the period of conquest and pacification. Even after establishing themselves in the colony, the French continued to resort to the Chinese for a wide range of services: for example, the colonial administration continued the Khmer and Vietnamese governments' practice of recruiting the Chinese to run alcohol, gambling, salt, and opium farms.8 In the economic sphere, not only did the French let the Chinese maintain their traditional supremacy in the rice trade, French firms also needed their help for the distribution and sale of their goods in towns and villages. The French merchants' reliance on the Chinese was such that after lobbying for measures to control their Chinese competitors, they had to join the latter to get those very same measures revoked when the Chinese threatened to boycott European commerce.9 Even the all-powerful Banque de l'Indochine had to hire a contingent of handsomely remunerated Chinese compradors so as to “make itself accessible to the Chinese clientele” (Métin 20).10 Within the colonial scheme of things, it is clear that the French could not afford to bypass the Chinese as their middlemen in their transactions with the locals. In 1884, Dr. Hocquard already conceded that the Chinese would be “our indispensable intermediary for the mise en valeur of our conquest” (Hocquard 91). This view was echoed later by Henri Vermeren, a gendarme in Indochina at the turn of the century, who wrote in his memoirs that the Chinese “[are] indispensable to life in the colony” (Vermeren 140).11

Because of the special role the Chinese were allowed, or even asked, to play in Indochina, their relationship to the colonizers hardly fits in with the Manichean white-versus-native scheme. For all practical purposes, the colony was run on a tripartite structure made up of Europeans, Chinese, and natives.12 The Chinese being considered as neither French nor natives were given a special legal status that was translated into separate sets of laws regulating their lives and activities.13 In certain respects, the Chinese did derive a great (p.194) many benefits from their special standing. They shared the indigenous people's rights to own lands and buildings, a privilege denied to other foreign groups, and could freely engage in most economic activities while enjoying the same protection as subjects of the most favored European nations.14 Yet the Chinese were also made to pay dearly for their “privileges” in the form of excessive taxation. In the protectorates of Tonkin and Annam, they were subjected to registration tax, capitation tax, residence cards fee, and trade licenses, while in Cochinchina, which was a full-fledged colony, they were required to pay direct personal tax, indirect tax, direct allowance tax, taxes on both entering and leaving the country, on top of other general taxes. Similar draconian fiscal measures were imposed on Chinese businesses. Under the pretext that in their different bookkeeping methods Chinese merchants would most likely underreport their profits, the colonial administration assessed their taxes twice as high as those of their French counterparts.15 The money the government collected from the Chinese was so substantial that Métin, the budget controller of the colony, had to admit that the loss of such revenues could not be replaced if the Chinese were to be given the status of natives and pay natives' tax.16

How could one account for the colonial administration's dependence on the Chinese in Indochina? Several reasons were given to explain the role of the Chinese as the “indispensable intermediary” between the French and the natives. According to Dubreuil, if the French had to enlist the Chinese as their “valuable auxiliaries” in their colonizing endeavor, it is because of the mauvais vouloir (“ill will”) of the natives who persisted in keeping their distance from their new masters. On the other hand, since the Chinese had been settled in Annam for such a long time and got to know its people well, they were therefore in the best position to serve as “the link between the conqueror and the conquered” (Dubreuil 21). Another frequently cited reason for the French's recourse to the Chinese is that the latter were more hardworking, able, and sophisticated than the Vietnamese who remained, in the words of Dr. Hocquard, “a big child…living one day at a time” (Hocquard 89). In these explanations the French tended to put the blame on the “failings” of the natives to justify their own inadequacies. Yet many of the “problems” they encountered in the colony were actually produced by their self-proclaimed superiority, which was used to legitimize their brutal conquests. It was the need and the obligation to constantly prove to themselves and their subjects their own distinction (in both senses of differentiation and superiority) that ultimately undermined their effectiveness in Indochina. In the remainder of the chapter, I will compare the different ways in which the French and the Chinese negotiated their respective cultural identities in the colony. I will show that it was the fluid attitude of the Chinese towards identity that made them highly adaptable to the local conditions whereas the insistence of the French (p.195) on maintaining their differences became, in the long run, a costly liability to their colonizing venture.

II Material culture and identities

In many of the personal and travel narratives authored by the French themselves, we often read about the fierce competition between the French and Chinese merchants. In his memoirs, Paul Doumer, governor general of Indochina from 1897–1902, noted how it was virtually impossible for his compatriots to compete with the Chinese in retail business in Saigon: “All that is sold in the European shops…is available at the Chinese's. There is no more competition for cheap goods and simple work. [The Chinese] have the monopoly of dry cleaning, laundry and mending” (Doumer 69). Why could French businesses not compete with the Chinese? One explanation was given by Captain Petitjean-Roget in a letter he wrote to his mother from Saigon in 1880:

I needed a basin and a water jar and I went to a French shop. A nice lady attended to me. A water jar and a plain earthenware basin, how much Madame?—Three piastres, sir…This amounted to a little over fifteen francs…I lost all illusions about French business. I went to a Chinese merchant who treated me really well, offered me a cigarette, a cup of tea, and after chatting for half-an-hour, I got the two things for four francs.

