Lesson #388: French Indochina

One of my favourite books (Marguerite Duras’ L’Amant) is set in Vietnam during the French occupation. And, oddly, Indochina came up among my friends last week because one recently bought a new suit from a company that was named something similar (I think it was “indochino?”) and two friends and I asked, legitimately, I felt, “were they Vietnamese?” and he kind of stared blankly.*

So I decided today to go searching for why Vietnam was called French Indochina during its colonial years. Well, not the French part. That part’s pretty obvious.

Turns out that technically speaking, Indochina — which is an actual geographical thing — is made up of Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. But because I learned history in American schools, I know way more about Vietnamese history than I know about the rest of Southeast Asia combined, so I never learned that Indochina is an actual geographical place.**

Fun thing I also never learned in school because America never fought a protracted war in Cambodia or Laos…French Indochina covered all of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, as well as a small Chinese enclave, Guangzhouwan.

At its inception in 1887 — though the French had been in the area for more than 200 years before this — French Indochina was made up of Laos and Vietnam. Cambodia was annexed in 1893, and Guangzhouwan followed in 1900. It remained that way until Guangzhouwan was returned to China in 1946. And then there were a lot of people in the antebellum years — particularly in that part of the world…Africa didn’t join the party until about a decade later — who weren’t particularly impressed with the whole colonialism bit. This led to the First Indochina War,*** which ran from 1946 until an agreement was reached at the 1954 Geneva Conference — at which France agreed to relinquish control of all its holdings on the Indochinese peninsula. Unfortunately, neither South Vietnam, nor the United States agreed to the accords, so things went a bit south after that…

Not a lot of good sources online — most mention Laos and Cambodia as briefly as possible before moving on to Vietnam (this is what I was talking about above), but the wiki article actually has a pretty good bibliography listed. I’m slightly impressed.

*He’s delightful, but he’s not that bright.

**Though, if I’d thought about it for just a moment, I’d probably have realized that it being situated between India and China would make the whole thing pretty self-evident.

***Which included the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, which you should be familiar with if you’ve ever listened to Billy Joel. Or Miss Saigon. Or you had any course in French or Asian colonial history. Probably one of the two former ones though.

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