Gareth Jones, Saigon, French Indo-China. Late May 1935.
have named the land through which I have travelled the Land of the Four
Curses. Curious curses they are that haunt this country where
tigers in primeval forest where natives suddenly stumble over
magnificent ruins hidden mysteriously in distant jungles and where
monkeys dash frightened away from coming travellers.
curses, which bring unhappiness upon the lands with equally curious
names, the Kingdom of Cambodia and Cochin China, which although they
sound like musical comedy, are parts of France's Empire in Asia.
are these four curses of French Indo-China?
first is a flower of great beauty of which the poets throughout the
world have sung and which painters havo put to canvas in lines and
colours of exquisite delicacy. It is the lotus flower. A
curse these white petals tinged with pink, those wide spreading leaves,
those ponds that bring to squalid villages a glimpse of beauty?
Yes, the lotus flower is a curse, for it spreads from pond to pond, from
river to river; it grows luxuriantly until it hinders the boats of the
fishermen and of the travellers. It crowds almost into the rice
fields and into the acres of maize. It sucks up the water which in
dry periods is badly needed and although the Cambodians love to let
their water buffaloes wallow in the lotus ponds and to splash sprays of
mud over the white petals, they curse the speed with which the lotus has
encroached on the waterways and regret the day that the flower was
brought in as a decoration from China.
second curse is an insect, which although minute does more damage than
the tigers many thousands of times its size. As I rushed in a bus
through Cambodia I noticed large red earthen mounds, some of which were
six to ten feet high, and were shaped like castles. They were the
homes of the ants, which bring unhappiness upon the people. These
ants have other homes, however, and, tiny as they are, they can destroy
great buildings. The white ants live inside timber and bite from
within, while no one can tell that within the beams there is swarm of
ravenous insects. Suddenly, with a crash the whole building
tumbles, sometimes burying men and women beneath it. The white ant
has done its work and has broken up a home with as much affect as a
dashing Don Juan in a family heading for Reno. Little did I think
before going to French Indo-China that ants could be so strong as to
rival Samson in destructive powers.
third curse, learnt from a Roman Catholic Priest, was the Buddhist
monks. Perhaps it was the rivalry of religions that led him to
attack the Buddhist, but, when I had on passing a group of monks in
their bright yellow robes referred to their contemplative outlook, he
angrily said: “Calm and contemplative indeed! They are
nothing, but a curse to the country. They are ignorant and do
nothing but repeat prayers and ceremonies, knowing nothing of the deep
and noble philosophy of Buddhism, they live on offerings brought to them
from poor people who cannot afford to give. They stop all progress
and initiative, because they teach that desire is evil and that to
strive is a sin.”
another foreigner I heard the same attack on the Buddhist priests.
They teach that woman has no soul and for that reason the women. In the
Buddhist countries do most of the hard work and the carrying? The
women pray that they will be men in their next reincarnation.
Buddhist priests are a curse - so this foreigner told me because they do
not help beggars as they should and they pass the infirm and the old on
the other side of the street. They believe that disease and
unhappiness are punishment for misdeeds in a former existence and thus
they sit idly not remedying any evils and letting the hungry starve and
the diseased perish.
greatest of the four curses is, however, opium. Nowhere in the
world is the opium traffic so scandalously open as in French Indo-china.
When arrived in Pnompenh where the King of Cambodia lives with his fifty
dancing girls concubines, in palaces of blue and gold.
went to explore streets in the very centre of the City an open
invitation to all to enter, there were areas where almost every house
was an opium den. Within half an hour I had entered and examined
fourteen, where on long polished wooden tables youngsters sat sucking in
opium fumes with a gurgling noise or rolling the black stick opium into
the balls which are lit with a flame. In one opium shop, in the
middle of ragged rascals who stared with vast open eyes as if in a
dream, there a little girl of six with silver bracelets on her brown
arms innocence and vice side by side. At the entrance of one den a whole
family mother and four children were lying asleep on a mat, while new
smokers entered and almost stumbled over them. An a1ter to the Gods,
before which joss sticks were burning, decorated one of the places and
the Cathedral like scent of the incense mingled curiously with the
sickly sweet smell of the opium.
in the world has opium a greater grip over white people than in French
Indo-China and its most debased victims are women. Chic Parisian
women of fashion succumb to the drug far more rapidly in Asia than in
Americans or English women among whom one rarely hears of opium smokers.
a Frenchman I explored Saigon, great port of French Indo-China.
“Most of our French women here smoke!” he declared as we eat in one
of Saigon’s chic restaurants. A well-dressed woman in blue
passed. “She smokes only ten to fifteen pipes a day” he
explained when she had gone, “and she now going to the opium room
above the restaurant. Opium smoking is the great curse in
relations between husband and wife here, for it calms the desires of men
but heightens the senses of women. When both husband and wife smoke
opium the habit usually ruins the union.
we talked, a young man greeted us and went up the stairs. My guide
and friend jerked his hand towards him when he had gone. “That
man is doomed,” he whispered: “He smokes fifty to sixty pipes a day.
He is a pilot in the harbour here but he will not keep that post for
long, because he is killing himself. Opium affects the French here
terribly wrecking the character and makes them willing to steal or
murder for the sake of opium.”
do they smoke?” I asked. The Frenchman paused: “Do not think I
am enemy of the fair sex” he said, “but I blame mainly the
French women. They have nothing to do all day. They are far
away from home and few of them have children. They must do
something and to occupy themselves they toy with opium. First is a
joke and it is regarded as fashionable. Soon, however it becomes
necessary and they must have the drug at certain fixed hours.
Preferring to have company in their vice and because opium smoking forms
a link of fellowship they invite and cajole men to smoke. The
proportion of men who smoke is much lower, however, than that of women.
And so the trouble continues."
was with strange thoughts and memories that I left the land of the four