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In Session: Biopolitical Vietnam
2: “Leaves Falling Back to Their Roots”: Chinese Migrants, Repatriations of Remains, and Colonial Modernity in French Cochinchina, 1892-1893.
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
12:00pm – 1:30pm EDT
Anh Sy Huy Le
Michigan State University, United States
This paper examines an enigmatically short-lived, yet revelatory moment of political and social contestations in colonial Saigon regarding the exhumations and transfers of almost 2000 mortal remains of deceased Chinese from Saigon-Cholon to southern China in 1892. Starting in the 1890s, leaders of the Cantonese congregations in the colonial capital of French Cochinchia initiated a prolonged petitioning process to demand bureaucratic leniency, increased legal and administrative capacity, and logistical accommodation from the French colonial authority in order to implement this large-scale movement of bodily repatriations out of the port of Saigon. Triggering emotional hysteria and outpouring oppositions from within the Chinese communities, the French government cracked down on the underway operations, citing their legal inhibitions on the ground of public health hazards and practical impediments to colonial regulations. This paper shows how French colonial ideology, rooted in its civilizational claims to scientific and hygienic modernity, constituted a hegemonic biopolitical discourse that demonized traditional Chinese burial practices as a menace to the “health” of the colony. It also elucidates the complexity of inter-ethnic co- existence in a shifting urban landscape and the fraught nature of Chinese diasporic politics in colonial Vietnam wherein trans-local Chinese practices—in this case, burials and commemorations of the dead—ran counter to the modernizing imperatives of an expanding colonial state.