Phantasmatic Indochina: French Colonial Ideology in Architecture, Film, and Literature 9780822379799

This reflection on colonial culture argues for an examination of “Indochina” as a fictive and mythic construct, a phanta

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Phantasmatic Indochina: French Colonial Ideology in Architecture, Film, and Literature

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Asia-Pacific: Culture, Politics, and Society Editors: Rey Chow, H. D. Harootunian, and Masao Miyoshi

Panivong Norindr

PHANTASMATIC INDOCHINA French Colonial Ideology in Architecture, Film, and Literature Duke University Press Durham and London

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© 1996 Duke University Press All rights reserved Printed in the United States of America on acid- free paper 00 Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data appear on the last printed page of this book.

To my parents, Kongseng Sananikone and Pheng Norindr


Acknowledgments ix Introduction: Indochina as Fiction Representing Indochina: The French Colonial Phantasmatic and the Exposition Coloniale Internationale de Paris 14 I

2 Unruly Natives: The Indochinese Problem 34

3 The "Surrealist" Counter-Exposition: La Verite sur les Colonies 52 4 Indochina as "Reves-Diurnes" and Male Fantasies: Re-Mapping Andre Malraux's La Voie royale 72 5 Geographic Romance: "Errances" and Memories in Marguerite Duras's Colonial Cities 107 6 Filmic Memorials and Colonial Blues: Indochina in Contemporary French Cinema 13 1

Conclusion: Retracing the Legacy of "Indochina Adventures" 155 Notes 159 Works Cited 181 Index 199


Many individuals and institutions have contributed to making this book a reality. A special word of thanks goes to the librarians who assisted me in locating obscure primary sources and whose knowledge and expertise often go unrecognized: Mary Clare Altenhofen of the Harvard University Fine Arts Library, Sommala Nouguerede of the Saint-Maur Bibliotheque Municipale,)ean-Pierre Ranoux-Butte of the Musee des arts d'Afrique et d'Oceanie, and Sharon Hill andJovanka Ristic of the American Geographical Society Collection at the University of WisconsinMilwaukee. Jacques Boivin and director/producer Patrick Jeudy very generously provided me with copies of their work. Parts of this book originated in conference papers and seminars. I thank Dudley Andrew and Steven Ungar who selected me as a participant in their 1991 N.E.H. seminar, "Film, Literature, and the Cultures of Interwar France," which proVided an ideal collegial forum for the critical exchange of ideas. I am also grateful to the audiences at the institutions where I initially presented my work: Emory University, Smith College, the University of Iowa, the University of Nevada-Reno, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Special thanks go to my first public audience, the students-Beatriz Anton and Sarah Harley in particularwho participated in my class "Indochina in French Cinema and Fiction." Over the years, I have benefited from the support of a number of institutions. A graduate school research grant from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee allowed me to travel to France and conduct research in archives in Paris and Aix-en-Provence. The Center for Twentieth-Century Studies, under Kathleen Woodward's leadership, has fostered an intellectual community that has always supported my endeavors. A fellowship at the Institute for Research in the Humanities



at the University of Wisconsin-Madison provided me with the intellectual space to write without interruption and to complete a first draft of this book. I must also acknowledge friends and family members who facilitated my research in France and the United States: Panisouk, Somphavong, and Somphavonne for sharing their computer knowledge and hardware so that I would have access to the Internet; Somsavang, who taught me the basic rules for becoming a successful "chineur"; and Kongseng, Menay, Pheng, Alejandro, Josette, and Amaya for providing daily sustenance and material comfort. Carol-Cook, Leyla Ezdinli, Mary Harper, Elizabeth Houlding, Paolo lazzi, David Thurn, and Phil Watts offered encouragement and were always there when I needed them. I also thank Jean Brady and Reynolds Smith of Duke University Press for being such thoughtful and patient editors. My greatest thanks go to the following individuals: Suzanne Nash of Princeton University for teaching me the rigor of scholarly analysis; Dalia Judovitz for engaging me theoretically and taking an early interest in my work; Robin Pickering-Iazzi who offered instructive comments and labored through the entire manuscript in an attempt to make my prose more elegant: Rey Chow for being such a steadfast champion and stimulating supporter and for suggesting that I send the completed manuscript to Duke University Press. My greatest debt goes to Marina Perez de Mendiola, who convinced me to bring these dormant essays into the public realm and whose critical insight improved the work immensely; I am forever indebted to her intellectual support and generosity. Three chapters of this book have appeared elsewhere, in slightly modified form. Chapter 1 was published in French Cultural Studies 6.16 (February 1995) and Chapter 5 in differences 5.3 (Fall 1993). Chapter 6 originated as a talk given at the Tenth International Colloquium in Twentieth-Century French Studies and will be published as part of a collection of essays edited by Dina Sherzer. I want to thank the editors and publishers of these journals and books for permission to reuse this material.


