26 March 2008

Yves Candeau's Blog

So my grandfather Yves Candeau married Phuong Lan and they lived happily every after. To fulfill all three marriage conditions, they remained in Vietnam, she never danced and she never cut her long jet black hair...until...wait, I'm getting way ahead of myself here! That's not how it happened.

When my grandparents married in Hue, Vietnam was in the midst of the First Indochina War. One month after their wedding in June 1948, my grandparents would have learnt of the Ha Long Bay Agreement. This recognised Vietnam as a single country rather than as the separate entities of Tonkin, Annam and Cochinchina. Meanwhile, the communist Democratic Republic of North Vietnam (DRV) were growing in popularity:

"By the time the Ha Long Bay Agreement was signed, the DRV controlled a large part of northern Vietnam, most of the narrow strip of land along the central coast, and the rural areas, marshlands, and jungles of southern Vietnam. The French controlled only the large cities."

- Sucheng Chan, The Vietnamese American 1.5 Generation:
Stories of War, Revolution, Flight, and New Beginnings, 2006

From October 1949 the DRV was invigorated by China's support. War with the French army continued for several years and culminated into the battle of Dien Bien Phu in March 1954 where the French suffered a humiliating defeat.

During this entire period which spanned over 6 years, my grandparents honoured Tran Tien Thuoc's wish that they remain in Indochina. They had 4 children of whom my mother was the eldest.

If Yves Candeau had an online blog in the English language between 1948 and May 1955, it would have gone something like this.

January 1948 - My Escapade in Hue

I've been in Hue since December 1947 now. New job. Normally accommodation is assigned by the government but I did not apply so I have been living in the Hotel Saur.

Last week, I met up with a couple of French officers. We normally have a few drinks and enjoy a good time. But that night was different. After way too much drinking, three of the guys suddenly decided that it would be a good idea to take a midnight dip at Thuan-An beach. I gathered this would mean entering enemy territory. But I was keen to join them. So the four of us 'borrowed' the Commandant's jeep and hit the road towards Thuan-An. We knew that this road was forbidden to traffic during the night and that we'd encounter a few military posts along the way but the idea was too tempting...

So first post, no one stops us. One of the guys happens to be a pilot and he somehow manages to persuade the sentinel to lift the gate. We drive through without a hitch.

But at the second post, things get a little complicated...the sentinel refuses to obtemperate and to lift the gate for us. Nothing works. Next thing you know, he calls in his chief while we wait in the jeep. Chief comes out, doesn't look too happy. He orders his boys to shoot at us!! They're shooting at us!!! The chauffeur spins the jeep around as bullets fly past and narrowly miss us. Luckily the chauffeur had anticipated this and he quickly manoeuvres the car back on the road to where we came from.

It is very late when the officers drop me as quietly as possible in front of Hotel Saur. Upon inspection, we discover that the bullets have made a few noticeable dints in the jeep's chassis...but we hope that no one will notice??? The jeep is returned and the officers go to bed.

So that was my little adventure last week.

The next day was panic. The gendarmerie went into a total frenzy!!! Apparently, someone had rung up to notify the authorities and explained that during the night, a jeep whose passengers included one civilian (me) and three military officers had attempted to force one of the gates....aaaaagh!!!!

The jeep and the officers were soon identified and my drinking friends were taken in for questioning. They were good guys and refused to reveal the identify of their civilian accomplice. So the gendarmerie led an enquiry to discover who it was. After several fruitless days, they gave up and filed the case.

Feeling a little uncomfortable.


I knew this would happen.

Serves me right.

Today the gendarmerie, acting on a hunch, dispatched two peace officers to the Hotel Saur. They asked to talk to me. They assured me that they were off-duty. They said that they had deduced the identify of the civilian from the night before and that they only wanted to confirm whether it had been me, inside the jeep on that night!! They didn't give any proof aside from the fact that on that exact night, they had heard the muffled sounds of a vehicle stopping at the hotel for a few moments before driving off. Was that the case? They kept asking that question. It would have been disgraceful to deny it...

Phuong Lan - the girl from the office

I forgot to mention this. I met a Vietnammese girl at work. Miss Phuong Lan. She has a sharp wit and an eye for detail. With my usual gauche manner (and yes, I'm left handed), I've since become a target for her jokes. She's often jesting and laughing about me in Vietnamese with her other colleagues. I am making a real fool of myself here. Today I asked her out but she said no. Must be my ears.

My Secret Girlfriend

My life in Hue is so wonderful. Phuong Lan and I have been dating for a couple of months now. We'd usually see each other after work and then split up just before she arrived to her family's house. Today she presented me to her parents. Well, sort of. She told her dad, Mr Tran Thuoc that I was her French tutor...She emphasised that the mastery of the French language was part of a work requirement! I do not know that Mr Tran was convinced considering that his daughter's French is already impeccable and that they all speak it fluently. So nervous.

Today I proposed!

I'm so happy! Today, I couldn't hide my enthusiasm and I asked Phuong Lan to marry me. She said yes!!!! Everything is going so fast. We've talked to Mr Royannez and explained our situation. I know that her family in particular doesn't condone marriage between the Vietnamese and the French. But we are hoping that Mr Royannez will know how just the right words to say to her dad and how to make a favourable impression on my behalf. The two have been friends for years now so I have a good chance.

Wedding Day

Well for those of you who don't know Phuong Lan and I got married last month.
We had a great get together with friends and some members of her family. Some of the officers came too. The day went well.

Phuong Lan was a little upset because some of the people that she invited didn't bother turning up. But we still had a wonderful day.

Here is a recent photo of us together.
Me and my beautiful bride...

Dark Nights

1949 already. Been married for almost a year now. Phuong Lan is heavily pregnant and due in August.

Not long after our wedding, we left Hotel Saur and took up residence in our assigned accommodation, a little house near the Phu-Cam canal. This is the extreme limit of the protected sector in Hue. Our place is just across the SIPEA power plant. It's also in close proximity to the points that Viet Minh soldiers use to infiltrate the town. So it's not without its dangers... Sometimes we find ourselves at the heart of loud, fiery exchanges.

At night, the sound of blasting artillery intensifies. I don't hear a thing when I sleep but Phuong Lan tends to wake up easily. She stirs through the night and once she is awake, she tries to wake me up as well.

