‘’Once upon a time, there was a young and beautiful lady, scared and breathless, running by the Mekong bank in Kampong Cham. She was a French woman, trying to escape the Japanese invader on her heels. She was tracked, alone and without her parents, remembered as prosperous rubber planters. The sad heroine found herself facing the river, with no way out. All hope seemed lost… when suddenly, a Cham fisherman, young and handsome, appeared. Driving the light craft towards the bank, he saved her from the enemy. Carried away by the smooth rhythm of water and love, the young couple berthed alongside the other bay, in the village of Phum Trea. There, they got married, had many children and lived happily ever after.”
Is this the narrative of a love story or an excerpt from a collection of children’s tales? Maybe lines taken from a soap opera script? Actually, none of those. The story of the lovely French woman and her handsome Cham prince has been told by elders all over the Cham community of Cambodia, as if the couple were part of a common folklore. The storytellers enthusiastically tell the twists of this adventure, as if they intimately knew the “French young lady” and her Cham Romeo. But nobody really knows what happened to the mythical couple… or even if they ever existed. Is it possible that this much-loved legend – a blend of Cambodian romance, Cham epic and Indochinese French novel – may rely on any actual truth?
In Phum Trea, (Kroch Chmar District, Kampong Cham Province), people claim they have better things to do than to look back on old legends. When questioned about this “multi-breed” family story, the village Tuon – religion teacher – invariably gives a frown, as it seems obvious that the real roots of our story start right here. The protagonists lived here, on that same riverbank. Today, a heavy ferry is docked on the very shore spot once touched by the young fisherman’s boat. So, Mei Bi and Ta Ahmat did exist. But unlike legendary heroes, they were not eternal and passed away a long time ago. The secret on their story was unveiled with a smile by one of their nieces, a 70-year-old woman wrinkled by the years and still living in the house of her childhood. The various versions of the legend faded and ended up being reshaped by people’s memories, as tongues loosen and photo albums open.
“Ah, my uncle… He was a great man! Large, powerful, and very respected. People say he was an Arab and one of those who were feared. He was known to be a bit tough also”, his niece Mei Khadija acknowledges. Ong Ahmat was by turns a prosperous merchant, mosque leader or civil servant for the protectorate. His unclear origins shed some light on this savior, who was not so young but actually a middle-aged man. His ancestors were known – although not well – by both Buddhist and Muslim Cambodians and had Arab and Indian origins. Charisma and sorcery blend in the image of the “Ta Arab”, like in that of Ong Ahmat. And it is indeed this je-ne-sais-quoi that he used with the fair-skinned girl to make her his beloved. She became his fourth official wife. “He was definitely a ladies’ man”, Mei Khadija recalls in a chuckle. “First, he married a Cham woman and had children with her. Next to come was a Khmer woman. He also had children with her. Then a Chinese woman, with whom he had some more children. And finally, he married the Frenchwoman, and had children with her… yet again!” Mei Khadija gave up any attempt to trace back the lady-killer’s lineage…
One of his last descendants lives nowadays in the suburbs of Paris, in France. Om Kati, the couple’s granddaughter, is now 53 years old. She clearly remembers her grandmother, with whom she spent part of her childhood. “Actually, my grandfather kidnapped Mei Bi, my grandmother. He was a powerful Arab and people feared him”, she said, confirming the words of Khadija, her old relative. The lovely Gabrielle Pianette was therefore abducted by her future husband as she was leaving school. “He brought her back to the village from Phnom Penh where he often went for business and made her his wife. She was 16 years old.” This was around 1915, long before World War II and the Japanese invasions mentioned in the enduring legend.
In Phum Trea, the “young French woman” quickly became a “young Cham” as the elders remember. Her husband was the mosque leader. She followed him and converted to Islam. Nothing appeared to distinguish her from the other women living in the village. She hid her long hair under a veil and wore a long tunic over her sarong. She was to be remembered as “Mei Bi” or “Yiey Gah” instead of “Gabrielle Pianette”, her birth name. The young woman had quickly accepted this surprising union. “She yielded without knowing why. She always used to tell me that ‘he did something’ to her and that she had succumbed to it”, Om Kati recalled. Whether he bewitched her with his gentleness or cast a spell on her, the charm instantly worked a treat. It seemed that her parents – who probably worked as civil servants in the Phnom Penh administration – also fell under the spell as they eventually gave their blessing for the wedding.
Mei Bi lived in a big house by the river in Phum Trea. She became “a Cham” and mastered the language perfectly, along with Chinese and Khmer. She spoke the Cham language with her grandchildren from the city when they happened to forget their mother tongue. But it is French that Mei Bi exclusively continued to use in her writings. However, nobody in Phum Trea is able to remember any link she might have kept with France. She had no family and nobody visited her. Yet, she insisted that her granddaughter continue her studies at the French high school in Phnom Penh. She also struck up a friendship with a priest in the capital.
In 1974, 76 year-old Gabrielle Pianette passed away – her husband had died several years before. Her funeral was attended by a brother and a sister of hers who came from France to pay her their last respects posthumously. It is not known whether she was buried under a cross in the French cemetery in Phnom Penh or in a Muslim shroud in Phum Trea.
In the end, the legend prevailed over the actual story and set it in a wholly different context – the Japanese as a common enemy remained a recurrent feature in all versions, but administrators found themselves turned into plantation owners, a fisherman from here and elsewhere, as powerful as he was mysterious, and a fair beauty adopted by the Mekong. The union of Mei Bi and Ta Ahmat is undoubtedly the medley of a Khmer romance, a Cham epic and an Indochinese novel. A blend probably chosen to ensure a much broader diffusion of the great love story…
This chronicle is from the Chams Clichés Backup Series.
Originally published: Issue 5 – December 17, 2008
Ithaca, February 21, 2014, Emiko Stock.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.