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.

Music and Power in Mainland Southeast Asia

Recently I’ve been reading and listening to a new book with accompanying CDs called Longing for the Past: The 78 rpm Era in Southeast Asia.

In the early 20th century, gramophone companies sent people around the world to record local music in an effort to produce records that local people would want to buy. This compilation contains some of these recordings, and the book has explanations of each song by experts on the various musical histories of Southeast Asia. The person who wrote on Thailand, Cambodia and Laos was retired Kent State professor Terry E. Miller.


In listening to the music from Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, one thing that becomes immediately obvious is the degree to which the music in these various places was not ethnically or nationally “pure.”

For instance, there is a 1929 recording from Cambodia that features a Siamese composition that reportedly dates from the Ayutthaya period as well as a song about Khun Chang Khun Phaen, the famous Siamese epic story. Finally, in between these two songs is a brief piece entitled “Phleng Barang” (Western Song) which is performed by a Western-style brass band, and was reportedly written by the Cambodian king.


Then there is an example of a Lao song performed on the lanat, or xylophone. Miller makes the following comment about this piece:

“Although some Lao wish to claim Lao classical music as independent of Thailand, the Lao play compositions by known Thai composers in the Thai idiom. It is known that many Lao classical musicians had been sent earlier to Bangkok to study, and, at least later, some Thai teachers were sent to Laos to teach.

“The relationship between Lao style and Thai style, and the matter of the compositions played, is a contentious one between Thai and Lao because of long-standing negative feelings stemming from, among other things, the fact that the Thai king, Rama III, invaded and destroyed Vientiane and carried off most of the population in 1828.”


Finally there are songs from Siam like one called “Khaek Lopburi” which Miller translated as “Lopburi (In Malay Accent).” This is what he says about that song:

“The first word in the title, ‘Khaek,’ indicates the work’s somniang or ‘ethnic character.’ The Thai repertory includes a great many works whose titles begin with such a word, including Lao (Lao), Jin (Chinese), Khamen (Khmer/Cambodian), etc. Each term references a certain mode/scale, a particular drum cycle (nathap khaek), sometimes a pair of drums (khlawng khaek), the scale pitch level, and the general melodic instruments.”


In the nineteenth century, the Siamese kingdom based at Bangkok was one of the most powerful kingdoms in the region. Its leaders sent military expeditions to places like present-day Laos to capture people and bring them back to Bangkok to provide labor.

Alongside such captives came their music as well, and that is clearly evident in the songs in Longing For the Past.

Although these works were recorded in the early twentieth century, they still to some extent reflect the world of the nineteenth century when Siam was a powerful center that could enjoy the “exotic” sounds of its far-flung tributaries, and when people in those lands, one way or another, came to follow the ways of the Siamese imperial center.

The Map of the Great Savage Kingdom

A kind reader has encouraged me to look at an old Vietnamese map of the Mekong region known as the Đại Man quốc đồ 大蠻國圖 (Map of the Great Savage Kingdom).

There is a text appended to this map that was written by a certain Nguyễn Án in Hanoi in 1800, when that city was under the control of the Tây Sơn Dynasty.

We know of this map and text because they are included in a collection of maps know as the Hồng Đức bản đồ 洪德版圖 (Maps from the Hồng Đức Era). The Hồng Đức era was in the fifteenth century, and many of the maps in the Hồng Đức bản đồ were created later, so this work is not exactly a collection of “maps from the Hồng Đức era.” However, by the nineteenth century there was a collection of maps that had that title.


This collection of maps was then published in book form by the Institute of Archaeology in Saigon in the early 1960s. What is more, the scholars there translated the classical Chinese and Nôm place names on these maps into modern Vietnamese.

That was a fantastic contribution, and one only wishes that the Institute of Archaeology in Saigon could have continued to produce works like this, as today our knowledge of the Vietnamese past would surely be so much richer as a result.