I usually tell her "It's nothing, just sleep..." as my hand grabs one of the grenades from underneath our bed...just in case.

My Bundles of Joy

Here are some photos of our little bundle of joy, Annick.

She was delivered last year by the Doctor-Commandant Pinson and the Doctor-Captain Cleret at Hue Hospital. That's her on the right with her Thi-Ba (nurse).

Phuong Lan and Annick:

Here is a photo of me in my áo gấm!!! What do you think? Do I look the part?

When in Rome...

Strange Twist

Since August 1952, I have been offered a new job in Tourane (Da Nang) as Chief of Administrative Services & Accounting. My new employer, Mr Beurnez, is none other than the man whom Phuong Lan's mother married!! Life is certainly strange.

Initially, I was commuting to work without the family but since October, we are now all settled in Tourane. The only problem is that we are still waiting for our accommodation to be finalised and have been living in Hotel Morin for a couple of months.

Cambodia Here I come

1953 already.

Last time I wrote, we were waiting for our accommodation to be finalised. The situation was becoming ridiculous. It had been 6 months and we were still living in Hotel Morin!

But I have good news. I received a letter from M. Chassigneux (the chief accountant at the SIPEA power plant). He explained that he needed to urgently return to France and offered me a position as Chief Accountant at l'Institut d'Emission des Etats Associes D'Indochine* based in Pnom-Penh. Of course I agreed immediately. This also solves our accommodation problem.

It turns out that my current employer is in a financial mess mess anyway and his company is undergoing liquidation. Mr Beurnez was only too happy to let me go.

*In 1953, the Institut d'Emission des Etats du Cambodge, du Laos et du Vietnam took over the issuance of paper money.

- Wikipedia, French Indochinese Piastre

More Photos of Us

Hello from Cambodia. My work probationary period is now over. So all is well.

The Candeau family is fast growing here in Indochina.

I am missing France a lot but happy to be with my family.

I realise I haven't posted photos for a while. We now have a son called Claude and another daughter called Helene.

Here is Phuong Lan beaming with her little cubs.

Feverish Days

The last week or so has been a blur. I've been so out of it for a while. It started one morning. I went to work as usual but began to feel dizzy. Everything was spinning and my legs felt too heavy to move. I couldn't concentrate and decided to go home.

I couldn't easily hail a pousse pousse (rickshaw) so I resigned myself to walk all the way which was quite far. Big mistake. I ended up having to stop multiple times en route because my legs were shaking. I'd sit on the footpath for a while, just to stablise myself and then walk on. When I came home, there was no one there!!! So I managed to get myself into bed alone and there, I couldn't stop shivering. Can't remember the rest...

It was Phuong Lan who found me. Apparently I was in a comatose state and she was very worried. She called the doctor immediately. It turns out that I had Dengue fever!! Even with the drugs that the doctor prescribed and which were quite effective, it took me 8 days to finally regain consciousness!!

I remember that day actually. I woke late in the morning, confused and wondering what I was doing in bed. I was starving and decided to have lunch. So I get up, my legs still a little shaky under me and regain my seat around the dining room table. Everyone's there. Next thing you know, I'm passing out again. I collapse from my chair and onto the floor.

So that was me in the last two weeks. My adventure in the dining room table was apprently due to weakness. Since then, I have been eating very well and resting so I'm feeling better.

Back in Saigon

General Navarre is currently carrying out an attack in Dien Bien Phu. At the same time my organisation has been transferred to Saigon since the beginning of 1954.

Phuong Lan is pregnant again. :)


It's chaos back here and a lot of people are moving down to the South of the country.

Since May 1954, the Institut d'Emission des Etats Associes d'Indochine has been dissolved. I will soon be out of a job. I'd really like to return to France but I promised that we would both live here, in Indochina.

Not sure what to do. I'm thinking of applying to each of the Banque Nationale branches in Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam to see if there is an accounting position available.

Job Hunting Hell

I have received three negative replies from the Banque Nationale.
The main reasons for their refusal to hire me are:

1. my remuneration expectations are too high
2. I am not immediately available (true, I have been helping with the dissolution of my previous employer...)

The Happiest Daddy in the World

Well number four came in on February 1955! Her name is Genevieve.

The other good news is that we are finally returning to France! Yes, you read correctly!!!

As you know I was having problems finding a job here, in Saigon. But my father-in-law came from Hue to visit us the other day. We talked and he has officially freed me from my obligation to remain in Indochina. I'm a free man!

I just have a few financial things to sort out before I leave. My previous employer still hasn't honored the value of my accummulated leave....this, and a few things total up to 19.000.000 FF*. Luckily Phuong Lan's first cousin, Mr Tran Tien-Tranh, is going to help with processing the claim.

Phuong Lan isn't very happy about going to France. But it's just becoming impossible for me to find work here. And it's not safe.

*In 1960 the French Franc was revalued to 100 existing Francs. At this time, the owed sum would have evaluated to 190.000 French Francs or approximately $40,000 US.

Goodbye Vietnam

My claim didn't work out in the end. The local tribunals declared themselves unable to assist. :(

I'm ok though. When I left the Institut d'Emission, I received a letter of recommendation. I'm thinking it will come in very handy.
It is addressed to M. Tezenas du Montcel who is rumoured to become the President of l'Institut d'Emission de L'A.O.F./Togo. This is the public organisation that manages monetary funds in West Africa...

21 March 2008

So you want to look young, huh?

Warning: This article contains bragging and may seem offensive to readers with low self-esteem.

I have a dirty little secret.
I look far too young for my age. It's true, too many people mistaken me for someone in their late teens.

It's a bother. Granted a good portion of women, including me, theoretically want to look young or at least, maintain youthful skin. But do we really understand the implications of looking young?

Appearing 2 or 5 years younger than your actual age can be reassuring, especially if the insecurities of turning thirty have kicked in. But appearing 10 to 15 years younger when you are turning 33 this year, can be a curse.

That's my life at the moment.

When I was 31, I tried getting into the Gold Coast casino in a green, bareback, halter neck dress. The security guard nearly had a fit after seeing my Id card.

"What's your secret?" he asked.

"Good genes", I mused.

I tend to think that having your driver's license examined by an ogling bouncer is not valid evidence that I have the package of an 18 year old. So I look for other guinea pigs to test my hypothesis. I monitor the attitude that uni students have towards me whenever I attend classes.

