In 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.
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:
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…”
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.
Gregor Muller, Colonial Cambodia’s Bad Frenchmen