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Constructing colonial Cambodia

Constructing colonial Cambodia

"The more images I gathered from the past ... the more unlikely it seemed

to me that the past had actually happened in this or that way, for nothing about

it could be called normal, most of it was absurd, and if not absurd, then appalling."from

"Vertigo" by W.G. Sebald.

The colonial administrators of Cambodia's French

Protectorate period would be aghast at how poorly their architectural achievements

have weathered the past half century.

Each year the list of distinctive French colonial structures erased from the cityscape

in the name of development or condemned to ruinous neglect by absentee landlords

postponing demolition in anticipation of higher land values grows ever longer.

Vanished is the canal that ran from the foot of the Phnom Penh railway station to

the Tonle Sap, forming an effective moat around the French quarter, itself accessed

by a fanciful drawbridge that has also disappeared into history.

With the noted exception of Michel Igout's "Phnom Penh Then and Now," the

most complete visual documentation of the monuments to France's colonial endeavor

in Cambodia can be found in the postcards produced by Protectorate authorities.

"French postcards of the Protectorate era present a picture of a very important

part of [Cambodian] history which has not been adequately visually documented,"

explained Joel Montague, a historian who has collected hundreds of Cambodian postcards

and intensively researched their history.

"The postcards produced by the French were divided into two main categories,

the first depicting 'la mission civilatrice' embodied by the French administration

buildings and public works," Montague explained. "Other postcards were

not really meant to be propaganda, but to show the simple, exotic and colorful Cambodia

which was to be 'preserved and improved' by French administration."

Montague produces multiple examples of such images, ranging from a procession of

royal elephants in front of the palace to an image of a painstakingly accurate replica

of Angkor Wat built in the heart of Paris as an exhibit for the 1931 World's Fair.

"Postcards helped to perpetuate the myth that France built up around their involvement

in Cambodia," Montague said. "[The myth] that they 'discovered' this great

Khmer civilization which had fallen into decline and that it was the French mission

to restore it to glory."

As a result, Montague raises a Sebald-like warning of the danger of using such images

as true reflections of historical fact.

"The postcards of the French Protectorate era more importantly showed a distinctly

French vision of the colony," he said. "The postcards are pretty ... but

I don't think for a minute that what they showed was really Cambodia."

Fortunately for those seeking to document the history of the French Protectorate

period, the "golden era of the postcard" coincided with the pinnacle of

France's colonial enterprise in Cambodia.

"Postcards at that time really took the world by storm, and at the same time

the French were very concerned and anxious to show the world their empire,"

he said. "In France there was a huge thirst for postcards, and it was a duty

of those on vacation to collect them and take them home - a full 80% of the postcards

I've collected were never posted."

The passion for postcard images of France's former colonial possessions has apparently

yet to subside, judging by the numerous professional collectors in France from whom

Montague sources postcards for between $3-$100 each depending on their rarity.

Exceeding their monetary value to collectors, and in spite of their recognized role

as political propaganda tools, is what Montague describes as the important historical

value of French postcard images of Cambodia.

"A lot of Cambodians and Cambodia scholars are dismissive of elements of Cambodian

history that are not related to Angkor," Montague explained. "By viewing

these old postcards I hope that people can get an idea - most likely distorted, but

nevertheless an idea - of what Cambodia was like in the first three decades of the

twentieth century when French power in Cambodia was at its zenith."

The Globe Cafe on Sisowath Boulevard will be hosting a special exhibition of a selection

of Joel Montague's colonial-era postcards beginning on March 20.

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