Uni students. They can smell it if you're a mature age student. They only have to look at your clothes and they know. Through their knowledge of popular culture, they can identify your generation in what you say, in the tone of your voice and in the way you carry yourself. They know. Obviously, if you have good skin and hair you can deceive them but ultimately, they will find out that there is something fishy about you. Uni students fresh from schoolies are youth incarnate and so in theory, you don't stand a chance.

All this doesn't worry me. Bare legs, teeny waists, luscious hair, rainbow wardrobes, painted toenails in cutsy sandals, toned arms dangling from barely-there singlets...I can do all that and go unnoticed. Thing is, I'm 32.

At university, during some of my tuts, we play ice breakers. The other day, we had to say two lies and one truth about ourselves to the person beside us. They had to guess which were the lies out of the three statements. One of my lies was that I was 25 years old. It was picked up as a lie...not because I looked 'much older' but because the guy thought I couldn't possibly be 25. I've tried this with girls too and they didn't believe I was in my thirties.

What fun!

But hold. There is a dark side and I now come to it.

When I was 28, flying Air New Zealand, I had the misfortune to be seated by the emergency door. You know...that plane seat where there is a latch and a little warning message indicating that you must be an adult to sit there so that you can open the door in case of an emergency.

That didn't go down well.
In the middle of the flight, I am interpellated by an air hostess:
- Excuse me, how old are you?
I smile.
- I'm 28.

I suppose I was wearing a pink jumper and I must have looked pubescent. What happens next is enough to annoy anyone who expects a little respect. The air hostess remains standing in the middle of the aisle, one arm on my seat as she rolls her eyes to the ceiling. Then, growing impatient, she repeats the question, "How old are you?"

Is she kidding?

So I flatly reply with my own impertinent question.

- Are you asking me my age??

- Yes.

I thought she was going to slap me!!
I'm now irritated and I don't bother to hide it.

- I'm 28!

She doesn't believe me and gives me the eye before sighing and moving off.
This upsets me. I mean, what's with her? Just because she looks like an old cow.

So there you have it. There are disadvantages to looking young.
If I thought being an adult would free me from age discrimination, I was wrong.
I find that I am often ignored, dismissed, snapped at in a condescending tone and judged. Think about it, because of my appearance, I am assumed to have had little life experience and to not really know what I am talking about. If, as an experienced 32 year old, I say something with weight, it is taken lightly. That's age discrimination for you.

I'm guessing there is light at the end of the tunnel. Well, sort of.
When I'll be 50, I'll look 35.
When I'll be 60, I'll look 45.
This will hopefully delay my entry into official old age and I may not experience old age discrimination until I am much older.

But you see what the problem is don't you. What is the point of wanting to look young when society remains ill equipped, both psychologically and culturally, to relate well with people of different ages without insulting, misjudging or unfairly treating them? With the manner that society operates as a whole, being a particular age (or gender for that matter) can hurt. And similarly, not looking your actual age can actually hurt too and make you wish you were no different to everyone else.

Growing up in Dakar Part III

In 1984, after years of living in Dakar, my parents decided to leave and build a new life in Australia.

We lived one and a half years in France, waiting for our immigration papers to be processed. We did not even know whether we would be admitted to Australia. All our stuff was in large metal crates, waiting to be shipped. During that time, I only attended school for 3 months. Originally the plan was to skip school and just catch up in Australia, but after an entire year of waiting, my mum gave up and enrolled us. Effectively, I skipped Grade 5.

During our time in France, the maid Marie-Hélène Sambou (in her late 20s from memory) flew with us to help my grandmother with housekeeping for 6 months. But soon enough, Marie-Hélène had to return to her native country. We missed her a lot.

I corresponded with her right up until I arrived in Australia. Months later, we stopped writing.

I recently found a postcard she had sent me in 1985, when I was 10. I have kept it because it meant a lot to me. You have to understand that she, as many Senegalese women from the villages, did not know how to write very well. So that she could write to me, aka, the little brat, she had to visit a trusted friend or literate person. She would dictate her letter, pay a price and the friend would write these words for her and send the card to the desired address. Receiving a card from her always made me happy and reminded me of my childhood in Dakar.

In this postcard, she makes an allusion to 2 little girls whose parents had hired her and whom we knew:

"Hello! It is with a light heart and great pleasure that I draft this letter to ask how you are and also wish you a Joyous New year 1985. I hope that God protects you and keeps you safe. Dear Laura, this letter is a secret between you and me. Once, you wrote to me to ask me whether Valery and Christelle are kind to me. You did well to ask this. I would like to tell you that Valery is very impolite. When I speak to her, she insults me on the spot. But Christelle is too kind, like you. She respects me a lot. I salute you. I dream a lot about seeing you again. Our separation has cost me dearly."

To be frank, I can't say I was very kind at all! Well maybe in later years, I was. And we grew very close then. But back in Dakar, I was capable of turning into a little monster. In my grandparent's appartment, we had a spare room where the maids kept their things (they slept at our place all week and only returned to their village during the weekend). This was their room and we were not allowed to touch their things. But when they were too busy with chores, and I was bored, I would often open their cupboard and play with their African combs, nail polish and toe rings. I also used their hair oil and once I spilled some oil inside the cupboard so that it was very obvious that someone had been there. Of course they enquired about this because it distressed them and my grandmother got me in trouble.

When I was 5, I used to think the maids had magical powers. Or at least that they could do things that I couldn't. Once, after walking home from school, I had asked Thérèse if she wanted some coconut. I shared a piece of my fresh coconut which she ate. But on returning home, I had a fit because I refused to have a shower. Nevertheless, it was my parents' wish and so half and hour later, Thérèse washed me while I bickered and whinged. I was so indignant at being forced to take a shower that I decided that Thérèse was annoying and that she didn't deserve my coconut. So right then and there, I imperiously demanded that she return to me my coconut or else I would dob on her and say that she had stolen it from me. Undeterred, Thérèse said, "Oh, you want your coconut? Ok." Then without fuss, she made this horrible regurgitating noise, spit all the ingested coconut bits in her palm and shoved her hand under my gobsmacked face. I took one look at the coconut bits floating in the saliva pool and was lost for words. After this, I confided to my sister that Thérèse was a witch. I mean, how did she vomit up only the coconut? Is that possible?

