Sihanouk’s “Glory to Our Arab and African Brothers”

Among the many musical compositions that Norodom Sihanouk composed was a piece called “Glory to Our Arab and African Brothers.”

It would appear that this was a piece that Sihanouk composed while he was living in Beijing and Pyongyang in the 1970s, when he was allied with the Khmer Rouge.

Here is a re-creation of this song and an English translation of the lyrics.

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Sihanouk’s “Thank You, Hồ Chí Minh Trail” (1973)

In 1970, the head of state of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk, was overthrown by one of his military officers, Lon Nol.

Sihanouk, who had declared Cambodia to be a neutral state, was in Moscow at the time. He then flew to Beijing. In Beijing, Premier Minister Zhou Enlai summoned Vietnamese Prime Minister Phạm Văn Đồng, and together they convinced Sihanouk to form a government-in-exile and resist Lon Nol.

Sihanouk proceeded to do so, and in the process, he decided to support a group that was also opposed to Lon Nol, the Khmer Rouge.

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Visions of Modernity in French Indochina

I recently discovered that the French Archives nationales de outré-mer has digitized a treasure trove of historical photographs from France’s former colonial possessions and has made those images available online for public viewing.


For people who are familiar with photographs from French Indochina, some of the photographs that the Archives nationales de outré-mer has digitized will be familiar from their previous appearance in publications.


However, there are many many many others in this online archive that, as far as I know, have never been made public before.


Just to give an example, here are some photographs of what we might call “visions of modernity,” that is, photographs that were either directly meant to highlight the modern developments that were taking place in the colonies, or which, through things like the clothing that we see people wearing, we can tell that society was “modernizing.”


There are many other images in this archive about historical places, and there are a very large number of photographs of people from different ethnic groups.


It is easy to search through the collection by going here, selecting a “territoire,” clicking “lancer la recherche,” and then clicking “afficher.” In the upper-right-hand corner of the page you can then select 20 under “Résultats par page” for easier viewing.


For French Indochina one can find photographs under the following “territoires”: Annam, Cambodge, Cochinchine, Indochine, Laos, Siam (2 pictures of Thai pilots landing in Vietnam) Tonkin and Vietnam. With some effort, one can probably related pictures under other “territoires,” such as the picture above of a structure being built to house Vietnamese exiles in French Guiana.


The Archives nationales de outré-mer has done a great service by making these images available for public viewing.


The past is fascinating and these images make that fact amazingly clear.

Traveling Back in Time to Jam with Ros Sereysothea

As an historian, not only do I enjoy learning about the past, but I also have a strong desire to travel back in time to visit certain places at certain times.

1960s Cambodia is one such place I would like to go back in time to visit, because I would love to be able to listen to the great musicians at that time perform, such as Sinn Sisamouth and, of course, Ros Sereysothea.

Sinn Sisamouth & Ros-Sereysothea

I was thinking about this the other day, and then it dawned on me that I can go back in time. With the use of digital audio and video tools, I realized that not only can I go back to 1960s Cambodia, but I can actually play guitar with Ros Sereysothea’s band there.

So I tuned a guitar to an old recording of Ros Sereysothea’s “Bong Srolanh Oun Ponmaan Dae” (How Much Do You Love Me), and recorded a rhythm track as well as a little bit of lead guitar.

I then made a video of me playing that music, and. . . before I knew it, I was transported back in time to 1960s Cambodia. . . (or at least to the world of the hip elite in 1960s Cambodia).

I played with the band, people danced, and we all grooved to the lovely singing of “the Golden Voice of the Royal Capital.” It was an honor!! And I also learned that in the digital age historians can finally time travel.

Bombing Distilleries in World War II Indochina

I recently came across a report that the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) prepared during World War II on “Selected Industrial Sites in Indo-China.” In seeing this title, I assumed that this document must have identified potential bombing targets.

I therefore also assumed that it would be about places like oil refineries, fuel storage tanks, etc., but much to my surprise, the main “industrial sites” mentioned were distilleries.

At first I couldn’t understand why bombing distilleries would be so important. Can eliminating an enemy’s alcohol supplies really lead to a military victory?


As I read the report, however, I quickly came to see the connection, as during the war the Japanese had converted distilleries in French Indochina so that they could produce fuel.

Actually, the French had started to produce alcohol as a substitute for motor fuel in the 1930s, but had still relied heavily on imported fuel. After the Japanese occupied French Indochina, those imports were cut off, and the Japanese and Vichy French officials then expanded the capacity of distilleries produce alcohol for fuel purposes.