"Indochine" is an elaborate fiction, a modern phantasmatic assemblage invented during the heyday of French colonial hegemony in Southeast Asia. It is a myth that has never existed and yet endures in our collective imaginary. As a discursive construction that supported financial and political ambitions, and as a particularly fecund lieu de memoire (site of memory) heaVily charged with symbolic significance, Indochina continues today to arouse powerful desires. Its luminous aura sustains memories of erotic fantasies and perpetuates exotic adventures of a bygone era, while appealing to the French nostalgia for grandeur. It is my contention that Indochina is a concept at the intersection of myth and phantasm, an imaginary structure and an idea that can be located, in Catherine Clement's words, "in the register of the phantasm, of the imaginary mise-enscene, indeed of the dream" (17). Indochina also has the power to rearticulate and transfigure the image of history. Such a bold claim and one that goes against current trends in historical analysis may baffle, even generate sharp criticism, especially from those expecting yet another diachronic history of the region. Critics will undoubtedly challenge and dispute the notion of "Indochina as fiction" on both conceptual and methodological grounds. Historians, for instance, skeptical of work in cultural analysis that draws on postcolonial theories and intertextual readings informed by poststructuralism, regard such speculative pronouncements as far too disengaged from material reality to be of any significant value. They can point to a large corpus of historical material gleaned from archives as proof of the existence of Indochina. Cartographic surveys and maps, ethnographic accounts, geological studies, journalistic reports, travel accounts, private letters, official reports, tourist guides, iconographic representations, personal mem-


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oirs, financial reports, and so on can be summoned to produce a coherent textual narrative on French Indochina and an intelligible image of the French colonial possession. Scholars have relied traditionally on this vast corpus for writing what can be regarded as a genealogy of the French colonial presence in Southeast Asia. 1 Narrating the history of the region, however, also means inventing and postulating a coherent political identity for a region once conveniently regarded by scholars and politicians as a void or a desert. If the name "Indochina" was first coined as a geographical marker to describe the Southeast Asian peninsula situated between India and China, in a relatively short period of time that coincided with the almost centurylong French occupation of sovereign territories in the region, it was identified and confused with a political entity, the Union Indochinoise, which was created to bring together dissimilar nations and kingdoms under one centralized colonial administration. The name "Indochina" became synonymous with this new federation of states, whose geopolitical borders could be mapped out and a detailed inventory of its economic resources taken, its arts catalogued-in short, every facet of its "cultural identity" refigured and reproduced. With these concrete scientific data offered as proof of its existence, how can the "reality" of French Indochina still be denied or disputed;> At issue is not simply the fictional or real existence of Indochina but, perhaps even more important, the question of how factual truths have been used and manipulated to construct an identity for Indochina. What also needs to be foregrounded is the emergence of Indochina as a subject of historical reflection; in other words, we must turn to the question of writing as "'modern' historical practice" (de Certeau, The Writing of History xxvi), what the French philosopher Michel de Certeau dubbed "l'ecriture de l'histoire," the writing of history. 2 De Certeau argues that historical accounts articulate a vision or memory of other worlds as a blank space on which Western desire is written (xxv). They transform "the space of the other into a field of expansion for a system of production" (xxv-xxvi), initiated by a type of "writing that conquers" (xxv). This study builds on de Certeau's proposition and demonstrates the extent to which Indochina became, for the French, a space of cultural production. While ostensibly fulfilling their mandate to civi-



