Sex and the single colonial

ConseilsHyginene.JPGIn 1923 Dr. C. Spire published a little booklet of thirty pages with advice for Frenchmen – planters, administrators, itinerant adventurers – bound for Indochina. The tropics, he told them, were no more dangerous to the health than Bordeaux or Marseilles (a revolutionary idea at the time). Good health required regular doses of quinine, a solar topee, some walking, riding and hunting, and strict avoidance of camping out in swamps and casual liaisons with the local women:

 Venereal diseases are extremely widespread in the colony. The young European, if he is unmarried, must therefore remain absolutely pure.

Dr Spire then faces up to reality:

But with the excitation and the irritation of the tropical climate, and the laxity of Annamite morals, it is quite difficult to ask him to remain continent for many years. I therefore continue to favour, in Africa as in Asia, the contraction of local marriage in the native fashion, a temporary union with a selected Annamite girl who is still, as much as possible, within her family. This has its inconveniences, I do not ignore the fact, but it remains the method that allows the greatest possible reduction in the risk of contagion.


Annamite morals, colonial fantasies: “The Siesta of a Young Favourite”

In the kiosk of a hotel in Ratanakiri I have seen, and deeply regret not buying, an antiquarian postcard showing a goggle-eyed Frenchman in a solar topee leering at a bare-breasted Cambodian damsel at her bath. Beneath was the legend: LES FEMMES! You see them everywhere, but take a grip on yourself, think of home and sweet Marianne to whom you would not wish to return with that which is unspeakable! (I made that bit up, but the general thrust, so to speak, is accurate: health was the concern, not morality or miscegenation).

Assuming that your young Frenchman did not stay pure, what did he do? In Saigon there was a modest red light district, but not in Phnom Penh – it was scarcely more than a village, with a population of 77 thousand in 1924 of whom around a thousand were French. There was no red light district. There was, however, sex:

Local residents served as intermediaries, bringing clients and women together in private homes. For those interested in Khmer women, in particular, a group of European merchants, Cambodian dignitaries, lesser princes, and palace employees served as go-betweens and occasional pimps.

So resident Europeans were all very discreet and well-behaved. The problem arose when the soldiery came visiting:

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 11.38.03 PM.png

French soldiers in Phnom Penh. The little boy holds a sign that reads: “A group of 8 friends, 8 November, 1908”

Accustomed to the more straight-forward practices of Saigon, their behaviour gave often rise to scandal. In 1881, for instance, French administrators faced daily complaints against soldiers who were “chasing women at nighttime.” Hordes of rowdy soldiers regularly accosted women in the streets, trying to grab and kiss them…”


“Phnom Penh – young Cambodian girl” Jeune fille meant a respectable girl; fille meant a prostitute.

Thus were the modest beginnings of Phnom Penh’s  lurid modern reputation. The women were mostly Vietnamese, with only a few Khmers and Sino-Khmers drawn from the lower-ranking fringes of the palace world. There is, indeed, a book to be written about the royal palace and its inhabitants. Perhaps when I have the time.


C. Spire, Conseils d’hygiene aux coloniaux en partance pour l’indochine

Gregor Muller, Colonial Cambodia’s Bad Frenchmen

Norman Lewis and Cambodia, 1950


Norman Lewis and Bugatti

As a child Norman Lewis was sent to live with his three mad aunts, the first of whom never stopped weeping, the second never stopped laughing, and the third never spoke an intelligible word. Being South Wales the aunts spent their Sundays throwing stones at Sabbath-breakers, while their father, Lewis’ grandfather, dallied with his French mistress.  Eventually this lady was identified as the source of the largest outbreak of the clap ever seen in Carmarthen, and Norman was sent home.

North London, where he spent his adolescence, was quite different yet much the same. Norman’s father was a Spiritualist who channeled Indian chiefs and Tibetan lamas, but with so little accuracy that no one could be quite sure what they said; his mother, a psychic, diagnosed men, women and Pekes by the colours of their auras and cured them by the laying on of hands. True believers both, they held great hopes for their son, but he failed to develop his gifts:

“Norman dear, do you hear voices?”

“Yes mother, I hear you perfectly.”

“No dear, I mean Spirit Voices. Do you hear them? Feel Unseen Presences? See Astral Visions?”

“No, mother.”

“Oh. Well never mind dear, perhaps when you’re older.”

Screen Shot 2016-02-16 at 6.14.08 PM.png

1957 paperback edition of A Dragon Apparent

On reaching maturity Norman purchased a Bugatti, married the free-thinking daughter of a Sicilian Mafioso, and became a traveller and writer. His third book, A Dragon Apparent, published 1951 following a trip to Indochina the previous year, was an overnight sensation. “A brilliant report on a period of violent transition in a strange land,” said Peter Fleming, adventurer, travel writer, and brother of the creator of James Bond; “should take its place in the permanent literature of the Far East”, said the Economist. Norman Lewis had arrived.

