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Scaling the Commanding Heights: The colonial conglomerates and the changing political economy of French Indochina


By the late 1800s the colonial state's increasing capacity to regulate, finance, and tax had begun to open up new opportunities for locally based French enterprises in Indochina. Chinese syndicates that had previously dominated the economy found themselves deprived of existing revenue streams and denied access to new ones. The result was an ‘Indochinese moment’ when a handful of colonial conglomerates used profits from state contracts, monopolies, and subsidies as a base for growth and diversification after 1900. Yet scaling the commanding heights of the economy was not easy, and was only achieved thanks to sustained and powerful state intervention. Moreover, one of the effects of the economic crisis after 1928 was the end of this Indochinese moment and a shift in initiative to a new partnership that linked an increasingly technocratic state with the financiers and experts of the Bank of Indochina. This article investigates this complex interaction of state power, technology, and capital flows with local Chinese, French, and indigenous Indochinese actors, using one particular conglomerate, the Fontaine group, as a case study to shed light on the mechanisms that linked an interventionist state to capitalist enterprise and ultimately to the remaking of the Indochinese economy.

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1 See the summary appended to Banque de l’Indochine to Société française des distilleries de l’Indochine, Paris, 8 November 1923. Archive of A. R. Fontaine (abbreviated as ARFA) File Léonard. In addition to A. R. Fontaine's private archives, research for this article was carried out at the French National Overseas Archives in Aix-en-Provence (abbreviated as FOA), the Vietnamese National Archives One in Hanoi and Vietnamese National Archives Two in Ho Chi Minh City (abbreviated as VNA1 and VNA2), and the Cambodian National Archives in Phnom Penh (abbreviated as CNA). The author would like to thank the staff of the four national archives and particularly Claude and Jean-Louis Varlot and Jean-Jacques Tatin-Gourier for their gracious support. The author would also like to thank Jean-François Klein, Peter Zinoman, John Scott Hess, and the anonymous reviewers of Modern Asian Studies for their comments on previous drafts of this article. Major revisions to this article were completed during a fellowship at the Asia Research Institute, Singapore, made possible thanks to the support of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the National University of Singapore.

2 The 12 companies involved in the proposed ‘General stores and river transport of Cochinchina’ were the Société financière française et coloniale, Compagnie de commerce et de navigation d’Extrême Orient, Compagnie des messageries fluviales de Cochinchine, Denis frères, Société française d’entreprises de dragages et de travaux publics, Union commerciale indochinoise et africaine, Hale & Co., Compagnie générale des colonies, Compagnie des eaux et électricité de l’Indochine, Société des ateliers, forges et chantiers d’Indochine, Société française des distilleries de l’Indochine, Rauzy & Ville, and the Est asiatique française.

3 The use of the term ‘Chinese’ is an imperfect expedient. For discussions of the complexities of Chinese identity overseas, see Gungwu, Wang, China and the Chinese overseas, Times Academic Press, Singapore, 1991; Sutherland, H., ‘Believing is seeing: perspectives on political power and economic activity in the Malay world 1700–1940’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, vol. 26:1, 1995, pp. 133–46. For the Chinese in Southeast Asia, see Tagliacozzo, E. and Chang, Wen-Chin, Chinese circulations: capital, commodities, and networks in Southeast Asia, Duke University Press, Durham, 2011; Reid, A., Sojourners and settlers: histories of Southeast Asia and the Chinese, University of Hawai‘i Press, Honolulu, 2001. See also Purcell, V., The Chinese in Southeast Asia, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press, London, 1965.

4 Recent works on the Indochinese economy include Brocheux, P., Une histoire économique du Viet Nam: la palanche et le camion, Indes Savantes, Paris, 2009; the first volume of Phong, Dang, Lich su kinh te Viet Nam 1945–2000, Social Sciences Publishing House, Hanoi, 2002; Bassino, J-P., Giacometti, J-D., and Odaka, K., Quantitative economic history of Vietnam 1900–1990, Institute of Economic Research, Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo, 2000; and Aumiphin, J. P., La presence financière et économique française en Indochine, 1859–1939, Éditions des statistiques du Vietnam, Hanoi, 1996. The most authoritative synthetic work in English on the colonial period in general is Brocheux, P. and Hémery, D., Indochina: an ambiguous colonization 1858–1954, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2009.

5 Booth, A., ‘Night watchman, extractive, or developmental states? Some evidence from late colonial South-East Asia’, Economic History Review, vol. 60:2, 2007, pp. 241–66.

6 For Vietnam's rapidly evolving social and intellectual world in the period, see Zinoman, P., Vietnamese colonial republican: the political vision of Vu Trong Phung, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2014; Tai, Hue-Tam Ho, Radicalism and the origins of the Vietnamese Revolution, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1992; Marr, D., Vietnamese tradition on trial, 1920–1945, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1981.