There are so many more stories and gosh, I do miss those two women, Marie-Hélène and Thérèse Sambou. They were cousins from Casamance, Sénégal. Has anyone heard of what happened to them? I would love to know where they are today.

Well anyway, eventually we made it to Australia. The custom officers raided our crates and we lost our carved ivory tusks, our leather poufs, our Calebasse bowls and all our wooden masks.
Fair enough.

Also See:
Growing Up in Dakar Part II
Growing Up in Dakar

20 March 2008

Phuong Lan - A Journey to Paris

Speaking to my grandmother about her long journey from Saigon to Paris in 1955, we were in agreement about how much things have changed today and how much some remain the same.

Even in economy class, we passengers expect pampering. We expect a range of services including in flight entertainment, reclining seats, cushioned fixtures, foot rests, games and more. These would have been nonexistent in 1955.

Beyond airline perks, we now have access to fast jet aircrafts which we take for granted. Eager passengers can gain their destination rapidly, often without needing to stop for refuelling. For example, today, Air France flies directly from Paris to Hanoi. Nonstop. Prior to 2004, this route included 1 stop in Bangkok. And what about in 1955? How many stops?

This is the story of an Air France flight from Saigon to Paris. It was in May 1955. It isn't just a flight. It's a journey through one's social fears, about encountering deep set prejudices, learning about one's self-delusions and about miscommunication. It's a journey that emphasises human strength, endurance and hope.

It was decided. Due to the difficulties with remaining in Vietnam, Phuong Lan was to leave her homeland and settle in Paris. Her French husband, Yves, who had some business to settle, would join her later.

My grandmother, who had never set foot outside Indochina and was very reluctant to leave Vietnam would fly all the way to a country she had never seen. Alone.

Well, not quite alone. During this pioneering journey which most people of her generation living in other parts of the world would never experience, Phuong Lan would have to be responsible for her 4 children: my mother, then 6, my uncle aged 4, an aunt barely a toddler...and if that was not enough, there was my other aunt, still a 2 months old baby.

While not comparable to the perilous boat journeys undertaken by some immigrants, Phuong Lan's long flight would be marked by intense fear, exhaustion, nervous anticipation of what lay ahead, a sense of social isolation and a heightened sense of despair and hopelessness.

The journey was a nightmare. A total of 36 hours. Today it would take a mere 12 hours to fly from Hanoi to Paris. But in her flight to Paris, my grandmother counted 5 stops.

For each stop, all passengers had to disembark by the stairs and walk across to the local airport. There were no airconditioned gates or satellites , as they are called in Paris. For each stop, my grandmother held her baby tightly in her arms. Then she carefully descended the narrow steps to the tarmac while trying as much as she could to keep her other 3 children well behaved and close to her.

During these stressful stops, Phuong Lan felt uneasy and helpless. I've often seen women hop on a train carrying heavy bags and frantically managing their pram. In most cases, I find these women receive careful attention from other train passengers, especially as they disembark or move their pram about. But this was not the case for Phuong Lan. Most of the other passengers were French and she recalled that none of the hostesses or passengers offered to help her as she struggled with her children. Considering that it was 1955 and the French had been at war with Vietnam, I find it easy to imagine that she would have been eyed with disdain while her Eurasian children were examined with curiosity or even outrage. Even if there were no prejudices at play, I believe that enough social conformity was active among those present to limit anyone from standing out in the crowd in order to help her. Air hostesses included.

After taking off in Saigon, the plane stopped in Bangkok, Karachi, Beirut, Istanbul and Frankfurt before finally reaching Paris. Out of all the airports, it was the one in Beirut that most impressed Phuong Lan.

Remember, this is 1955.
Twenty years before war broke out in Lebanon.

Newly independent Lebanon was thriving. It was the golden age, a period of architectural grandeur and in those days, Beirut was the Paris of the Middle East. Sadly, I will never be able to capture what my grandmother saw when she entered Beirut's International Airport. So I have included a postcard which one of her friends sent in 1972, 3 years before war broke out. My grandmother sighs and says that the Beirut airport was "magnificent". It was clean, resort like and so unlike the grim, functional appearance of other airports that she had so far seen.

Postcard of Lebanon, dated 1972

Phuong Lan had heard of Lebanon, previously a French mandate, but her knowledge was limited and she had never met Lebanese people. It was the locals' appearance that surprised her the most. Like many people, my grandmother did not discern well between foreigners. She imagined Lebanese people to be identical to Arab people. She expected to see that everyone would be dark skinned with black hair and eyes. I'm sure this stereotype still exists today in some parts of the world! She says that she was amazed at how inaccurate her expectations of Lebanese people was. First of all, it is true that some had dark features. But in some cases their complexion was whiter than her own. It surprised her. And then some of them had blue eyes! Others had green eyes! She was amused to find her stereotypes shattered. She tells me that on the whole, in her opinion, they were such beautiful people with such pleasant features. And most of all, they gave her the kindness she needed.

This is what happened. Half way through her exhausting journey which threatened never to end, Phuong Lan was at her wits end. My baby auntie would not cease crying. So my grandmother stopped in a cafe and bought breakfast for her children. There she asked for some boiled water so that she could mix it with baby powder and feed the baby. The waiter at the cafe was a young blond man with blue eyes, wearing a neat bow tie. My grandmother describes him as exceptionally handsome (she remembers!) He kindly filled the baby bottle with boiled water and brought it to her. But when the waiter had gone, she accidentally dropped the glass bottle to the floor where it broke into pieces.

It wasn't much. But it was enough. At this moment, Phuong Lan's helplessness got the better of her. She lost the self-preservation that she had so far maintained. Seeing the disaster on the floor and hearing her baby cry, she could no longer suppress the emotions that had been simmering since Saigon. Poor thing, she began crying uncontrollably. Right there, on her seat, in the middle of the cafe while her children stared at her in distress, not knowing what to do.

She cried because she was tired. She cried because she felt alone and ostracised. She cried because she was a stranger, stuck in an unknown place, heading to yet another unknown place that she imagined would be rampant with more staring, more unhelpful French people. She felt terrible. She cried... comme une madeleine, as we say in French.

