Gareth Jones

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Far East Contents

By Gareth Jones, Saigon, French Indo-China. Late May 1935.

I 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.

Curious 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.

What are these four curses of French Indo-China?

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.”

From 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.

The 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. 

The 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.

I 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.

Nowhere 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.

With 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.

As 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.”

“Why 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." 

It was with strange thoughts and memories that I left the land of the four curses.  


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