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.


“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.


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Cambodian houses, Phnom Penh. Undated.

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

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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.



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Kampot, 1886.

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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.



Kim Hak, photographer

Kim Hak is a young Cambodian photographer who has achieved international recognition. His website is here. These images are from his project Unity – each is a memory of the Pol Pot years. There’s an interview in the excellent Banyan Blog, here, which explains. Some are obvious – the rubber sandals, for example, are the footwear of the KR, next to a bare footprint and a branch of thorns for the workers. Some are less so – the chicken in a teakettle (last image) is from Kim Hak’s mother, who remembers stealing a chicken and boiling it in a kettle for her husband when he was very ill, an act that could have led to death for both of them.

I have a sort of moral/aesthetic problem – how can such images come from such horror? Never mind, they are undeniably beautiful to look at.

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