It was then that the highly empathic waiter came to her rescue. He seemed to understand her despair and rushed to her seat to assist. She remembers that he kept saying in soothing voice, in French: "Please don't cry, please don't cry. I'm going to get you another bottle of water. Please don't cry." After her long ordeal and her gnawing anxieties, my grandmother craved human care. Finally she had found it. This young man was especially considerate. He managed to calm her down and to at least equip her emotionally for the rest of her journey. It is no wonder that she remembers him today.

After two more stops, the plane finally landed in Paris. Unfortunately, it was a bleak, wet morning. As grey as Paris can be. Not a day to be arriving after a long journey. Especially when one is exhausted and misses home...

The effect was immediate. As she stepped down nervously onto French soil, Phuong Lan's jaw dropped. She was crushed. "Is that it?" she kept repeating to herself. "Is THIS Paris???" She couldn't believe it. How she missed the green lushness of Vietnam, its trees, its flowers, its heat. This was Paris? What an absolute dump, she thought. She kept her contention to herself but in those earlier days in France, her surroundings filled her with depression.

Her parents in law and sister in law, all of whom she had never met, had driven to the airport. They greeted her and led her and the children to the car.

My grandmother felt very cold. I forgot to mention that she had completed the entire journey in Vietnamese traditional dress. How chilly it must have been for her as she arrived in her silk áo dài, her loose pants and sandals.

Once seated inside the car, she encountered another hurdle that again tested her nerves. My great grandfather was trying frantically to warm up and start the car but the engine was taking a while to respond. So he waited and began mumbling to himself. Meanwhile, the baby was crying again and Phuong Lan was beginning to feel embarrassed. Addressing herself to the infant, she cried: "What's wrong?" My great grandfather thought that she was talking to him and that she was becoming impatient. Though a kind man, he had lived in the country for all his life. So he brusquely turned around and muttered: "What's wrong? It's that the damn car won't start, that's what's wrong."

He didn't mean any harm but Phuong Lan was not accustomed to being spoken to in this tone. So she burst into tears.

And this was only the beginning of her life in France. Today, cross-cultural interactions are somewhat a little smoother. Or are they?

Back to Tran Genealogy Index

18 March 2008

Phuong Lan - Anecdotes

The Vietnamese Chef

Until she was 25, my grandmother had never had to cook. In her parent's house, there was a "Thi-ba" (nurse) for each child and a cook. She said that while she had never made anything herself, she would spend hours watching the work of the household cook and learning from it.

Whoever this cook was, he was brilliant and must have deeply impressed his art on her because while growing up, I always believed that my grandmother was the best cook in the world. She was especially well organised and would think nothing of preparing 5 course banquets for twenty or so guests or family members. For example in Senegal, whenever my grandfather invited work colleagues, she would prepare 300 Nems, well in advance, just for the entree.

When I was little, my grandmother, rather than my mum, ruled the kitchen. This means, apart from frequent Senegalese and Lebanese dishes, I grew up on Vietnamese food. On our dinner table, there was usually a bowl of nuoc mam sauce. To be exact, there were always two bowls present: the kids' nuoc mam and the adults' chili nuoc mam.

Well before I had turned 9, I had already tasted a wide variety of Vietnamese dishes, prepared exclusively by my talented grandmother. I was familiar with Ban Cuon (usually stuffed with beef or shrimp and dipped in Nuoc Mam), Chinese steamed buns which were my very favourites, Hue stuffed pancakes, caramelised pork, pineapple chicken, crab & asparagus soup, shrimp fried rice, Vietnamese spring rolls dipped in a sweet potato & peanut sauce, stuffed cabbage leaf soup, fish and pineapple soup...the list goes on.

Nothing compared to my grandmother's steamed buns. I loved the smell of the yeasty dough when it was left to rise. I equally loved watching my grandmother knead a sample of dough into a tiny flat pancake inside which she would delicately place a rolled pork ball, a morsel of Chinese sausage and a portion of chopped boiled egg before her agile fingers sealed the dough ball and placed it on an aluminium disc in preparation for steaming. My duty was to cut the aluminium into little circles and hand these over. Whenever I could, I'd eat bits of Chinese sausage. Or if she was making Nem, I enjoyed dipping each rice paper sheet into the water, watching its crystal surface soak up and grow limp before I laid it out on a moist cloth so that my grandmother could fill it with pork, shrimp and greens. One of my favourite dishes was Mi Xao Don Do Bien (crispy noodles and seafood). But I was never a fan of Beef Pho.

When we lived in Senegal, my grandmother was the best Vietnamese chef. Everyone who knew me at school had heard about her Nems. During school fetes where parents contributed by providing international food to sell, my grandmother prepared hundreds of Nems. Hundreds. During our almost weekly visits to the restaurant at the Pointe des Almadies (Dakar) whose owners were also Vietnamese, we'd expertly examine the Nems there and compare them with my grandmother's. Each time, my sister and I agreed that her Nems were better and we proudly told her so.

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17 March 2008

Courting Phuong Lan

In 1946, my grandmother began working for Central Annam's Commissary Office. She was an officer of the Bureau des Finances in Hue. From 1947, a young Civil Services contractor named Yves Candeau arrived in Hue. He worked upstairs, in her building, at the Dommages de Guerre (War damage benefit).

My grandmother's team leader and colleagues were soon regularly teasing her about Yves' unsolicited visits. Though he could have easily dispatched his secretary downstairs to check on the progress of mandates, he did not miss a single opportunity to come down himself. Skinny, pale, which huge spectacles, his visits wouldn't go unnoticed by my grandmother’s workmates.

- “Big Sister, Big Sister,“ they would say, “here comes Lunettes!”

Lunettes. That was my grandfather’s nickname, due to his thick, black frames. And so it would go. “Ms Phuong Lan, I have come to enquire about mandate so and so...” he would begin politely.

Visibly embarrassed and outraged by his frequent visits, she would curtly reply that when mandate-so-and-so was complete she would be sure to advise his secretary. His visits infuriated her in so far as she saw them as intrusive. She was also wary of the general amusement that his presence created in her work area. After all, she was a respectable young woman!

But I must pause and explain this social prudishness for it is very much what it was. Closely watched by her father, and conscious of local customs, my grandmother knew never to invite male attention. The fact that Yves was French did nothing to help the situation, as we shall see later.

