Selling the Colonies – How France Imagined Indochina

What contributed to French public opinion building an almost magical aura around their colonial possession Cambodia in the early 20th century was a simple marketing tool: illustrated trading cards, which were packaged with chocolates and other products meant for children and teenagers.

Playing their own part in France’s efforts to promote colonial policies and activities, the illustrations often romanticized depictions of life in the Orient; creating a mystique around French Indochina as a land of wonders and dreams.

The trading cards are now a research interest of Joel Montague, who published a book in 2010 on postcards depicting colonial Cambodia, and who will give a talk on the cards at Phnom Penh’s Meta House German Cambodian Cultural Center on Thursday night.

“These great cards are commonly referred to as ‘chromos,’ which comes from chromo lithographs,” Mr. Montague explained. “They were small, black-and-white or color images that were either given away or sold by the manufacturers of commodities such as chocolate or tea. The cards with chocolates, which were designed to be purchased by children, showed many different types of scenes such as birds, athletic heroes, generals and admirals, and also the magical and successful French colonies.

“Maybe about 60 percent of them were images out of artists’ imagination,” he said. “If you are sitting in an office in Paris and just sort of imagining what people of Indochina look like, you’re liable to confuse them.”

One coffee-company chromo featured a supposedly Cambodian woman wearing a Vietnamese-style conical hat while soldiers with moustaches, who are meant to be Cambodians but resemble Indians, stand behind her and a French officer.

Indochina was considered one of France’s most precious possessions with its fertile soil, mineral resources and trade access to the Asia-Pacific region. The chromos were meant to convey the value of this possession, Mr. Montague said.

“As opposed to Vietnam where the Vietnamese were considered to be more intractable…the chromos on Cambodia were much more benign and exotic. There’s nothing negative: The dancers are beautiful, the King is a wonderful thing, Buddhism is terribly interesting,” Mr. Montague said.

Prior to the First World War, there were some individual chromos on Angkor and famous French explorers who reported on Cambodia. After the war, Mr. Montague said, the chromos were released in sets and, were designed to be collected and placed in albums.

“And that was the key for children or their parents to buy them,” he said.

“If they got a set of cards, which ran in sequence…they would get a prize. They would turn the album in to the manufacturer and, if all the cards were there, they got all kinds of good things such as athletic equipment, cameras, bicycles and so on,” he said.

An album could require as many as 200 cards on several topics. One album, by the Chocolat Pupier brand, on Asia had two or three pages of cards on Cambodia and as many pages on Laos and the various regions of Vietnam.

French companies were not the only ones to issue chromos. There were trading cards on the German colonies of Tanzania and Namibia as well as cards on Dutch and Belgian colonies, Mr. Montague said. “All these countries were anxious to promote an ideal of their colonies and they did that with these cards” in cooperation with private companies that often had business interests in those colonies, he said.

The Second World War would not only change people’s perspectives on colonialism in the West, but also in the colonies themselves where efforts were reinvigorated to gain independence. Those independence movements would put an end to France’s official line that the colonized were grateful for its mission civilisatrice.

“Times had changed,” Mr. Montague said. “People were no longer interested in the exotic colonies, the great adventurers who had gone out and explored, the military who were so brave. People were much more aware of the world…and the whole business of children collecting cards of Indochina just fell out of favor.”

Mr. Montague’s interest in the pre-1940s cards, and their photographs and sketches of Cambodia, dates back three decades. An American with expertise in conflict-zone emergency relief and public healthcare, Mr. Montague worked in the early 1980s for the Aga Khan’s health services in Paris. On weekends, he would go to book fairs where he started noticing old postcards and chromos on Indochina. Throughout the 1990s he worked for the UN and a number of organizations to help rebuild the healthcare system in Cambodia. He also co-founded the Partners for Development organization, which still runs healthcare programs in remote parts of the country.

But, it was a visit in 1996 to a town in southeastern France that led him to not only collect but also research the popular images of Indochina that had circulated up to World War II. The town was Frejus, which is home to a memorial commemorating French soldiers and civilians killed in conflicts in Indochina.

“It was a very moving site…exactly like our Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.,” he said.

The Frejus memorial honors 58,975 people-mainly soldiers but also some civilians-who died in Indochina, some of them fighting the Japanese in Cambodia during World War II but the large majority in battles against the Vietnamese, including France’s defeat at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 that led to the dissolution of French Indochina.

While visiting the Frejus memorial, Mr. Montague realized that the French had lost in Indochina as many soldiers as the Americans during the US-Vietnam war in the 1960s and 1970s.

Mr. Montague has systematically research colonial-era postcards and chromos to try and understand what had so much captured the French public’s imagination and what so inspired their soldiers to fight and die to keep it.

“I started looking for early images on how Indochina was conquered and tripped over all these cards put out in huge numbers not only to sell chocolate but also to teach, though it would be more accurate to call this propaganda-the wonderful things that France was doing in its colonies.”

At Meta House, Mr. Montague will give an overview on the importance of Europe’s colonial possessions prior to World War II and what countries such as France and Great Britain had at stake. As he will explain, in the early 1900s European nations controlled 84.4 percent of the Earth’s surface, and France’s domain alone covered 11 million square kilometers of land with more than 100 million inhabitants. These nations had derived so much wealth from their colonies that they would not easily acquiesce to granting them independence.


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