Film History Essentials: Enfants Annamites Ramassant des Sapèques devant la Pagode des Dames (1899)

(English: Children Gathering Coins Scattered by Western Women)

What it’s about:

Two French women stand in the courtyard of a pagoda, scattering handfuls of coins onto the ground in front of them. They smile and laugh as a group of around 20 children scramble to collect the coins.

The essentials:

Lumière operator Gabriel Veyre returned to France from his travels through Latin America in October 1897. However, he soon set out again, this time for Asia. He visited Japan, China, and finally, in April 1899, the territory known as French Indochina. At the time, the colonized area consisted of Cambodia, Laos, the Chinese territory of Guangzhouwan, and Vietnam.

The French had been a presence in the region for over 250 years, beginning with the arrival of the first missionaries in the 1620s, and growing with the establishment of valuable trade throughout the 1700s. The 1780s saw the first French military intervention in Vietnam. In the 1850s, the French invaded the south Vietnamese region of Cochinchina under the guise of halting persecution of Catholic missionaries in the country. This conflict eventually led to the French acquiring direct control over a portion of Vietnamese territory. During the following decades, the size of that territory continued to increase until it encompassed an area of southeast Asia larger than the state of Texas.

When Veyre arrived in Hanoi in 1899, the governor-general of French Indochina was Paul Doumer (see right). At that time, the territorial capital was still in Saigon, but with the addition of new territory, Doumer had undertaken the modernization and “beautification” of the northern city. Doumer was likely also interested in moving the seat of French power in order to facilitate his ambitions of expanding French holdings further north into southern China. Doumer was appointed to govern the colony in 1897, when he was just shy of 40 years old. By the time he returned to France in 1902, Hanoi had become the new capital.

As the French Minister of Finance, Doumer had attempted unsuccessfully to implement an income tax in his home country. As the leader of a colonial territory, however, he had greater latitude to impose taxation on the populace. During his tenure, he set about ensuring that French Indochina turned a profit for France using what can only be described as a program of systematic exploitation, by then typical of colonial models for centuries.

He accomplished this in part by heavily taxing alcohol, opium, and salt, and confiscating the property of anyone who couldn’t pay. These people, in turn, were often forced to become low-wage laborers. Through his banking connections back home, he also attracted French investments and imports to enliven trade and further enrich his countrymen.

What the French called “la Pagode des Dames,” or “Ladies’ Pagoda,” (as seen in the film’s title) was known locally as “Chùa Láng” or “Chiêu Thiền tự” (see left). It isn’t clear why the French called it something else. Perhaps there was something about the pronunciation of “Láng” that was reminiscent of the French “Dames.” Regardless of the reason, the casual renaming of an important religious shrine also suggests a disregard for the colonized people and their culture by the colonizers.

The pagoda marks the birthplace of legendary Zen master Duc Thanh Lang. After he died in 1116, he was believed to have been reincarnated as the nephew of a ruler who later died with no heir, and so the reincarnated monk became the next to ascend the throne. The pagoda was built in his honor by that ruler’s son, Emperor Lý Anh Tông, sometime in the mid-12th century. In 1899, the pagoda was located in a rural area a few miles from Hanoi. The city has long-since expanded to encompass the surrounding area.

Doumer’s own expansionist ambitions ultimately led to his being recalled to France. Paris had looked the other way after Doumer’s previous unauthorized (and unsuccessful) attempts to make a move on Yunnan, but after the Boxer Rebellion, the French government feared that his continued aggression could lead to territory lost rather than gained. Nevertheless, Doumer’s political star continued to rise and in 1906 he narrowly lost election to the presidency. He eventually became the president of France in 1931. After less than a year in office, he was assassinated by a deranged veteran of the Russian White Army who believed he was taking revenge against France for failing to help sufficiently in the fight against Bolshevism several years earlier.

What to watch for:

This incredibly well-preserved film is a vivid, succinct illustration of colonialism in action. A pair of European colonizers, enriched by the exploitation of a people whose country they occupy, condescendingly amuse themselves by tossing back near-worthless scraps for the colonized to scrabble for on the ground. It’s a grotesque spectacle that would feel too on the nose if this were a fictional film that was critical of colonialism. And yet, critique was certainly not the intent when it was filmed, and would not have been the perception of contemporary European audiences. They, too, would have been entertained and amused by the children and their scramble for coins, and appreciated the novelty of glimpsing an exotic location that they perhaps felt a sense of ownership over.

The women are throwing Vietnamese văns, which the French called sapeks (or sapèques). These were round coins with a square hole in the center so that they could be easily carried on a string (see right), with usually around a hundred coins per string. According to the exchange rate described by a contemporary traveler, 1000 sapeks would convert to about one and a half francs, so in all they’re handing out the equivalent of maybe 30-50 French centimes. It’s possible to see that someone else is also throwing coins from behind or to the left of the camera, out of view. Notice how the younger woman carelessly throws down the empty string at the end, as well.

(Clockwise from bottom right: Paul, Blanche, Hélène, and Germaine Doumer, shortly before Paul’s death)

The two women are Paul Doumer’s wife, Blanche, who was almost 40, and his oldest daughter, Hélène, who was then 18. Hélène had an older brother and six younger siblings, four boys and two girls, the youngest of whom (Germaine) was not quite two years old. Blanche would ultimately pass away in 1933, less than a year after her husband was assassinated. Only three of Blanche and Paul’s children survived them: the two eldest and the youngest.

Four of their sons were killed in World War I. The first, an artillery officer, was killed less than two months after the war began. Another, a flying ace, was shot down and killed in 1917. The third, also a pilot, was killed in combat less than four months before the armistice. The last died five years after the war ended, due to complications from having been gassed. Their middle daughter also died in 1917, reportedly of grief at the loss of two of her brothers.

As for Hélène, she lived to see the French defeated in 1954 by the Vietnamese and their allies, ceding all claims to the territories that had been French Indochina. This marked the beginning of major US involvement in Vietnam, and of the proxy war between the US-backed South and the Soviet-backed North that would consume the region for another two decades. Hélène died in 1968, just a few months after the Tet Offensive marked a turning point in the Vietnam War that would ultimately lead to a final US withdrawal in 1975. Western colonialism cast a very long shadow across every area it touched.


~ by Jared on May 4, 2023.

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