Indochine. Where India met China.

It is an old photo album. Bound in beige cloth. Marked by the passage of time, like an old man’s hands. There is a title on the front cover: Vues de l’Indo-chine. Views of Indochina. My brother found it in a flea market in Paris and gave it to me as a birthday present, many, many years ago. And a fitting present it was since we’d both lived in Cambodia and Vietnam. I don’t remember much, except for fleeting images. He does: I was three, and he was nine.

01b types cambodgiensTypes cambodgiens. Cambodian types.

Judging by the jewelery those women and children are probably from the Cambodian court. Notice the closely cropped hair on the women. Unusual in Asia. Probably the fashion around 1900.

The author, or owner of the album is unknown. The photographer generally doesn’t appear in his/her own photos. (Go to your albums now and write your name on them for when your great-grandchildren dump the lot at an auction!). I can only assume he (not she, at that time women weren’t exactly allowed to do much, let alone take photographs) was French, mid forties, a high-ranking civil servant of the French Empire or an officer in the infanterie coloniale.


Detail from the previous photo.

The year is late 19th century, early 1900’s based on some of the legends underneath the photographs. Some of the comments betray a certain (French) sense of humour. The camera takes us back more than a century ago, at the times of French Indochina. The first set of photos are taken in Cambodia, around 1900.

02a-femmes cambodgiennes

Femmes cambodgiennes. Cambodian women.

Again the women are likely to be members of the Cambodian court. See the ankle bracelets, luxury sarong, Indian influence, worn differently, and the very short hair. (Anybody knows the meaning, do comment!) Feet are bare. A custom still very much in use for instance in Thailand. Leave your shoes outside. Same applies in Scandinavia. God knows why!

Indochina, a name some might view as a colonialist term, is just a geographic concept: it is the region of the world where India met China “head to head”. As all major civilisations grow they tend to expand. (That is not exclusive of Western 19th century expansion and colonialism) Indian civilisation expanded all the way to Java, Indonesia, around the 8th-9th century AD. Hence the permanence of Mahabharata and Ramayana that far south east. Now northern Vietnam was for practical purposes an Imperial Chinese province since the 3rd century AD. And remained strongly influenced by Chinese culture until the 20th century. India’s progress to the East was stopped by China’s advance to the West. Stalemate. The result was – long before Europeans arrived – mixed cultures, strongly Buddhist, and constant warfare or competition between Burma, Siam, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

03a-femmes sino-cambodgiennes

Femmes sino-cambodgiennes. Chinese-Cambodian women.

A rare smile on the young woman on the left. Have you noticed that models on portraits, first in paintings then in early photographs don’t smile? Probably difficult to keep the pose. It then went on to the first photographs. Hence my particular liking for this – long gone – young woman’s smile.

04a-métier á tisser

Métier à tisser utilisé au Cambodge et au Laos. Loom used in Cambodia and Laos.

05a-orchestre cambodgien

Orchestre cambdogien. Cambodian band.

From the surroundings, I would guess a peasant village. The women have the same haircut. (No obsession, just weird. Asian women have wonderful hair that they tend to wear long)

06a-orch. cbdgien

Orchestre cambdogien. Cambodian band.

That music band is more probably from the royal palace!

07a- residence msque norodom

Résidence supérieure du Cambodge et musique de Norodom. Governor’s (?) residence in Cambodia and Norodom’s music band.

The first Khmer kingdom was established in 616 AD. Became an empire taking over the whole of indochina between the 11th and 14th century AD. Then shrank back… Cambodia became a French protectorate in 1863. And regained its independence from France in 1953. King Norodom mentioned in the legend of the last photograph is most likely Norodom 1st (1834-1904) which would place those photographs around 1890? Norodom was succeeded by his brother, later by his grandson Norodom Suramarit, and great-grandson, Norodom Sihanouk, who was in place when we lived in Cambodia in the mid fifties. And was chased by the Khmer Rouge, but that’s another story.

Note the French officers on the left, in white colonial dress, and colonial helmet. Supposed to protect you from the unbearable sun and heat! Curiously, the helmet looks more like a British than a French one. Flatter. The French colonial helmet. See old Africa pictures for comparison. And remember the old chinese saying: “Only mad dogs and englishmen go out in the sun at noon”!

08 b pnom penh

Pnom Penh, c.1902. L. to right: Grand Hotel, messageries fluviales, Customs.

Those buildings were probably still there, fifty-something years later when we lived in Pnom Penh.

09a tonle-sap mekong

Pnom Penh. Confluent Tonle-Sap (foreground) and Mekong (background)

Tonle Sap and Mékong. Two magical river names. The latter, in Vietnam, the site of many a battle. (I use the author’s spelling of Pnom Penh)

10a maison cambodgienne

Maison cambodgienne. Cambodian house.

The house is built on pillars. Probably in case of flooding. The animals take shelter below. A common practice in SE Asia.

11a elephants Norodom

Elephants de voyage du roi Norodom. Travel elephants of King Norodom.

One can see the Indian influence in the use of elephants. A very uncomfortable way of traveling, according to reliable modern accounts!

12a habille Norodom

Pnom Penh. Palais du Roi. On habille Norodom. Royal Palace. Dressing up Norodom.

King Norodom, at the centre is being dressed. Notice the kneeling position of the bearers and by-standers. Submission is equal-opportunity: regardless of race, religion or origin.