In any case, as wonderful as the publication of the Hồng Đức bản đồ in the early 1960s in Saigon was, today we can find certain limitations with it. First of all, the maps were published in negative form, and that can make them difficult to read. And second, as knowledgeable as the scholars who produced this work were, there were some things that they didn’t know, and the work therefore needs to be updated.


This is certainly the case with the “Map of the Great Savage Kingdom.” In examining the map and the translations/transliterations that were made in Saigon, I can detect problems, but I don’t know that I can solve all of them. So I will share here what I know and see, and hopefully more knowledgeable people can help provide more information.

The scholars at the Institute of Archaeology in Saigon divided the maps in the Hồng Đức bản đồ into grids, and then on separate pages they transliterated into modern Romanized Vietnamese the terms in classical Chinese and Nôm that appeared on the maps. This was helpful, but I still find it extremely difficult to view a map in this way.

Therefore, using Photoshop and a different version of the map that I have obtained, I input the place names in Romanized form. Unfortunately, Photoshop does not like Vietnamese fonts (at least not on my computer), so I had to write the names without diacritics. If you want to see the diacritics, consult this image:


So here is the version of the map that I made with Romanized place names on it. “M.” is an abbreviation for “mường 芒,” the Tai term for a “polity.” As for “Tr.,” it is an abbreviation of “trình 呈,” but I’m not sure what that was.



And here is a translation, with commentary, of the accompanying text:

“The Great Savage Kingdom is to the southwest of Our Việt (我粵 – notice the use of the character for “Cantonese” rather than “Vietnamese” here. . .). To the south it comes up against Siam and Champa. To the north it connects to the Inner Lands’ (内地 – a very respectful term for “China”) Yun[nan] and Gui[zhou]. It’s more or less the area of the old [kingdoms of] Lão Qua and Miến Điện. There are many types and groups of people, but the Great Savage [kingdom] is the most dominant. The clothing and language there is more or less the same as in Lao Long citadel.”


The translators of the Hồng Đức bản đồ translate the next sentence to say that three officials were sent from the Great Savage Kingdom to [Hanoi?] in 1800, “Chậu-bố, Ban-cơ and Chu-công.” I don’t think that this is correct. First of all, if this was more than one person, the text would probably indicate that by saying something like “A, B, C 等臣.”

Second, I’ve noticed that in the letters that people like the Siamese sent to the Vietnamese, the entire titles and names of the Siamese were transliterated by using Hán or Nôm, and therefore, the two-character name pattern that the translators used is out of place with the way that “savages” expressed themselves. And third, the name listed here starts with a Nôm character that the translators transliterated as chậu, which is clearly the Tai term for a prince or lord, cao.


So to continue, “In the canh thân year of the Cảnh Thịnh reign [1800], the official Chậu Bố Ban Cơ Chu Công delivered a [palm]leaf letter along with such goods as donkeys, horses and rhinoceros horn in order to establish friendly relations.”

“Their leader calls himself Phả Ma Kỳ Sất (頗麻奇叱).” The translators say in a footnote that Phả Ma refers to Burma, however, I think it’s clear from the map that the Great Savage Kingdom was not Burma.

My guess would be that this is a transliteration of something like “Thammathirat,” or “King of the Dharma,” which would have been part of a longer title for a king (the final character, 叱, can also be pronounced as “rất” and that would make the transliteration even closer).


After this the text switches to Nôm and it gets confusing. First, it says that at the edge of this territory of the Great Savage Kingdom the sun passes below the earth.

Then the translators of the the Hồng Đức bản đồ have a phrase (bưa vừa lớn) that makes absolutely no sense to me. I think that phrase is saying that there are “three [types of] big people” (ba vị lớn) in the Great Savage Kingdom, and the text then goes on to explain who those people are: there are (1) rich people, (2) people who control gold, silver or jade mines, and (3) people who have white or red elephants.

The text then switches back to classical Chinese and cites some age-old wisdom that “each of the nine regions (the divisions of “China” in antiquity) has its own character, and over 1,000 leagues there are different customs.” The point here is to say that the information that the author has provided about the Great Savage Kingdom might seem odd, but there are different customs in the world, so it should be believed.

