Professor Christina Firpo presented research this spring about French-Asian children who were taken from their mothers and turned into pawns in colonial times. Firpo, who teaches at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, said the French used these mixed children to bolster the so-called white population in Indochina. By Doan Thi Ngoc. Photo by Fred Wissink.

Mixed-race children don’t always have it easy, but things have come a long way since the days of French colonisation. Before 1945, many French colonists and officials in Indochina merely saw such children as unwanted offspring whom French fathers abandoned to their Vietnamese, Cambodian or Lao mothers. The métis or “con lai” were marginalised by native society.

However, because so many people were killed during World War I, French officials and a number of French civilians began to see these children as a potential solution to the demographic problem in the colonies. The strategy of the government was to increase mixed-race numbers to strengthen the French population as an expression of colonial power. Actual white French settlers would decrease in Indochina, but programs of local population growth were built to enhance the number of white but not-truly-white people.

French civilians, military personnel, and government officials took to searching for children all over rural areas in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos whose fathers were French or of other European nationalities. After 1945, they extended their quest to children whose fathers were African soldiers and Indian troops who served in the French army — children without the blood of “the white man”. Specifically, they were looking for children whose fathers had left their families, whether it was a result of divorce, death, the end of a romance, returning to France, or raping women who later gave birth to their children.

Because the fathers of these mixed-race children did not recognise them nor marry their mothers, their fates depended on the official rules of the French government. These children also did not inherit the rights and privileges of French citizens. They lived with their mothers but were labelled as “abandoned” children, so the French authorities used their power to temporarily protect and bring them into social organisations to raise them.

Such organisations were officially classified as “French orphanages” run by a “child welfare foundation” (CWF) — even when many mothers were not ready to give up custody. The colonial government identified the Vietnamese, Cambodian and Lao mothers as one of the biggest problems hampering their plans to use these abandoned children. They were annoying not only because these indigenous women gave birth to men and women for the future of France, but also because they brought them up as potential nationalists who were embedded in Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Lao culture.

White, colonial officials and members of the CWF separated the children from their mothers and a Southeast Asian cultural environment. They aimed to integrate them into white society and prevent them from becoming people with Asian culture characteristics and forming their own political and cultural identity.

After removing them from their mothers, the French colonial government sent the fair-skinned children to boarding schools, where they were educated about French culture and turned into “little French people”. From 1919-1929 the French government had the children “contribute” to the prosperity of the nation by sending them to regions where the white population had been decimated by war.

“The Eurasians were a better option than to import foreign workers from other areas in Europe,” a colonial minister wrote. “Mixed children of French fathers are more eligible to become French than foreigners who don’t have a drop of French blood but become citizens after staying in France for a long time.”

Another plan to solve the demographic problem was to train the mixed-race children to become officers in the colonial army. In 1938, the colonial government established a military academy for the “abandoned”. They formed the leadership teams essential for the colonial army, who would be loyal to the French and use their bilingual skills to communicate effectively with troops.

The next step was to integrate these children into French colonial society as a fixed political elite in France. When these later children matured, they took administrative positions previously held by the French, so the colony would never lack white officials. According to the Brevie Jules organisation plans, Eurasian kids would be “the French” and were educated to form a class of “colonialism for the future”, or a “special class of French in Indochina”. History, of course, had other plans.

This article was adapted from a version published in a Hoa Sen University newsletter.