"Like the delayed rays of a star": Photographs of Eurasian women “repatriated” to France (1947-2020)

Coordination scientifique : Yves Denéchère

Mother-daughter separation(s) on film

Camille G. et sa mère, 8 septembre 1953, Saigon

Fig. 22. Camille G. and her mother, September 8, 1953, Saigon – Collection and composition Camille G.-C.

Camille G. was born in 1948 in Saigon and her father was “unknown, presumed French” (1). She is pictured here (fig. 22) at age 5 posing with her adoptive mother, who took her in after her biological mother died in childbirth. She struggled to raise the child alone in the difficult circumstances of the Indochina War, and so in September 1953, she decided to give custody of Camille to the FOEFI. Thus, Camille was fed, cared for, and educated in a FOEFI center. Before their separation, the two went to a photographer so that they would have a souvenir of their life together. This visit yielded the photo in fig. 22, of which two copies of still exist: one that Camille has kept with her, the one on top—“This photo is dear to me and has been with me for a long, long time”—and one that her mother devotedly kept, and on the back of which she wrote a few words to record the emotion that gripped her at the time (the photograph on the bottom).

The composition pictured here was created by Camille on her own initiative. It combines several fundamental elements of her construction as an individual subject: her childhood, her mother, a forgotten maternal language, and the sacrifice of a mother letting her child leave “for her own good.” Whereas Camille is wearing a Western-style dress, her mother is wearing the áo dài, the traditional Vietnamese garment. Similarly, Camille’s haircut is European while her mother’s is Asian. The photograph thus reveals that mother and daughter were already on separate paths. Camille is in the midst of a process of assimilation, to which her mother has conceded, marked by her adoption of French standards of clothing and personal appearance; such elements were considered essential to “removing children from the indigenous environment” (2).

When she returned to Vietnam for the first time in 2012, at the age of 64, a cousin gave Camille her mother’s photo album, and she discovered the words written on the back of the photo. Unable to understand them, she asked her cousin for a translation, which he wrote out on a scrap of paper. It was then that she learned that the woman she thought was her adoptive mother was in fact her biological mother. Confronted by the social pressure that faced women who had children with Frenchmen, she had hidden her pregnancy from her family.

(1) Various interviews with Camille G.-C. in 2019. Photographs and letters sent in 2019 and 2020.
(2) Emmanuelle Saada, “Entre ‘assimilation’ et ‘décivilisation.’ L’imitation et le projet colonial républicain,” Terrain, n° 44, 2005, pp. 19-38.
Photo de groupe à la Maison de la Sainte Enfance de Cholon (Saigon) tenue par les sœurs de Saint-Paul de Chartres, 4 juillet 1954

Fig. 23. Group photo of FOEFI wards at the Maison de la Sainte Enfance of Cholon (Saigon) run by the Sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres, July 4, 1954 – Collection Camille G.-C.

The in-between time

When Camille’s mother entrusted her to the FOEFI in September 1953, she signed a contract granting the federation the right “without further agreement on my part, to send my child to France or to any country in the French Union, for the purposes of receiving an education or occupational training.” Often, those who signed such contracts were not fully aware of all that this implied; their consent was almost never entirely free and informed. Placed with the Sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres, who ran the Maison de la Sainte Enfance in the Cholon neighborhood of Saigon, Camille and her classmates found themselves in between two worlds: still in Indochina, with its language, flavors, and sounds, but hearing talk of France and being prepared for a big journey…

This photograph (fig. 23) is very traditional in both format and subject. All the institutions had such photographs taken; the idea was to keep a record of the children’s departures for France. The faces of the nuns are always very serious in these photographs, both because they had to stand still for the camera but also because they were about to be separated from children to whom they had often become attached. Camille stands out from the other boarders since she is wearing a white dress and has a white ribbon in her hair—in this photo, she is 6 years old, and can be seen at the bottom right. During this period, she continued to see her mother regularly, although her mother was made to understand that it would be better if she distanced herself from her daughter.

Camille G. et sa mère, Saigon, 9 juillet 1954, recto

Fig. 24. Camille G. and her mother, Saigon, July 9, 1954, front side – Collection Camille G.-C.

Camille G. et sa mère, Saigon, 9 juillet 1954, verso

Fig. 25. Camille G. and her mother, Saigon, July 9, 1954, back side – Collection Camille G.-C.

Last photograph and a forgotten doll

Like many other mixed-race children, at the end of the Indochina War, in July 1954, Camille was sent to France by the FOEFI. She and her mother were photographed by an itinerant photographer on their last walk together. As in the photo from the year before, here Camille’s mother wears an áo dài, while Camille wears the same European dress as in the group photo taken a few days earlier at the boarding school.

This photograph (fig. 24), taken on July 9, 1954, is the last one before Camille’s departure for France on the 13th. The date is written in the margin of the photo, which was turned in a postcard. On the back, Camille’s mother wrote a few words in Vietnamese, which Camille’s cousin translated into French 58 years later: “7/8/1954 We go for a walk, Mama and you. 7/13/1954 You arrive,” which would be better translated as “You leave” (fig. 25).

Camille saw this photo for the first time in 2012 when she returned to Vietnam; she had forgotten both that it existed and the moment it captured. Upon seeing the photograph again, or rather, discovering it, she remembered the moment. She recognized the “French doll” she was holding in her arms, which her mother had given her as a goodbye gift. The memory of her departure came back to her. She had forgotten to take the doll with her on board the Henri Poincaré and her mother ran along the quay with it, trying in vain to throw it to her. In the end, Camille was not able to bring the doll to France.