She recalls a day when she and her father were walking in town. She had noticed a young man, unfamiliar, yet courteous, who had smiled at her to say hello in a most respectful fashion. “Hello, Big Sister”, he had said. Without thinking, she had smiled back and said hello. Her father seemed to pay no attention to this casual flirting and they continued walking until finally they reached the family home. No sooner had they entered the house that the Mandarin administered a majestic slap on his daughter’s cheek. Then with a dignified voice, and not without emphasis, he said,

“Never, never again will you address young men in this manner.”

For this was how Vietnamese women, at least in her time, were expected to behave. Even travelling alone from town to town was frowned upon. Moral expectations were that if my grandmother wanted to travel from Hue to Hanoi, she would have to be accompanied by a cousin or an aunt. Courting was unheard of. Or at least, courting only existed in clandestine ways...

Even to attend a movie at the cinema, my grandmother would always by accompanied by a group of school friends. All of these were female of course. But during these outings, it was not unusual to spy a group of young boys following a group of girls relatively closely even though the two groups were not officially together. Sometimes the boys would converse with each other, while making flirtatious allusions to the girls with the sole intention of attracting their attention. All indirect means were employed. Direct attention was socially improper and only subtle references could pass as innocent.

One night, after the movies, my grandmother told me that the group of boys who had been following them to the cinema were waiting with affected nonchalance outside the exit. All her friends, including herself, were still in abundant tears following the sentimental, “La Dame Aux Camelias.” Upon seeing them in tears, one of the young men turned to his friends to say, “Tomorrow, there will be a flood in Hue!” This was subtle enough, but the courting message was clear: the boys had noticed them. Clear enough for my grandmother to remember this charming statement right to this day.

But where was I? Yes, and so the Mandarin watched closely over his daughter’s honour as it safeguarded his family’s honour. Before she met Yves, Phuong Lan had never had a boyfriend, nor had she ever been with a man. These things were not allowed. Not only that, but I think that her fury following that rare, painful slap on her cheek increased my grandmother’s resolve to avoid Yves. I also think that perhaps the rancour that she felt at having to carry the burden of her family’s honour on her shoulders and the reminder of her angry father fuelled her determination in avoiding further shame. And so Yves would have to face not only the barriers resulting from cultural differences, the impasse caused by prejudices and the unflinching Mandarin, but also Phuong Lan’s fierce ardour in avoiding her father’s displeasure.

On numerous occasions, Yves asked for her company and she refused. For example, he would offer to have lunch with her. Or perhaps, since it was raining heavily outside, would she be interested in a lift home, as his car was conveniently parked outside. At all times, she flatly refused, reminding him that her father would probably die of shame if she accepted. After so many rejections, any young man would take flight or try a more responsive target. But not Yves. I would like to interject here, on his behalf and explain that it was my grandfather who recommended that I read James Michener’s Hawaii. The melting pot of cultures that struggle to find understanding in this most wonderful novel would have hit a chord in his soul because he had definitely been there. I think even before reading Hawaii, my grandfather had a profound respect for the Vietnamese culture. If he persisted in his attention towards my grandmother it was not out of spite for her father. He was in love after all. Who can explain those things? I will not try. And so Yves continued to make regular visits to her office. The situation was becoming intolerable and Phuong Lan was far from amused. She was soon fuming.

But one day, having fumbled his way through some persuasive argument, Yves managed to begin walking a reluctant Phuong Lan to her home. On this day, she had recently purchased a ginger plant, quite a cumbersome buy, which she intended to carry with her home. Yves was walking by her side, determined as we know to become better acquainted with this headstrong, upright woman. On her part, Phuong Lan had had quite enough of this absurd young man. She had no intention of letting him accompany her the whole way. But what to do?

It was then that she had an ingenious idea. Her cold demeanour not having had much success in discouraging his advances, she figured that she had to embarrass him to such a point that he would never show his face again. Her idea, she hoped, would help highlight how ridiculous his one-sided courting had become and help him see what a fool he was making of himself in public while she behaved most respectably. And so, she took one smug glance at the Frenchman and with a half-mocking, half-unnerved tone, she shoved the enormous ginger plant in his hands and snapped:

- “You want to walk with me? Fine!!! Carry this.”

There! She had done it. Brazen, she was. At this she suppressed a vicious chuckle waiting for his refusal. She really didn’t care about the damn ginger. Let him drop it and give up the chase. She fully expected him to take one look at the odious plant, feel trapped by the unexpected chore, blush violently and remain on the spot while she sauntered home.

But hang on, we are talking about a Frenchman in love. Aren’t we? And this was no regular Frenchman, it was my grandfather. So what happened next was no surprise to me. After recovering from the shock, Yves lifted the giant ginger plant comfortably in his arm and proceeded to continue along the way, close on Phuong Lan’s heels, for all to see. And walk together, they did.

Thinking back about the huge discomfort she felt then, my grandmother said “I did not know where to put myself!!! This was not funny at all.” He had taken on her challenge.

I am thinking about that moment and how she was feeling. Even while Yves must have appeared endearingly funny with the ginger plant, it would seem like defeat to laugh now. Besides, it was better to remain just a little angry only to protect one’s pride. Still, she had to admit that Yves no longer appeared foolish. In wanting to embarrass him, she had embarrassed herself.

My grandmother may have felt a little sheepish at her outburst and definitely uncomfortable that her order had been so reverently executed by the young Frenchman. Whether she liked it or not, he had succeeded in ingratiating himself to her. This incident opened the door for their courtship.

When I say courtship, this is far removed from what we expect today. The couple’s encounters were very formalised and at this stage there was no talk of romantic feelings or physical contact between them. To aid in the development of this union, which as I have explained would have never been able to blossom unofficially, Yves soon sought the help of his boss to claim my grandmother’s hand in marriage. His name was Mr Royannez and by some chanceful twist, he happened to be one of the Mandarin’s trusted acquaintances...

An arrangement was soon organised whereby Mr Royannez would avoid a likely clash between Tien-Thuoc and the young French suitor. It was decided that he would himself visit my grandmother’s family to vouch for Yves and ask for Phuong Lan’s hand in marriage.