(Petitjean-Roget 12)

From Petitjean-Roget's account, it is obvious that the French shop owners in Saigon had priced themselves out of business. Their steep prices were occasioned by, we are told, their particular lifestyle which differed substantially from their Chinese counterparts' as Dr. Hocquard explains: “The Chinese could live on very little and make do with the natives' diet. He does not need as much profit as the European. The latter has to consume food that comes from afar, which makes it very costly…all the profits he could make would be eaten up, and more, by the demands of his material existence” (Hocquard 90). This same explanation was also given by Boudet, who contends that because the European could not survive in the insalubrious regions of the tropics without a certain level of comfort his business would have to bear a great deal more general cost than the Chinese whose very rustic way of life reduced his expenses to a minimum.

A common argument used to justify the “need” of French businesses for higher profit margins is that colonial living made greater “demands,” material and otherwise, upon the French than the Chinese. The French believed that (p.196) as members of the colonizing nation they were expected to maintain a certain standard in every aspect of their daily lives whereas the Chinese were not bothered by such concern. Indeed, the absence of any conspicuous display of socio-economic rank markers among the Chinese never ceased to puzzle the French administrators. In their reports, they frequently talked about the difficulties they had in differentiating the owners of Chinese businesses from their employees or even the coolies when visiting their premises. For, according to Boudet, both employer and subordinates all dressed in the same discolored cotton outfits, ate and slept in the same lit de camp.17 A similar observation was made by Dubreuil, who attributed this cultural practice to the solidarity among Chinese co-workers: “in these shops nothing distinguishes the boss from the last of the coolies; at mealtime all of them, stripped to the waist, sit around the same table” (Dubreuil 80). In his memoirs Xigong san shi nian [Three Decades in Saigon], Feng Feng, a practitioner of Chinese medicine who emigrated to Indochina from Hong Kong in 1939, likewise recalls the thriftiness of the local Chinese. He notes that for their daily activities most of them wore a plain white shirt and black trousers. This sartorial simplicity was observed even by wealthy businessmen. He cites the case of Mr. Lau, a highly successful retail merchant and owner of several important properties, who was always seen dressed in the same blue coarse cotton outfit.

The reluctance on the part of the Chinese to engage in conspicuous consumption could be explained by a number of related reasons. For one thing, many of the Chinese who emigrated to Indochina at the turn of the century came from the poorest parts of China. Uneducated and unskilled, a large number of them made their living as coolies. After a number of years, some managed to mount their own businesses and became highly successfully. It was precisely their thriftiness that enabled them to build up the capital they would need to start their commercial ventures and also to compete with the French. Secondly, until the Communist take-over in 1949, most of the overseas Chinese, rich or poor, did plan to return to China once they had made their fortune abroad. As a result, rather than spending their money on what they considered as non-essential things, they would save as much as they could so as to send a large part of their earnings to their families back in their home villages. And last but not least, politically the overseas Chinese also realized that, given the long-drawn internecine strife and the foreign invasions that were besetting China, neither the late Qing government nor the young Republic was in any position to defend their interests in their host country, and it would have been unwise to attract attention to themselves through flaunting their wealth and creating resentment in both the indigenous and French populations.

In contrast to the frugal and unassuming outlook of the Chinese, the French were greatly concerned about the need to uphold what in the colonial (p.197) parlance is known as “white prestige.” One way to achieve this is the adoption of “proper” attire, whose symbolic significance was elucidated by Clotilde Chivas-Baron, a seasoned coloniale from Indochina, in her advice manual La Femme française aux colonies:

La Coloniale must maintain her sense of beauty, grace, and propriety, for it will bring her and others moral comfort.…Elegance and taste are among those feminine charms which, under certain circumstances, rise up to the level of duty, clothing being a sign of dignity. More than anyone else, the colonial woman must maintain decorous attire. She is constantly being watched. Those who are watching her are either peoples in the developing stage or those from an old civilization. To both groups, the French woman, as a representative of the newly imposed civilization, must appear well-mannered and dignified.

