One is straight away struck by the paucity of words availed to expound this chanced-upon poiesis born in the crevasses of cultural hybridity and nourished in the no man's lands of ascetic transmutation...

Eurasian artist René Laubiès (a draft note)

In many ways the product of South-South trade and culture exchange, African-Asian capital flows, and peripheral forms of hybridizaiton (Verges 2003) at a time when steam ships ruled the sea.

"I'm Colonial French," Laubies explained. "I'm not French."

Yet Rene Laubies also was not white, but a very French-leaning Creole-Afro-Eurasian, the product of an overseas "Creole" French jurist and a Catholic Mandarin mother. He only "became" French, 'officially speaking,' sometime in his teens on the eve of emigrating out of Asia, when a passport and other required documents had to be procured,  his "master key to the Suez Canal," as Ezra Pound would later remark. He was leaving to study in France at the time, which Morocco then stood as, another hot country. He may have been forced to fib about his date of birth. Perhaps this accounts for discrepancies found in his later professional bio blurbs, where his date of birth is variously stated as 1922 and 1924. Just for the record: The date of birth written in his final passport is February 27, 1922. We have a photo copy.

Laubies was born in Cochin China, a dethroned kingdom bundled together with a diverse group of neighbouring monarchic realms that included Cambodia, Laos, Tonkin, and Annam, plus a scrape of land that was leased from China. This is what comprised French Indochina, L'Indochine française, a monumental exercise in "geographical construction" (Fletcher 2003: 4:3). Cochin China was the economic and administrative centre of this noosed together peripheral sphere of "greater" (Oriental) France. Today this former entity has virtually dissolved in the modern constructed state of Vietnam.

Even in his old age Laubies always carried a picture of his mother. He showed it to me once when I visited his rooftop room at Bay View Hotel in Puri, India in 1983. "She was beautiful," he said. He handed me the photo. I looked at the small, rather aged monochrome print. "She looks very nice," I concurred. Was she Vietnamese?" I asked him. "In part" he said. He paused reflecting. He gave the impression that he rarely ever thought in such terms.

"We didn't call them Vietnamese," he later told me, "but Annamite, Indochinese, or Cochinchinoise. There were Malabar people there too," he added, "the same as these people." We were living near each other at Varkala at the time. It must have been December 1986.

The terms Vietnam and Vietnamese only came into widespread usage at the endof the centry-long French colonial period, from 1948 when they officially replaced Annam and Annamese. Vietnamese, as a modern expression, is best understood as a historically constructed ethnonym for the majority Viet inhabitants of the land (Proschan 2002: 614, n. 12).


Fletcher, Simpson. 2003. Review of, Vichy in the Tropics: Pétain's National Revolution in Madagascar, Guadeloupe, and Indochina, 1940-44. By Eric T. Jennings. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001, in Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, 4:3.

Proschan, Frank. 2002. "Syphilis, Opiomania, and Pederasty": Colonial Constructions of Vietnamese (and French) Social Diseases. Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. (Oct.): 610-636.

Verges, Francoise. 2003. "Writing on Water: Peripheries, Flows, Capital, and Struggles in the Indian Ocean," in Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique - Volume 11, Number 1, (Spring): 241-257

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