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MÉTIS

The French term referring to children of ethnically mixed marriages. The Vietnamese use the term tay lai; the Lao say luk khrung. Mixed Franco-Indochinese unions were not uncommon during the colonial period, but by no means as common as those occurring in colonial Indonesia. Métis or Eurasians in Indochina only numbered a few thousand at any given time during the colonial period. French men, usually colonial administrators, officers, and traders, often married “Indochinese” women. Given that the 35–40,000 Europeans living in Indochina on the eve of World War II were concentrated in eastern Indochina and in the lowland cities, they tended to marry Vietnamese women. Many European settlers and soldiers also had concubines. Of these relationships hundreds of Franco-Vietnamese children were born.

During the early colonial period, European colonial society tended to shun métis children and discouraged mixed marriages for fear of “contaminating” French “blood”. The fact that the majority of Eurasians were born out of wedlock, sometimes of an unknown father, also meant that they could not legally obtain French nationality. This often made their integration in French colonial society all the more difficult. During the colonial period, private Eurasian welfare societies tried to change this and scoured the countryside for Eurasian children abandoned by their fathers. Opposed to the idea of these métis living among the Vietnamese, these civilian societies took the children, sometimes by force, from their mothers and placed them in orphanages.

Eurasians born to legal unions were in a better situation. Indeed, a number of such métis became important figures in colonial and postcolonial Indochina, such as William Bazé and Henri de La Chevrotière. French women also married Vietnamese men and had métis children. The future diplomat-at-large for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), Dr. Pham Ngoc Thach, married a French woman, Marie Louise Jeandot, while Nguyen Manh Ha married the daughter of Georges Marranne, a senior leader in the French Communist Party and deputy in the National Assembly. Neither woman came from the French colonial society in Indochina. The couples met in the metropolis.

While the social and legal status of abandoned Eurasian children improved by the late 1930s, the métis always occupied something of a grey area in colonial society, one that became dangerous with the outbreak of the Indochina War. Upon its creation, the DRV passed legislation requiring Eurasians to adopt Vietnamese nationality. For some xenophobic Vietnamese nationalists, métis were the living symbol of illicit collaboration with the enemy, the colonizer. Eurasians sometimes found themselves in the crossfire when French and Vietnamese took to arms to determine who would rule Vietnam. In Saigon, during the massacre in the mixed quarter of Hérault, Vietnamese attackers singled out métis in their raids, kidnapping and killing dozens of them in horrendous circumstances. During the war, the French Sûreté and Deuxième Bureau recruited métis into their ranks, in light of their mastery of both languages and ability to penetrate into Vietnamese circles much more easily than their French counterparts. Fernand Faugère served Léon Pignon faithfully as a trusted advisor in the Sûreté and secret go-between with Vietnamese of all political colors. In Hanoi, the Franco-Vietnamese Charles Petit, inspector for the Sûreté, secretly infiltrated the forces of the DRV in late 1946. He tipped the French off about the planned Vietnamese attack for the night of the 19 December 1946. The DRV took his family hostage in reprisal.

The DRV also relied upon tay lai during the conflict, one of the best examples being Jean Moreau who handled sensitive military and intelligence missions. Ngo Van Chieu dedicates an entire chapter in his memoirs to the DRV’s reliance on a loyal métis in the army, who “chose his mother’s country (Vietnam) and proved it”.

However, Eurasians were not the only métis touched by the Indochina War. Inter-Asian couples and their métis children were just as notable and much more important numerically than the Franco-Indochinese ones. Sino-Vietnamese marriages and children are a case in point. In 1921, Cochinchina was home to 64,500 Minh Huong, the Vietnamese term referring to the métis children of Sino-Vietnamese unions. A decade later the number had risen to 73,000. During the Indochina War, the nationalist-minded Viet Minh had no problems recruiting these bilingual and bi-cultural Asian métis into its ranks, especially to help maintain good relations with the Chinese populations, to translate increasingly large amounts of political and technical information coming from communist China, to help run commercial affairs inside and outside Vietnam, and even to work in intelligence. Vietnamese did not just marry Europeans coming from the metropolis. Not only was the Vietnamese General Nguyen Son a ranking member of the Chinese and Vietnamese communist parties, but he had also married a Chinese woman during his time in China.

Of the thousands of mainly male Vietnamese cadres sent to work in western Indochina many married local women in Laos and Cambodia. Unsurprisingly, the DRV cultivated close relationships with métis born of Lao–Vietnamese and Cambodian–Vietnamese mixed marriages. Again, these children, now adults, spoke both languages and provided the DRV with an entry into western Indochinese politics, societies, and cultures. Two of the DRV’s most important allies in Laos and Cambodia were Vietnamese–Lao and Vietnamese–Khmer métis: Kaisôn Phomvihān and Son Ngoc Minh. The “Red Prince” Suphānuvong, close ally to Vietnamese communists during 30 years of war, married a Vietnamese woman from a prominent Dalat family. Their luk khrung children hold high-ranking positions in Laos to this day. See also KHMER KROM; LANGUAGE OF WAR; LOVE AND WAR; HERAULT, MASSACRE.