(121, emphasis added)

The plight of the white woman as the object of the natives' gaze evoked here bears an uncanny parallel to that of the first-person narrator of Black Skin, White Masks who finds himself similarly hounded by the gaze of the little white boy and his loud cries “Look, a Negro!” in the streets of the métropole. If in the white world the black man is, as Fanon puts it, “overdetermined from without,” a slave of his own appearance (Black Skin 116), the same could be said of the whites in the colony as seen in the violent outburst of the protagonist of Marguerite Duras's The Lover (1986) against her shabbily dressed mother. At one point in this semi-autobiographical novel, the first person narrator, a young white girl who grew up in Indochina in the 1920s, recalls the deep humiliation she felt when her mother showed up in her lycée in “inappropriate” attire:

My mother, my love, her incredible ungainliness, with her cotton stockings darned by Dô…her dreadful shapeless dresses, mended by Dô, she's still straight out of her Picardy farm full of female cousins, thinks you ought to wear everything till it's worn out…her shoes are down-at-heel, she walks awkwardly…her hair's drawn back tight into a bun like a Chinese woman's, we're ashamed of her, I'm ashamed of her in the street outside the school, when she drives up to the school in her old Citroën B12 everyone looks.

…(Duras 26–27, emphasis added)

In the eyes of the daughter the scandal of the mother is her neglect of sartorial propriety, which makes her a most undignified representative of the supposedly superior French civilization in the colony.

(p.198) Besides dress code, there were also other material markers of essential “Frenchness” that French nationals must observe in the outposts of the empire. One such marker is food. We noted earlier the comment Dr. Hocquard made about the differences in diet between the Chinese and French shop owners. The Chinese merchants, we are told, could live on the low-cost native fare while their French counterparts would need the pricey imported French food. Another equally important sign of distinction is housing. In early twentieth-century manuals on emigration to the colonies, when the issue of accommodation was discussed, readers were often advised to heed what colonial doctors refer to as the “ethnic principle” according to which the European population should live in their designated neighborhood away from the indigenous peoples (Abbatucci 67). The conditions of colonial living that all French were expected to observe were clearly spelled out by Joleaud-Barral in the concluding section of the guidebook he wrote for would-be settlers to Annam and Tonkin:

It is necessary to bear in mind that one could not live in privation in Tonkin without endangering one's life: a good diet, a wholesome dwelling, and clean clothing are indispensable and all this costs money. One should not imagine that life is cheap over there.…Except for local produce which we use relatively little, cans, groceries, and wine are more expensive here than in France, and the smallest house which rent for 3 to 400 francs a year in France will cost 100 to 140 francs a month in Hanoi and Haiphong.

(Joleaud-Barral 241)

Because of the expectation that French citizens should maintain a certain standard of living in Indochina, the colonial administration had to strongly discourage those with modest means from moving to the colony.

The importance of maintaining their own distinctiveness informs not only the French's everyday life, it also influences how they related to the indigenous people. More than the material requirements they imposed upon themselves and which made them less competitive than the Chinese, it is their physical and psychological segregation from the locals that, arguably, undermined their ability to manage their colony on their own, which in turn explains their dependence on the Chinese as their go-between. Indeed, one of the reasons frequently attributed to the “success” of the Chinese in Indochina was their ability to live “like the natives.” Such is the explanation Dubreuil gave to justify the vital role the Chinese played in French colonization, in particular in the colony's economic development. He conceded that the major advantage that the Chinese had over the French was that the Chinese “know the natives” from living side by side with them, speaking their languages, and marrying their women, whereas the French were “unable” to do so. This “inability” of the colonizers to communicate with their subjects and understand their (p.199) needs had been recognized quite early on as a serious “liability” by the French themselves. Joseph Chailley, a leading figure of the colonialist lobby in France, who accompanied the first French resident general Paul Bert to Indochina in 1886, wrote about this problem in Paul Bert au Tonkin: “The Tonkinese expected only one thing from us: justice. But it would be very difficult to give everyone his due in a country whose language and customs we know so imperfectly” (Chailley 100). Yet the acknowledgement of the importance of “knowing” their subjects, it seems, was not acted on. Quite the contrary, as they proceeded to lay down the administrative infrastructure in Indochina, the colonial administrators introduced more measures and practices that would further separate the French from the locals. To illustrate these issues, I will compare the very different attitudes the Chinese and the French had of interethnic marriages and the so-called “mixed blood” children.

III Matrimony versus miscegenation

One of the common observations made about the Chinese in Indochina is their dominance in the local economy. A frequently cited reason to explain their economic “success” is their willingness to marry local women. Prior to the 1911 Revolution, the Chinese who went to Indochina as traders or coolies very rarely brought their families along. As a result, many took indigenous women as wives. One important advantage these matrimonial alliances brought to the Chinese is that they facilitated their trading with the locals who looked favorably upon them as good family providers.18 Yet, in many instances, the indigenous spouses were in fact concubines as their Chinese husbands might have already had a wife in China; and even if they had not had one at the time of their consorting with their native partners, they would in many cases eventually take a Chinese wife back in their home village. Such is for example the case of Lam Chi, a penniless immigrant from a Teochiu fishing village, who went to Cochinchina in the early 1900s to work as a coolie in the town of Cai Rang. There he married a local woman, Trang Thi Hy. After their marriage, the wife continued her Vietnamese pastry business to supplement Lam's income and later joined him in the rice business he had started. Years later, Lam, who already had a few children with Hy, returned to his home village in China to take a Chinese wife. All this was done with the full knowledge of both women without him having to renounce either one. According to Tri Lam, Lam's grandson, who recorded the family's Indochinese story in The Chronicle of an Overseas Chinese Family, with the help of Hy, Lam slowly built up a highly profitable rice business and later became the wealthiest man in Cai Rang.

