"Like the delayed rays of a star": Photographs of Eurasian women “repatriated” to France (1947-2020)
Incomprehension in the face of separation
Marie-Dominique L. was born in 1951 in Hanoi, and her earliest memories are of her mother, who was “very beautiful, always very well dressed, with lovely makeup and perfume. I didn’t see her often, we had a very good life in the North, she had a sort of café-restaurant where a lot of French men went.” After Dien Bien Phu (May 1954), Marie-Dominique and her mother found themselves in exodus, en route to the South: “For a long time, I had nightmares…on the deck of a big ship, that’s how we were evacuated from Haiphong to Saigon, and we lost everything.” Whereas the family had lived quite comfortably in the North, life was very difficult in Saigon: “some days, we didn’t have enough to eat, it was hard, but in the end I have good memories of that time, because I was with my mother.” She remembers that they often went to the photographer, as the photos taken of her at various moments from her birth onward testify (fig. 37). In 1960, judging that the situation in the country was dangerous for a child with a French father, her mother convinced her daughter that she needed to be sent away for her own safety: “she said, I can’t keep you any longer, you have to go to France, I don’t know what might happen to you if you stay; you can scream and cry, but you’re going.” Placed in a FOEFI center in Saigon, Marie-Dominique ran away after a week: “I don’t know how I did it, but I escaped from the boarding school, I was so unhappy, and I took the bus back home to my mother. She kept me until I left for France.” Some time later, in September of 1961, the moment came for her to board the plane: “she repeated that it was so that I could go and get a good education in France, but I thought she was punishing me because I hadn’t worked hard enough in school. I didn’t have an explanation. My mother was crying.”
The impact of photos
Just before Marie-Dominique’s departure, a session with a photographer was arranged, for the farewell photo: “I was ten years old and I knew what was happening. I knew it was the last photo, that I was going to leave,” recounts Marie-Dominique. She brought that photo (fig. 38) and a few others with her to France and looked at them often while she was at Saint-Rambert: “These pictures represent all that I had when I arrived at the Abbey in 1961. A few photos of my early childhood in Indochina, which I treasured and carefully kept!” (fig. 39).
Mother and daughter wrote to one another: Marie-Dominique sent her mother a photo of herself at age 12 or 13; her mother also sent photos, notably, two of Marie-Dominique’s French father, without any additional information. It was thanks to one of these photos that, in 2018, determined to learn more, Marie-Dominique was able to find out a bit more about her father, thanks to the uniform he was wearing, although she was still unable to identify him.
When she looks at these photos of her mother today, Marie-Dominique always thinks about the sacrifice she and all the other mothers made: “our mothers were heartbroken, they gave up everything. Today, I am grateful. If she had not made that sacrifice, I don’t know what would have happened to me. How many mothers would agree to do that, a total abnegation, when letting her daughter leave felt like the end of the world to her.” Marie-Dominique L.-LC.’s response to my request for authorization to use her photos was: “Yes, you can certainly use my photos for your article. I hope they can at least be used for something positive instead of simply remaining souvenirs of a painful separation. I was able to preserve these photos, unlike my mother’s copies, which my half-sisters told me at our reunion in Vietnam in 2018 had been ‘completely washed away by tears.’”
1.1 A painful lack for girls who did not have photos
Many Eurasian children experienced separation, departure, and assimilation without the support provided by photographs. Family situations varied widely, and some had lost their mothers, while others had been abandoned. And then there were the hazards of transit, of preserving the photos, and of moving from one center to another; photos might be lost or stolen.
Jeannette G., born in 1939, arrived in France when she was 10, not knowing much about her family, but photos were important: “When I was at Saint-Rambert, I had a photo of my mother and a letter from her, but, alas, I lost the picture during one of my many moves and, not having anywhere to keep it…” Later, when she had reached adulthood, Mother Jeanne gave her an envelope: “Inside, there were two photos of my father. And I was so shocked that I didn’t ask a single question, and she didn’t tell me anything about it, so I don’t know anything at all. I have two pictures of a French soldier whose name I don’t know” (1).
Annie H., born in 1953, arrived in France in 1965 and was adopted that same year. In 2019, she responded to my request as a historian thus:
“The day I left, my [maternal] grandmother gave me a little wicker basket that held chocolates, and at the bottom of that basket she had hidden two photos of H. (my father, wearing a uniform), and told me that with these pictures, I could find him. I can’t share those pictures with you, however, because my [adoptive] parents C. confiscated them, and I didn’t think about them again until I became pregnant with my oldest daughter. Go figure, but I wanted to know whether my child would look like my father H. And that turned out to be a painful episode for me because my parents told me that they had burned my pictures. The loss of those photos is one of the true sorrows I have experienced in my life. That was my treasure and my parents robbed me of it” (2).