The fateful day arrived and Phuong Lan remembers that her father received a call from Mr Royannez outlining his intentions and announcing his own upcoming visit.
My grandmother recalls that when the chauffeur arrived outside and the visitor was announced, the Mandarin would not budge to greet him. Twice he was reminded of Mr Royannez’s arrival but he persisted in ignoring the visitor.

I wonder what Yves’ boss would have thought at the time while he remained outside, in utter discomfort, waiting to be ushered in. Did he feel like a complete fool knowing full well the reason why he was being ceremoniously ignored? Did he think for a moment that there was no hope? Would he have given up if the Mandarin had continued to ignore him further? Would I have been born? In fact, for about an hour, the Mandarin continued to ignore the visitor downstairs. And still, Mr Royannez did not leave. He was, I suppose, sympathetic to Yves’ romantic plight and perhaps animated by this romantic cliche that love conquers all.

And what was the Mandarin thinking? It is possible that my great grandfather had no intention of letting him in, let alone of discussing his daughter’s future with him. But I don’t think it was the reason for his stoic refusal to respond to the visitor. My personal belief is that on this day, he knew that his only daughter had chosen a suitor and that her happiness rested in his decision. With her happiness in mind, he knew that whatever happened and regardless of his social convictions, he had not the strength, nor the courage to deny her. Had he already made a firm negative decision it would have been simple for him to go immediately downstairs and let Mr Royannez know. But because he knew what his decision would be, and because it cost him dearly, he tried as much as possible to delay the encounter.

This delay then, was a form of grief, of letting go, of coming to terms with things that would be and what he was about to do. Perhaps also, it was a way of testing Mr Royannez, to gauge his determination and by proxy, to confirm Yves’ serious intent.

After an hour, when the Mandarin had ascertained that this situation was real and Mr Royannez was not leaving, he had no other recourse but to surrender. Also, at this moment, his second wife, a good woman, finally spoke to him with reproach. As she had been following these developments with a degree of anxiety, Phuong Lan remembers her step mother’s firm words to Tien-Thuoc:

- “Look! He has come to ask your daughter’s hand in marriage. He has now been waiting far too long. At least you could pay him the courtesy of showing him in!“

And so, the Mandarin who may have already admitted defeat but was too proud to reveal this, welcomed his wife’s admonition with relief and obeyed it.

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Tran Tien-Thuoc

Tien-Thuoc was the fourth child of Tran Tien-Muu. He was born in 1892, year of the Dragon, at the hour of the Ox on the 8th day of the 9th month. He studied at the Quoc-Hoc college in Hue where he graduated in 1913 with a Diploma in Franco-Vietnamese Primary Education.

He was 21 when he began his 20 year career in primary school teaching. By 1933, he had become the Director of Primary School Teaching in the Quang-Nam province.

In 1922, Tran Tien-Thuoc married Cong-Nu-Cuc-Phuong. She was the eldest daughter of Prince Tuyen-Hoa-Vuong, younger brother of Nguyen emperor Thanh-Thai.

A year later, in 1923, my grandmother, Phuong Lan was born. Sadly, she never knew her mother because not long after her birth, the couple realised that they could not resolve their incompatibilities and mutually decided to regain their respective freedom. The more bitter side of this story is that the princess eloped to France with a Frenchman and abandoned her daughter.

A couple of years later, Tran Tien-Thuoc remarried with Ton-Nu-Chi-Huyen. She was the eldest daughter of Senior Mandarin of Rites, Buu-Van, himself a descendant of poet prince Tuy-Ly.

Following several years of married life, it became evident that Ton-Nu-Chi-Huyen could not give her husband the male heir that he hoped for. She began her quest for a concubine more apt for this role. In 1935, concubine Ho-Thi-Hong was introduced into the family and a year later, gave birth to a little boy named Tran Tien-Nam.

The family was based in the provincial capital of Quang-Nam. The name of this town was originally Hai Pho (Seaside Town) but was known as Faifoo during the French colonial period. Today, it is called Hội An and is World Heritage Listed by UNESCO since 1999.

In 1943, Tien-Thuoc left Faifoo and came to reside in Hue.

He was designated “Ta-Ly” (Chief Archivist) at the Royal library of Hue where he worked for 2 years. From 1945, Tien-Thuoc was officially retired but continued to pursue an important part-time role within this institution, over many years.

From 1946, the family lived in a “compartiment” (a one floor house, adjacent to other similar buildings) along the Phu-cam canal in the Southern part of Hue. This was the modern part of the city delineated by the Perfume River where government administrative buildings and the university were also situated.

My mum and her grandfather, Tran Tien-Thuoc

Tien-Thuoc playing with his grandchildren

In 1965, Tien-Thuoc moved to Saigon where his son had just been admitted to the Military School of Medicine. After suffering a bad fall several days earlier, Tien-Thuoc died of a cerebral embolism on 26 December 1967.

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5 March 2008

A Vietnamese Wedding

This is the story of my grandparents' wedding.
I wrote this in 2006 following an interview with my grandmother.
I have added some notes from the Candeau genealogy.

When Yves Candeau, a French civil officer posted in Vietnam, pleaded for Phuong Lan's hand, her father, Tran Tien Thuoc, imposed three strict conditions to the marriage:

1. they must continue to reside and work in Indochina for as long as possible
2. He must not teach Lan how to dance
3. He must not authorise Lan to ever cut her long hair

The engagement was celebrated on 28 May 1948, in the parental household. During this meal, Phuong Lan received her engagement ring. The purchase of this ring had not only engulfed all of Yves' meager savings but also a large part of his future salary.

Since her father had maintained that she should adopt her husband's religion, Phuong Lan, originally a Buddhist, was submitted to an accelerated training into the Catholic religion.

The civil ceremony took place in Hue town hall, on the morning of 26 June 1948. In the afternoon, the young couple received their nuptial benediction before presiding over a late lunch with their guests. For the occasion, the bride was decked out in traditional, ceremonial Vietnamese dress. Her hair was tied into a bun and crowned with a turban of yellow color. As in China, this color was restricted to the imperial family.

Yves Candeau and Phuong Lan
At 24, he was a year younger than his bride

My grandmother’s marriage to a Frenchman was opposed by many. The Vietnamese had a name for those Europeans who abused their country. They were called les petits blancs (the little white men). This derogatory stereotype while initially designating a sample of the European population in Vietnam, soon enough applied to the majority. Not surprisingly, and even today and all over the world, unchallenged negative schema continue to exist.