lize backward nations, the French produced a coherent image of Indochina to sustain the myth of its colonial edification. My aim, in this study, is not to restore or correct the "true" image of Indochina, nor to provide a more valid version of its "authentic" history. Essentialist notions of history have no place here. More modestly, it traces the process of assimilation of the idea of Indochina in the French imaginary while debunking the myth of Indochina in its multifaceted figurations, as it has been, and continues to be, constructed through the exoticizing project of various historical, literary, cinematic, and political discourses. In short, this inquiry into the cultural topography of Indochina examines what Paul Valery calls the "echafaudages imaginaires," the imaginary scaffoldings on which lndochina as a fictional place, a lieu de memoire, and a vision of an exotic utopia were erected and against which the fantasies of artists, writers, filmmakers, architects, political figures, and others emerged. Many myths of Indochina have been elaborated since 1585, when Father Georges de la Mothe, a French missionary, first landed in the Mekong Delta. If his name and those of Francis Garnier, Francis Riviere, and Auguste Pavie have today receded from our memory, the story of their conquest, of heroic faits d'anne, has been woven into tales of courageous struggle against "exotic," if barbaric, native populations. Rarely read colonial writers modeled their fictive protagonists after these men, creating prototypical figures such as the heroic soldier of the trou~e coloniaie, the bold and enigmatic adventurer who would be king, the selfless man of science or of the clergy who dedicated his life to improving the fate of the natives, the naval officer whose amorous adventures with the native women, the congai, brought erotic exoticism to new levels, and so on. But more importantly, they transformed this imaginary location where many of these fantastic adventures took place into a familiar and readily identifiable terrain. The advent of new techniques in mechanical reproduction and, particularly, improvement in coloring techniques that culminated in chromolithography bolstered the prestige of what became emblematic colonial figures and prestigious sites. Rather than chronicling the dreary life of La Vie quotidienne des Franfais en Indochine (Meyer), the increasingly popular illustrated journals such as Le Tour du monde, Le Petit Journal illustre, and


Phantasmatic Indochina

rfllustration chose to disseminate and circulate their fantastic accounts, displacing and replacing a less heroic version of colonial life with compelling fictions and exotic fantasies. Graphic art, 3 from colonial propaganda posters to trade signs, contributed rather effectively to the idea of an exotic Indochina along with publicizing their goods and services. They promoted products such as tea from the Compagnie Coloniale; coal from the Hongay coal mines; coal from the same basin occupied by Riviere in 1883 before he was killed on May 12, 1883, and where Garnier had also fallen; as well as travel, with such companies as the prominent Messageries Maritimes and Air France. These iconographic representations restylized Indochina in glossy colors and inviting terms. For instance, one slogan proclaims: "Young people, go to the colonies, fortune awaits you." They thus transformed the Indochinese colony into an alluring and commodified object, a familiar icon or sign to be desired or possessed. The power these iconographic lures exerted on the French is difficult to measure accurately. Their enduring impact, however (only superseded by the emergence of the moving image), should not be underestimated, as the narrator of Marguerite Duras's novel, Un Barrage contre Ie Pacifique, suggests. During the colonial era, Indochina, also known as fIla France d'Asie," was said to be "a region of transition" (Brenier and Russier 19) that possessed no distinct identity of its own because its art and culture were considered to be derivative of those of India and China. The great Khmer, Siamese, Cham, and Laotian civilizations that had fought for the domination of the region appeared to have vanished mysteriously. Although monumental traces of their culture have survived-Angkor Wat, the twelfth-century funeral temple, comes immediately to mind-they have been neglected or forgotten by the natives. Left to decay in the jungle, Angkor would have to wait until the nineteenth century to be "rediscovered and rescued from oblivion" by members of the Ecole fran