To the ‘multi-ethnic’ infinity and beyond: let’s start with ‘Bad Frenchmen’

How about a read today? I was thinking… Gregor Muller ‘’Colonial Cambodia’s ‘Bad Frenchmen’‘’ [*], which would very well go with a ‘let’s-talk-ethnicity-lamp’ and with the subtitle: how did those insightful lines got exactly where I wasn’t expecting them?

It has been a while now that ‘multi-ethnicity’ and some of its examples in Cambodian and Cham societies have comfortably accommodated in the house of my obsessions (a Kane’s Xanadu kind of house it seems…). And believe me, just typing the word ‘multi-ethnicity’ gets me on the edge: my teeth grind, my scarlet polished nails creak on the key-board, and yes by 27 degrees, I do get shivers… Are we still even seriously thinking in terms of ethnicity or even (aiiieee!!!!!!!!!!!!!) ‘ethnic groups’? It seems so. In the end I guess we all feel pretty uncomfortable when facing the unknown and facing the un-labeled is pretty much one of its drastic forms… And when finally the anthropologist is faced with the indefinable, the first reaction would be to actually reach out to yet another definition, a reassuring shelter I guess. But let’s keep this existential debate on the side (I am thinking… a PhD dissertation side would be nice don’t you? ;)), and just leave it ‘ChamAttic’ for now: light and visual.

And to do so, I am going into full fall-spring-all-the-time-cleaning mode, excavating a series of photographs and portraits: telling wonderful stories of borders crossed, unlimited limits, and of course imagined ‘ethnicities’ (aie again!). So, dear readers (yep, I did put a ‘s’, I am in a joyful-hopeful mood today!), I am going to launch a series of episodes from now on illustrating those ‘inter-ethnic’ relations that Chams have with ‘Others’. Of course I could give you a calendar, dates and regularities, but that would mean getting organized so… no. They will pop up just once in a while on your screen, so please do come back to the screen! Still, I thought that before we get to really start, we may want to take a little detour and introduce the topic with one of the most captivating book I have read on Cambodia in the past few years: Gregor Muller ‘’Colonial Cambodia’s ‘Bad Frenchmen’‘’ [*].


Inter-ethni-cities & the city

So ok, I have to admit I may not be completely objective: as a Phnom Penher completely enamored with my city, I just had to give it up to Gregor Muller for providing this colorful account of the ‘birth’ of Phnom Penh as we would know it, as a bubbling village-city with all the different dynamics, hopes, dreams and ambitions that made it so heterogeneous and fascinating until today. And, well… I guess I wasn’t much objective either as a French migrant to Cambodia since like… ever… when Muller started to hit home with the portraits of those early wanderers whom, because they were not sure of anything, were sure to be in Cambodia, whom, because they were at the margins of the protectorate were right at its center, whom, exactly because they didn’t fit anywhere, perfectly fit in there. But for this little piece of writing here, I will focus on the hints Gregor Muller gives us of a very ‘multi-ethnic’ city going way beyond those ethnic definitions and labels we tend to assign.

The book is wonderfully written: the kind you can bring as a present to any scholar for sure, but moreover to just anyone willing to go beyond the usual I-survived-the-Khmer-Rouge-the-human-trafficking-the-land-mines-the-drugs-and-an-Angkor-guided-tour literature on Cambodia. You devour it like a novel, right from the first pages where the author recalls – with a talent for atmospheric description – his encounter with an old lady taking out the china and the photo albums: the direct descendant of infamous Caraman, one of the many marginal characters of ‘Bad Frenchmen’, finally right under the central stage spot light. You encounter and get almost personally up close with those ‘weirdos’ whom, I promise, you will end up feeling a certain sense of attachment to: whether for the hard working ladies, the strong female bar owner, the fake-wannabe-nobles, the improvised diplomats, the trying-it-out-free-masons, the lost soldiers, the many ‘half breed’ and of course… the interpreters (and yes, again, the interpreter in me is absolutely objective in this selection!).

I was already completely absorbed in the book – which I read years ago, but went back to pages and notes recently – when Gregor Muller decided to embark the reader on a trip to a ‘multiethnic’ Phnom Penh with quite just a complete different color palette… We get the usual: the French arrived and the city was (re-)organized in ethnic districts: the French, the Chinese, and the Khmers living in different parts. In a nutshell, Muller tells us about the ethni-cities of the city:

‘’With so many communities living alongside each other, each with its own internal ways of functioning, late-nineteenth-century Phnom Penh was a cosmopolitan place. Viewed from the outside, it appeared to be a perfect example of what John Furniwall later defined as a ‘’plural society’’ (…). To some degree, Phnom Penh was such a plural society where each community appeared to have found its specific place and role, but had comparatively little to do with one another.’’ (p 59)

But Muller doesn’t stop there. He exhumes the complex relations and power games of the Chinese with the French. He reminds us that the Khmer society itself could hardly be defined as homogeneous as we often hear[1]. And he simply describes 19th century Phnom Penh with words that would very much apply still now: it’s all about discrete recipes of mixes, alternatives, moving identities, un-categories:

‘’(…) There were some common bonds and interactions between Phnom Penh’s different communities. (…) Intermarriage was also frequent between Khmer and Cham-Malay, in which case the Khmer spouse, man or woman, converted to Islam and assimilated to Malay custom[2]. Frequent social exchange and intermarriage between ethnic groups rendered boundaries vague and ethnic identity ambiguous. Moreover, the difference between, for example Khmer and Chinese or Khmer and Cham, was one based on cultural practice, not ‘ethnicity’. Members of distinct communities lived according to different customs, ate different food, followed different religions, styled their hair in different fashion and clothed themselves in different garments. None of these practices were unchangeable or biologically determined. ‘Ethnic’ identity was, to a large extent, based on choice: one could choose to belong to a specific community by conforming to its rules, or renounce membership by abandoning a specific customary practice. (…) Shifting ethnic identities were a recurrent phenomenon in traditional Cambodian society.[3] (p 59-60)

(…) ‘’Phnom Penh’s multi-ethnic society was a plural society in Furnivall’s sense, yet one with blurred and permeable boundaries, and with a good deal of interaction and interdependence between the different groups comprising its body. Although fragile and prone to conflict, it managed to prosper over the centuries and to incorporate successive waves of immigrants from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds, in the face of ever-changing regimes, incessant rebellions, and military occupation. (p 60)‘’

And this leads us to – yet another – obsession of mine: if the societies we work on – whether we call them ‘Khmer’ or ‘Cham’ or anything else – are perpetually on the move, always on the edge of something like de-construction and constant re-constructions, or even elusive at best, how come do we keep on talking, hearing and writing about those categories? What has been the source for the elaboration of those?

The French (Protectorate) at odds with multiple ‘ethnicities’

When I started fieldwork (that was when I was a baby anthropologist, now I am happy to announce that, after all this time, I am barely a toddler!), I struggled with this elusiveness, the un-catchable. I sought for some refuge: not in drugs (well… I can’t say I wasn’t tempted!), but in what is considered a detour by some anthropologists: history and another kind of (legal but highly addictive) drugs: the archives. On one hand there was of course oral history, but moreover, just ‘things’ people would mention informally at the margin of a more ‘essential’ discussion. And on the other hand came archival materials, notably the colonial sources: and they really shed light on what I couldn’t make sense of (yes, I did use past tense, again I am in a joyful-hopeful mood today!). I was of course aware how much my own perception of the ‘Cham issues’ was framed not only by my own environment and the way we think about ‘identity’ and ‘ethnicity’, but moreover how much the colonial influence played a role in forging our comprehension – or rather our interpretation – of those categories. But even more fascinating to me was how much Chams themselves had been used, and had been using themselves and re-using those categories, re-interpreting and re-incorporating them constantly. I was still struggling with this material, with those thoughts, nowhere close to put words on what could have been Chapter 32 of my dissertation (ok… I wasn’t even close to put words on what could have been the 1st line of the 1st chapter anyway), when I found something very close to the perfect illustration and wording in Gregor Muller’s very own lines:

‘’Early travelers to Cambodia had noted that the urban worlds of Phnom Penh and Oudong were inhabited, apart from Khmer, by a range of other ethnic communities, such as Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cham-Malay. These travelers had been told that each community had its own chief who could mediate disputes within the community. Indeed, as seen earlier, separate communities did exist in Phnom Penh, but membership in these communities was based on an individual’s cultural practice and therefore, at least to a certain degree, a matter of choice. In addition, the margins of each community remained vague, as a result of frequent inter-marriage and official tax and recruiting policies favoring some communities over others, a fact that made some locals desire an ‘ethnic’ identity other than the one they had been born with. Upon examining the Cambodian justice system, however, the French were unable to find a legal code reflecting the different categories of people that they believed they saw when walking the streets of Phnom Penh. What culture was to Cambodians, biology was to the French: the defining factor of belonging to one group or another. The French held dear that the Chinese were Chinese and the Vietnamese were Vietnamese by virtue of their ‘race’. The mutability of ethnic boundaries was a deeply troubling idea to French administrators, since colonialism depended on clear-cut divisions between rulers and ruled, colonizers and colonized. While French colonial discourse initially argued that this segregation was required because of the cultural inferiority of the natives (thus leaving open the possibility for the co-optation of particularly advanced specimens of the indigenous society), racial definitions became increasingly popular as the century drew to a close[4]. ‘Chinese’, ‘Khmer’, ‘Vietnamese’ or ‘Indian’ became god-given racial attributes to be registered in tax records and other profitable ways of cataloguing natives. Much to the chagrin of the French, the Cambodian justice system did not account for these categories’’. (p 107-108)

‘’Conscious of Phnom Penh’s ethnic plurality, French officials designed policies (particularly tax policies) and decreed legal statuses that would no longer allow members of different communities to chose their ‘race’[5]. Instead, the French legislated that race be seen as an unchangeable fact of every human being, expressed by skin pigment, physiognomy, and other biological characteristics. Pigeonholing the natives into racial categories was never without difficulties, given the permeable and fuzzy quality of ethnic boundaries in Phnom Penh’s existing society’’. (p 63)