To put it bluntly, the French were the enemy. And as such, it was out of the question that any marital alliance between a well respected family, as that of my grandmother, should be forged with the enemy. On top of this was the general bitterness that the Vietnamese felt and which originated from one’s country being invaded and colonised by a foreign people whose civilised status was very much in question. As evinced by their perceived licentious lifestyle, their lack of respect for women and their cultural differences, as far as most locals were concerned, les petits blancs were anything but civilised.

To add fuel to the prejudice, my grandmother’s family knew of several incidences where Frenchmen, seemingly devoted to a local woman with whom they shared a de facto relationship while in the country, would nevertheless abandon her once they left Vietnam. Quite logically, it was supposed that my grandmother would meet the same fate once my grandfather decided to return to France. She would be abandoned.
I wonder perhaps whether the first condition, that Yves and Lan must remain in Indochina, was ingeniously formulated by her father to delay this eventuality or perhaps limit it from happening...

To return to our story, both French friends and the large Vietnamese family had been invited on this, the wedding day. But... the word had been given in the local community that attending Phuong Lan’s wedding would be to condone her behaviour and usher in a new era of rebellious young women who’d wed who they like with no regard for the family honour.

On 26 June 1948, it soon became apparent that my grandmother’s family was greatly outnumbered by the petits blancs. Most of the attendees were French. Phuong Lan’s various aunts, uncles and other relations had conveniently found themselves in some inextricable complication or illness and could not attend... They made dutiful contributions through the dispatching of gifts and cards but attend the ceremony, they did not.

While my noble grandfather would have tried to calmly absorb the general rejection with his detached melancholy air, all the while possibly cracking jokes and smiling ear to ear, my grandmother was deeply hurt. Her special day was not ruined because after all, she loved her new husband, but there was bitterness. On her wedding day, she could count her supporters on her fingers and they included: her father, her younger step-brother, her two cousins who, being part of her younger generation had perhaps a more lenient social attitude, and herself.

Back Row: Yves and Phuong Lan. Her father (with the glasses) is on the right with her step-mother.

Perhaps the most disheartening effect of the Vietnamese guests’ unanimous absence was felt by my great-grandfather. The mandarin's honour had been soiled. While he loved his daughter and wished for her happiness, he could not ignore the wound inflicted by this collective social disapproval. It was with great sadness that he approached my grandmother at the end of what should have been her glorious wedding day. She remembers his remark until today and how much this, more than anything, had hurt her:

- “It would have been better” he said, “if your cradle had overturned and fallen while you were still nursing.”

It was the beginning of reckoning and social loss for my grandmother. She remembers that a couple of days after her wedding, she was walking in the streets of Hue and caught a glimpse of her close friend approaching on the footpath. They had been to boarding school together for 4 years. Her friend, like many others, had not attended the wedding ceremony. But wanting to give her the benefit of the doubt, and with forgiveness in her heart, my grandmother tried to make contact.

As they neared each other and upon mutual recognition, her friend thought it most proper to avoid conversation with a social misfit and took great care to cross the road to the other footpath.
Years of friendship lost to social convention and fear.

To this day, these friends have never spoken again. And they have lost touch. My grandmother excuses her friend’s behaviour, saying that her father was later murdered by the Viet Cong. It may be that her friend’s reluctance originated from political fear. Fear of relating, even indirectly, to a Frenchman, a foreigner, in times when the Viet Cong were rapidly gaining supporters.

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Tran Tien Genealogy Index

Index of the Tran Tien Genealogy

A Vietnamese Wedding

Phuong Lan - Anecdotes

Courting Phuong Lan

Yves Candeau's Blog

Phuong Lan - Journey to Paris

Phuong Lan - A Vietnamese Woman in Paris

Origins: Migrants from China

Tran-Duong-Thuan - Cult name "Thi-Tho" (1611 - 1688)

Tran Hong (1681 - 1730)

Tran Ton (1675 - 1714)


Tran Vy (1715 - 1795)

Tran Sy Ich (1743 - 1814)

Tran Trieu Duc (1776 - 1825) - Prefect of Tan-Dinh


Tran Tien-Thanh (1813 - 1883) - Regent of the Annam Empire

New Beginnings

Tran Tien Dan (1850 - 1881)

Tran Tien Muu (1868 - 1911) - Chief of Nghe-An Province

Tran Tien Thuoc (1892 - 1967) - Chief Archivist of the Royal Library, Hue

2 March 2008

Human Quirks

There are a few human behaviors that I find fascinating albeit unnerving.

Forgetful Thieves:
This is what happens. You share a unique idea or fact with another person only to have them genuinely forget that these ideas/facts originate from you and a couple of days/weeks later, proudly repeating this information back at you, very proud of their ingenuity.
Forgetting a source is not an excuse for plagiarism!!!!
What bothers me is not that my idea has been prostituted but that I get little or no recognition for my originality or knowledge.
In life, you will frequently have to deal with people who babble on about things that you have previously told them but who manage to get all condescending on you while they teach you those very things...

Intellectual exhibitors:
This is another good one. These people endlessly expound on subjects that everyone already knows back to front. They enthusiastically brag about concepts that they've only just recently discovered. In their naivety, they believe that they are the only people on earth who are bright enough to have stumbled upon the information.
This trait seems common in the most extroverted, chatterboxes.
I only wish I knew how to shut them up.
The sad thing is that this sort of person religiously equates other people's silences with ignorance.

Clueless Rat-racers:
My favourite quirk.
These people race to achieve, but without any real desire or need.
They will fix themselves a goal solely because someone else values that goal.
For example, they may choose to fly to Ecuador (hypothetically speaking) simply because you have constantly expressed your wish to travel there.
They may not themselves value this intrinsically, but they will nevertheless make it a point to travel to Ecuador only because YOU wanted to.
Once there, they will promptly send you postcards and chirp about their colorful experiences because the act of going to Ecuador doesn't please them as much as making sure you know that they've been there.
The clueless rat-racer somehow believes that by doing things YOU value, they are outdoing you and can therefore feel better about themselves.
I seriously pity those people. A complete waste of a life.
But I chuckle thinking that they are also *very* easy to manipulate into doing the most sordid things that I wouldn't dream of doing myself.