7 The standard work in English on the Indochinese economy under colonial rule remains Murray, M., The development of capitalism in colonial Indochina (1870–1940), University of California Press, Berkeley, 1980. For Murray, Vietnamese underdevelopment at independence was the result of policies designed to promote ‘the drain of local economic resources in combination with colonial restrictions on entrepreneurship in any local industries’. He sums up almost a century of economic change under colonial rule as ‘protectionism, parasitism, and stagnation’. Murray, The development of capitalism, pp. 95, 161.

8 The term ‘commanding heights’ was coined by Lenin in the context of the New Economic Policy, and later used by Braudel as part of his description of capitalism. Braudel, F., Civilization and capitalism, 15th–18th century, 3 vols, Harper & Row, New York, 1981–1984. See the summary in Wallerstein, I., ‘Braudel on capitalism, or everything upside down’, The Journal of Modern History, vol. 63:2, 1991, pp. 354–61. My use of the term was suggested by Dick, H., ‘A fresh approach to Southeast Asian history’, in Butcher, J. and Dick, H., The rise and fall of revenue farming: business elites and the emergence of the modern state in Southeast Asia, St. Martin's Press, London, 1993.

9 Furnivall, J., Colonial policy and practice: a comparative study of Burma and Netherlands India, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1948.

10 Post, for example, argues the middleman paradigm is flawed, simultaneously undervaluing the central role played by Chinese enterprise in non-commercial fields and ignoring the extent to which most Chinese enterprises were small. Post, P., ‘The Kwik Hoo Tong Trading Society of Semarang, Java: a Chinese business network in late colonial Asia’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, vol. 33:2, 2002, pp. 279–96. See also Brown, who stresses the continued importance of Chinese enterprise in the region throughout the colonial period: I. Brown, ‘Imperialism, trade and investment in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’, in Butcher and Dick, The rise and fall of revenue farming, pp. 80–88.

11 Orthodox Vietnamese scholarship divides the history of the economy under colonial rule in two: the first (1897–1914) and second (1914–1945) phases of colonial exploitation. For Vietnamese scholarship on the colonial period, see Khanh, Nguyen Van, Co cau kinh te xa hoi Viet Nam thoi thuoc dia, National University Publishing House, Hanoi, 2004; Dung, Ho Tuan, Che do thue cua thuc dan Phap o Bac Ky tu 1897 den 1945, National Political Publishing House, Hanoi, 2003; and the first section of the two-volume reference work by Dang Phong, Lich su kinh te Viet Nam. For more general works on the period, see Quoc, Duong Kinh, Chinh quyen thuoc dia o Viet Nam truoc cach mang thang tam 1945, Social Sciences Publishing House, Hanoi, 2005.

12 Indochina only assumed its final borders after further territorial concessions by Siam and the addition of the Cambodian provinces of Stung Treng in 1904, and Battambang, Sisophon, and Siem Reap in 1907.

13 For the competing traditions of economic thought in France, see Todd, D., L’identité économique de la France: libre-échange et protectionnisme 1814–1851, Grasset, Paris, 2008. However, Todd overstates the extent to which protectionism triumphed in the mid nineteenth century. Jean-François Klein, for example, finds Saint-Simonianism dominant among the Lyonnais silk merchants who helped colonize Tonkin at the end of the century. J. F. Klein, ‘Soyeux en mer de Chine: stratégies des réseaux lyonnais en Extrême-Orient (1843–1906)’, Doctoral thesis in the faculty of Geography, History and Art History, Université Lumière Lyon 2, 2002. For the composition and policies of the French ‘Parti colonial’, see the two contrasting articles: Andrew, C. and Kanya-Forstner, A., ‘The French “colonial party”: its composition, aims and influence, 1885–1914’, Historical Journal, vol. 14, 1971, pp. 99128; and Abrams, L. and Miller, D., ‘Who were the French colonialists? A reassessment of the Parti colonial, 1890–1914’, Historical Journal, vol. 19, 1976, pp. 685725.

14 See Articles 3 and 11 of the Treaty of Hue of 1884.

15 The budgets were briefly unified in 1887, but separated again the following year under pressure from settlers and business interests in Indochina's wealthiest country, Cochinchina. They would be unified definitively in 1897.

16 Rice was to constitute the single most important export commodity throughout the colonial period, representing a minimum of 60 per cent of total export values between 1913 and 1930, with most exports destined for the markets of Hong Kong. Brocheux, Histoire économique, p. 79.

17 For the important story of the Denis frères group, see Boissarie, D., ‘Les stratégies de la Maison Denis Frères au Cambodge (1863–1962): perception et structuration du marché khmer par une maison de commerce européenne’, Journal of the Centre for Khmer Studies, vol. 12–13, 2010–2011, pp. 116–26; and her forthcoming doctoral thesis at the Université Bordeaux 3, ‘La Maison Denis Frères (1862–1954): trajectoires d’un réseau commercial, social entre Bordeaux et l’Extrême-Orient’.

18 French enterprises were competing not only with Chinese, but also with European enterprises like Hale & Co. and Spiedel. See Denis, É., Bordeaux et la Cochinchine sous la restauration et le Second Empire, Delmas, Bordeaux, 1965. See also Vorapheth, K., Commerce et colonisation en Indochine, 1860–1945, Indes Savantes, Paris, 2004.