Detail of the previous photo.

13a prisonnier chinois

Prisonnier chinois, ancien chef de congrégation. Escroqué 40 000 Piastres à Norodom. Chinese prisoner. Embezzled 40 000 Piastres from King Norodom.

A very brave or very foolish man to try and swindle the King!

15a concours agricole

Concours agricole, les éléphants primés. Country fair. Prize elephants.

Imagine a country fair in Texas with the prize longhorn bulls. Note the extremely long tusks on the elephants. Comparable to African elephants. Today’s Asian elephants seem to have much smaller tusks. Poaching probably.

Well, that was a long post. From scanning, editing to researching. Dedicated to all my E-friends, particularly from Asia. And to fans of vintage photographs!

To be continued…

Have a great week, or what’s left of it. And let’s include the week-end! 🙂

00-Vues indo 2


52 thoughts on “Indochine. Where India met China.

      • It’s been a few busy days here, trimming trees in the garden, making some wine, cleaning up around the house… Suddenly it got cold, too cold for mid-autumn. Now it’s time for me to get back to indoor activities – maybe start fixing all broken electronics or update my free software. 🙂

        Hope everything’s alright out there. Take care! 😉

  1. What a treasure Brian! I am so envious 🙂 The picture of the smiling girl is particularly beautiful. Wondering if ladies from the Cambodian court would have been allowed to perform in a concert. Unlikely in my opinion. The absence of jewelry on the two older women in the first group photo indicates to me that they are widows. In parts of South India it was customary – until recent times – for widows to shave off their locks! The younger girls with footwear and gold belts are puzzling. Perhaps it was mandatory for princesses to enlist as nuns in monasteries quite like young men do in Laos even today.

    • You know, you might be right. I thought the older woman might be a buddhist nun, or went to a convent for a while, because her head is shaved. Or it was a custom for women of the court? But then why do the peasant women in other pictures also have their hair closely cropped?
      (I’ve seen visits from Cambodia on this post: please enlighten us!)
      Take care

  2. Extremely interesting! I do love vintage photos and Asian history…tho my knowledge is limited. My father spent in southeast Asia as a young boy and later in his adult career.

    • Thank you Judy. Glad you liked it.
      I may have “coincided” with your father in Cambodia, from 56 to 57.
      (Though I was only 3!)

    • “Hola Rosa”. Glad you liked them. Those pictures are history. More than a century old, now.
      Take care

  3. What a beautiful present from your brother! I wish I could do something similar to mine, but going that far back and finding a photo album, in the neck of the woods we’re from, would be quite hard. Folks were too poor to have anything but a picture or two. There were people, in cemeteries, with pictures of them 20 years younger because that’s the latest they posed in front of a camera!

  4. Yes, Brian, quite a long post; however, a most enjoyable one! Great images, and your narrative kept me ‘glued’…
    I was quite surprised by the women’s haircuts, too; quite contradictive of the ‘norm’…
    I remember riding on an elephant at our Taronga Zoo in Sydney many years past as a young child. I thought it wonderful, of course! The length of the elephant’s tusks (in your images) was surprising, too. Could it really be because the elephant of today doesn’t reach age sufficient for such length? If this is the case, it is a sad indictment upon humanity.
    Loved this one… 🙂

    • Thank you Carolyn. You beat me on the elephant ride! Beat near may but never rode one. Yes haircuts are amazing. This post has had hundreds of visits form Indochina but no-one has gievn me an explanation. And the tusks… Yes, a matter of age. And a sad indictment.Have a lovely week.

  5. Pingback: The heart is a lonely blogger* (Cont’d) | Equinoxio

  6. Thank you so much for this piece of information. I am currently working as a heritage tour guide in Phnom Penh for Khmer Architecture Tours. I would like to inform you of the three buildings on a picture of this post. The former Grand Hotel building is still there but it has been modified heavily that you can not recognize it at all. It is now KFC. The messageries fluviales is now used as Brown coffee shop and the renovation was done nicely. Unfortunately, the former department of customs was demolished around 1997. It is an empty land now. There was this monstrous hotel building on the site after the demolition but in 2014 they decided to knock it down.

    Best regards,
    Virak Roeun

    • My dear Virak (or is it Roeun? I don’t remember if Khmer first names come first or last) I so appreciate your feedback. It is kinda sad to think of the Grand Hotel as a Kentucky Fried, but that is the way of life. Taking advantage I have two questions: 1) Why did the women at the court wear their hair cut very short? 2) Can you tell me who Mohadeb You was? Thank you and kind regards. Brian

    • It is a fantastic photo album. I have looked and looked at it so much I practically know it by heart. Wrapped it up in a black plastic bag and in a dark closet to avoid fading of the photos. Now about Nepal, I don’t know, haven’t been even remotely close. It seems a bit far away from Indochina to me, but there may be commonalities. Do people hand you an object with both hands? One hand would be considered rude? 🙂

  7. Fantastic photos. I’d like to use one of them in the Museum of Oriental Arts (Moscow) exhition catalogue if it’s possible. Will you be so kind to give your permission.

    • Fantastic, Galina. I would be very honoured. Just put the source, if you may: “B. Martin-Onraët, Equinoxio). Let me know when the catalogue is ready. Have a nice week-end.

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