The kids were in bed but not yet asleep. The two boyesses who Perrichon employed
were with them. His congai was lying on a bed on the other side of the room.
It was, as Perrichon noted later, an especially dark night, and nobody saw the shadow
sneaking into the compound from behind where the experimental gardens stretched out
towards the forests.
The figure passed the little hut that served as the family bathroom and then stopped
at the backwall of the main structure. Moments later flames shot up, slowly at first,
growing every second, lighting up the night and shedding light on the shadowy figure
as it retreated into the dark. When the inhabitants of the house and the two guards
living nearby discovered the fire, it was too late. It was January, dry season, and
the wood was tinder-dry. They had just enough time to escape and watch from afar
as the blaze consumed their home and belongings.
In his report of January 16, 1908, Perrichon blamed the Christian Annamites living
in two nearby villages for the arson. On the night of the blaze, he writes, the Vietnamese
clan chiefs were holding a meeting in the missionary church. Although they were well
aware of the distress the Perrichons faced next door, no one came to help. The reports
filed later by the clan chiefs for the French administration unanimously stated that
there were no leads and no clues as to the culprits. It was even doubtful, they insinuated,
whether this was really a case of arson, or just a simple accident and Perrichon's
own fault. For Perrichon, such views were further indication that they must be involved
in the conspiracy.
Although he was the only one to suspect the blaze as attempted murder, Perrichon
was by no means a paranoid character. He had reason to believe that the community
of ethnic Vietnamese Christians, whose dwellings were scattered around his experimental
station, wanted him gone for good; him, his family, and the 100 Chinese settlers
that had arrived a year ago. They had been recruited in China by the newly founded
Société de Colonisation Indochinoise, an association that intended,
as noted at its General Assembly of the same year, "to exploit, thanks to the
immigration of Chinese agricultural labour, the vast plains of fertile but as yet
uncultivated soil in Indochina and particularly in Cambodia". Its members launched
a sophisticated venture, advertising the fertile lands of Svay Rieng to farmers in
the Chinese province of Fokien. Volunteers were then shipped on a British trawler
to Hong Kong and from there on a French boat to Saigon, each shipment consisting
of 20 hopefuls, complete with a guide and an interpreter. From Saigon they travelled
west to Svay Rieng and were then guided to an area in the southeast of the districts
of Romduol and Svay Teap, a no-man's land of bush and forests. This area of 1500
hectares had been designated by the French administration as their new home where
they were supposed to cut down the bush, cultivate the land, form new communities,
develop and prosper over the years, eventually adding to the colony's wealth and
the Protectorate's tax income. It was the biggest and most diversified enterprise
of its kind launched in Cambodia up to that date, a large scale human experiment
that would ensure a continuous influx of Chinese settlers into Cambodia for years
The obvious reason for such plans was the economic advantage of a more densely populated
eastern Cambodia. But lurking behind this reason was a complex of racial justifications
which were á la mode at the time. These ideas are exemplified by the Resident
of Svay Rieng, who, in a January 1907 letter to the Resident Superior in Phnom Penh
wrote that "it is by infusing new blood into this old Khmer race whose loyalty
and attachment to its protecting nation we know well, that we will obtain in it the
qualities that a succession of disasters and centuries of enslavement have made it
lose bit by bit". He saw the Chinese farmers as adding "cohesion and concordance"
to Khmer society and hoped that by crossbreeding them with Khmer women a new "strong
and intelligent race" would emerge.
The idea was born, the society founded, the support of the administration assured,
and in September 1906 the first 25 settlers arrived in the village of Popet, close
to the border of Cochinchina, followed in December by 75 fellow countrymen. They
lived at first in two houses that had been built quickly to accommodate them and
began to deforest the area in order to plant their first crop for the next rainy
But contrary to the promises of the little pamphlets in Chinese characters that they
had been handed in Fokien, they were not alone. The rumour that something was happening
in the area had spread and, as the Resident of Svay Rieng noted with surprise, within
a few weeks Vietnamese peasants had come "a little bit from everywhere",
slashed down the bush around the Chinese camp, and established makeshift ricefields,
that now engulfed the camp entirely. The Resident and the board of the Société
were furious, since through the planting and cultivating of rice these clever peasants
had claimed the land for themselves, as tradition and local laws prescribed.
