A Change of Guard

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Monday 29 April 2013

A Bastion of Indochine in Bangkok

The Cambodia Daily
April 29, 2013

Fancois Dore’s story is virtually the same as scores of expatriates who have come to Southeast Asia over the past 150 years and ended up staying. 
Francois Dore in his bookstore/library Librairie du Siam et des Colonies in Bangkok (Michelle Vachon/The Cambodia Daily)
Francois Dore in his bookstore/library Librairie du Siam et des Colonies in Bangkok (Michelle Vachon/The Cambodia Daily)
“You are attracted not only by the rich culture but also the kindness of people who are somehow more welcoming than individuals at home,” he explained. “Your reaction is to go further, to try to broaden your knowledge in order to understand them.”
But few expatriates have gone as far as Mr. Dore in exploring the history of the land in which they live.
Mr. Dore’s bookstore Librairie du Siam et des Colonies contains a collection of more than 13,000 books on Indochina’s history and literature from the mid-19th century through 1954 when Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam became officially independent from France.
Located off Sukhumvit Soi 1 in Bangkok, this bastion of Southeast Asia scholarship is part library and part bookstore. Some books are for sale but all of them can be consulted by researchers and anyone else with a keen interest in Indochina.
Having come to Southeast Asia as a journalist in 1972 with the goal of covering the Vietnam War, Mr. Dore ended up in Laos reporting on events that led in 1975 to the takeover of the country by the Pathet Lao communist forces, which were supported by North Vietnam.
“Rather than discovering countries at war, I discovered countries…with endearing civilizations,” he recalled.
Moving to Thailand in 1975, he traveled back and forth to France to complete post-graduate studies in Thai, Laotian and Pali, and settled permanently in Bangkok in 1980 working with insurance companies as a contact person to assist foreign visitors with medical emergencies. But that was just his day job. All the while he was building his rare book collection.
Mr. Dore had always been interested in literature. American writers from the Beat Generation of the 1950s such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac fascinated him, as did Irish author James Joyce as well as a number of British and French novelists.
“It’s in literature that we find the most details on people’s lives, the way their lives are perceived, the questions visitors ask, what puzzles them,” he said.
This is especially true with novels about Indochina. In the early days of the French administration, Mr. Dore said, “Everyone became a writer, and often a talented one. Military officers, missionaries and settlers began writing what they had seen, describing the trips they made, telling their fondest memories. And this created the first literary movement about Indochina.”
Explorers and military officers had traveled four to six weeks by ship to reach Cambodia, Vietnam or Laos. “Traveling by plane, we no longer realize this but [to come here] you switch continent: You are on a different planet. And those people who came to spend one, two or three years—because of course they would not go home on holidays—felt as if they were having an experience. And they wanted to talk about it to people in Europe,” and recount everything from their love affairs with local women to their spell with opium, which was readily available in Indochina, Mr. Dore said.
However since they were French military or public servants, they could not write anything that would displease the French or Cambodian authorities. So they turned to novels and wrote under pennames.
“The biggest problem today is to identify the military officer behind the pseudonym,” Mr. Dore said. “On the other hand, the military officer reveals a great deal more in his novel than in his official accounts overseen by his superiors.”
One example is Rear Admiral Paul-Emile-Marie Reveillere who, writing under the penname Paul Branda in the 1890s, critiqued Cambodia’s upper class for exploiting its people.
Although the French were much more involved in Vietnam—Cochinchina in southern Vietnam was French territory, unlike Cambodia which was legally an independent country under the protection of France—a disproportionate number of novels, studies and official accounts were about Cambodia.
“Cambodia, which is much smaller and far less populated than Vietnam, is the country in the region that, for the French, was the most endearing and also had the most fascinating history: Its archeological sites are extraordinary,” Mr. Dore said.
