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Imperial Heights

Imperial Heights: Dalat and the Making and Undoing of French Indochina

Eric T. Jennings
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Pages: 376
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  • Book Info
    Imperial Heights
    Book Description:

    Intended as a reminder of Europe for soldiers and clerks of the empire, the city of Dalat, located in the hills of Southern Vietnam, was built by the French in an alpine locale that reminded them of home. This book uncovers the strange 100-year history of a colonial city that was conceived as a center of power and has now become a kitsch tourist destination famed for its colonial villas, flower beds, pristine lakes, and pastoral landscapes. Eric T. Jennings finds that from its very beginning, Dalat embodied the paradoxes of colonialism—it was a city of leisure built on the backs of thousands of coolies, a supposed paragon of hygiene that offered only questionable protection from disease, and a new venture into ethnic relations that ultimately backfired. Jennings’ fascinating history opens a new window onto virtually all aspects of French Indochina, from architecture and urban planning to violence, labor, métissage, health and medicine, gender and ethic relations, schooling, religion, comportments, anxieties, and more.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94844-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    Fredrik Logevall and Christopher Goscha

    Cities have received relatively little attention in the history of the French empire in general and that of colonial Indochina in particular. True, Philippe Papin and William Logan have provided us with excellent overviews of Hanoi, and Vietnamese scholars such as Tran Huy Lieu, Tran Van Giau, and Dang Phong have penned engaging accounts of Hanoi and Saigon through the centuries. However, one searches in vain for an account of the colonial city—its social, political, cultural, and economic dynamics, as well as its postcolonial transformations.

    WithImperial Heights: Dalat and theMaking and Undoing of French Indochina, Eric Jennings provides...

    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. MAPS
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  7. Introduction
    (pp. 1-5)

    Dalat is a singular, unexpected, almost incoherent place. Imagine Davos, Aspen, or Chamonix in Vietnam. Nestled high in Vietnam’s rugged interior, 150 miles northeast of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), this colonial-era mountain resort features hundreds of quaint French regional villas, the golf course of Vietnam’s former emperor, a grand luxury hotel, colonial-era boarding schools, pagodas, and monasteries—all set against tall pine trees and artificial lakes. Neither the surroundings, nor the architecture, nor the climate square with what most tourists expect to find in Vietnam.

    Yet Dalat has its followers. Before my second trip there, a Vietnamese-Canadian travel...

  8. 1 Escaping Death in the Tropics
    (pp. 6-20)

    At the turn of the twentieth century, a French soldier noted in awe and consternation that the cemetery adjoining Saigon’s military hospital was “more populous than a large European city.” This was all the more troubling, wrote the infantryman, since Saigon had only been French since 1859, and the city’s garrison certainly never surpassed two thousand men at any given time.¹

    The health of French soldiers, officials, and settlers had been of paramount concern to the colonial administration in Indochina since the earliest days of conquest. As this soldier’s testimony suggests, there was reason to worry. During the first phase...

  9. 2 Murder on the Race for Altitude
    (pp. 21-34)

    The utopian project of finding and establishing a colonial mountain refuge had a dark side. It also did not focus solely on the Lang-Bian; rather colonial authorities scoured all of Indochina searching for the ideal site for Indochina’s main hill station, and later mandated a network of ancillary hill stations. Though situated further north in Annam, the saga of Victor Debay’s hill station mission constitutes a key to understanding the mentalities that went into making Dalat, because it sheds light on some of the brutal methods, the competition, and the urgency, even madness, associated with the search for a colonial...

  10. 3 Health, Altitude, and Climate
    (pp. 35-57)

    At the turn of the century, the head of French military forces in Indochina, General Théophile Pennequin sought to convince Paris of the need to fund the Lang-Bian sanatorium. Born in 1849, Pennequin had served in the Franco-Prussian War and the Madagascar campaign of 1883–85; he had risen rapidly in the ranks of the naval infantry and participated in several missions in Indochina (1877 to 1882, 1888, 1889).¹ The general did not mince words: “One [simply] cannot acclimatize to the colonies: each day brings a further diminution of strength. … Cochinchina is a terrible man-eater.”² Pennequin tapped into acclimatization...