Han text

So this is what I understand about this map and text. Obviously I still have questions. The biggest is – where was the “Great Savage Kingdom”? I’m assuming that this was Vientiane. In 1800, the ruler there was Inthavong. Was “Thammathirat” also part of his title?

Any comments that anyone might have about this post would most certainly be appreciated.

Sappy Love Songs and the Meaning of Mainland Southeast Asian History During the Cold War

In 1966 John Denver wrote the song “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” When I was growing up, I didn’t like that song. The version I heard the most when I was young was the one by Peter, Paul and Mary. I think we learned it in kindergarten.

Yes, Peter, Paul and Mary were part of the 1960s, but other artists produced what I thought (even in kindergarten, I think) was a lot more interesting work (Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones. . . the list goes on and on. . . Ok, maybe I didn’t listen to Hendrix and the Stones in kindergarten, but Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” was a song we knew.).

So it kind of surprised me when I came across this version of that song a few years ago and found that I actually liked it. It’s by Palmy, a singer in Thailand who is of Thai-Belgan ancestry and who grew up in Australia.

Maybe I’m getting too deep here, but when I see/hear a performance like this, I have all of these “visions” of the past that come to my mind.

I think of the 1960s, the Cold War, the social turmoil in the US, the utter destruction that the US brought to mainland Southeast Asia (one of my earliest memories is of hearing the “body count” on TV).

And in realizing that this is sung by someone whose parents are of different nationalities, I think of Thailand’s intense contact with “development” during the “American era,” the political turmoil of the 1970s, etc.


And then after thinking about all of that historical stuff, I think about how after all of that struggle and destruction and change we have a talented and attractive young woman singing a sweet song that was first performed in the midst of that turmoil several decades ago by some of the more conservative artists of that time.

So what does it all mean?

Does it mean that all of that conflict had a purpose and was moving societies toward something better? Or does it mean that it was all for nothing, and that people should have forgotten what they were struggling/fighting for and listened to the sappy love songs of Peter, Paul and Mary in the 1960s?

Maybe something else?

I still don’t think that listening to Peter, Paul and Mary in the 1960s was a good idea, but as for the rest. . .

Mapping Military Posts in French Indochina

Following on the post below, here is an attempt at making a map of military posts in French Indochina in World War II.

mil posts

On the map page you can switch to “terrain” view by clicking on the dropdown menu in the upper right-hand corner of the screen.


It is interesting to do so as it makes it clear that in Tonkin, military posts were placed around the edges of the Red River Delta, and along the borders. There was a particularly numerous group of posts near the northeastern coast. I would be interested in knowing what the reason for that was (expecting a naval attack?).

Lao mil posts

Another point that I find interesting is that there were only four military posts in Laos. . . Also, we can see again here that the borders were different then.

The Imagined Communities of the Tai Dam

I pointed out in the post below on “The Other Voices in ‘Vietnamese’ History” that in a place like the Nguyễn Dynasty empire the Việt were not the only people who recorded information. In particular, I pointed out that the Dao recorded a great deal as well.


Another people who recorded information were the Black Tai, or Tai Dam. A few years ago a Thai scholar wrote a wonderful dissertation on the topic of literacy among the Tai Dam in the area of what is now northwestern Vietnam: Yukti Mukdawijitra, “Ethnicity and Multilingualism: The Case of Ethnic Tai in The Vietnamese State” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin – Madison, 2007).

In his dissertation, Ajarn (i.e., “professor”) Yukti examines literacy among the Tai Dam from the pre-colonial period up to the present. I find the information that he provides about the pre-colonial period to be particularly fascinating, as it is a topic that we know so little about.


Some people may have heard of the Tai Dam text called the Kwam To Muang (hereafter KTM), or “story about the principality.” John Hartman at Northern Illinois University has done some preliminary work on that text (here), but as Ajarn Yukti points out in his dissertation, there is much more to this text than such introductions have revealed.

