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  • Imperial Intoxication: Alcohol and the Making of Colonial Indochina by Gerard Sasges
  • Luke Corbin
Gerard Sasges. 2017. Imperial Intoxication: Alcohol and the Making of Colonial Indochina. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. 280 pages; 8 illustrations; 2 maps. ISBN 9780824866884

This adroitly argued book, based on the writer's 2006 dissertation in history, unpacks what it terms the "alcohol regime" of colonial Indochina in relation to several carefully chosen contexts. Gerard Sasges spent over a decade in Vietnam during and after his dissertation research and displays a scholar's tenacity in probing his chosen subject area while not pushing his conclusions too far. At its core, this book stresses the importance of the alcohol regime as a "defining institution" of colonial Indochina, utilizing a contextual rather than strictly chronological approach to do so.

Thus, the book's eight chapters do not necessarily flow as smoothly as some works of history that place more emphasis on a linear chronology or lay readability. The Introduction crucially outlines what is meant by the "alcohol regime," briefly discusses the importance of alcohol to the colony's subjects, and attempts to categorize the book's following chapters under one of two contexts: the global or the local. There is no Conclusion chapter but rather an Epilogue deliberating on the subsequent and contemporary legacies of the regime.

Chapter One sets up the political economy of rice whiskey in Indochina before the alcohol regime became entrenched, highlighting the roles of Chinese syndicates, the Department of Customs and Monopolies, and the development of tax farms as enabling factors. It also takes care to decouple key events in the colony's history from the metropole, instead [End Page 147] arguing for "the initiatives and ambitions of officers and officials on the ground." Chapter Two focuses on twin technological innovations in fermentation and distilling crucial to the evolution of the regime and how the language of science was disingenuously used by interested parties in the state and private sector to discredit rice whiskey produced by traditional methods—here onto be defined as "native liquor."

Chapter Three connects the colonial state to global developments in the theory and practice of governance. It argues that the vocabulary of development, growth, and the blind operation of economic laws played powerful roles in the Indochina alcohol regime after 1897. Chapter Four applies a geographical perspective; while the regime and attendant monopoly emerged from a convergence of the state's need for revenue with overproduction, the spatial characteristics of the regime were determined by physical and human geographies. Sasges uses three designated spaces: Tonkin, Cochinchina, and the "Near Beyond," to organize what he calls the state's incoherence and tentativeness.

Chapter Five, the first to introduce some convincing personality and color, explains the role of the regime's bureaucracy, particularly the Department of Customs and Monopolies, which held mastery of the alcohol market through regulation and active policing; systems of surveillance, repression, and extortion coexisted alongside a rationalized bureaucracy in the largest civilian branch of the Indochinese state. Chapter Six gives the most space to Vietnamese voices. It uses the alcohol regime to examine nonviolent negotiations between the state and its subjects, as well as the more dramatic rebellions and everyday forms of resistance subalterns employed to subvert the regime and colonial oppression.

Chapter Seven drills down on the rise and fall of Auguste Raphaël Fontaine. Originally, merely an investor in the first European-run distillery in Tonkin, Fontaine became the entrepreneur most pivotal to the monopoly component of the alcohol regime. Chapter Eight turns its lens to political reform, showing how debates surrounding the alcohol regime in consultative institutions and print media were connected to broader changes [End Page 148] in the colony. The regime was ultimately torn apart in 1945 and the book concludes with an epilogue ruminating on the regime's legacies and influence on other polities like Taiwan.

Given their contextual arrangement, the chapters do repeat information occasionally but are delivered in economic writing style. There are occasional lapses into a literary mode, usually when the author tries to situate the reader in how certain protagonists, mostly colonialists, may have experienced the past. There are several unfortunate typographical...