  11. 4 Early Dalat, 1898–1918
    (pp. 58-71)

    In 1901, Prosper Odend’hal depicted Dalat as “une ville en espérance”—a city in one’s mind, more than any sort of reality.¹ Three years later, Pierre Dru, an official in the Garde indigène, described the place as follows:

    We arrived … at Dalat: open terrain with short grass, a bit like a well-tended park, low hills; on each hill, a wooden house, each more comfortable than my own. On one hill lived the Inspector of the Garde indigène [Joseph-Jules Canivey] married to a European woman much younger than he—a kind and welcoming couple … ; on another, the unwed...

  12. 5 Colonial Expectations, Pastimes, Comestibles, Comforts, and Discomforts
    (pp. 72-93)

    This conversation printed byLa Nouvelle dépêchein 1935 depicts Dalat as the quintessential anticolony. The hill station made European social life possible, allowing European women in particular, to live as in Europe. Gossip, banter, sporting, and cuisine all sprang up naturally, while they had been stifled in Saigon and the deltas. The highlands liberated the European body. Jean le Pichon went further still in 1943, turning his attention to Dalat’s masculine transformative powers: “Dalat … has become a large resort, where colonials can be themselves again, where anemic children, can, under temperate climes, prepare to become men.”¹ Sheltered as...

  13. 6 Situating the “Montagnards”
    (pp. 94-111)

    There is no shortage of ethnographies of the minority highlanders around Dalat. Gerald Hickey’s and Oscar Salemink’s archivally based studies also double, respectively, as histories of the minorities of the south-central Vietnamese highlands and of French colonial ethnography. Rather than revisit these fine works, this chapter explores a set of more neglected themes, and specific interactions between colonials and highland minorities in and around Dalat. It ponders Dalat’s role as a site of interaction between the colonial state and highland minorities, paying particular attention to power dynamics, spaces, representations, and to a range of practices and administrative realities. Readers seeking...

  14. 7 A Functional City? Architecture, Planning, Zoning, and Their Critics
    (pp. 112-137)

    So rhapsodized a French journalist forL’Asie nouvellein 1937. To that commentator at least, Dalat emblematized French rationality, determination, good taste, and quaintness. In other words, Dalat offered much more than just tiger and gaur hunts, the spectacle of highland minority peoples put on display for tourists, a luxury hotel, and a pristine natural setting evoking Europe; it was above all a perfectly designed new resort, where French urban planning made possible a “little paradise,” an escape from the tropics. It is noteworthy that the above passage, which dwells so insistently on Dalat’s inherent Frenchness—reflected in its vegetation,...

  15. 8 The Dalat Palace Hotel
    (pp. 138-157)

    After disembarking at the graceful art deco train station, a visitor to Dalat in the late 1930s would have passed the Swedish-inspired, brick Lycée Yersin under completion, then skirted the central lake along the Avenue Albert Sarraut. They would have glimpsed the Grenouillère snack and diving stands to their right, and admired the governor general’s residence perched atop a pine-covered hill to their left. As it still does today, the smell of evergreens would have wafted in the air, stirring powerful memories for colonials. In the distance, the visitor would have followed rolling hills along the plateau, as far as...

  16. 9 Vietnamese Dalat
    (pp. 158-177)

    A central irony to a resort initially conceived as inherently French is that the project itself required considerable Vietnamese support and legwork. Looking back on the golden years of the resort, Dalat’s last French mayor, Jean Rouget, observed that “he who calls [Dalat] a French town should also speak of an Annamese one. The European drags behind him an entire population of auxiliaries, domestics, clerks of all ranks, masons, building specialists—all of those beautiful villas have to be built by someone! The rice cultivator of the plains followed this migration wave, turning into a fruit and vegetable farmer so...

