Cemeteries and Circuits from Pondicherry to Saigon

Uppalam Cemetery, Pondicherry.During 2004 and 2005, I spent several months in Pondicherry and southern Vietnam researching the lives of Indians who found their way to colonial Indochina. In both places the built urban archive proved to be a rich and informative source for my study. Sites in Pondicherry which speak of its colonial past had lasted fairly well. Those sites which specifically connect Pondicherry with Indochina were for the most part well-tended and recently painted, evidence that this 'archive' remains an important part of the personal and public history of people still alive and present in Pondicherry. I had expected to discover less in Vietnam's built archive, given great changes over the past decades in the urban landscapes there, and the departure of most Indians from Vietnam since independence and reunification. Instead, I found that numerous sites connecting Indians with Indochina had survived the forces of revolution, war and economic renovation…even if only in the short term.

In Pondicherry, the Catholic cemeteries in the main town and its surrounding villages are brightly painted catalogues of careers in Indochina's colonial service. Many inscriptions on the headstones carefully describe the professions of those laid there, and family tombs often depict several generations of Indian men who served as colonial functionaries far from home in Phnom Penh, Saigon or Haiphong. At Uppalam, the largest of these cemeteries, a late-nineteenth century controversy has come to serve as an aid to research. A wall was once built across this cemetery to protect the everlasting peace of the upper castes from the defiling influence of the ritually inferior. It had been built despite the efforts of the Catholic Church to rid its converts of practices attached to caste. This wall, as it should have been, was taken down long ago. But still being able to see where it once was allows a researcher, albeit imperfectly, to align the types of employment undertaken with caste, and caste with social mobility overseas in Indochina.

Family Tomb in Uppalam Cemetery, Pondicherry.Similarly, a disproportionate number of the small monuments and plaques dotted about Pondicherry and its environs are testaments to the connections between France's modest comptoir on India's east coast and its much larger colonial 'prize' further east. In a village known locally as 'Little Saigon' a statue of an Indian soldier stands next to Marianne, the feminine embodiment of France, who holds him in her protective embrace. According to its attached plaque, the monument was erected by the 'Saigonnais' of the village in memory of their comrades fallen in the Great War. In front of Pondicherry's main cathedral stands another statue, this one of Jesus standing in a fresh coat of silver paint, his arms outstretched. It was donated, as engraved in careful and largish lettering, by 'Marie Louis Precassame of Saigon'. These monuments attest not only to the links between Pondicherry and Indochina, but reflect on how overseas philanthropists wished to be seen and remembered back home.

I had already spent time in Ho Chi Minh City (the metropolis of Southern Vietnam which now comprises the former colonial sister-cities of Saigon and Cholon) but when I returned after my trip to Pondicherry, I was intent on looking more thoroughly at what the built archive might have to say about the presence of Indians there during French colonial occupation. Ho Chi Minh City by the early 21st century should have been unfavourable terrain for a historian in search of 'built archives'. A building boom in the towns and cities of South Vietnam in the 1950s preceded the bombing which affected many of the same places during the 'American War'. From the early 1990s, Chinese-style 'shop houses' and French-influenced villas throughout the city had come down to be replaced by high rises. Through two decades of economic renovation since then, the city has adhered closely to a general rule of heritage conservation, that economic rise goes with architectural fall. Beyond this, the communities I was studying had all but disappeared after the communist reunification of Vietnam in 1975. Had I followed another general precept – that buildings and sites which are not large, or important, or central enough to the current version of a nation's history are the least likely to be protected – I may have given up this avenue of inquiry altogether.

Vietnam's revolution for independence and the subsequent reunification with the south under the communist banner from 1975 saw the state eagerly replacing old monuments and symbols with new ones. There was little room for niceties and little patience for preserving some of the markers the French had left in the Vietnamese landscape. European cemeteries had been routinely destroyed in post-colonial Vietnam, sometimes violently though at other times in a more measured way. I had seen defaced French tombstones on a hillside in Phan Thiet and in the mid-1990s the gravestone of the would-be conqueror of Tonkin, Henri Rivière, made a convenient chopping board for a vendor of pork near Hanoi's Paper Bridge. Graves at Saigon's European cemetery were disinterred following independence and moved to France. The pleasant city park that now stands there though, is crowded by day but empties quickly at nightfall for fear of the ghosts said to roam there.

