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Ping pong politics

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It seemed a good, harmless idea.

A group of Annamite women wanted to form a sports association to create and spread

friendship, and to develop physical culture by playing tennis, ping pong, and other

games.

Or was there something more sinister to this club? Was it really a facade to launch

another communist group? Or the evolution of revolutionary feminism, or a nationalistic

movement brewing under the guise of sport?

These were perhaps questions in the mind of the Resident Superior of Cambodia, Monsieur

Silvestre, when, in December 1931, he received a request and a copy of statutes from

Mademoiselle Nguyen Thi Mau for permission to form the "Femina-Club".

In her letter to Silvestre, Mademoiselle Mau says "that under this tropical

climate that we live, it is indispensable that men and women exercise for the maintenance

of physical well-being and state of mind. It is for this goal and especially to spread

over a larger radius our ties of friendship, that this club is formed."

During the late 1920s and 1930s, the French administration in Indochina was preoccupied

with growing communist and nationalist movements.

The French security services were working overtime monitoring any new organization,

publication or newspaper, especially if it involved Annamites and Cochinchinese.

Anyone wanting to start a newspaper or a new association in Cambodia had to apply

to the Resident Superior for permission, who then usually contacted the Security

Service to investigate the applicants.

At first Silvestre ignored the request, not taking this group of women seriously,

until March 1932, when Mademoiselle Mau wrote again requesting his decision. Silvestre

contacted the Security Service and within four days a surveillance report was on

his desk.

The report revealed that this club had more than sport on its agenda. The racquet-wielding

Mademoiselle Mau was apparently the club's president "only by illusion".

She was in fact Silvestre's own bureau secretary. The one who really controlled the

club was Madame Vincent Phan Tung Long, an engineer of the South Indochina Company.

Indeed it appears that one of the earliest feminist movements in Indochina was evolving.

A labyrinth of intrigue unfolded with the discovery that the inspiration for the

club originated from a typist at the Chamber of Commerce of Phnom Penh, Mr Nguyen

Tan Hung, whose nationalistic tendencies were well known to the French.

Hung, born in 1910, began working at the Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture in 1928.

He is described in the security reports as ambitious, sly, a rumor-monger, vain,

with a manic obsession for journalism and writing anonymous, critical letters to

French administrators. He also wrote a few novels under the pseudonym of Thanh Ngon.

He associated within feminist circles, for reasons not clear, and wrote letters and

articles in newspapers under female pseudonyms.

According to the security dossier, he would use any means to create discord.

Apparently no stranger to sporting associations, Hung in 1933 launched a venomous

campaign in the Zan Bao newspaper against the Phnom Penh Ping Pong Club, from

which he and two fellow agitators had been expelled three months previously.

He was outraged that the club management had refused to stage a theater piece he

had written. A performance organized by Hung and friends failed on its opening night.

Bitterly disappointed, when he learned that the club was preparing to stage a different

play, titled "A Secret of the Heart", he undertook a slanderous campaign,

declaring that the principal actress had previously been sentenced to one year in

prison for instigating minors to debauchery.

At the same time Silvestre was receiving anonymous letters denouncing the actress

as a whore and putting in doubt the loyalty of the theater group in the Phnom Penh

Ping Pong Club.

In another letter to Silvestre's wife the anonymous author warned: "You have

committed a very grave mistake by assigning the Philharmonic Hall to the Phnom Penh

Ping Pong Club...

"You are going to regret this action soon because young Cambodian militants,

furious about the Annamite evolution in Cambodia, are planning to throw bombs and

to burn down the Philharmonic Hall. It is your duty to protect the lives of the French

that will attend this soirée. To delay this performance temporarily would be

prudent."

The security service may have been correct in perceiving Hung as a dangerous individual,

"but a good typist", who fluctuated between being "communist and reactionary

and who was always anti-French".

Hung's motivation for using sporting clubs as vehicles for nationalist and feminist

movements was perhaps because the richer Annamite community refused to give him money

to launch his own newspaper, not to mention his inability to hold down a journalist

position with various newspapers in Cambodia and Cochinchina.

As for the Femina Club (Hung originally wanted to call it "Venus Sportif"),

the Chief of Security recommended to Silvestre that "given the evolution of

Annamite feminism, evolution sustained by the turbulent and rebellious organ that

is the Phu Nu Tan Van (a Cochinchinese feminist revue, also under investigation)

, I would be of the opinion to disregard the present request and not have to deal

with a group that has nothing to do with sport but will undoubtedly make political

activity".

On March 22, 1932, Silvestre wrote a short, laconic reply informing Mademoiselle

Mau of his decision: "I consider it premature to create such an association."

So with a quick flick of the pen, Silvestre ended the hopes of these women to form

their own sporting club because of some vague relation with Hung, or if French security

reports are to be believed, he suppressed the beginnings of a feminist movement masquerading

as a sports club.

- Information for this article was taken from National Archives of Cambodia, files

3884,14458, 13001.

The National Archives is open Monday - Friday, 8:00-11:00 and 2:00-4:30, behind the

National Library. All are welcome. The Archives is grateful for the support it has

received from the Australian, Swiss and French embassies.

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