Further, by the middle of the war there were some distilleries that were producing butanol for aviation fuel.


The biggest distilleries were clustered in two areas: the Nam Định-Hà Nội-Hải Dương area and the Sài Gòn-Phnom Penh area. Of these two areas, the OSS deemed the distilleries in the Sài Gòn-Phnom Penh area to be the more important to bomb as that is where butanol was being produced.


David Marr’s Vietnam 1945: The Quest for Power has information about which industrial sites were bombed when. He obtained this information from OSS reports that are held in the US National Archives. What that information shows is that these distilleries were indeed bombed.

Beautiful Saigon, Cambodian Girls and Cathay Pacific Airlines

There is a very famous Vietnamese song from the 1960s written by Y Vân called “Saigon is Beautiful” (Sài Gòn đẹp lắm). I remember being in Bangkok a few years ago and hearing a Thai version of this song when I was in a restaurant or a taxi or someplace like that (and a reader wrote a while ago that her heard the Thai version once on Internet radio).

At the time I thought it was interesting that a Vietnamese song had been recorded by someone outside of Vietnam.

Today I was listening to some clips of songs that are being digitized by The Cambodian Vintage Music Archive and there is one by the late great Cambodian singer, Sinn Sisamouth, called “Girls Today” (Srey Srey Elov) from 1970 that is clearly inspired by “Saigon is Beautiful.” However, Sinn Sisamouth gives it a distinctly Cambodian flavor.

Finally, I found that Hong Kong singer, Frances Yip (葉麗儀), recorded a version of “Saigon is Beautiful” in 1974. This version of the song was apparently used by Cathay Pacific Airlines for promotional purposes.

It’s fascinating to see the international life that this song had.

If anyone can locate the Thai version of this song, please let me know.

Orientalism and Postage Stamps in French Indochina

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?”

dance stamp

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.”

con trau

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.]

The Khmer Rouge Top Secret Santebal (S-21) Archives

The digitization of historical materials is making research ever more easy, however I still find that I make my greatest “discoveries” by looking around in actual libraries.

Today, for instance, I was in a library and came across a few reels of microfilm of “Khmer Rouge top secret Santebal (S-21) archives.”


I had never heard of these materials, but upon looking at them, I was fascinated to see the kind of documents that they contain.


The first thing that I noticed was the prevalence of tables (information that today we would put in Excel charts).

Some scholars have characterized the Khmer Rouge effort to transform Cambodian society as a “high-modernist” project, and the intense effort to document information in tabular form (and thereby making it more easily visible by the state authorities) struck me as a good example of this phenomenon.


My knowledge of Khmer is pretty bad at the moment, but it looks to me like some of these tables are recording inventories of things like bullets and guns. That may not sound very interesting, but examining documents like this could provide interesting insights into the strength of the Khmer Rouge, as well as the way that they sought to control their own forces.


From a Google search about this archive, I see that hundreds of reels of microfilm of Khmer Rouge documents were made in the late 1990s and early 2000s by the Southeast Asia Collection of Yale University Library and the Documentation Center of Cambodia (good job!!!).

In addition to Khmer Rouge documents, some of these reels of microfilm also contain documents from the Lon Nol regime about the Khmer Rouge before they came to power in 1975.


The Khmer Rouge period is a topic that has been written about extensively, but these thousands upon thousands of pages of documents offer the opportunity to say something new about that period of history.

It would be great if someone with strong Khmer language skills would make the effort to do so.

Pen Ran’s Rusted Bachelor in 1970s Cambodia

Pen Ran (also written Pan Ron) was a famous singer in Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s, during the golden age of Khmer popular music.

One of her most famous songs was recorded in the early 1970s and was called “The Rusted Bachelor” (Gamlah Jraeh Jaab).

Pan Ron

How does a bachelor become “rusted”? One would think that it would be from being a bachelor too long, but it is obvious from the song that this is not what the term means.

Instead, it seems to refer to a married man who pretends to still be a bachelor.

Here is the song and a rough translation of it:

I don’t feel pleased,

I don’t feel pleased,

I don’t feel pleased,

When you seek my love,

And say your single,

Then your wife comes along,

And you make an innocent face,

But you can’t think your way out,

And you get confused,

Like a monkey trapped in a cage.


Hey, good looking,

Hey, you rusted bachelor,

You’d better solve this problem right now,

Don’t be in a rush to make your escape,

It seems that a pale face,

Is not your usual look,

Hey! Where do you think you can run to?

Come on Mr. Charming,

Let’s have a chat first.