The traditional Tai Dam KTM contained three main parts. It opened with a call for people to listen to the recital of the text. This opening section was followed by a recital of the Tai Dam origin myth. And then the final, and longest, section related the historical chronology of the various Tai Dam muang (or principalities) that had existed from the past to the present.

Tai Dam map

The Tai Dam world was not politically unified. Therefore, each Tai Dam muang had its own KTM, however there was a point in the past where they all converged, or if we move from the past to the present, there was a point in the past where the line of transmission split and allowed for multiple muang to coexist. As such, the Tai Dam were politically divided but they all claimed to descend from a common ancestral clan in the distant past.

Ajarn Yukti explains how the KTM was only “read” on certain occasions. For instance, it was recited at the funeral of a muang chief. When the leader of a muang passed away, an elaborate funeral was held and as part of the ceremony, the chief’s son-in-law would read out loud the KTM.


Further, people would listen to the recitation of the KTM and Ajarn Yukti argues that this served as a way for them to “imagine their community” (sort of like the emergence of print capitalism enabled people in modern nations to imagine themselves as a nation, as Benedict Anderson has argued, as they can see by reading newspapers, for instance, that they are part of a community that is larger than the one they actually see with their eyes each day).

As such, within the Nguyễn Dynasty realm there was clearly more than one way of imagining community. While the production of historical texts at the imperial capital like the Khâm định Việt sử thông giám cương mục [Imperially Commissioned Itemized Summaries of the Comprehensive Mirror of Việt History] enabled the imagination of community through reading, the recitation of the KTM at the imperial periphery enabled the imagination of community through listening.

In other words, just as there were multiple voices within the Nguyễn Dynasty empire, so were there multiple ways of understanding the world and where one belonged in it.

[The two photographs above of “Lolo,” or what we would today call Dao, come from the French National Library, see here and here.]

Smoking in 1960s Laos

Ever wonder what people in Laos were smoking in the 1960s as they cruised around in their new Mazdas?

1960s Lao cigarette advertisement

Well here is the answer. Consulate cigarettes, for one, a brand from England.

1960s Lao cigarette advertisement

Then there were “Sam Dao” or “Three Stars” cigarettes. While the package states that the tobacco is “U.S.A. Blend,” this was actually a German company.

1960s Lao cigarette advertisement

Then we have Phaxeun. I can’t read the Lao text, so I’m not sure where it comes from, but the packaging suggests that, like “Sam Dao,” it was a Western brand which had been given a Lao name.

1960s Lao cigarette advertisement

And then finally there was at least one Lao brand of cigarette –  Muang Thong.

1960s Lao cigarette advertisement

Twentieth-Century Events From a Tai Perspective

In the late 1940s and early 1950s two of the most important events in the twentieth century took place on the Asian mainland. In 1949 there was a revolution in China which brought the Chinese Communist Party to power, and in 1954 the Việt Minh defeated the French and brought an end to decades of colonial rule.

How do we write about these events? Was the Communist Revolution a victory? Not to the KMT it wasn’t. So how should we write about it? From the victors’ standpoint, or from the perspective of those who lost? How about what transpired in Vietnam? Should we refer to it as a victory or a loss?

There is nothing in events themselves which can determine this. It all depends on the perspective that the historian takes.

With those thoughts in mind, yet another perspective about these events occurred to me recently as I was reading through the New Times of Burma for the early months of 1954.

On February 20, 1954 the New Times of Burma reported that KMT remnants were reported to be “terrorizing and endangering lives,” that elders were being held at ransom and that women were being kidnapped.

Some of the places that they were reported to be terrorizing were the villages of Mong Khak, Mong Lwe, Mong Yang and Mong Pawk.

On February 23, the same paper reported that the 18-day Việt Minh siege of Muong Sai had been lifted.

Finally, on March 9, 1954 the New Times of Burma carried a report of a campaign on the part of the Burmese army against the KMT remnants in Burma. It stated that the Burmese army was converging on a strategic site called Mong Ton.

