Milieu + the Déclassés in French Phnom Penh

Cambodge: The Cultivation of a Nation 1860-1945 Penny Edwards

From Chapter 2: Urban Legend

“By 1888, the administrative elite had formed notions of an underclass of European undesirables who frequented the cafes of Phnom Penh and who cohabited, or conversed with, Cambodians outside the course of official duty, encouraging the grown of a third “class” that blurred colonialism’s neat divisions: the déclassés. This badge of dishonor embraced “social misfits”, young Cambodian women led astray, Cambodian students who had journeyed to France in search of education and returned with new vices and misplaced airs and graces, and what one French administrator referred to as our “most despicable European colonials.”

“These attempts to direct the traffic between Europeans and Cambodians were mirrored on the ground by the construction of new material divisions in the urban landscape, lessening the room for social and cross-cultura maneuver…”

“…crossings between milieux correlated with the fluid movements across Cambodge’s boundaries long demonstrated by the mobility of the Cambodian monkhood in their search for erudition in Siam and farther afield, in Sri Lanka — movement that the government of Indochina was determined to stop.”

“Cartography’s dual abstracting and contraction of Cambodge and neighboring places and people were materialized in microcosm through the construction of culturally and ethnically distinct milieux in Phnom Penh. The concept of “milieux” encompassed climate, disease, hygiene, pestilence, criminality, class and sexualtiy. In the Metropole, policies to contain and police the milieu focused French architects and intellects on social integration in the urban environment.

The demography of the colonies, with their minority white populations, focused architectural, intellectual, social, and medical attention overwhelmingly on issues of racial segregation. In 1906, the future governor-general of Indochina, Pierre Pasquier, noted with alarm that the French office in Indochina sometimes lost his Western outlook and developed “a new mentality close to that of the colonized people, which threatens to destroy his personality and even his morality.” Pasquier exhorted his peers “to conserve all the qualities of [their] race” so as to prevent their absorption by the native milieu.

As a preventative measure against such absorption, late-nineteenth and early twentieth century designs for the new colonial capital in Cambodge included the construction of a French quarter, designed to reinforce the “Frenchness” of its residents.  In turn, legislation and urban planning encouraged the segregation of the diverse “races” of the colonies – Khmers, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indians and Chams – into culturally specific, economically stratified, and racially segregated milieux within which each of these groups could thrive uncontaminated by the degenerative cultural influences of other groups. These milieux, or “quarters,” were built equivalents of cartography’s blind patchwork.

The beginnings of a separate quarter for Europeans in Phnom Penh can be traced to 1866, when, soon after the decision to move the capital there, France’s representative in Cambodge, Doudart de Lagree, advised Europeans to set up their homes near his offices, so as to create a special district. This directive was based more on concern about creating safety in numbers against the new capital’s high crime rate and frequent fires than in elaborate theories of race. However, with the installation of fire hydrants, an improved security environment, and the growth in Phnom Penh’s population, fire hazards were increasingly displaced by racial anxieties and ideas of national difference as the leading preoccupation of urban administrators.”

“By the turn of the century, the capitals segmentation into distinct French, Cambodian, Chinese, and Vietnamese districts had disentangled and ossified the ad hoc arrangements of space and race that had characterized Phnom Penh as well as native-European relations during the first decades of colonial rule. This ruban zoning was compounded by the allocation of resources and the selective use of legislations. An electricity generator provided lighting for the European and central Cambodian quarter, although “shadowy streets” characterized the Cambodian villages of the city’s outskirts, colloquially known as “little Takeo.” Here, under legislation enacted in 1884, Cambodians and Asiatics, but not Europeans, lived under a curfew of light and were not allowed to venture outdoors after 9 p.m. without a lantern.”

“In 1905, the protectorate’s new emphases on providing “comfortable, but simple residences” for Europeans, had led to the design and installation of the first freestanding villas for whites. On the ground, however, prescriptions for a specifically European milieu were hampered by economic realities. Few but the highest-ranking Europeans could afford to live in the European quarter…”

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