19 Télésio was from Genoa and Ségassie from Bordeaux. Their backers included Andrew Spooner and the Roque brothers. Denis, Bordeaux et la Cochinchine, pp. 181–95. For a fascinating account of the difficulties faced by the first wave of European petty traders and would-be entrepreneurs in Indochina, see Muller, G., Colonial Cambodia's ‘Bad Frenchmen’: the rise of French rule and the life of Thomas Caraman, 1840–1887, Routledge, London, 2006.

20 See Klein ‘Soyeux en mer de Chine’ and Klein, J. F., ‘Une histoire impériale connectée? Hai Phong: jalon d’une stratégie lyonnaise en Asie orientale (1881–1886)’, Moussons, vol. 13–14, 2009, pp. 5593. See also Laffey, J., ‘Lyonnais imperialism in the Far East, 1900–1938’, Modern Asian Studies, vol. 10, 1976, pp. 225–48; and Laffey, J., ‘Municipal imperialism in decline: the Lyon Chamber of Commerce, 1925–1938’, French Historical Studies, vol. 9, 1975, pp. 329–53.

21 Pila's backers included the Comptoir d’Escompte, the Banque de Paris et des Pays-Bas, the Société Générale, Crédit Lyonnais, and the Bank of Indochina. Klein ‘Soyeux en mer de Chine’, p. 563.

22 This sort of public-private partnership is most closely associated with the brief tenure of Governor General Paul Bert and above all Jean-Marie de Lanessan. The consortium's key enterprises included the Société française des charbonnages du Tonkin, the Société Cotonnière de l’Indo-Chine, the Société des ciments Portland artificiels de l’Indochine, the Société des docks et magasins généraux de Haïphong, and the Société des Docks et Houillères de Tourane.

23 It is important not to overstate the place of heavy industry; much like Chinese enterprise in Cochinchina, opium would have played a central role in the commercial system.

24 Although the Union Commerciale Indochinoise was incorporated in 1904, Klein places the effective date of its creation in 1902. The five locally based entrepreneurs were Henri and Émile Fontaine, Fernand Vaillant, Albert Fischer, and Sébastien Godard. Klein, ‘Soyeux en mer de Chine’, pp. 869–71. There is considerable confusion in secondary sources between the two Fontaine brothers associated with the Union Commerciale Indochinoise, Henri and Émile, and the two Fontaine brothers, August Raphaël and Léonard, behind the Société française des distilleries de l’Indochine and the Fontaine group discussed below. Despite sharing a family name, the two pairs of brothers were not related.

25 For a concise summary, see Reid, A., ‘Chinese trade and Southeast Asian economic expansion in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: an overview’, in Cooke, N. and Tana, Li, Water frontier: commerce and the Chinese in the lower Mekong region, 1750–1880, NUS Press, Singapore, 2004, pp. 2134. For Chinese enterprise in context, see Brown, R., Capital and entrepreneurship in Southeast Asia, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1994. On regional networks, see Godley, M., The mandarin-capitalists from Nanyang: overseas Chinese enterprise in the modernization of China, 1893–1911, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1981; and Bun, Chan Kwok, Chinese business networks: economy, culture and society, Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, Copenhagen, 2000.

26 For multiple perspectives on the role of revenue farming, see Butcher and Dick, The rise and fall of revenue farming. See also Trocki, C., Opium and empire: Chinese society in colonial Singapore, 1800–1910, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1990.

27 See Tana, Li, Nguyen Cochinchina: southern Vietnam in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1998. Cochinchina's place in circuits of Chinese trade and migration is also the subject of Cooke and Li Tana, Water frontier.

28 A. Spooner, ‘Rapport sur le Cambodge. Voyage de Sai-Gon à Bat-tam-bang’, translated and reproduced in Chinese Southern Diaspora Studies, vol. 1, 2007, pp. 154–69, p. 158.

29 See for example the career of the ethnic Chinese administrator-merchant Trinh Hoai Duc. This close relationship was far from assured, however, and efforts by pre-colonial Vietnamese regimes to assert control over the Chinese communities and appropriate part of their revenues were a precursor of colonial—and post-colonial—policies to come. Wook, Choi Byung, Southern Vietnam under the reign of Minh Mang (1820–1841): central policies and local response, Cornell Southeast Asia Program Series, Ithaca, 2004, pp. 9294. For policy continuities across the colonial and post-colonial eras, see the argument in Sasges, G. and Cheshier, S., ‘Competing legacies: rupture and continuity in Vietnamese political economy’, South East Asia Research, vol. 20:1, 2012, pp. 533.

30 For the Chinese in Vietnam in general, see Dubreuil, R., De la condition des Chinois et de leur rôle économique en Indo-Chine, Imprimerie Saillard, Bar-sur-Seine, 1910; Kuey, Tsai Maw, Les Chinois au Sud Vietnam, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, 1968; Khanh, Tran, The ethnic Chinese and economic development in Vietnam, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 1993.