It was the Resident's turn now to suspect a conspiracy behind the seemingly spontaneous
activities of the Vietnamese farmers. It could not be a coincidence that they were
all Christians and that alongside their huts a somewhat pathetic wooden structure
was erected next to the camp, that "he baptized to be a church". This maligned
"he" was the priest of Prasaut, a missionary of the Catholic Missions
Etrangéres, and, as the Resident noted with indignation, a German national.
This missionary had been trying to proselytize to the local population for a long
time, although seemingly with little success. His plans were to establish in Svay
Rieng's backwater districts what the Resident saw as "a little apostolic fief"
far away from any administrative control. The unruly priest obviously cared more
about God's eternal reign than the more earthly rule of the French in Cambodia, an
attitude that had led to rather strained relations between his Catholic communities
and the authorities. Now once again he had not bothered to ask for permission to
build the church and to place his followers around the camp, a request that, as the
Resident notes, would surely have been refused. It was clear to the French authorities
that the missionary's only aim was to sabotage the grand settlement project in Svay
Traditionally the missionaries regarded Annamites as more receptive to conversion
than the Chinese, who saw the wisdom of their elders as far superior to that of the
Gospel. It was probably for this reason that the priest of Prasaut was less than
enthusiastic over the French plans to create Little Chinas in Cambodia's hinterland
and began his own little counter-settlement project. So how to get rid of this holy
The Resident had hardly finished his report describing this annoying predicament
when tensions between the two groups errupted into open conflict. It is unclear from
the files what the incident in Popet consisted of exactly, but it seemed serious
enough. The Governor of Romduol and the militia were sent to the camp to restore
order after what must have been a severe outbreak of violence. They were told to
stay in the area until it was clear that law and order would not again be challenged.
The culprits responsible for the turmoil were to be found and judged. For the Resident
however, it was clear from the beginning who the mastermind behind the attack was.
He writes: "Although, or I would better say, because of the absence of the priest
of Prasaut, I believe that the recent incident on the concessions of the Chinese
is the work of this missionary, who has found it appropriate and prudent to be far
away from Svay Rieng at the moment when his incitements manifested themselves in
a concrete form."
Although the Resident openly despised the soul-saving German, there was little he
could do as long as the latter could not be indicted of any criminal activities.
Instead, the uneasy coexistence of the Franco-Chinese camp and the missionary's disciples
continued. The following months saw a steady increase in tension, culminating in
the blaze that destroyed Perrichon's house 11 months later. Given the lead-up to
the event, it seems likely that it was indeed arson, targeting the representative
of the Société and the settlement project as a whole, and further alienating
these two irreconcilable communities in Cam-bodia's outback.
The promised land that the Chinese immigrants hoped to find in Svay Rieng proved
to be mined with the competing aspirations of the Church and the secular authorities.
The immigrants had a bad start and many hopes must have been disappointed. They found
themselves the object of hate and controversy instead of being welcomed to their
new homeland. Two of the Chinese settlers died in the first year. "We have lost
two", a report noted, in spite of their good health and physical strength, praised
by representatives of the Société and the Resident of Svay Rieng as if
they were talking about horses. The other 98 men were still there after a year. It
remains unknown if eventually Cambodia became for them the promised land for which
they had left their native land.
(Information for this article was taken from National Archives of Cambodia, files
# 15439 to 15444. The National Archives is open Monday - Friday, 8.00-11.00 and 2.00-4.30.
It is located behind the National Library alongside the Hotel Royal. All are welcome
to consult its holdings. The reestablishment of the catalog of its holdings is in
progress, a project which is faciltated by the generous support of the Embassies
of Australia, France, and Switzerland.)