On the move again; my next words will probably hail from Vientiane, Luang Prabang or Hanoi.
This will be my first extended encounter with the remnants of the French colonial empire — I’ve always been much more familiar with the doings of the British Empire, and I understand its legacies almost innately: the trauma of disinherited language, the ethnic fractures, the suppressed Left, the twinned dilemmas of modernity and tradition, the inferiority complexes, the ache for history, for origins. But the French colonial empire is more of a mystery to me; Laos, especially, up until my recent resolute attempts to educate myself about it, has been a near-total black hole in my historical understanding. The shame! — I knew only that it was once Red, and that there are a lot of unexploded bombs in it.
So, there’ll be coffee and languor and immersion, of course, but also scrutiny. One of the curious things about independence movements in Southeast Asia is that the nations who were once acolytes of the British Empire — Burma, Malaya — never quite fought for their independence with remotely comparable rage and energy and bloodshed as did their French- or Dutch-owned neighbours. Malaya transitioned into Independence with benign nods from the British Royal Family, and right in the midst of a British-declared Emergency Rule. In Burma, power was transferred, not seized. But in most of the mainland, and across the Dutch-owned archipelago, the people lashed back, and there was war, revolution and bloody independence; Indonesians, especially, seemed incredibly good at roaring in unison, at the Dutch in 1948, and later at Suharto in 1998: Never again. Was it something about the differing natures of imperial rule in these countries? (Perhaps: are there books on this?) Was it something about the differing characters of the people themselves? something peculiarly feisty about the Vietnamese, and peculiarly benign about Malaysians? (Let’s hope not: I hate essentializations).
At any rate, in a few days I’ll be attempting to observe all this firsthand, preferably from some Laotian or Vietnamese sidewalk cafe, drinking thick black coffee and thinking about the oddness of empires: those strange beasts which, for a period in history, managed to make entire peoples beholden to themselves, and furthermore to convince them, for a while anyway, that it was good and right that they were so.