31 See Cooke, N., ‘King Norodom's revenue farming system in later-nineteenth-century Cambodia and his Chinese revenue farmers (1860–1891)’, Chinese Southern Diaspora Studies, vol. 1, 2007, pp. 3055, pp. 49, 51.

32 For the state's support for his ceramics works see the correspondence between Wangtai and the administration in FOA INDO GGI 10765 and FOA INDO GGI 10832.

33 For the Cochinchina farm, see Denis, Bordeaux et la Cochinchine, p. 195; for the Cambodia farm, see Wangtai to Resident Superior of Cambodia, Saigon, 18 July 1889 CNA RSC 4414.

34 Contrat pour la concession du droit de fabrication et de vente des alcools de riz 1891. VNA2 IB.29/091.

35 Resident Superior to Governor General, Phnom Penh, 3 January 1890. Governor General to Minister of Colonies, Hanoi, 7 March 1890. FOA INDO GGI 9424.

36 Undersecretary of State at the Ministry of Commerce, Industry, and Colonies to Governor General of Indochina, Paris, 10 April 1891. VNA2 IB.35/194.

37 Governor General to Resident Superior of Cambodia, Hanoi, 29 January 1890. NAC RSC 4414; Wangtai to Governor General, Saigon, 3 April 1890. FOA INDO GGI 24180.

38 In 1875 Tan Keng Hoon replaced Gan Tin Wee as head of the syndicate in Saigon. See Denis, Bordeaux et la Cochinchine, p. 204. See also Salmon, C. and Hiep, Ta Trong, ‘De Batavia a Saigon: notes de voyage d’un marchand chinois (1890)’, Archipel, vol. 47, 1994, pp. 155–92.

39 Situation financière: Exercice 1881. VNA2 P.1/446. For the machinations that resulted in the fusion of the opium and liquor farms, see Tan Keng Hoon to Director of the Interior, Saigon, 22 July 1873 and Saigon, 23 August 1873. See also Spooner to Director of the Interior, Saigon, 22 April 1874 and Saigon, 9 December 1874. VNA2 IB.29/025. For the gaming farm, see Denis, Bordeaux et la Cochinchine, p. 198.

40 Silvestre to Director of the Interior, 27 January 1881. Reproduced in Groeneveldt, W., Rapport over het opium-monopolie in Fransch Indo-China, Landsdrukkerij, Batavia, 1890, appendices p. 56. Spooner had already made the suggestion in 1877. In 1883, the Cambodian farm was abolished and integrated within the new Cochinchinese opium régie before being re-established seven years later.

41 Denis, Bordeaux et la Cochinchine, pp. 201–03.

42 The state's commitment to the farm can be seen in Silvestre's recommendation that it reopen negotiations with Ban Hap in the hopes of salvaging at least the Cochinchinese farm. Silvestre to Director of the Interior, 27 January 1881. Reproduced in Groeneveldt, Rapport appendices p. 36. Ban Hap's failure to submit a bid may have been determined by mounting losses as his plan to create a super-monopoly on opium stretching from Australia through Southeast Asia to Hong Kong and beyond began to come apart in the late 1870s. C. Trocki, ‘The internationalization of Chinese revenue farming networks’, in Cooke and Li Tana, Water frontier, pp. 159–74, pp. 161–64. However, the Ban Hap syndicate was only one of many potential bidders that included not only Wangtai but also other syndicates based in Singapore and Hong Kong.

43 Klein, ‘Soyeux en mer de Chine’, p. 539.

44 For Saint Mathurin's farms, see Niollet, D., L’épopée des douaniers en Indochine 1874–1954, Editions Kailash, Paris, 1998, p. 190.

45 For an account of the end of revenue farming as a function of the rise of centralizing states, see H. Dick, ‘A fresh approach to Southeast Asian history’, in Butcher and Dick, The rise and fall of revenue farming. For a similar focus on the changing political economy, see R. Cribb, ‘Political structures and Chinese business connections in the Malay world: a historical perspective’, in Chan Kwok Bun, Chinese business networks, pp. 176–92.

46 See the table prepared by Spooner for the French administration on 1 October 1877. Reproduced in Groeneveldt, Rapport, appendices p. 56. Figures prepared by Silvestre for the period 1875 to 1879 show slightly higher, but no less variable profits. Reproduced in Groeneveldt, Rapport, appendices p. 37.

47 Silvestre to Governor General, Saigon 28 December 1880. Reproduced in Groeneveldt, Rapport, appendices pp. 57–59.

48 The term is still used uncritically today. See, for example, Pierre Brocheux's use of the term to describe the role played by Chinese merchants in the rice trade. Brocheux, Histoire economique, p. 80.

49 One of his conditions for assuming the liquor farm in 1874 was the deletion of a clause in the contract prohibiting the subdivision of the farm. Andrew Spooner to Director of the Interior, Saigon, 9 December 1874. VNA2 IB.29/025.