He judged his moment to perfection. Communism was on the rise, empires were collapsing, and the West was worried. The French were hanging on in Indochina but the Viet Minh were making misery for them in Vietnam and the Khmer Issarak, though not communists, were doing the same in Cambodia. Cambodia was nominally an independent kingdom, but only nominally. Sihanouk, installed as puppet king in 1941, was proving a handful and wished to end the arrangement whereby French citizens could not be tried in Cambodian courts and French troops could do as it wished in the kingdom. The Issarak also wanted to end these things, plus Sihanouk as well. The future of the Free World (quaint phrase today) hung in the balance.

Sihanouk would eventually come out on top, but in 1950 the issue still was in doubt. In his capacity as a journalist for the British press Lewis interviewed Sihanouk and his prime minister, who complained that the French policy of sending in the Foreign Legion to massacre any village where an Issarak presence was even rumoured, or bombing to oblivion those places the Legion couldn’t reach, was counter-productive; nothing, they told him, was more likely to turn a peaceful farmer into a rebel. The French, for their part, seemed to agree; the general commanding the French troops admits to Lewis that he is unwilling to give guns to his Cambodian troops for fear their first act will be desert and sell them to the enemy.


Sihanouk, in French uniform, inspects a village militia.

Politics isn’t all there is to the book – there are descriptions of Phnom Penh and Angkor, and a long passage about a bus trip through Issarak-controlled territory in which he had to be hidden under a cargo of dried fish. This had possibly been done before, but not in Indochina, not in English – Cambodia had been France’s empire, and the British hadn’t bothered themselves with it. I was struck, incidentally, by the way Lewis several times compares Cambodia to Africa – African-looking huts in which the people live, African levels of squalour and indolence. Much later Paul Theroux does the same, in his 2008 travel book Ghost Train to the Eastern Star.


Phnom Penh, 1950.

So this is an important book; yet I must beg to dissociate myself from the praise. Lewis’ later books have a laconic prose and sardonic sensibility that make  compelling reading, but both qualities are pretty well absent here. Worse, far worse, is the condescending, supercilious tone he adopts towards the Cambodians. He does not get under the skin of the country, and seems unaware that the natives might be human beings with hopes and fears – apart from the hope that the French might not kill them. This is not great travel writing, although it is very good journalism.


Coronation of Sihanouk, 1941. “They (the French) thought I was a lamb, but they discovered I was a tiger.”

His later books are much better. Naples ‘44, for example, is a classic, describing his experiences as an army intelligence officer in occupied Naples at the end of World War II (look for his account of General Mark Clark, who invaded Italy with typewriters and filing cabinets). Jackdaw Cake, his autobiography of his early years, is also excellent, and Voices of the Old Sea, telling of his life in a Spanish fishing village just before mass tourism destroyed the Mediterranean, is one I want to read.

Lewis’ great gift was to be present in places on the eve of some irrevocable change. In 1936 he went to Spain with his mafia-affiliated wife thinking to find peace and quite and six weeks later the Civil War broke out. He was in Burma just before the military coup that introduced fifty years of Socialism, and in Paraguay in 1975 he discovered that Christian missionaries were actively involved in exterminating the natives. A Dragon Apparent has its faults, but read it, for it falls into this tradition.


A Dragon Apparent

 Jackdaw Cake.

Lewis’ obituary in the Telegraph and the Norman Lewis website.

Photos from editorials on Cambodia, Twitter.



Victor Fiévet’s Cambodia

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 10.12.39 AM.png

“Cambodian women bathing”

Victor Fiévet was born in 1865 in Roubaix, an industrial town on the Belgian border (department du Nord). It was not a pleasant place:

Roubaix was flooded by migrants from Belgium and the French countryside … [Tenements were thrown up to house them, but, said a visitor in the 1860s,] … “the interior court common to all was a receptacle for sewage, for stinking water which could become the source of pestilence … An air of misery and abandonment reigned throughout.”

(I might point out as an aside that squalid 19th century interior courtyards still exist behind the charming colonial facades of downtown Yangon – if you’re ever there you should go inside and take a look).

Today Roubaix is famous for being the end-point of the annual Paris-Roubaix professional bicycle road race, and back then, with even less to do, the the Roubaixois (is that a word?) coped with the long empty hours as best they could:

Crude birth rates … in the high thirties per thousand … infant mortality [for children under one year] … consistently over 200 [per thousand] … Apparently, Roubaix proletarian families [had lots of babies because] children could also be workers while quite young.

Born as factory fodder, Victor volunteered for military service at age 17 and left the army at age 21 with the rank of sergeant. He immediately joined the Customs service. My source says he joined in Indochina, without telling how he got there – maybe his military service had taken him there, or maybe he joined in France. Anyway, he was clearly wanting to put distance between himself and Roubaix.

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 12.45.17 PM.png

“Tonkinese Woman”. This postcard published (not photographed) by Fievet is one of his most famous, and appears under various titles, notably as “Saigon Prostitute”, although Saigon is not in Tonkin and there’s no evidence she was a prostitute.

