Title: Photograph album of colonial French Indochina 1890-1900
Location: Indochina, Vietnam
Photographed by: French Colonial Resident of the Area
Description: The image depicts an empty lobby of sorts inside of a building. The centerpiece of the image is a statue of what appears to be an angel. The caption is written in French: “Salle intérieure de l’Hôtel des Postes (Saigon)”, which translates to: “Interior Hall of the Post Office (Saigon)”
This photograph fits within the context of French colonial rule over Vietnam from the early 1860’s all the way to 1954 [Source]. Vietnam was divided into 3 protectorates during this time: “Tonkin” in the north, “Annam” in central Vietnam, and “Cochinchina” in the south [Source]. The French protectorates make up a portion of “Indochina” which refers to the overall French colony that included the Southeast Asian countries of Cambodia and Laos. Saigon was the capital of Cochinchina as well as South Vietnam (1954-1975), which is the location of this photograph. Additionally, knowing that Saigon was the capital of a French protectorate in Vietnam clarifies how a French colonial resident had been the photographer of this image.
An interesting statue serves as the centerpiece of this image. The statue seems to depict a winged woman holding a torch, perhaps an angel. There are no angel figures like this in Buddhism (the largest organized religion in Vietnam [Source]), but there are in Christianity. It makes sense that a French colonial resident would photograph this statue, considering how “French rule created conditions for Christianity to develop at an inordinate pace” in Vietnam [Source].
An important question to think about is who the audience may be. Referring to the caption, the photograph seems to be of a lobby of some sorts, i.e a public/shared space, inside of a post office. Despite this, the photographer did not capture any other people in the photograph. According to this article “Old Soerabaja – New Soerabaja? Circulating the Emptiness of the Colonial City” edited by Sophie Junge, it seems that a lot of early colonial images from Southeast Asia in the late 19th – 20th century share a common characteristic of emptiness. Images such as this depict the “success” of colonial powers in Southeast Asian countries – in this case, “successful” French rule in Vietnam – while distancing local/native people at the same time. There are no instances of any people in this photograph, rather, it merely captures the interior of the post office and highlights a supposed angel statue – nothing of which really suggests that there is any influence or existence of local Vietnamese people at all.
If anything, this photograph could be intended for other French colonial residents (such as the photographer) or ruling powers to observe the influence of French rule. The interior design of the building, with its high domed ceiling and numerous booths along the back wall, is reminiscent of a European train station [Source]. This serves the purpose of catering to the French, reminding them of familiar buildings and spaces from their home country while still living and enjoying their power and presence in their colony. To pose another example, hotels built during this time, such as The Continental that opened in 1880, served French colonial residents so that they may enjoy beautiful and comfortable living quarters in the city while expanding French influence [Source]. The spacious and decorated interior of this building could suggest that it’s likely French colonial residents that populate this space in order to write/mail letters home. Perhaps there are also upper class/wealthy Vietnamese that know how to read/write and can also afford the time, energy, and travel to be able to write and send letters. Especially since French became the official language of Vietnam in the 19th century [Source], it’s worth questioning who is able to learn and speak French in order to get by in French colonial society, to be able to frequent a place such as the post office. This is a nod back towards the “success” of French rule in Vietnam, which mostly benefited the French and a small population of wealthy Vietnamese [Source]. Images such as this serve as a reminder of the pervasiveness of French colonial rule throughout the 19th and 20th century of Vietnam – resulting in bolstered foreign power and concealed existence of local Vietnamese people and culture.
There are no French colonies remaining in Southeast Asia today, i.e there’s no longer an “Indochina”, as all countries in this region have declared their independence. Additionally, Saigon has been renamed to “Ho Chi Minh City” and is no longer the capital of Vietnam – though, it remains the largest city in the country, and there exists evidence of French colonialism’s impact today [Source].
The legacy of French rule in Vietnam makes itself known, perhaps most obviously, in Vietnamese food and language. The popular noodle bowl Pho combines Vietnamese rice noodles with French meat both, and the well-known Vietnamese sandwich, bánh mì, is made with a bread very similar to the baguette (baguettes are commonly found throughout the country as well). Words like “film” in French (meaning “movie”) have resulted in “phim” in Vietnamese, and “salade” in French (meaning “lettuce”) become “xà lách” in Vietnamese, for example. In addition, a lot of historic buildings built during French colonial rule still exist today. The post office depicted in the image remains standing. Today, it’s known as the Saigon Central Post Office, which was designed by French architect Alfred Foulhoux and finished construction by 1991 [Source]. What was designed by the French in the 19th century during French rule was likely utilized by French colonial residents at the time. Today, it serves as a popular historic building for tourists, still with an active working postal service and a host of souvenirs. This is to say that traces of French colonialism exist within the country to this day, and emphasizes this period as a critical moment in Vietnam’s history.
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