50 A. Calmette, 1892, Fabrication des alcohols de riz en Extrême Orient. Étude biologique et physiologique de la levure chinoise et du Koji Japonais par le docteur Calmette. VNA1 RST 14165.

51 Police Commissioner Albertini to Secretary General of Cochinchina, Saigon, 17 June 1893. FOA INDO GGI 24697.

52 See D. Biggs, ‘Problematic progress: reading environmental and social change in the Mekong Delta’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, vol. 34:1, 2003, pp. 77–96.

53 The area under rice cultivation in Cochinchina increased by a factor of 21 between 1869 and 1946. Brocheux and Hémery, Ambiguous colonization, p. 122.

54 Founded in 1875 by a consortium of Parisian banks, the Bank was simultaneously a bank of issue, a commercial bank, and, after 1899, an investment bank.

55 Bonin, H., ‘The French banks in the Pacific area (1860–1945)’, in Checkland, O., Nishimura, S., and Tamaki, N., Pacific banking (1859–1959): East meets West, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1994, pp. 6174, 71.

56 Morlat, P., ‘Les réseaux patronaux français en Indochine (1918–1928)’, in Bonin, H., Hodeir, C., and Klein, J. F., L’Esprit économique imperiale (1830–1970): Groupes de préssion & réseaux du patronat colonial en France & dans l’empire, Société française d’histoire d’outre-mer, Saint-Denis, 2008, pp. 615–29, p. 617. There are obvious parallels between financial comprador and tax farmer.

57 The first was Ban Hap's opium farm in 1882, and the last major farm to be absorbed by the Department was Raoul Debeaux's Compagnie générale in 1910.

58 See Sasges, G., ‘Beast of (a) burden: state, enterprise, and the alcohol monopoly in colonial Vietnam’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, vol. 43:1, 2012, pp. 133–57.

59 Doumer wrote, ‘Speaking generally, one can say that the principle goal of colonization, economic development, has hardly even begun in Indochina.’ From an 1897 report reproduced in Doumer, P., Situation de l’Indochine (1897–1901), F. H. Schneider, Hanoi, 1902, pp. 23. For Doumer's career, see Lorin, A., Paul Doumer, gouverneur general de l’Indochine—1897–1902—Le tremplin colonial, Harmattan, Paris, 2004.

60 There were four main bond issues associated with the ‘Doumer Project’. The first, in 1896, was for 80 million francs, followed by an 1898 issue for 200 million that was disbursed in three parts, 1898, 1902, and 1905. These were followed by issues of 53 million in 1909, and 90 million in 1913. Robequain, C., The economic development of French Indo-China, Oxford University Press, London, 1944.

61 Murray writes, ‘The colonial state administration facilitated the development of colonial exploitation by endeavouring to preserve metropolitan capital's monopoly in trade and investment in the colonial territories.’ Murray, The development of capitalism, p. 27.

62 For a similar characterization of French enterprise as ‘local’, see de G. Gantès, ‘Le particularisme des milieux d’affaires cochinchinois (1860–1910): comment intégrer un comptoir asiatique à un empire colonial protégé’, in Bonin, Hodeir, and Klein L’Esprit économique impérial, pp. 735–52.

63 According to his figures, state expenditure in the empire before 1914, including bond issues and revenue raised locally, reached 726 million gold francs, or just over 77 per cent of total investments. Marseille, J., Empire colonial et capitalisme français: Histoire d’un divorce, Albin Michel, Paris, 1984, p. 117. For a summary of Marseille's important work in English, see Fieldhouse, D., ‘The economics of French empire’, Journal of African History, vol. 27, 1986, pp. 169–72.

64 Brocheux, Histoire économique, p. 47.

65 For railways, see D. Del Testa, ‘Paint the trains red: labor, nationalism, and the railroads in French colonial Indochina, 1898–1945’, Ph.D. thesis at the University of California at Davis, 2001. See also Bruguière, M., ‘Le Chemin de fer du Yunnan: Paul Doumer et la politique d’intervention française en Chine (1889–1902)’, Revue d’histoire diplomatique, vol. 77:1, 1963, pp. 2361; 77:2, pp. 129–62; 77:3, pp. 252–78.

66 Meuleau, M., Des pionniers en Extrême-Orient: histoire de la Banque de l’Indochine (1875–1975), Fayard, Paris, 1990, p. 116.

67 See for example the Société française des distilleries de l’Indochine's suit against the administration in FOA FM/SG/INDO/AF/104. See also Simoni, H., Le Rôle du capital dans la mise en valeur de l’Indochine, Société générale d’imprimerie et d’édition, Paris, 1929, pp. 152–53.

68 Fontaine's brother Léonard played an important role as the group's metropolitan representative.

69 Homberg's first—and unsuccessful—venture in Indochina was as a principal in the consortium that held the first concession on the port of Da Nang. J. F. Klein, ‘Soyeux en mer de Chine’, pp. 623/III, 799/III.