(p.200) If this type of interethnic matrimonial arrangement was a rather common practice among Chinese immigrants, it appeared much more problematic to the French, in particular after they became more solidly established in the colony by the turn of the century. In 1897, the public prosecutor of Cochinchina and Cambodia sent around a circular to the French judges and magistrates under his jurisdiction to warn them of the danger of living with native women. For these “irregular” co-habitations, the prosecutor contends, would create certain regrettable situations that “would degrade the magistrate and compromise his authority and prestige, and at times worse still—his honor.” In the same circular he demanded that those who kept native concubines break off these relationships immediately. The same admonition was issued a few years later by Doumer, who wrote to all the résidents supérieurs that “experience has shown that the influence of native concubines is almost always detrimental to the reputation of the civil servants who associate themselves with them.”19 One way to solve the problem of miscegenation, it was believed, was to make more French women available in the colony. To this end, Chailley-Bert, who became the secretary-general of the Union coloniale française, the all-powerful colonialist lobby in the métropole, helped to establish the Société française d'émigration des femmes whose main task was to facilitate the emigration of French women to the empire.20

IV Minh-huongs versus métis

Besides the social inconvenience of keeping a native partner in a French domestic setting, which might hurt “white prestige,” interethnic unions also generated a second no less thorny “problem” for the French, namely that of the métis, or mixed-blood children. In fact, if there was a “problem” of the métis, it was one that was created by the French themselves, or at least by those French fathers who abandoned their mixed-blood progeny upon their return to France. Many of these children were subsequently taken away from their native mothers, considered as “unfit” parents, and sent to local orphanages.21 Besides being “illegitimate” and orphaned, the métis were further stigmatized as “racially impure” and castigated for inheriting the worse failings of the two races to which they belonged and none of their qualities. They were often accused of being “unreceptive to ideas of family, homeland, honor, work, property, order and foresight” and lacking “moderation, temperance, organization and a sense of proportion” (Sambuc, “Les Métis” 201). Within the context of colonial politics which rested on the rule of racial differences, mixed-blood persons would inevitably be perceived as a threat that would destabilize the Manichean setup of the colony.

(p.201) The plight of the métis generated a great many heated disputes within the French community in Indochina, which was deeply divided over the issue as to whether those mixed-blood children who had not been recognized by their French parents should be given French citizenship; the status, if conferred, would entitle them to the many privileges French citizens enjoyed in the colony. In these debates, the party that championed the cause of the métis often contrasted the latter's dire predicament to the good fortune of Sino-Annamite children, also known as “Minh-huongs.”22 In a report on the condition of Franco-Vietnamese children, “Enquête sur la question des métis II,” the lawyer Henri Sambuc, one of the most ardent defenders of the métis in Indochina, took his compatriots to task for not treating Franco-Vietnamese children in the same way as the Chinese did their Sino-Vietnamese progeny who occupied a highly privileged position in Vietnam. Under the rule of Emperor Minh-Mang (1820–44), the Minh-huongs were given the status of full Vietnamese subjects and as such enjoyed the best of both the Vietnamese and the Chinese worlds. On the one hand, they were exempted from the corvée and the military service that were required of the indigenous people; on the other, they paid only half of the taxes of the Chinese. Moreover, they had the same political entitlements as the Vietnamese with full access to the offices of the kingdom, a favor that was denied to the Chinese. The only condition they were asked to comply with was that they adopt the native garb and have their braid cut.23 In Cambodia, due to the high degree of intermarriage between Chinese and Cambodians, there was also an important group of Sino-Cambodian métis, many of whom made up the local elite class.24

In “Enquête” Sambuc cites the case of the Minh-huongs as a counterexample to the widely held claim that mixed-blood children were born mentally and physically defective. Raised by their own fathers, who provided them with a good education, the Sino-Vietnamese children grew up both healthy and intelligent. They were taught Chinese, Vietnamese, and French and groomed to become their fathers' future partners in the family businesses. Brought up on equal footing as their “pure Chinese” siblings, the Minh-huongs were very proud of their mixed heritage and were well respected by the Vietnamese. Such a positive experience seems to be the lot of the Minh-huong children in the Lam family. When Lam's oldest son, Lam Nhieu, had reached school age, his father took him back to China where he could attend a Chinese school. During the same trip, Lam took a Chinese wife in his native village and left his oldest son in her care. By letting his mainland wife raise the son he had by his Vietnamese wife, Lam sought to strengthen the ties between his two families. The same arrangement was made with the first son his mainland wife bore him at a later stage. When the boy was eight years old, Lam took him to Vietnam to be reared by his Vietnamese wife. By thus (p.202) “painstakingly arrang[ing] this interlacing relationship to unify [his] family,” as the grandson puts it, Lam succeeded in building those strong ties (Lam 16). After his death, his oldest son Lam Nhieu continued to care for his “mainland mother” by regularly sending her money to help her survive the hardship of the Communist regime. After finishing his schooling in China, Nhieu returned to Vietnam where he attended the Franco-Chinese School. With the help of his father, he went on to manage the family's rice business in Saigon where he became known as the “Rice King” of South Vietnam.

