Historian Mike Vann from Sacramento, California shares his research on sexist cartoons, an anti-rat policy that backfired, postcards of executions, and other obscurities of Vietnam under the French. By Lien Hoang. Photo by Christian Berg.

What is the Cobra Effect?
It’s when a government policy is designed to stop a behaviour or eradicate a problem but actually winds up making the problem worse. The story is that the British put out a bounty on cobras in [colonial] India and very quickly Indians started raising cobras and turning them in.

How did it apply to Hanoi?
It starts with the French government building a very advanced sewer system for 1900, but it serves the city very unequally. It’s very nice in the French neighbourhoods and it isn’t very good in the Vietnamese neighbourhoods.

So what you called the sewer apartheid.
Yeah. Sewers are [part of] their modernising project, what the French call ‘the civilising mission’. And then what they find out is the sewers are a perfect breeding ground for rats. And pretty soon the French had a more serious problem because the rats are starting to come up through the flush toilets in the French neighbourhoods.

They then turn to the civilian population when they put a bounty on rats. And somebody has the bright idea saying, ‘OK don’t bring in rats, just bring in their tails.’ At first it was going great, people are bringing in rat tails. Until there’s a health inspector who’s out on the edge of town and he sees a rat run by with no tail. And then he gets a team out there and they start to inspect and they find rat farms.

So what does this say about the policy?
It’s a perverse incentive. They created a policy designed to eradicate rats and wind up dramatically increasing the rat population.

Could you talk about the symbolic importance of this problem?
It’s delightfully ironic that this great symbol of French modernity, the sewers, designed to solve urban health problems, actually created an entirely new urban health problem by creating this ideal habitat for the rats.

What was your goal in writing about this?
French imperialism, imperialism in general, is so much about public, symbolic demonstrations of power and trying to convince the conquered population that the conquerors are all-powerful … and morally superior. And I love finding these stories that pull the rug out from under these claims of European superiority. And I love the idea of the Vietnamese civilian population being two steps ahead of the French.

The piece you did on postcards is a good example of that. Under French rule there were all these postcards that showed executions.
The postcards really show how the whole colonial system is based upon extreme and unequal uses of violence.

What were executions like?
In the initial years, the condemned would be taken out of prison, marched around the town, and then beheaded by a man holding a large sabre.

How graphic are the postcards?
Pierre Dieulefils would do a series, taking pictures of the condemned coming out of the prison. … March them around the city, take pictures the whole time, take them to the parade grounds, they have to kneel down. And there are postcards of the guy swinging the thing. … Swinging the sabre above their head, and then trying to capture that moment of death. And then images of the headless body and guys holding the head.

In the north, particularly when they were dealing with pirates — Vietnamese historiography might call them heroes — they would be decapitated and their heads put in baskets at crossroads with a sign in Nom characters saying who this was, what they were condemned for, and don’t do what they did.

So that’s very much a warning.
And really medieval, right?

And postcards are really important because they’re not like a picture in a newspaper or a photograph from an archive. A postcard is a commercial product, which means postcard makers had to decide that’s an image that people will want to buy.

What are in these cartoons you write about?
There’s one that shows this French man down in the French side of Ho Hoan Kiem and he’s bored and depressed and he sees a beautiful Vietnamese woman, knows she’s a famous prostitute so he starts to follow her. … And then he goes in there and pays her, but it turns out he paid her with counterfeit coins. And so her pimp beats him up and kicks him out.

It’s like locker room conversation, it’s total boys club, this is what guys talk about when it’s just guys. And it’s in these [news]papers.

But what happens is, suddenly those cartoons disappeared when Hanoi became the capital of Indochina. When French women started arriving in significant numbers, suddenly that male locker room conversation is gone.

Who is André Joyeux?
He’s a prolific artist in the first decade, till about the first world war here in colonial Saigon. And he’s drawing these cartoons of daily life.

I argue that those cartoons are really rich historical sources because they’re conversations amongst the community. And in cartoons you can talk about some of the more problematic, unsavoury issues of colonialism. Official reports, government propaganda doesn’t talk about racism, the beating of servants, various health problems and so forth.

Let’s talk about the subjects of these cartoons. You mentioned casual violence.
There’s one scene where there’s a French man who’s obviously getting dressed, he has pants and an undershirt on. And there’s a Vietnamese man and he’s grabbing him by the back of the head and smacking him. It’s in a bedroom. There’s a soldier who’s coming in and in slang asks him if he’s getting some exercise. … And the response is, ‘No, I’m looking for my watch.’

The other view is this lazy servant.
There’s lots of cartoons that make fun of the Vietnamese speaking French. How many French learned Vietnamese? Not so many, right? But they’re making fun of the Vietnamese who are speaking French. And also making fun of the Vietnamese who are adopting western clothes and western social habits.

Do you think he bought into some of this racism himself?
Yeah. I think you can be self-aware and critical and still be part of the racist colonial project. He’s not joining the independence movement.