70 For example, while A. R. Fontaine was the founder of his group, his brother, nephew, and niece's husband often represented him on the boards of the group's enterprises. Other conglomerates, like the Rauzy and Ville group, represented clear partnerships.

71 Information in the 1930 Annuaire des entreprises was compiled before the Crash of October 1929.

72 For Fontaine's early career, see FOA FM EE II 333/10, along with the Moniteur du protectorat de l’Annam et du Tonkin, 1886–1888, and its successor, the Bulletin officiel de l’Indochine française.

73 For the Dénoc distillery and Fontaine's contract to supply tafia, see particularly FOA FM SG INDO AF 218. See also VNA1 RST 74744, VNA1 RST 74695, and VNA1 RST 74670.


75 Doumer initially preferred a state liquor monopoly but ultimately decided to partner with Fontaine. See Fontaine to Governor General, Hanoi, 31 May 1897. VNA1 RST 14112. In 1897, the Société A.R. Fontaine began construction of a large new factory in Hanoi with a production capacity roughly equal to the region's average annual consumption of liquor. Nevertheless, Fontaine continued to invest, in 1902 completing construction of a second, larger factory in Nam Dinh that more than doubled his potential production capacity in Northern Vietnam. In the same year he began construction of a new factory in Cholon. See ‘L’industrie de l’Alcool en Indochine’. FOA BIB SOM BR C 9581.

76 For opposition by ministers of colonies, see FOA FM INDO NF 4045. For the time being, Fontaine and Debeaux were compelled to cooperate with the Société des distilleries du Tonkin (owned by Bernhard, Godard, and Fischer, the latter two partners in the Vigne group's Union Commerciale Indochinoise), which was already operating seven small distilleries in the Red River Delta and in the process of completing a huge distillery in Hai Duong. The Société française des distilleries de l'Indochine purchased the Société des distilleries in 1912, becoming the sole legal producer of alcohol in Tonkin and Northern Annam.

77 Minister of Finance to Minister of Colonies, Paris, 8 March 1913. FOA FM INDO NF 4040.

78 It was incorporated in Dijon on 18 April 1901. Copy of the original documents of incorporation prepared for minister of colonies on 9 January 1907. FOA FM INDO NF 4045.

79 Procureur de la République Albert Long. For an analysis of the shareholders, see Combanaire, A., Mensonges et vautours coloniaux: L’Indochine en déliquescence, Imprimerie Mellottée, Châteauroux, 1910, p. 181.

80 By 1913, its annual profit was an impressive 50.8 per cent of capital. M. Meuleau, Des pionniers, p. 342.

81 B. Peyrouton, Etude sur les monopoles en Indochine. Ph.D. thesis in the Faculty of Law, Université de Paris, 1913, pp. 215, 224. Guermeur, H., Le régime fiscal de l’Indochine, Imprimerie d’Extrême-Orient, Hanoi, 1909, p. 192.

82 Tay Chow Beng was a Fujian Chinese from Singapore. Born in 1859, he was a generation younger than Ban Hap (born 1826) or Wang Tai (born 1827). Officially registered as a comprador, by the late 1880s his businesses included rickshaws and both legal and illegal gambling operations. He first appears as an owner of distilleries in the early 1900s. See FOA INDO GGI 24697, INDO GGI 24698, INDO GGI 24700.

83 For Tay Chow Beng and the ‘Tan Hoa Tai Affair’, see FOA INDO GGI 1294.

84 Leaving 69 per cent for Société française des distilleries de l'Indochine, and 9 per cent for the Mazet group.

85 The end result mirrored the operations of the opium monopoly, where Chinese continued to control distribution and sales. Nankoe, Gerlus, and Murray, ‘Origins of the opium trade’, in Butcher and Dick, Rise and fall of revenue farming, pp. 182–95.

86 Robequain estimates investment between 1924 and 1930 at just under four billion francs; Bernard is more conservative at three billion francs between 1924 and 1932. Robequain, Economic development, p. 162, table 12; Bernard, Le problème économique, p. 57.

87 2,767 million francs versus 1,280 million francs for new enterprises. Robequain, Economic development, p. 163, table 13.

88 Tran Khanh, The ethnic Chinese, p. 65.

89 This is the period that saw the Bank refocus its energies on Indochinese and Southeast Asian trade. Bonin, ‘French banks’, in Checkland, Nishimura, and Tamaki, Pacific banking, p. 72.

90 Government offices were closed for the opening of the new market on 28 September, and officials estimated that more than 400,000 people from across Cochinchina descended on Saigon for the event. Inauguration du nouveau marché de Cholon. VNA2 P.1 443.

91 His first major venture was a 12,000 tree rubber plantation in Thu Duc. See the 1930 Annuaire des entreprises colonials. See also Dang Phong, Lich su Kinh te, vol. 1, p. 56.

92 See K. McIntyre, ‘Eating the nation: fish sauce in the crafting of Vietnamese community’, Ph.D. thesis, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2002.

