CAMARGUE RICE IN THE PRISONMay 9, 2018 Posted by Write about Le Ba Dang
December 10th, 2009 (from www.lexpress.fr)
Enlisting in the army, and being bullied…
The Indochinese soldiers were at last highly recognized in Arles, France; during the occupied time they were taken to the “white gold” zone, hence an incredible and unexplored story.
Camargue rice was associated with the image of cows and flamingos on the long-established postcards. Origins of this type of rice might vary, but little was known about its inception since World War II. Especially, the success in growing this cereal had obscured the buried shameful part of the colonial history. On December 10th, in Arles, the Mayor of Hervé Schiavetti (PCF) would be welcoming the former Indochinese labourers. This was the very first recognition by the French government.
On March 20th, 1940, a young man called Le Ba Dang arrived in Marseille. The excellent 18-year-old farmer was one of the few that had made a voluntary commitment to serve the “fatherland”. “It’s high time you escaped, since life in the colonial camps was terrible”, said that man, now an 88-year-old, to the “L’Express”. The images of a romantic, terrific, and magnificent France would quickly fade away. Right upon their arrival in France, he and his companions were sent to the Baumettes Prison in Marseille, most of them being forced to enlist. While waiting to be locked up in France, the Indochinese soldiers were packed into one cell by 6 people and then released. In Saint-Nazaire, the place where Le Ba Dang was working in a factory, he was imprisoned by the German and had to move a lot of times. His comrades and him were allowed by law to come home but the sea lines connected to Asia were all cut off by the British; so he was forced back into this land like 16,000 other Indochinese soldiers. Things started here. These “common labourers” were sent to the factory by Vichy, where disputes between them and the private labourers happened. They were given the hardest work for a salary ten times lower than their French co-workers. Having to sleep in a temporary shelter, they were the first victims of food shortages.
Le Ba Dang was transferred to Arles, Camargue with his fellow comrades. At this place, he succeeded in importing a new variety of rice into the region, after failing attempts since the 19th century. They lived in tents with no water, no electricity, and no toilets. There were about 500 workers of them wearing boots with feet dipped in water; they were surrounded by pests and insects. “Sometimes there were so many mosquitos that we could hardly see anything.”
Meanwhile, those in the same boat were making tires in Clermont-Ferrand, sawing woods in Cevennes, or electrifying Cahors-Montauban railways… “Over 90% of these labourers were forced to work by violence,” confirmed Mr. Pierre Daum, a journalist and also author of the first book on the history of Indochinese soldiers (1). Between 1939 and 1940, nearly 20,000 Indochinese, mostly Vietnamese, were sent to France due to lack of workers in the weapon factories. Although the authority had promised to return them home as soon as the war ended, the majority were seized at sea until 10-12 years later. A thousand people among them died in France as victims of illness and of discrimination. Several ones decided to stay and get married here.
The extraordinary story of Le Ba Dang didn’t stop there. In 1942, he was sent to the “training camp” in Lannemezan (Hautes-Pyrénées) after having a fight with a “young arrogant superior”. He managed to escape, hiding himself in a cargo truck. In 1943, he attended an art school in Toulouse. He knew next to nothing about painting, but it was “the only one school that accepted him”, he recalled. 5 years later, after graduation, Le Ba Dang won a competition on agricultural posters in Paris and began his career as a visual artist. In 1960, he became well-known all over the world. His works quickly found themselves in the United States, or even Japan. He donated his money to rebuild his fatherland, which was destroyed during the Vietnam War. Currently, there is a museum dedicated to him in Hue and he is now living in a very nice apartment in the 13th district of Paris.
In 2009, there were only some Indochinese soldiers at the age of 89 – 100 that were still alive. Pierre Daum managed to meet eleven of them in France and fourteen others in Vietnam. “It is essential to collect testimonies from these Indochinese soldiers before they passed away”, explained the author. December 10th marked the first community recognition of the forgotten historical story that had been put out in their family memory. As a farmer confessed to Pierre Daum, “Actually I remember very well that my grandfather had worked with Asian people…”
(1) Forced Immigrants, Indochinese Workers in France (1939-1952). Actes Sud, 278, €23.
WAR Under the permission of the Vichy government, around 500 Indochinese workers worked in paddy fields (1941) with a cheap salary.
FARMER Le Ba Dang arrived in France in 1940.
ARTIST Le Ba Dang became a famous visual artist in 2009.