In some ways, Angkor distracted visitors from seeing the country as it really was. While French writers in the 1930s and 1940s started denouncing the conditions of Vietnamese workers under French administration, they continued to focus on monuments when describing Cambodia. Visitors usually traveled by boat from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap City and hardly saw Cambodians’ living conditions outside these two centers, Mr. Dore said. So their accounts of Cambodia would mention the King, Khmer classical dancers, Phnom Penh and Angkor, he said. Which is not that different from visitors’ circuits today, except that before heading for Angkor, tourists now go to the Khmer Rouge torture center Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields at Cheung Ek in addition to the Royal Palace and the National Museum.
“What fascinates me is that, in the end, between the traveler of a century ago and today’s tourist, there is no difference…people are exactly the same,” Mr. Dore said. They have the same reactions to the same things when they venture into Cambodia, Laos or Vietnam for the first time, he said.
Expatriates of 100 years ago and those of today tend to undergo the same three phases, Mr. Dore explained.
As Roland Meyer described in his 1919 novel “Saramani, danseuse khmere,” or Saramani Khmer dancer—one of the most beautiful novels on Cambodia, Mr. Dore says—some Westerners at first will reject their own culture to better embrace the culture of their new country.
This often involves the Western man marrying, permanently or otherwise, an Asian woman. “The starting point of any novel and of all novels about Indochina is Man meeting Woman,” Mr. Dore said. “It’s this eternal belief that in order to know a country, one must know a woman from that country…marrying a Cambodian in order to know Cambodia.” This way of thinking has hardly changed as many men coming to Cambodia today will look for a Cambodian girlfriend as soon as they land, he said.
Expatriates who spend some time in the region will eventually reach a second phase, Mr. Dore said. They start to become aware of reality, noticing the pros and the cons of the country they have so readily adopted and becoming aware that Westerners and Southeast Asians don’t always see things in the same light, he said.
Finally if an expatriate remains in the region long enough, he may after many years appreciate both his own culture and that of his adopted land for their qualities and failings, Mr. Dore noted.
In addition to building his book collection, Mr. Dore has turned into a living source of information. Not only has he read his 13,000 books—name any topic and he will tell you which authors covered it and how they addressed the issue—but he is also conducting research.
He now is working on the history of Phnom Penh’s lighthouse, which was first mentioned by a French traveler in 1879.
Paid for by King Norodom, it was never used and the scientific instrumentation purchased for it was left in crates, according to Mr. Dore. This was probably a case of an unscrupulous Frenchman convincing the King that Phnom Penh needed a lighthouse for river traffic, getting a sales commission out of the project but failing to provide the technical expertise to set it up, he said. Located on the Chroy Changva peninsula, the lighthouse was demolished in the 1940s.
While conducting this research, which is part of a study on Southeast Asian lighthouses that Mr. Dore is doing for a Unesco project initiated in France, Mr. Dore contacted the descendant of a Frenchman named Roustan who may have been involved in the construction of the Phnom Penh lighthouse.
Paul Roustan had come to Cambodia right after the signing of the Protectorate Treaty of 1863. His French wife gave birth to three children while they were in Cambodia, one of them being Emile Roustan, born in October 1877, whose birth certificate Mr. Dore has obtained.
This means that George Groslier, born in 1887, who built the National Museum in Phnom Penh in the 1910s and ran it for 25 years was not the first French child born in Cambodia as has been reported by scores of writers over the years, Mr. Dore said.
“Groslier being the first French born in Cambodia who died while tortured by the Japanese [during their occupation of Cambodia] in 1945: the extraordinary destiny of a truly brilliant man…unfortunately, it’s a legend,” he said.
Mr. Dore has been working with a foreign archivist affiliated with Cambodia’s National Archives to locate additional documents on this issue, he said.
About nine books out of 10 in Mr. Dore’s collection are in French: The French would mainly write about Indochina where they were established while the British wrote in English about their Burma and Malaysia, which they controlled, Mr. Dore said.
Making his bookstore and library a resource center and meeting place for researchers in the region has been Mr. Dore’s long-term goal, but unlike the authors of the books that line his shelves, he has never made a point of publicizing his one-of-a-kind collection.
The Librairie du Siam et des Colonies has become a sort of best kept secret among historians, archeologists and researchers of Cambodia, as many pay Mr. Dore a visit whenever they are in Bangkok.

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