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Book Review from French: Guangzhouwan, The Secret Colony

Reviewed by Claire L. Hennessy

« Kouang Tchéou-Wan, colonie clandestine : Un territoire à bail français en Chine du Sud 1898-1946» By Antoine Vanniére. les Indes savantes, 2020. 690pp.


As the title illuminates, Antoine Vannière unveils the clandestine nature of France’s oversea colony called “Kouang-Tchéou-Wan,” which later came to be known as Guangzhouwan(广州湾). Located in today's Guangdong Province, this colony was a small enclave on the Southern coast of China, with a total land area of 1,300 square kilometers (500 sq mi). “Kouang-Tchéou” is a transliteration from “Canton,” as in “Cantonese”, which is a southern dialect still spoken by people of Guangdong and Hong Kong. Hence, “Kouang-Tchéou-Wan” means “Canton Bay”.

Guangzhouwan was ceded by the last feudalist regime of China, Qing Dynasty to France as a lease and administered as a constituent territory of French Indochina. Back to the year 1898, when France invaded the area, it met strong resistance from the local population. In November 1899, one year after France’s invasion, France tried to force the Qing government to sign a lease of Guangzhouwan. Regardless of the Qing government's refusal, France enforced the lease anyway and set about to rule the area for 99 years. The French governance of the area ended in February 1943 when Japan occupied the territory. The French briefly took it back in 1945 before returning it to China in 1946.

A 1909 map of Guangzhouwan, a French colony in southern China (the map is in the public domain).

In his book, Vannière brings attention to a long-overlooked dimension in post-colonial studies, namely, the amnesia over Western colonization of China beginning in the mid-19th century, regardless of the fact that China was one of the largest and the most demarcated territory since Western imperial expansion dominated the leitmotif of modernity. Along the Anglophone and Francophone lines of inquiry specifically, the application of post-colonial theory seldom goes beyond the geopolitical circumference of Indochina, not to mention that “Indochina” remains a tacky and hypothetical term.

In the beginning, "Indochina" has been used to designate an ambitious blueprint of an Indochinese Union that would oversee and preside over the entire Southeast Asia, especially China, however much his egoistic plan soon failed. With time, the term "Indochina" has been used to mask what the author calls a “clandestine colony” of Guangzhouwan, occupied by the Third Republic of France from 1898 to 1946. It is from this point of departure that Antoine Vanniére’s 2020 book reveals such an unquestioned paradox of the semantically blurry connotation “colony.” The book provides archival analysis from a historian’s perspective on why France attempted to conceal a colony that was meant to “radiate its colonial luster,” so to speak.

Partial view of Fort Bayard with officers quarters in foreground. French leased territory of Guangzhouwan. Postcard mailed in 1913 (in public domain).

Arguments, method and significance

According to the author, Kouang-Tchéou-Wan was one of the smallest colonial possessions France ever held, which was a mere speck on the vast map of the French empire. Counterintuitive is Kouang-Tchéou-Wan 's unfit condition for a colony: there is neither raw materials to exploit, nor enough local population to costume imports from the Hexagon (referring to mainland France). Disinterested in learning about the meaning and the toponymic origin of "Kouang-Tchéou-Wan" (as the way it was addressed reveals), the French colonial were further perfunctory in applying a legal status for its adoptee: Kouang-Tchéou-Wan was addressed as a "leased territory" of 99 years, a literal rental from China's Qing Dynasty.

The author highlights a chain of the historical and ideological forces that shaped Guangzhouwa's secret identity, an identity even unheard of in France till this day. First of all, Guangzhouwan was a possession that reflects a knee-jerk response among Western powers at the time when the feudalist Chinese empire began to crumble. In other words, France felt the need to possess its own share of the cake when China was parceled out by other Western powers. Second, even though Guangzhouwan was originally designated as a naval station with a coal depot to guarantee French navy’s independence over fuel supply, it did not meet its original purpose as a military outpost. Rather, it was turned into a strategic beachhead to invade additional Chinese provinces to the north such as Yunnan and Sichuan, since the Indochinese colony had long been coveting China’s southern provinces. And finally, when the focus of Guangzhouwan shifted towards economic development, its economy became distorted due to the notorious opium trade conducted there. According to Vannière, opium brought the colony vast amount of revenue, and Guangzhouwan was ultimately turned into the financial engine of Indochina. Another purpose of colonizing Guangzhouwan was to use it to spy on British Hong Kong when the Franco-British rivalry was in full swing, evidenced by the resounding Fashoda crisis in Sudan in a few months to come.

The book demonstrates a conscious choice of limiting the research within the framework of French colonization history in East Asia and its expansion policy in East Asia during the first half of the twentieth century. In doing so, it offers a prism of the French gaze over the lifestyle and discourse of the colonized. The author additionally addresses the ambiguous legal status of Guangzhouwan, which allows for the opportunity to probe into “the nature of the French colonial project and its ambitions in this part of the world, given that the French colonials had treated these two expressions as one and the same” (Vannière, 7, my translation).

The material basis of this research relies largely on but is not limited to the archival resources of the Administration of the General Government of Indochina. As the author points out, even judgments from contemporaries on the value of Guangzhouwan and the actions of France could be quite skewed and therefore should be treated as testimonies that are constituent of the entire colonial representation. Such a rigorous method of investigation allows the author to be able to come to a few trenchant observations, for instance, that the general government of Indochina was particularly responsible for silencing about Guangzhouwan, revealing the expansionist aspiration that France held at the turn of the century. The research materials come from three major resources, namely, the ministerial, administrative and private, allowing the author to extend his analyses that have already been conducted on the Doumér period (1897-1902) to the entire first half of the twentieth century. As the author briefly concludes from his archival findings that Guangzhouwan is, in a way, an outlier of an earlier mode of colonial expansion, one that neither France nor its successive general governments of Hanoi were able to develop and keep up with the pace of world politics.

Vannière's work is significant in debunking the obscene underside of colonial enterprise as the colonial assume themselves as fewer administrative responsibilities as possible. Vannière’s subject of investigation therefore offers a complementary angle and criticism to the current post-colonial studies that have dealt directly with issues of formal colonies of the French empire, representative in Albert Memmi, Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire’s poetics. On the one hand, the implied status of Guangzhouwan deconstructs the so-called “semi-colonies,” “leased territories,” and "concession," gesturing toward a ruling fashion more complicated than what's called "legal." On the other hand, and in so doing, Vannière reveals the absurdity of the so-called legal “colonies,” highlighting a kind of colonial mentality that narcissistically views itself as the patron of the underdeveloped and thereby colonization a magnanimous cause. In other words, these occupied territories jointly manifest a kind of egoistic denial to see oneself as the intruder who has literally broken into someone’s house. Perhaps the author is right: there is no such a thing as a good or bad colony—there are only colonies, which are all bad.

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