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COMMENT: Tango dancing in the blood of Bokor

COMMENT: Tango dancing in the blood of Bokor

Greg Muller's "Last Tango in Bokor" (Phnom Penh Post, February 13-26, 1998)

presents a humorous and valuable slice of history, and I am indebted to both Muller

and Peter Arfanis for offering armchair access to the National Archives through Tales

of the Archives.

However, Muller's silence on one of the bloodiest tangos in colonial Cambodia indicates

that history is not always best served in neat slices.

In eclipsing the carnage of Bokor's construction with the glitter of hotel ballrooms,

Muller falls prey to the "Indo-Chic" syndrome recently identified by the

literary critic Panivong Norindr in his study of popular culture and colonial nostalgia.

Shedding light can throw shadows, and the danger of Indo-Chic lies in selective amnesia.

In Cambodia, Indo-Chic is gaining ground through such re-releases as Pierre Loti's

Un pélerin d'Angkor, Roland Me-yer's Saramani: une danseuse cambodgienne,

and quaint exhibitions of sepia-tint photos. This Indo-chinoiserie has the power

to induce nostalgia or nausea depending on the mindset of the consumer.

Excised from their historical context, these totems of lost empire invent new memories.

Colonialism is remade as a romantic interlude where a happy time was had by all -

except, of course, for the victims of bad service at the Bokor Palace Hotel.

Health spas and hill stations were integral to the capillary structure of colonial

power in French Indochina, as in British India and the Dutch East Indies.

Today, they stand as monuments to turn-of-the-century tinkering in policies of eugenics,

white supremacy and racial segregation.

Take for example the logic of Dr. Gustave Reynaud, Doctor in Chief of Health in the

Colonies. In 1906, at the National Congress of Hygiene and Public Health in Marseille,

Reynaud identified hill-stations as "inseparable elements of all colonial systems"

which could "guarantee the future of the race" and act as "preservation

camps" for "soldiers of the white race."

This underlying philosophy changed little through following decades. Albert de Pouvourville,

a talented writer and long-term sojourner in Indochina, saw sanatoriums as "indispensable

for Europeans in tropical regions," offering relief from "the general hygiene

of the colony."

In 1931, the respected scholar-official George Maspero argued that hill stations

were crucial to the "development of the French population" in Cambodia.

The genesis of hill stations in Indochina can be traced to Governor General Paul

Doumer (1897-1902), whose memoirs evince deep-seated fears of racial and social degeneration.

Such fears were rife in fin-de-siécle Europe, and may well have fuelled Doumer's

drive to identify sites for "civil and military sanatoriums" in the Indochinese


A mountain resort was duly built at Dalat, complete with a Palace Hotel and alpine

chalets. Under Doumer, quipped one French civil servant, hill stations were "the

order of the day", and "each administrator who had so much as a molehill

in his province conducted research as to the possibility of establishing a major


Perhaps seized by this mania, a French colonist by the name of Verdale enthused long

and loud about the "climatic and hygienic" benefits of Kampot in the Revue

Indochinoise in 1903.

In his article "Kampot Sanatorium," Verdale extolled Kampot as a health

spa par excellence whose scenic delights and mild temperatures could restore "tired

stomachs" and "suffering lungs" and even bring a rosy hue to the "anaemic

faces" of the fairer sex.

Verdale's vision was not realised until 1916, when a bathing place was built at Kep.

This was Cam-bodia's first "sanatorium." The same year, inspired by Dalat

and the recently built spa at Lang-bian, Governor General Roume recommended the establishment

of a hill station in Cambodia.

Plans were set in motion for a hotel at Bokor. On one "glamorous night"

in 1925, as Muller writes, Resident Superior Baudoin officially opened the Bokor


The glamour factor was doubtless lost on the forced labour teams who built Bokor.

In a 1974 interview, the writer Marguerite Duras, revisiting her Kampot childhood,

described the road to Bokor as the "Way of the Cross", dotted with the

sun-baked heads of convict laborers who had been buried up to their necks to set

an example.

Duras was prone to taking poetic licence with her Indochinese past, but reports in

1920s newspapers - the French language fore-runners of the Phnom Penh Post - corroborate

her account.

One writer accused Baudoin of reinforcing the road to Bokor with "human bones."

Others placed the death toll between 900 and 2,000. Confidential communiqués

reported the dead as "missing".

Cocooned in the capital, the uppermost echelons of the Khmer elite turned a blind

eye to such suffering.

In September 1922, at the Assemblée Consultative Indigene, the Cambodian Council

of Ministers, lobbied for the speedy completion of Bokor, on the grounds that the

hill station's gentle climate would provide Cambodians with "a powerful boost

for compromised constitutions" and "a wonderful tourist attraction.'

Two months after Bokor's opening, a Monsieur Bardez gained posthumous fame as the

first French Resident assassinated in Cambodia.

Bardez was killed by Cambodian villagers while collecting taxes in his constituency

of Kampong Chhnang.

His murder polarized the colonial community between defendants of white authority

at all costs and those who sympathized with Cambodia's downtrodden poor.

In the ensuing debate, Bokor became an emblem of the worst excesses of colonialism

which, some argued, had pushed Bardez's assailants over the brink.

So powerful was the image that the French lawyer representing the Cambodian defendants

wove Bokor into his case, arguing that a "Skull and Crossbones" should

fly over the Palace Hotel in place of the Tricolour.

These sentiments received short shrift in a 1920s government publication luring new

teaching staff to Indochina with promises of long school holidays on Bokor's balmy


By 1932, when the French travel writer Raymond Recouly visited Bokor, the darker

side of history had been subsumed into the frivolous narrative of exotisme.

The "agreeable freshness" of Bokor quite chilled his bones at night, and

poor Raymond was obliged to borrow a jumper.

In the late 1930s, Bokor became the favoured destination of Cambodia's newly formed

Scout Groups, Youth Hostel Associations and the elite Association of Sisowath Alumni.

Such youth movements gained further momentum under the Vichy regime in the early

1940s, when Cambodian scouts merged their mantra to Marchal Pétain with campfire

choruses of "Long Live Bokor!"

However, the suffering of Bokor did not vanish completely from Cambodian lore. In

his controversial 1935 Destin de l'Empire, published in Paris, author Prince Areno

Luk condemned "the inhuman conditions" and "unsurpassed cruelty"

of the construction of Bokor.

The following decade, the Khmer Issarak representative Chhim Toum petitioned the

United Nations for Cambodian independence, claiming that the French Protectorate

had paved the road to Bokor with convict bones.

We will never know the true story of Bokor or the precise extent of the death toll.

But it is unlikely that all Bokor's detractors were making mountains out of mole

hills in their allegations of systematic degradation and inhuman exploitation.


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