His career seems to have been spent entirely in northern Vietnam: He served as Customs Commissioner in posts in Than-Hoa and  Bac-Ninh just outside Hanoi, and retired in 1900 at the age of 35. I have no information on when or where he died, but he seems to have set up in business as a photographer and publisher (of postcards?) and he must have travelled to Cambodia and to Laos at some point. Possibly he even went to China, since on e of his cards says it’s of the Emperor, but postcards, like the Internet, afre not always truthful.

Postcards carrying his work always have the legend “Fievet (Victor), Hanoi (Tonkin) mod. dep. repr. interdite” (“all forms of reproduction are forbidden” – the problems facing photographers in the internet age are not new). Sometimes they’re hand-tinted, as the Tonkinese girl above (the Cambodian girl also appears in a hand-tinted version).

I’ve chosen to illustrate with two female nudes because this is a serious cultural blog and I know my readers are serious people. And sex sells. Fiévet knew that too. And yet there’s very little sexual titillation in French colonial postcards. The Tonkinese girl is the only known example of a full nude, and Cambodian bare breasts are very rare indeed. And yet in North Africa there is ample evidence that humans are mammals. Why? Did a different breed of Frenchman come out to the East? Unlikely. It must have been local culture, or at least that’s my guess. There’s clearly a crying need for a keen sociologist/historian to study this further. But the bulk of Fiévet’s images are sedate, and always instructive.


“Cambodia: Phnom Penh – Favourite dancers of the king of Cambodia”


For the quotes about Roubaix in the 1860s, Robert Wheaton, Family and Sexuality in French History.

For the career of Victor Fiévet, A website called Old Postcards of Indochina – not much there.

For postcard images, catawiki for the Tonkinese nude and the other from a simple google for Fievet  and, a website dealing in old postcards.


Old Cambodia

Feeling nostalgic – and indeed the past is always better than the present. I regret that WordPress won’t allow me to add my sources. If WordPress keeps this up I’m abandoning this blog.


Women, undated. Women wore their hair cropped. These might, just might, be women from the royal harem, although the figure on far right looks very boyish. In the earliest days of Phnom Penh the king kept the royal women in a special section of the palace. They included wives, daughters, and sons who had not reached puberty, and they were never allowed out of their quarter.


Indochine-Postcard-Buddhist.gifA monk. From the chair, a very senior monk – you don’t get to sit in one of those unless you’re Somebody. It’s a chair for preaching from, the Buddhist equivalent of a pulpit. The fan on the right is both a symbol of his rank and something with which he could hide his face if any women were present – monks were not, and are not today, supposed even to look at women. They do, of course. I saw some lovely thrones like this in Burma, for sale in the antique shops on the approaches to Shwedagon Pagoda – but that was many decades ago, and I doubt you’d find one outside a museum or an expensive private collection today.





Pagoda school, 1930 to 1950. Pagoda schools still exist of course. It would nice to make a photographic study of them.


Belle Indochinoise

“Indochinese beauty” it says. Myself when young did eagerly frequent my father’s back-copies of the National Geographic, and I’m sure the same the same noble anthropological impulse is at work here. I think she’s Vietnamese from the hairstyle. I’m also pretty sure that this was not the normal day-to-day style of dress.

Elsewhere I’ve read that Cambodian girls were extremely modest, Vietnamese ones far less so. Colonial Frenchmen seem to have prefered Vietnam to Cambodia, and Laos to either.


Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 10.47.51 PM.png

Cambodian houses, Phnom Penh. Undated.

Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 10.57.20 PM.png

Catholic church, Phnom Penh, undated. Was this the former cathedral? Don’t think so, too small.

Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 11.01.29 PM.png

The son and heir of King Sisowath, who reigned 1904-1927. The legend  says:

Although small in stature, he stands second only to his kingly father, Sisowath, in importance. The impressive gold and jewelled ornaments with which this royal personage is heavily laden must severely embarrass his movement, but the prescribed princely dignity will not allow of the smallest diminution of court etiquette. The heir apparent is usually nominated by the king, or elected by the five chief mandarins of the Court.



Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 11.15.35 PM.png

Kampot, 1886.

Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 11.23.02 PM.png

Two views of Independence Monument and its park and fountain, undated. The naga fountain looks new if you see it today, but it’s actually been there many decades.

Classic photos of Cambodian dance


Princess Bopha Devi (daughter of Sihanouk, a noted dancer)


Krut, roi des oiseaux (Garuda, king of the birds)


Kinnara et Kinnari (mythological bird-creatures)





“The mkot for the feminine role”


Flying apsara




Dancers, Siem Reap


Hanuman the monkey king and Golden Fish


Dancers, Phnom Penh


Kinnari dance at the court of King Norodom, 1866. Dancers on the stage, musicians to the far left, king and dignitaries seated in foreground, servants on hands and knees behind – they would in fact have been slaves, as slavery was not officially abolished till some years later.

Source:, an invaluable repository of old Cambodian photos.