93 See Quoc, Le Minh, Bach Thai Buoi: khang dinh doanh tai nuoc Viet, Youth Publishing House, Hanoi, 2007; Tung, Pham Hong, ‘Tim hieu them ve Bach Thai Buoi, nhan tai kinh doanh tieu bieu thoi Can dai’, Nghien cuu lich su, vol. 5:361, 2006, pp. 5561.

94 Lessard, M., ‘Organisons-nous! Racial antagonism and Vietnamese economic nationalism in the early twentieth century’, French Colonial History, vol. 8, 2007, pp. 171201.

95 The implementation of the Stevenson system of rubber quotas after 1922 saw the total area under cultivation in Cochinchina and Cambodia expand from 18,000 to 78,620 hectares in just four years between 1925 and 1929. Much of the expansion in this period was carried out by the Franco-Belgian Hallet-Rivaud Group, which accounted for more than 30 per cent of production in Indochina by the end of the 1930s. Brocheux and Hémery, Ambiguous colonization, p. 127.

96 See Léonard to A. R. Fontaine, Nice, 11 March 1918. ARFA File Léonard.

97 For the expansion plans see Léonard to A. R. Fontaine, Paris, 4 May 1918. For the efforts to hide wartime profits, see Léonard to A. R. Fontaine, Paris, 6 August 1918. ARFA File Léonard.

98 Fontaine's Les Vitalements coloniaux in Courbevoie, just outside of Paris, produced its own version of the powdered drink Banania, imaginatively named Bananik.

99 Société des anthracites de Tonkin (1920), Chrome et nickel de l’Indochine (1928), Compagnie le franco-indochinoise de radiophonie (1928), Société des cycles de l’Indochine (1929). Many of these and other enterprises were controlled through Fontaine's holding company, the Société financière de l’Indochine.

100 Société française des produits alimentaires azotés (1924).

101 Minister of France to Bangkok to Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bangkok, 1 October 1908. FOA INDO GGI 18135. He did, however, win a licence to import alcohol to Siam from his factory in Cholon that lasted through the 1920s.

102 The ventures were made possible by major changes in the regulatory environment. By 1925, mandatory property registration and new legislation was well on the way to creating a unified property regime intended to serve as the basis for a European-style free market in land and mortgages. However, with the cadastral survey progressing only slowly outside of urban areas, the real estate boom after 1925 remained largely an urban phenomenon. Cochinchina was the one exception: by 1938 almost three-quarters of the colony's total land area had been surveyed. Accordingly, Cochinchina was also Indochina's most heavily indebted region; by 1930, ricefields in Go Cong, for example, were mortgaged at an average rate of 540 francs per hectare. Brocheux and Hémery, Ambiguous colonization, p. 123.

103 See Thomas, M., ‘French empire elites and the politics of economic obligation in the interwar years’, The Historical Journal, vol. 4, 2009, pp. 9891016.

104 For Homberg's support of the plan, see Brocheux, Histoire économique, p. 91. For Fontaine and his relationship with Sarraut, see, for example, A. R. Fontaine to Sarraut, 24 May 1926. ARFA File Politique.

105 See, for example, Tran Van Kha to A. R. Fontaine, Saigon, 17 April 1926, Saigon 29 April 1927, Saigon 31 December 1931. ARFA File Kha. The loan was never repaid. See also A. R. Fontaine to Trives, Paris, 28 February 1932, and Inventaire des biens & valeurs constituants les actifs des M. et Mme. A. R. Fontaine le 17 décembre 1931. ARFA File 1932–1934.

106 Fontaine, A., Essai de politique indigène en Indochine, Editeurs Associés, Paris, 1926; Fontaine, A., Essai d’une politique indigène en Indochine, Editions du monde moderne, Paris, 1927; Fontaine, A., Quelques réflexions sur un essai de politique indigène en Indochine, Editions du monde moderne, Paris, 1927; Fontaine, A., Quelques réformes immédiatement réalisables dans l’administration de la Cochinchine, Editions du monde moderne, Paris, 1927; Fontaine, A., La Politique d’éducation, Editions du monde moderne, Paris, 1927. For a contextualization of Fontaine's project, see Sasges, G., ‘“Indigenous representation is hostile to all monopolies”: Pham Quynh and the end of the alcohol monopoly in colonial Vietnam’, Journal of Vietnamese Studies, vol. 5:1, 2010, pp. 136.

107 For Da Nhim, see particularly Société des grands travaux d’Extrême Orient to Governor General, Dalat, 19 May 1928; Resident Superior of Annam to Governor General, Hue, 16 September 1931; Inspector General of public works to Governor General, Saigon, 6 June 1933. FOA INDO GGI 59383.

108 Partners in the project or its parent company the Société des grands travaux d’Extrême Orient (1922) included the Société des grands travaux en béton armé, Société des grands travaux de Marseille, the Société des entreprises hydraulique et travaux publics, the Société ‘l’Air liquide’, the Compagnie de commerce et de navigation d’Extrême-Orient, and the Société financière éléctrique.