Gravestone in Ho Chi Minh City's Muslim Cemetery.While Vietnam's post-colonial programme aimed for the elimination of memorials to the French presence, doubts remained in the minds of the newly independent Vietnamese about whether this programme should apply to other Asians who had worked alongside the French. This has left an interstitiary space where some traces of the colonial past are spared from destruction. And it had me once again spending a lot of time in graveyards. There were, I gradually learned, at least four Indian Muslim graveyards still in place in Saigon and smaller towns in the Mekong Delta. Just outside Tra Vinh town, the local Indian graveyard consisted of no more than four or five small headstones, tucked behind some bushes at the side of the road; but they were still there. The Muslim cemeteries at Cantho, Mytho and Saigon were all much larger, each with a caretaker to tend to the graves. Within these sites are headstones whose epitaphs freely combine Arabic, Tamil, Urdu, Vietnamese, French and sometimes English. Like the Catholic cemeteries of Pondicherry, they are the final resting places of people whose lives were defined by movement. Headstones tell of men born in the Tamil country, many of whom stayed and died after the reunification of Vietnam, of men who had long lists of honours attached to their names, and others who didn't, and of local women who married them and were buried in their turn. Incense sticks have been placed to burn at many of these gravesites, evidence of the existence of living relatives who choose to calm the spirits of their Islamic forebears with Vietnamese practices for honouring the dead.

Given European cemeteries' poor record of survival in post-colonial Vietnam, I did not hold out much hope when I learned on a visit to the former prison island of Poulo Condore that there was still an old French cemetery there. The island itself, by 2005, was an odd and disturbing combination of pristine beaches, flamboyant trees in brilliant bloom, and vestiges of incarceration and torture. When we persisted and visited the cemetery we found the graves still standing. We could only guess, because the epitaphs had been nearly all defaced, that these graves marked the remains of European administrators who had inhabited the small town and run the prison. The very few graves which had been left untouched, though, were those of Indians. Many of the guards of the prison had been Indians from Pondicherry. It was doubtless their French citizenship that brought those of them who died on the island to rest among the Europeans. One inscription stated that 'Madame Arpoudamarie Dupas' had died there in 1918; it urged us to pray for her. I confirmed later, from archival sources, that her husband was a prison guard at Poulo Condore, and that she had lost two children in childbirth in Saigon prior to accompanying her husband to the island. Memorials such as this are revealing of migrants and their family lives; Madame Dupas played the role of a colonial functionary's wife in Cochinchina some time before European women arrived in the colony in significant numbers. Equally revealing are the defaced graves at Poulo Condore, which speak alongside the legible ones about the subtleties in post-colonial attitudes towards colonisers and their 'collaborators'.

Indo-Vietnamese curry stall, Ho Chi Minh City.However much construction booms and war might have destroyed Ho Chi Minh City's urban archive, on one level they too conspired to preserve it. The 1960s and early 1970s in Saigon and Cholon were times when the residents of those cities were eager to spruce up their dwellings, but did not have enough money (or perhaps enough confidence in the face of war) to do so. A cheap and protective 'anti-mortar' style of renovation resulted, whereby a modern-looking screen was laid over an existing façade, preserving and leaving virtually unchanged what was underneath. 'Anti-mortar' updates were ugly, to be sure, but once these buildings began to be renovated once again in the late 1990s and early 2000s, they uncovered a few surprises. In this way the location in central Saigon of the 'Nattukottai Chettiar Association of Cochinchina' was suddenly revealed, the letters laid in brick and plaster into the original façade underneath. Yet the next time I walked down that street the sign for the Chettiar Association, which had looked so weighty and permanent, had been cut in half to make way for a larger window. I have been optimistic about what it is possible to learn from the built environment as a historian, even in a place swept by rapid economic changes, but perhaps I should not get carried away. That sign reconfirmed that Ton That Thiep Street was occupied by Indian moneylenders for nearly a century – a fact that few young Saigonese were aware of – but it was only allowed to do so for a brief moment.

Perhaps though, we should not despair entirely. In the same decades which have seen unbridled construction in Ho Chi Minh City, people's attitudes have changed slowly and subtly, as they become a little bit nostalgic for the tastes and fashions of the past and more accepting, curious even, about the cultural and ethnic mélange of southern Vietnam, long depicted as more purely Vietnamese than it ever really was. Changing attitudes have increasingly allowed some of the remaining Indians – actually children of mixed Vietnamese and Indian parentage – to set up small stalls and restaurants offering 'cari An Do'. This 'Indian curry' was once an eagerly consumed specialty in the south, but one which thirty years ago might have lent its vendors too high a profile as foreigners possibly on the wrong side of the revolution. Now the nostalgia for 'cari An Do' is being eagerly fed again – edible archives anyone?


Natasha Pairaudeau
Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Sites of Asian Interaction Project
Centre for History and Economics, University of Cambridge

Added February 2014

(All photos N. Pairaudeau, 2004-2005)