We saw earlier that one of the reasons the French gave for having to resort to the Chinese as their “intermediaries” is that they themselves did not have sufficient knowledge of indigenous languages and cultures. If such were the case, the métis should be their ideal “go-between” and could easily replace the Chinese. For, after all, not only did the métis belong to the two cultures by birth and have a perfect knowledge of local languages and customs, they also wanted nothing better, according to Sambuc, than to identify themselves with the French and serve the latter's interests. But such an eventuality did not come to pass partly because the French were too concerned with maintaining “racial purity” as General Gallieni, who had served in both Indochina and Madagascar, explains to Mme Pégard, the secretary-general of the Société française d'émigration des femmes: “I want to prevent by all possible means our soldiers, who will become settlers at the end of their leave, from living legitimately or illegitimately with Malagasy women, I want the island to be populated by a pure French race and not a mixed-blood race.”25

V Constructing the cultural habitus

In the colonial context, “racial purity” involves more than the policing of biological blood lines, which is a necessary but not sufficient condition for keeping the race unadulterated. What is further needed is the re-creation in the colony of a French milieu that would make possible the reproduction of what Pierre Bourdieu calls the habitus, or a system of dispositions that generate practices and perceptions acquired through a long process of socialization.26 The habitus that the colonial government sought to reproduce in Indochina was that of the French middle class. To achieve this end, a simulacrum of the socio-cultural infrastructure of the mother country had to be put in place in the colony. Over a period of several decades, the colonial administration invested massive sums of tax money to endow Saigon, Hanoi, and other cities with monumental public edifices such as law courts, postal offices, town halls, (p.203) hospitals, schools, train stations, residences for high-level administrators as well as social, cultural, and recreational venues such as theaters, museums, club houses, and parks. Many of these buildings were attempts to replicate metropolitan models, the most famous (or infamous) of which was the Hanoi theater house, derided by Eugéne Brieux as “a pretentious caricature” of the Opera house of Paris.27 No effort was spared to re-create the bourgeois socio-cultural ambiance of the métropole. Both Saigon and Hanoi had their own calendar of society events featuring the latest Parisian musicals, théâtre deboulevard plays, races, balls, galas, and receptions that were patronized by the local equivalents of tout Paris.28 From the newspapers reports, it is clear that the French colonial community tried very hard to rival the elegance and glamour of Parisian high society albeit with uneven success.29 But notwithstanding the fact that the desired results might not always be obtained, the financial cost proved to be quite onerous to both the public and private budgets. Indeed, in the accounts of both French residents and travelers, we read that in spite of their high earnings, a number of colonial civil servants would still find themselves in financial insolvency, a price they had to pay to uphold their middle-class “Frenchness.”30

If reproducing the appropriate socio-cultural habitus is a means to maintain one's cultural identity, the Chinese seemed to have accomplished this objective without however having to bear the heavy cost as the French did. Many Chinese diaspora studies provide detailed descriptions on how the different dialect groups conducted their respective socio-cultural activities in their host countries. In Cambodia and Vietnam, the Teochiu, Hokkien, Hakka, Hainanese, and Cantonese bangs all set up their respective schools, hospitals, and temples for their fellow compatriots. They celebrated Chinese cultural and religious events such as the Lunar New Year, Qing-Ming, Dragon Boat, and Mid-Autumn Festivals, and observed Chinese rituals in wedding ceremonies and funerals.31 Yet, unlike the French who received substantial government funding to build and run the socio-cultural infrastructure, the Chinese had to rely entirely on themselves. In Lam Chi Phat, Tri Lam recounts how his grandfather, an illiterate man, got together with other well-to-do Chinese families in Cai Rang to build the town's first and only Chinese elementary school in the mid-1920s. It was this same type of private fund-raising initiatives that supported the construction of Chinese hospitals and temples. To finance the running of these establishments and the services they provided, the bangs usually purchased properties which were rented out to generate a steady source of income. Such was, for example, the set-up of the hospital in which Feng worked when he first arrived in Saigon. Funded by the Cantonese bang, the Cantonese hospital provided both free Chinese medical care and hospitalization to the local people.