109 A. Moore, ‘Hydropower and post-colonial power: the emergence of “Comprehensive Development” in Japan's Overseas Development Assistance programs’, unpublished paper presented at the Conference of the Association for Asian Studies, San Diego, 2013.

110 For the Depression in Southeast Asia, see Booth, A., ‘Four colonies and a kingdom: a comparison of fiscal, trade and exchange rate policies in South East Asia in the 1930s’, Modern Asian Studies, vol. 37:2, 2003, pp. 429–60; see also Boomgaard, P. and Brown, I., Weathering the storm: the economies of Southeast Asia in the 1930s Depression, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 2000. For Indochina, see in the same volume I. Nørlund, ‘Rice and the colonial lobby: the economic crisis in French Indo-China in the 1920s and 1930s’, pp. 198–226; and Pierre Brocheux, ‘The state and the 1930s Depression in French Indo-China’, pp. 251–70. For the political context in France and Indochina, see Thomas, M., ‘Albert Sarraut, French colonial development, and the Communist threat, 1919–1930’, The Journal of Modern History, vol. 77:4, 2005, pp. 917–55.

111 Initial budget deficits were covered by a special loan of 1,370 million francs to prevent Indochina's bankruptcy in 1931. For the state response to the crisis, see Brocheux, Histoire économique, pp. 145–49.

112 Both ventures were successful: the Société algerienne et indochinoise des tabacs manufactured the Bastos and Jet brands still popular in Southern Vietnam today, while Truong Van Ben's ‘Co Ba’ soap became an iconic brand in colonial Cochinchina, was exported to Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Singapore, and also remains in production.

113 Nørlund, ‘Rice and the colonial lobby’, pp. 198–226.

114 In 1933 official exports from Indochina to France and its colonies for the first time exceeded exports to China and Hong Kong. Resumé statistique relative aux années 1913 à 1940, Imprimerie d’Extrême-Orient, Hanoi, 1941.

115 J. Marseille, Empire colonial et capitalisme français, pp. 153–56.

116 Inexpensive Japanese manufactures did not provoke a uniform response. Some interests in the Netherlands East Indies and Burma, for example, saw them as a means to minimize upward pressure on wages during the global slump. See Booth, ‘Four colonies and a kingdom’, p. 443.

117 J. Giacometti, ‘La question de l’autonomie de l’Indochine et les milieux coloniaux français 1915–1928: L’Indochine, entre colonie et dominion?’, Doctoral thesis submitted at the Université de Provence, 1997, p. 154.

118 For the extended conflict over rice exports between Fontaine and the Denis frères and Launay and Girard groups, see FOA INDO GGI 41441.

119 For Fontaine's control of the syndicate, see Agènce économique de l’Indochine to General Government, Paris, 16 September 1925. FOA INDO GGI 45288.

120 Lieutenant Governor Cochinchina to Governor General, Saigon, 10 December 1929. FOA INDO GGI 41441.

121 Brocheux, Histoire économique, p. 99. See also Touzet, A., L’économie indochinoise et la grande crise universelle, Girard, Paris, 1934.

122 See Booth, ‘Four colonies and a kingdom’, p. 445, Table 10.

123 For relative inflows of capital, see Brocheux, Histoire économique, p. 47.

124 Robequain, Economic development, p. 164. Between 1927 and 1930, an index of shares in Indochinese companies traded on the Paris Bourse fell from 100 to 34. Brocheux, Histoire économique, p. 139.

125 Based on a comparison of the administrative personnel of the group's enterprises in the 1930 and 1937–38. Annuaires des entreprises. For an analysis of the dynamics of company creation and dissolution, see Serres, J., ‘Vie et mort(s) des entreprises en Indochine française (1875–1944)’, Revue française d’histoire d’Outre-mer, vol. 87, 2000, pp. 159–76.

126 Inventaire des biens & valeurs constituant l’actif de M. et Mme. A. R. Fontaine le 17 Decembre 1931. ARFA File 1932–1934.

127 A. R. Fontaine to Board of Directors SFDIC, Paris, 28 November 1932. ARFA File 1932–1934.

128 The new economic condominium was confirmed in 1931 when the French government increased its oversight of the Bank of Indochina, investing in its capital and placing representatives on its board of directors. The founders of the colonial conglomerates played only a limited role on the Bank's board: A. Denis served on the board in the early 1930s, and colonel Bernard is listed as a member in 1937. See Annuaire des Enterprises 1930, 1932, and 1937–1938.

129 Meuleau, Des pionniers, p. 382.

130 The roots of the Bank's direct involvement in enterprise in Indochina can be seen earlier, most notably in the wake of the downturn in the economy after 1921.

131 Robequain, Economic development, p. 208.

132 Brocheux, Histoire économique, p. 254.

133 See Hardy, A., ‘The economics of French rule in Indochina: a biography of Paul Bernard (1892–1960)’, Modern Asian Studies, vol. 32, 1998, pp. 807–48. For the ideological context of evolving political and economic forms, see Wilder, G., The French imperial nation-state: negritude and colonial humanism between the two World Wars, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005.

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