Victor Fiévet’s Cambodia

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“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.

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“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.

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

Sources:

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 Delcampe.net, a website dealing in old postcards.

 

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2 thoughts on “Victor Fiévet’s Cambodia

  1. When this occasionally naive traveler briefly visited Indonesia for the first time, in October, I was surprised to see many numerous depictions of bare-breasted women going back in time. Interestingly, carvings at Angkor Wat also show topless women. Yet modesty seems to be the rule today.

    • Modesty seems to have been the rule in pre-modern Cambodia, Angkorean apsaras notwithstanding. I have come across one old photo (not sure how old, but pre-Khmer Rouge) showing a young girl harvesting rice bare from the midriff, but otherwise, no – the locals are all decently covered up. It wasn’t so in Bali in 1974, my first visit there, but is now. Maybe a scholarly blog-post is needed.

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