(p.204) Besides establishing the necessary infrastructure to maintain their community life, the Chinese, like the French, also organized a diverse range of socio-cultural activities for socialization and entertainment purposes. Even in the small town where the Lam family first settled, to celebrate the birthday of the Teochiu temple's deity, every year the local Chinese would hire a Teochiu opera troupe from Saigon to stage performances for the townspeople. Yet, unlike the French who adopted a highly selective policy as to who could attend the plays or concerts that were partly subsidized by the administration, the Teochiu opera which was held in a makeshift stage near the town's pier was free and open to all and even attracted the non-Teochiu-speaking Vietnamese. In the larger urban centers, different types of entertainment such as Cantonese and Teochiu operas, musicals, and comedies were also available to the community. In his memoirs, Feng, himself an aficionado of Cantonese opera, evokes with a great deal of emotion the many performances he attended in Saigon and recalls that some even featured a number of famous opera stars from Hong Kong such as Xue Juexian (The Chinese and the White Man's Burden in Indochina), Ma Shizeng (The Chinese and the White Man's Burden in Indochina), and Fang Yanfen (The Chinese and the White Man's Burden in Indochina). While these shows were not free of charge, their prices varied from as little as two cents to nine dollars.32

Because of their affordability these cultural events were patronized by a wide public that included people of all ages from all walks of life. One of the frequent remarks the French made about Cantonese opera was precisely its socially mixed audience and its boisterous ambiance. In an article on Chinese theater Edmond Gras wrote after attending a Cantonese opera in the royal capital of Hué in 1917, he noted that the entire Chinese population of the city (even babies) came to the show and that during the performance people were smoking, drinking, and belching loudly. Yet in spite of the “rowdy” behavior of what he considered an “uncouth” audience, Gras was quite impressed by the latter's ability to appreciate the exquisitely sophisticated singing and playing of the actors. Similar observations were made by Auguste François, the French consul, who visited a Chinese opera house in Cholon in 1901. He too remarked that the Chinese public “don't bother about their attire; they all come in their work clothes. The tinsmith and the blacksmith, taking a break from their hammering, go to listen to the recitation of antique poems…or immerse themselves in the marvelous world of the epics” (François 286). Half a century later in the early 1950s, Poncins registered the same experience when attending a Chinese opera in Cholon which was also filled with a similarly motley crowd. During the performance, he took a glance at the Chinese audience around him and saw how “Everyone was beaming with delight. The craftiness of the suitor was fully appreciated, and each of his asides was greeted with thrills of pleasure by every last spectator. Yet the audience was a thoroughly popular one, and not, as in Western theaters, an (p.205) audience of sophisticates” (Poncins 71–72). Not only were the adults totally engrossed in the performance, even the young children also thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle and some of them, Poncins wrote, “more eager to see the show, had slipped into the wings. And they overflowed onto the stage, half naked as they were—and some were even stark naked!” (73).

The “incongruity” the three Frenchmen observed between the socio-economic backgrounds of the Chinese opera-goers and their cultural capital in fact tells us something interesting about how they themselves understand the role of culture. In Distinction, in which Bourdieu analyzes the cultural habitus of the French in the 1960s and 1970s, he argues that “taste,” as displayed in cultural practices such as concert-going, museum visits, and reading is a product of education and social origin. In French society, “taste,” Bourdieu contends, “classifies, and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make, between the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar…” (Bourdieu, Distinction 6). If in the métropole, cultural practices are used to define class identity, in the colony where class tends to be conflated with race, they serve to demarcate both class and racial distinctions. Consequently, for the French in Indochina, engaging in cultural practices such as going to the theater involved not only buying the tickets and attending the performance, but also being dressed for the occasion, showing up to the venue in the proper vehicle, sitting still the entire evening in the seats one paid for, and conducting oneself in accordance with certain rules of decorum. In other words, these cultural events not only allowed the French to re-immerse themselves in the motherland's cultural aura, they also served as a means to re-enact their cultural and racial distinction vis-à-vis themselves and (hopefully) their subjects.

VI Conclusion

From the foregoing discussion, it appears that given their different status and roles in the colony, members of the two diasporas adopted distinctive strategies in constructing their respective cultural identities. The Chinese, who benefited from very limited (if any) diplomatic protection from the Chinese government, found it more judicious to opt for a more fluid approach in negotiating their own identity in the host country. Not only were they willing to consort with local women, a number of them would readily engage in “ethnic cross-dressing” and “ethnic living” by taking on “native” ways whenever the need to do so arose. In the Southeast Asian context, “ethnic bending” is in fact not peculiar to the Chinese, but rather a common practice among the different (p.206) non-white ethnic groups residing in the colonies. For the multi-ethnic population in Indochina, ethnic identity, as Muller argues, is not necessarily the one they were born with. Membership in a given ethnic community is often a question of the cultural practice an individual chooses to adopt to suit the demands of the moment.