  17. 10 Some Colonial Categories: Children, European Women, and Métis
    (pp. 178-193)

    A 1930 guide to Dalat described the resort as “a paradise for children.”¹ The context makes clear that the remark meant by that, French children. Within colonial logic, Dalat’s powerfully transformative setting made it a natural site for educating a new generation of colonizers, for fostering European domesticity, and also for Frenchifying métis youngsters. Indochina’s premier hill station was thus conceived as a potent and controlled environment, in which the colony could be remade in the image of an idealized motherland.

    We have seen that Dalat’s different functions evolved over time. European children—and certainly Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian, and métis...

  18. 11 Divine Dalat
    (pp. 194-206)

    Saigon, not Dalat, bore the title of “the Paris of Indochina.” In his description of Saigon in the 1880s, the colonial official Albert d’Anthouard de Wasservas already wove moral condemnations into his sketch of Indochina’s, and now Vietnam’s, largest city. He claimed that behind the facades of the rococo and neoclassical monuments, the theaters and cafés festered moral decay and debauchery. Administrators with a record of probity in France became compulsive gamblers and embezzlers of public monies in Saigon.

    To make matters worse, European women were extremely scarce in the city: one for every ten men, according to the baron....

  19. 12 The Maelstrom, 1940–1945
    (pp. 207-223)

    The Second World War marked a peculiar, paradoxical time for Dalat. On the one hand, the hill station reached its zenith of the colonial era, attracting thousands of French civilians who were unable to return to a besieged metropole, as well as growing numbers of Vietnamese. On the other hand, it ushered in a period of uncertainty, with Vichy French, Japanese, and Viet-Minh interests all vying for control of a hill station that had become Indochina’s nerve center.

    Dalat’s population rose spectacularly during the war, jumping from thirteen thousand inhabitants in 1940 to twenty thousand in 1942. By 1942, the...

  20. 13 Autonomous Province or Federal Capital?
    (pp. 224-238)

    Historians have largely ignored the process by which Indochina’s capital city was chosen.¹ No doubt the question has escaped attention because it has always seemed self-evident: Hanoi went from serving as Indochina’s capital prior to 1945, to serving as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s capital thereafter. To be sure, it is common knowledge that the relationship between two of the region’s dominant cities, Saigon and Hanoi, had been strained by rivalry long before Vietnam’s partition in 1954. In 1907, the colonial press likened French colonials in Saigon to the inconsolable Calypso after Ulysses’ departure: Saigon’s French population could not accept...

  21. 14 Dalat at War and Peace, 1946–1975
    (pp. 239-260)

    In 1949, with the first Indochina war raging, with French and American interests over the region clashing, a journalist recounts that all of Saigon seemed consumed with a strange collective bet. Would the French persuade the former emperor, Bao Dai, to forsake the casinos of the French Riviera and return to power? If so, under what conditions, and within what framework—bilateral relations, full independence, or as part of the French Union? Even more to the point, bets were taken on where and when Bao Dai would return to his native land. The journalist, Lucien Bodard, remarked that if anyone...

  22. Epilogue
    (pp. 261-266)

    In recent years, elements of Dalat’s colonial past have been harnessed to repackage the city as a nostalgic, idyllic destination, reminiscent of the Vietnamese Switzerland Alexandre Yersin had invented a century earlier. This is Dalat at its most performative, and at its most wistful.

    Barbara Crossette sees Dalat as the “only major hill station in Asia remaking itself … faithfully and deliberately in its historical, colonial image.”¹ I am inclined to disagree with the second part of her statement; contemporary Dalat does not strike me as a restoration project, so much as a fascinating cauldron of memorial shifts. While Dalat...

  23. NOTES
    (pp. 267-326)
    (pp. 327-342)
  25. INDEX
    (pp. 343-352)
  26. Back Matter
    (pp. 353-353)