‘’In a land of flexible ethnic identities and porous boundaries, some reconsidered their identity in order to escape the authority of Cambodian mandarins and the decisions of indigenous courts’’. (p 113)

‘’Ethnic identity as validated by personal documents gradually metamorphosed into ethnic identity based on ‘race’, whose primary defining elements in the French reasoning were skin color and physiognomy, and to a lesser degree notions of origin, religion and language’’[6]. (p 119)

And I can’t resist to quote what I found to be one of the most simple, clear and insightful line of the book:

‘’In short, Khmer society was in reality a very complex and fluid web that escaped monochrome static classification’’. (p 59)

The author goes also in a study of the métis (half-breed) perception, which was indeed complex as this ‘’hybrid population that defied racial classification’’ simply lead to fears on the French government side for political implications and challenges. But there was also probably something else: this fear of not knowing how to classify. The void of the absence of definition. This dizzy feeling when you first face the spiral of – let’s say – Chams numerous and complex affiliations. And faced with the impossibility to categorize plainly, to describe in a very ‘’finite’’ manner, and finally to be able to ‘simply’ label, maybe early French colonial representatives were just faced with fears that anthropologists experience as struggles?

Colonial & Post-colonial?

In the end I think Gregor Muller is a wonderful exploration of a longue durée Phnom Penh and even Cambodia, that goes way beyond its (wonderful) title, and touches so many different layers of scholarship and areas of interest. To give you a sense of the doors it actually opens, let’s step into the usual colonial / post colonial debate here and bring together pieces of the conclusion and the introduction:

‘’The colonial encounter in Cambodia was no two-sided confrontation between a conqueror and indigenous populations united behind their king, but rather a busy marketplace where temporary coalitions were made, abandoned, and remade between a large number of relatively independent participants. In the struggle for power in the kingdom, the Chinese business elite, the Khmer-Portuguese, the Cham, missionaries, Vietnamese migrants from Cochinchina, the palace community, provincial mandarins, the representatives of the colonial state, and finally the local community of European traders all had their own interests at stake; and these could lie on either side of the colonial divide at different times. Consequently, the emerging map of alliances turns out to be a rather untidy affair’’. (p 222)

‘’The cultural politics of settler communities tend to be overlooked by critiques of colonialism that are not grounded in the study of localized and historically specific colonial theatres. Instead, a faceless machine is proposed, which appears not only as exploitative but also as extremely effective in imposing its will on indigenous societies, whether through open military aggression or less visible ‘discursive’ means. A unified society of oppressors is then complemented by a neat dichotomy between colonizers and colonized. However, just like the unity of the white oppressors, the dichotomy appears less clear as soon as one descends from the heights of discourse analysis to the level of real life encounters between concrete individuals’’. (p 6)

Let’s hope that, on a much more humble scale, those little portraits and family pictures yet to be excavated in this series will contribute to do just that: ‘’descend from the heights of discourse analysis to the level of real life encounters between concrete individuals’’.

Sounds like a plan to me…

Are you in?

Ithaca, NY, August 30, 2013, Emiko Stock.

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*. Muller G. 2006 ‘’Colonial Cambodia’s ‘Bad Frenchmen’. The rise of French rule and the life of Thomas Caraman, 1840-87’’, New York, Routledge, 294.

Another take on the book, in french by Jean-Michel Filippi here.

[1] [There is notably a consistent analysis of the different classes within the Khmer society. A read that has a strong, particular resonance to me, and to the study of Chams: as the Cham society was itself nothing but homogeneous, with a very structured social organization revolving around a so-called ‘casts’ system mainly classified into Rih, Po, and Saeth. One day I will write a whole book on that… J]

[2] (Originally note 75): Leclere Recherches sur la legislation cambodgienne: 38.

[3] (Originally note 76): ibid 48.

[4] (Originally note 30): See the debate on assimilation vs association with regard to the colonized peoples and the use of the heavily charged term of ‘’indigènes évolués’’ for those members of the indigenous elite that appeared potentially eligible for assimilation, in Martin Lewis, ‘’One hundred million Frenchmen: The Assimilation Theory in French colonial policy’’, Comparative Studies in Society and History IV, 2 (January 1962): 129-53.

[5] (Originally note 97): Gobineau had published his Essay on the inequality of human races in 1850s. In the era of the French settlement in Cambodia, these ideas were common currency.

[6] [And again this should be for later, but I have found fascinating the stories of ID-Cards exchange and trafic among Chams – but apparently not only – during the protectorate and all the implications it had on the whole ‘casts’ system.]


One thought on “To the ‘multi-ethnic’ infinity and beyond: let’s start with ‘Bad Frenchmen’

  1. I,too, took a great pleasure in reading this very interesting book. In my view, it also describes a kind of multi-socio-ethnicity among the french living in PP themselves. A socio-ethological analysis of french populations in their colonies during the XIX and XXth centuries would probably be highly interesting. The impact of strong ethnological changes like massive population moves (return of french born in Algeria to France, back in 1962 or exile of the harkis who fought with the french) is still very visible nowadays.
    Christian STOCK

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