In contrast to the flexibility of the Chinese, the French in their role as the representatives of the conquering nation felt the need to demonstrate both to themselves and their subjects their differences and distinctions through taking up the White Man's Burden. Yet, the Burden of the White Man, if there is one, may just be the burden of whiteness. For keeping oneself always immaculately white in a tropical colony could prove highly onerous, a reality that was candidly acknowledged by the old Indochina hand Robequain:

It is this which gives the Chinese a big advantage over the European merchants. He can live as the natives does…he is easily acclimatized in the country which adjoins his own, and does not require the standards of hygienic conditions and comfort indispensable to European; he never experiences that feeling of misunderstanding and basic incompatibility which so often overwhelms the European in dealing with native behavior and reactions.…The government has used the Chinese for many tasks which were too distasteful for Europeans, for example, to collect taxes in the markets, feed prisoners and work the salt pits.

…(Robequain 38)

Indeed the price the French had to pay for assuming the burden of whiteness seemed quite a costly one—such was at least the view of the Frenchman Brieux, who filed the following report card on the imperial performance of Greater France after his 1910 visit to Indochina:

Would China need to be concerned with conquest? Indochina already belonged to her. We are masters only in name; the Chinese are the actual ones.…We sent soldiers there, they sent merchants. The dream of having a colony where one would amass a fortune to be enjoyed back home, we made that dream, but it is they who fulfill it.

(Brieux 154–55)

In comparing the ways the French and the Chinese imagined and constructed their respective identities in Indochina, I have argued how the Manichean white versus native paradigm falls short in more ways than one in accounting for the reality of the colonial world. At the historical level, we have seen that it is such a Manichean vision that got the colonialists trapped in the terribly burdensome white superiority complex which led them to impose (p.207) on themselves numerous stringent constraints. Not only did the concern with maintaining white distinction weaken their competitiveness vis-à-vis the Chinese and make them dependent on the latter, it also put them in the morally deplorable position to have to repudiate their wives and abandon their children. At the meta-historical level, it has been shown that to examine the dynamics of colonial relations only through the colonizer and colonized prism would have excluded a whole range of important players who, like the Chinese, might not fall on either side of the Manichean divide. In Indochina the Chinese constituted but one of several diasporic groups that included, among others, the Chetty from India and the Japanese. The same multi-ethnic complexity also characterizes the indigenous population which comprises a large array of minorities such as the Hmongs, the Rhades, the Bahnars, the Sedangs, and the Stiengs, who did not have the status of French subjects of the Vietnamese or Cambodians.33 Indeed even within the colonizers' camp itself, its demographic make-up, far from being the “lily white” community it liked to imagine itself to be, was ethnically equally heterogeneous as a significant contingent of its members originated not from the métropole, but from Corsica, La Réunion, Guadalupe, Martinique, and Pondichéry. To complicate the picture further, one should also bear in mind that ethnicity is but one of the many features that structure the dynamics of colonial relationships. Other equally important elements that also inflect identity formation include gender, religion, and class. Given such a diverse range of factors one would have to go beyond the highly restrictive Manichean schema and elaborate alternative models and methods of analysis that would lead us to a better appreciation of such a complex political and cultural mosaic. (p.208)


(1.) For a discussion of the make-up of “imperial diaspora,” see Robin Cohen, Global Diasporas: An Introduction.

(2.) See my “Assimilation and Identities in French Indochina.”

(3.) During the French colonial era, Vietnam was divided into three administrative parts: the colony of Cochinchina in the south, the protectorates of Annam and Tonkin in the center and the north respectively. Cambodia and Laos were also given the status of protectorates.

(4.) For English language scholarly studies of the relation between Vietnam and China before the French colonial era, see Keith Taylor, The Birth of Vietnam and Alexander Woodside, Vietnam and the Chinese Model.

(p.256) (5.) For detailed discussions of the structure of these congrégations and the roles they play for their members, see “Notice sur la situation des Chinois en Indochine” (1909); René Dubreuil, “De la condition des Chinois et de leur rôle économique en Indo-Chine” (1901); the doctoral dissertation of Ky Luong Nhi entitled “The Chinese in Vietnam. A Study of Vietnamese-Chinese Relations with Special Attention to the Period 1862–1961” (1963); Tsai Maw-Kuey Les Chinois au Sud-Vietnam (1968); Alain G. Marsot, The Chinese Community in Vietnam under the French (1993); and William E. Willmott, The Chinese in Cambodia (1967) and The Political Structure of the Chinese Community in Cambodia (1970).

(6.) For an example of how the Chinese brought supplies to the French expeditionary forces, see Paul Doumer 36–39.

