A Vietnamese translation of Edward Said’s Orientalism has apparently just been published. That book became very influential after it first appeared in 1978, becoming a foundational text for the field of post-colonial studies.
In his book, Said examines the way that Western writers have historically depicted “the Orient,” and he argues that Westerners created an image of the East as exotic and undeveloped, and by doing so they implicitly created a rationale for the colonization of the Orient.
Said’s main focus was on writings about the Middle East, but scholars who have been inspired by his work have examined writings about other regions in Asia and have found that his interpretive framework works there as well.
I recently came across an article what appeared in North American newspapers in 1922 which demonstrates this. The article was called “Scandal on a Postage Stamp! Why France Issued Certain Agitated Official Orders When it Learned that the Snappy Little Ladies on the Indo-Chinese Stamps were Notoriously Wicked Native Dancing Houris” and it appeared in The Morning Tulsa Daily World and the Richmond Times-Dispatch on 9 July 1922 and the Vancouver Daily World on 15 July 1922.
The article notes that there was an advisory body to the French government called “The Superior Council for the Colonies,” and claims that one of its members, a “certain dignified gentleman” by the name of Maitre Duchene,” made a tour of inspection in Indochina.
“Having completed his investigations of postal, railroad, industrial, political and sanitary affairs, he was courteously entertained by local princes and native potentates – and one of those entertainments included a formal visit to Hanoi’s foremost open-air ‘palace de jazz,’ where the celebrated dancing beauties of Annam, Cambodia and Tonking wiggled their shoulders to the music of drums in a manner for which the well-known Orient is justly famous. . .
“At first it cannot be said that the scene inspired Maitre Duchene with any emotion stronger than a deprecatory curiosity – but shortly after the appearance on the platform of a certain Annamite houri with marked features, lustrous eyes and raven hair, the French superior councilman was observed to adjust his monocle and lean forward in an attitude of tense surprise.”
Maitre Duchene realizes that the woman dancing on the stage looks the same as the woman on a stamp that he has seen, and he goes to visit Governor-General Maurice Long to protest about this.
Among other comments, Duchene says the following:
“Last year we had 1,583,672 buffalos. The buffalo is a noble animal. It looks well on postage stamps. I ask you to compare photographs of our buffalos and our dancers and tell me whether the buffalo has not the more dignified and moral countenance. . .
“Why, then, should be ornament our official government postage stamps with likenesses of dancing girls and unregenerate Annamite cuties from Hanoi?”
The governor-general encourages Duchene to take up the matter with Minister of Foreign Affairs Albert Sarraut, the man who was governor-general of Indochina when the stamps were first issued.
Sarraut states that he had been too busy with more important matters to notice the stamps, but agrees with Duchene and says, “Suppress these stamps by all means and get out a new issue. Ornament it with pictures of buffalos, Buddhist priests, Christian missionaries, canning factories or camels. Anything you like. But don’t blame me.”
At the end of the article it is noted that the “Journal Officiel” of French Indochina had recently published a notice in which people were encouraged to submit designs for new stamps. My guess would be that this article is a work of fiction that was created by someone who saw such an announcement in one of the official publications produced by the French colonial administration in Indochina.
What is significant, however, is the way that it reproduces the types of Orientalist depictions that Said discussed in Orientalism. Indeed, some of the language and imagery comes straight from the Middle East, such as the mention of a “houri” (a beautiful young woman), and local princes and potentates.
It is also fascinating that there is a picture of Evan-Burrows Fontaine accompanying this article about Indochina. Fontaine was a dancer who was famous at the time this article was written for performing various “Oriental style” dances, dances which probably had little to do with any actual dances in the Orient and more to do with American imaginings of an exotic Other.
There is a lot more that one could say about this article, but it is clearly a good example of the ideas and imagery that Edward Said talked about in his book. Since its publication in 1978 there has been a lot of scholarship that has emerged that challenges various aspects of Said’s argument. The West’s depiction of the East was not as simple as Said may have at times suggested, but when one looks at articles like this one, it is clear that much of what Said wrote was right on target.
[The article can be found at Chronicling America.]