By Christina Elizabeth Firpo. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2016.
Christina Firpo's book is a reconstruction of the history of the removal of Eurasian children in French Indochina from the late nineteenth century to the postcolonial era. The mixed-blood children at the center of this near century long saga, known in the colonial parlance as "métis non reconnus," were the illegitimate offspring of Frenchmen and their Native concubines. Born out of wedlock, many of the métis had been abandoned by their European fathers, who, for various reasons, did not legally recognize them as their progeny. As a result, these children were denied French citizenship and its many legal, social and economic privileges. Raised by their mothers in the Indigenous milieu, they were given the lower status of Native subjects.
While the plight of these unrecognized métis in Indochina has been the subject of a number of previous studies, Firpo's book is the first one to provide a detailed and systematic investigation of their removal from the native milieu by the métis protection system and their institutionalization in French-run organizations in Indochina and the métropole. In her reconstruction of this saga, the author tracks the many shifts in the policies and attitudes of the French towards these fatherless mixed-blood children from the inception of the métis protection system to its dissolution. Starting with the discussion of the creation of the first métis protection societies by French civilians in the 1880s in Chapter One, the book moves on chronologically to show, in the ensuing chapters, how political events, social and economic changes both inside and outside Indochina such as World War I, the Great Depression, the Japanese occupation, the French Indochina War and the advent of decolonization shaped the evolution of the métis protection system as well as the French perceptions and treatments of the métis.
The main contention of the book is that the French intervention to "save" the fatherless mixed-blood children from poverty was prompted not solely by benevolence, but also by "colonial self-interest" (5). Members of the métis protection societies and colonial administrators were convinced that letting métis grow up under the care of their Native mothers would not only be deleterious to the children's wellbeing, but more importantly, their abandonment by their fathers could also foster in them resentment and rebellious sentiments against the colonial state. Besides defusing these potential dangers, the métis' removal scheme also served the goal of grooming these half-French fatherless children to become loyal collaborators of the colonial state by providing them with a French education and nurturing in them an identification with French culture. For there was a widely held belief among colonial administrators that these bilingual and bicultural "Frenchmen" were best suited to perpetuate French presence in Indochina as they could act as a counterweight to the emerging power of the Indigenous elite (Chapter Four).
One of the book's strengths is its use of a wide range of primary materials in both French and Vietnamese that include government documentation and the personal narratives of the métis and their mothers. The juxtaposition of these sources brings forth poignantly the huge gap between the official rhetoric of "saving" the children and the emotional cost the coercive separation from their mothers caused to the latter. The letters of the Native women also belie the protection societies' adamant belief that they were unfit mothers only interested in exploiting their children for financial gains.
Among the many shifts in the colonial administration's handling of the métis question discussed in the book, one significant change is the redefinition of French identity. Instead of limiting Frenchness to the White phenotype as used to be the practice in the colony, the Fédération des OEuvres de l'Enfance Française d'Indochine (FOEFI), a civilian charitable organization supported by the French government to take care of the abandoned mixed-blood children after World War II, adopted a more inclusive view of Frenchness, which became henceforth linked to...