(7.) This same observation was also made by Joleaud-Barral, who notes that in the early years of the conquest French merchants in Tonkin charged very high prices for their goods as they believed that the European community would have to buy from them. Later they lost their business to the Chinese (94). For a discussion of the competition between Chinese and French retail business in Indochina, see Kham Vorapheth, Commerce et colonization en Indochine 1860–1945.

(8.) For a detailed account of the role of Chinese as farmers of alcohol, salt, and opium, see Dubreuil; Chantal Descours-Gatin, Quand l'opium finançait la colonisation en Indochine: l'élaboration de la régie générale de l'opium, 1860 à 1914 (1992); and Philippe Le Failler, Monopole et prohibition de l'opium en Indochine: le pilori des chimères (2001).

(9.) For details, see Dubreuil 1910.

(10.) Unless stated otherwise, all translations are mine.

(11.) The same remark about the Chinese as the “indispensable middleman” in the colony is found in Métin and Boudet and Coulet 1929.

(12.) For example, in The Economic Development of French Indo-China, Charles Robequain divides the people of the colony into three categories in the following order: Europeans, Chinese, and natives. See in particular Chapter 1.

(13.) The status of the Chinese also changed according to the changing relations between France and China over the years. For details about the laws that governed the different aspects of the lives of the Chinese, see “Notice sur la situation des Chinois en Indochine”; Dubreuil; Métin; Ky; Tsai; Willmott 1967; Huang Tsen-ming 1954; and Melissa Cheung 2002.

(14.) The right of the Chinese to buy land in Cambodia was taken away from them by the colonial government in 1924. For details see Willmott. Under French rule, the Chinese were barred from exploiting mines and rubber plantation.

(15.) For details on Chinese taxation, see The Chinese and the White Man's Burden in Indochina [Hua qiao zhi: Yuenan, Hua qiao zhi bian zuan wei yuan hui bian.]

(16.) According to Métin, the impossibility to make up the large tax revenues paid by the Chinese from other sources was one of the reasons why the colonial government did not want to pursue the option of turning the Chinese into “natives.”

(17.) Lit de camp is a piece of Vietnamese furniture that serves both as a bed and a place to take one's meals.

(18.) For a discussion of the Chinese immigrants' marriages with local women, see Tsai and Dubreuil.

(19.) Both the circular of the prosecutor and Doumer's letter are available at the colonial archival center, Centre des Archives d'Outremer, in Aix-en-Provence, carton GGI 7770.

(p.257) (20.) For a discussion of the work of the Société française d'émigration des femmes, see my “French Women and the Empire.”

(21.) For a detailed discussion of the fates of the métis in Cambodia, see Gregor Muller, Chapter 5.

(22.) Literally “Minh-huong” means “Minh village.” The word “Minh” alludes to the group's ancestors who lived under the Ming dynasty and fled to Vietnam in the seventeeth century, preferring exile to living under the “foreign” yoke of the Manchu. The term was subsequently used to refer to all descendants of Chinese and Vietnamese parents. For a discussion of the history of the term, see Woodside.

(23.) For a discussion of the condition of the Minh-huongs, see Dubreuil, Tsai, and Marsot, “Notice sur la situation des Chinois en Indochine,” “De la condition des Minh-huong,” .

(24.) For details on the Sino-Cambodian elite, see Willmott, and Muller.

(25.) Quoted in Pégard 240.

(26.) The concept of habitus is taken from the work of Pierre Bourdieu, see in particular The Logic of Practice. For an interesting application of the concept of habitus in a colonial context, see E. M. Collingham, Imperial Bodies.

(27.) For a description of the Hanoi theater house, see Eugène Brieux, in particular 37–8. For an excellent documentation on colonial architecture in Vietnam, see Arnauld Le Brusq's beautifully illustrated book, Vietnam à travers l'architecture coloniale.

(28.) For details on the social life of Hanoi and Haiphong, see Claude Bourrin.

(29.) Yet the effort did not always achieve the desired result in particular in the eyes of some of the metropolitan visitors, who tended to scoff at the colonials' pretentiousness. See for example Auguste François.

(30.) The French colonial civil servants received double the pay of their metropolitan counterparts and were entitled to six months of paid leave for every three-year term of service as well as other kinds of benefits. The theme of financial ruin brought on by the need to maintain a middle- or even upper-class lifestyle in the colony is frequently found in Indochinese colonial novels. For a discussion of the subject, see my “Portrait of the Young Woman as a Coloniale.”

(31.) For detailed discussions of Chinese cultural activities in Cambodia and Vietnam, see Willmott 1970 and Tsai. For Chinese sources, see Zhou Shenggao and The Chinese and the White Man's Burden in Indochina [Hua qiao zhi: Yuenan].

(32.) These figures are taken from Feng and Poncins.

(33.) For discussions of these ethnic groups in Indochina, see Pierre Brocheux, Michael Vann, Gerald Hickey Sons of the Mountains and Kingdom in the Morning Mist, and Oscar Salemink.