Cholon and Cochin-China 7

A ferry nearby provided a racket for yet another petty regional boss. There he stood by the shore in his uniform of a lieutenant in the Bao-Dai army and bright yellow boots, prepared, for a concussion (most descrip¬tive word), to grant priority to any vehicle not wishing to take its turn in the queue. If no concussion was forthcoming you waited in the line, perhaps an hour, perhaps half the day. The village at the ferry, overtopped with its crop of miradors, looked like a mean Siena, but rose- coloured pastors instead of starlings crowded sociably on the roofs. While we awaited the ferryboat a partisan patrol passed, complete with their wives. Several of them carried birdcages as well as rifles.
There was an undercurrent of artistic feeling in these harassed villages of Cochin-China that the quilting of poverty could not entirely suffocate. A tree grew in the garden of a fisherman’s hut. The leaves had been stripped off and replaced by small, silvery fish, which from an aesthetic quirk he preferred to dry in this manner. Sometimes a lamp had been planted outside a hovel, graceful yet solid, like a reduced version of a London lamppost, but with a golden-scaled dragon curled on the top. Or perhaps the usual platform set upon a post with offerings to the wandering and neglected spirits had been elaborated into a tiny pagoda, containing say, along with the teacup and the incense-sticks, a packet of Craven A. There were wayside food-stalls everywhere, and as much attention, one felt sure, was paid to the matching of the colours of the food displayed in the bowls, as to the flavour itself.
The sky above all these villages was full of grotesque and meaningful kites. Like miniature balloon-barrages they hung there, as if designed to frustrate the surprise attacks of fabulous aerial monsters. The zone of French occupation in Cochin-China is shapeless and unpredictable. There is a small squid-like body which thrusts out groping tentacles into a vast no-man’s land of canal-patterned paddy- fields and swamps. On a larger scale the country is hugely segmented by the mouths of the Mekong which leave great, ragged tongues of land projecting into the sea. The enemy is everywhere; in full strength and with complete organisation in one of the great, estuarial peninsulas, and split into skirmishing groups in the next. Defence towers garrisoned by Bao-Dai troops control the main roads, but only in daylight hours. Traffic is withdrawn before sundown and only starts again at eight in the morning.
During the night hours, the defence towers, too, go out of business and their defenders lie low, while the Viet-Minh patrols pass by on their way to collect tolls or impose retribution, conducting their activities even in the suburbs of Saigon. There are supposed to be live-and-let-live arrangements, and sometimes, perhaps when these break down, the Viet- Minh arrive in force and lay siege to a few towers, which may or may not be prepared to hold out to the last bullet. In this pacified zone you can sleep in the towns at night, so long as you do not go out after dark, but you cannot stay in the villages some of which it is better to keep away from even in daytime. The enemy includes the regular army of the Viet-Minh, tough and brilliant in guerilla tactics, but lightly armed; innumerable partisans who follow respectable occupations in the daytime, but turn into guerillas at night; and, as well, all that farrago of dubious allies, including the religious armies, who accepted French arms in order to live by near-banditry, but who are ready and willing to administer a stab in the back and will go over to the other side as soon as the moment seems right. As for friends – they are probably few, since the logic of modern warfare involves the destruction of the guilty and the innocent, and friends along with enemies. On the anniversary of the signing – a year before – of the agreement with Bao-Dai for Vietnamese ‘independence’, the French declared a holiday and blundering on in a quite un-Gallic but wholly Teuton fashion, ordered spontaneous demonstrations of joy. The police would see to it, newspapers warned, that flags were hung out. Can it have been the influence of German occupation? Or is it the circumstances and not the race that make the Nazi. To be fair to them, the French themselves, reading this in their papers, were either amused or horrified. The day came, the celebrations were ignored, the streets were empty, no flags flew. And the police did nothing about it.

It was at the house of one of the remaining allies, a high official of the Bao- Dai government, that the banquet was given on the last night of my Cochin-China interlude. There had been no warning of this glittering occasion. I was caught in a state of total unpreparedness, my change of clothing when I made an inspection, being nearly as grimed with yellow dust as those I wore. And now to my alarm I found myself seated at the right hand of the Vietnamese provincial Governor, facing the decolletee lady of the Colonel and a row of senior officers and officials in gleaming sharkskin. But the French are a genial people, little troubled by starchi¬ness and the rigours of social self-defence. Besides that, the nature of the banquet was in itself an all-out, frontal attack on the citadels of dignity. Formal deportment is shattered and devastated by the manipulation of Vietnamese food, and although some people might have been merely embarrassed, the French headquarters’ staff at Mytho and their women¬folk were prepared to treat the thing as a gastronomic romp. Undoubtedly in placing bowls and chopsticks before his guests, the Chef de Province knew his types.

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