Vol. 7, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Chi P. PHAM


Contents>> Vol. 7, No. 3

Imperial Intoxication: Alcohol and the Making of Colonial Indochina
Gerard Sasges
Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2017.

Imperial Intoxication: Alcohol and the Making of Colonial Indochina traces political, economic, and scientific forces involved in the emergence of the alcohol regime in Indochina, its long lasting until the end of the colonial period, and its indelible mark on Indochinese economy, society, politics, and culture.

Each chapter examines dynamic projects run by individuals, organizations, and communities—in colonial Indochina, French metropole, and across the globe—that engaged in the formation of the alcohol regime as the central institution of Indochina’s colonial period. Specifically, Chapter 1 “Inheritances” examines how the state’s alcohol policies originated from the codependent relationship between the French administration and enterprises, particularly tax farms in Indochina that were dominated by powerful Chinese syndicates. Chapter 2 “A Scientific Monopoly” tells stories indicative of role of Albert Calmette—a scientist in microbiology in charge of establishing Indochina’s first vaccine production facility and promoting the growth of French-owned industry—in the creation of Indochina’s alcohol regime. Chapter 3 “Fiscal Logics” recounts events that reveal how Frenchmen (including Paul Doumer, A. R. Fontaine, and Antonin Frézouls in the position of Governor-General) attempted to create, consolidate, and normalize monopolies of alcohol production and sales across Indochina as the basis of a fiscal system that enabled the realization of new, interventionist state policies. Chapter 4 “The Limits of Sovereignty” explores distinctive geographical, historical, and ethnic characters of Indochina as factors that constrained the French administrators’ vision of excising alcohol production across the entire territory of Indochina, and the associated idea of Indochina as being controlled by a rationalized centralized bureaucratic state. Chapter 5 “The Great Service” discusses how the Department of Customs and Monopolies attempted to administrate and enforce the monopoly of factories of the Distilleries of Indochina Corporation run by the colonial state over the “native alcohol”; the chapter also looks at cooperation of ordinary Indochinese, such as Vietnamese, Khmer, and Lao, in the operation of the Department. Chapter 6 “Oppression, Resistance, Rebellion” examines negotiation and suppression of the state over its subjects in response to the reality that the alcohol regime was hindered by the Indochina’s people “everyday resistance” and “overt resistance.” Chapter 7 “The Political Economy of Alcohol” discusses August Raphael Fontaine, the founder and managing founder of the factories of the Distilleries of Indochina Corporation, who possessed great capital, global linkages, new technologies, and state access, and established alcohol monopoly in Indochina. Chapter 8 “Evolutions” investigates the ways in which the alcohol regime was shaped by the two interrelated elements of contemporary Indochina’s evolving public sphere: consultative institutions and print media.

Emphasizing multiple contexts, Imperial Intoxication departs from the common belief that the formation of the alcohol regime in Indochina must have been shaped by the colonial rule as the result of colonial modernization. In this volume, the alcohol regime in Indochina here is, instead, treated as part of economic, scientific, political, economic processes, and cultural forces spreading—unevenly while inevitable—throughout diverse, incoherent Indochina and across the globe. By placing the alcohol empire in “as many context as possible,” the author argues persuasively that the formation of Indochina’s alcohol regime was a historically avoidable event in the context of ineluctable dynamic connections of French-ruled Indochina with global-crossed changing forces. Accordingly, the alcohol regime in Indochina was formed and maintained by the convergence of several local and global elements, including: fiscal demands of state-building (Chapter 3) and the need for a civilian police system as part of colonial rule (Chapter 3); advancements in microbiology and the French armaments industry (Chapters 2 and 7); commercial interests and cooperation of local Chinese, Khmer, Vietnamese, and Lao populations; and the geographical cultural, and historically diversity of Indochina. The author particularly stresses the ways in which Indochina’s alcohol regime was derived from engagements between people and governments, and the introduction of new industrial, governmental, financial, and scientific technologies at the turn of the twentieth century. Accordingly, the Indochinese alcohol regime is presented as fitting within a global history of state monopolies on alcohol production: the book places the history of the Indochina’s monopolistic state alcohol regime in connection with that of other alcohol monopolies across countries in Europe and Asia, such as Russia, Switzerland, Japan, and Taiwan. In doing so, Imperial Intoxication offers a perfect answer to the “inexplicable” historical context from which the alcohol regime was maintained for decades regardless of its enormous political loss and financially unproductive contribution. That is, the appearance and long continuation of the alcohol regime was determined not only by the colonial rule; it was also an integral part and avoidable process of the larger global alcohol regime in particular, and the economic, scientific, political bodies and processes across the global in general.

In summary, Imperial Intoxication explicitly encourages readers to look beyond national and imperial boundaries and away from normalized distinctions between metropole and colony in regard to the alcohol regime in Indochina. Nevertheless, this volume offers excellent examination of politically, culturally, and economically dynamic and complex conditions of Indochina under French colonial administration. In other words, the alcohol regime can be understood a case study through which the author discusses traditional subjects and dominant arguments in studies of colonial Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. As explicitly stated in the book, the alcohol regime provides “a unique window on the modalities and experiences of French rule in Indochina” (p. 9). For example, analyses of the alcohol as a moment in the growth of Vietnamese media and the development of Indochina’s intellectual debates, invite readers to reconsider dichotomies of revolution and reform in favor of the tradition of “colonial republicanism” that Peter Zinoman scrutinized in his book Vietnamese Colonial Republican: The Political Vision of Vu Trong Phung (2013). Explorations of complex relations to the state alcohol agents with local ethnic minorities and villagers regarding alcohol production and sales indicate what Pierre Brocheux and Daniel Hémery in their Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization, 1858–1954 (2009) called “ambiguous colonization,” in which the French administration is both hegemonic and fragile, and colonial institutes reflected and performed aspirations and interests of the French and of local ordinary and powerful people. The struggles to maintain the monopolistic status of the state alcohol are examined in relation to: local people’s shared experiences of colonialism (Chapters 7 and 8); complex and overlapping ways identities were articulated and shaped in colonial Indochina (Chapters 2, 4, and 5); and individuals and institutions involved in the emergence of anti-colonial nationalist movements in Indochina (Chapters 6 and 7). Impressively, treating alcohol production and consummation in Indochina as an institution in the colonial rule and as a moment in political processes in that region suggests a historical explanation for sentiments about alcohol pervading national Vietnamese literature, where alcohol is a symbol of both the exploitative and the brutal reality of French rule and cultural identity—a means in national struggles to end the colonial rule.

Chi P. Pham
Institute of Literature, Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences


DOI: doi.org/10.20495/seas.7.3_514