What is significant about these articles? What struck me was the place names mentioned: Mong Khak, Mong Lwe, Mong Yang, Mong Pawk, Muong Sai and Mong Ton. These are all settlements of Tai peoples.

Remnants of the KMT army fled into Burma, and the Việt Minh fought the French in Laos. In both instances, Tai were caught in the crossfire.

Were we to write a history of that period from their perspective, what would it look like?

The Lao Story of the Betel Leaf and the Areca Nut

The “Story of the Betel Leaf and the Areca Nut” is a famous “Vietnamese” story. I have Vietnamese in scare quotes here because the Vietnamese are not the only people who have this story, and it probably did not emerge among the Vietnamese. The reason I say this is because the Vietnamese version is highly Sinicized/Confucianized, whereas those elements are absent in other versions of the story.

What follows is a summary of a Lao version of this story. It comes from a French translation by Pierre-Bernard Lafont of the story which was published in the Bulletin de la Société des Études Indochinoises in 1971. Lafont’s translation in turn was based on some Lao manuscript which the EFEO obtained in 1925.

Obviously it would be better to see a Lao original version, so if anyone who knows where one would be ever reads this, please let me know.

The Lao story is about Sam Luong, Sam Lan and Ing Dai. They are three friends and they study together. Ing Dai is actually a girl, but the other two do not know this. She is also from another village, but is staying in a different village with relatives so that she can go to school. The there are inseparable, and they even sleep on the same bed at times. Then things start to change because Ing Dai’s body starts to change.

At the beginning of the story, they go swimming, and Sam Luong notices that Ing Dai’s breasts have gotten larger, but s/he says that she was bitten by insects the night before, and that they therefore were swollen.

Sam Luong, believing this explanation, then invites Ing Dai to go look for girls with him. S/he agrees, but then when they are passing Ing Dai’s relatives house she tells Sam Luong to go ahead, and to come back to the house later. Ing Dai then goes in and changes into girl’s clothes, and starts to blacken her teeth. When Sam Luong comes back, he sees a beautiful young girl blackening her teeth. Not knowing that it is Ing Dai, he asks if he can blacken his teeth together with her. She says yes, and . . . he leaves early the next morning at the sound of the cock’s crow.

The two then live a double life. They study together during the day, and then make love at night. Sam Luong still doesn’t realize that his classmate during the day is the same person as the girl he stays with at night.

Then Ing Dai is called back to her home. She leaves, and leaves a note for Sam Luong in which she reveals her true identity. Sam Luong goes looking for her. When he finds her, the two are very happy and spend the night together. The next morning, Ing Dai’s mother finds the two sleeping side by side, and gets angry. She says that she will never give her permission for them to marry.

Sam Luong goes back home, but before he does he talks with Ing Dai. They decide that they would rather die than be apart. Then Sam Luong comes up with a plan. He says that he will pretend to die. After he does, he wants Ing Dai to tell her parents that his wish is to be placed in a stone coffin which is big enough to hold two people.

Sam Luong leaves, and pretends to get sick on the way back and then “dies.” His parents go to cut down a tree to make a coffin, but the axe can’t cut the tree. So they send for Ing Dai to see if she knows if Sam Luong had any final wish. She tells them, and they make a stone coffin. Then when it is being transported to the cemetery, Ing Dai asks for the people carrying it to stop and open it. She then gets into the coffin, and somehow it is closed again and the people can’t open it.

The parents of Sam Luong and Ing Dai are sent for, as is the cao muong [i.e., the leader of the muong]. The cao muong orders that the best friend of Sam Luong and Ing Dai, Sam Lan, come to answer questions. The coffin is opened and the two are alive. The parents get angry at the trouble the young people have caused and wish them all dead.

Magically, all of the three young people die right there on the spot, and then they transform. Sam Lan becomes lime, Ing Dai becomes betel leaf, and Sam Luong becomes an areca nut.