"Like the delayed rays of a star": Photographs of Eurasian women “repatriated” to France (1947-2020)
The role of gender in the children’s upbringing
Although, in theory, “girls benefit[ted] from the same generous supervision as boys,” given that “the time is long since past when a woman can approach life without the means to hold a job that will allow her to provide for her needs” (1), the stories and trajectories of girls differed significantly from those of boys. In photos from FOEFI centers in Indochina, we can observe a difference in how girls and boys were photographed outside of the traditional class photos. The boys appear freer in their movements, walking in the street shirtless, etc. (fig. 16), whereas the girls, their instructors always nearby, often have more rigid postures (fig. 17).
In France, boys were usually sent to secular institutions run by the FOEFI itself, with staff to take care of cooking and cleaning, whereas girls were sent to religious institutions (overseen by a “women’s section” of the federation headed by Marguerite Graffeuil), where they were responsible for all household tasks.
As adults, these women have spoken about themselves publicly less often than the men, particularly in Grain de Riz, the newsletter of the FOEFI Association, created in 1987 by former center residents (2). Only a few Eurasian women have written in this newsletter or published and commented on photographs in it. Some of them feel that, overall, the boys were treated better than they were, although the boys complained about it more. There are also more testimonies from men in the documentary films that have been made on the subject (3). In the 2017 photographic exhibit curated by Sophie Hochart entitled “Le déracinement silencieux” [“The Silent Uprooting”], only 5 women are shown, in contrast to 34 men.
The boys who were trained by the FOEFI were intended to become valuable members of society who would maintain the connections that France had forged to overseas countries over the course of its long presence there. To that end, the FOEFI chose not to separate the boys and to educate them amongst themselves. In 1955, the organization purchased various properties, notably in the Loire Valley (fig. 18). The directors of the Vouvray and Semblançay centers had themselves lived in Indochina and were quite familiar with the situation of mixed-race children. As soon as the boys arrived, every effort was made to show them that they needed to begin a new chapter in their lives. Personal belongings that connected them to their origins were confiscated, and if they spoke Vietnamese they would be punished. Since primary education was provided at the centers, the children remained among themselves. The FOEFI had sufficient means to provide these boys and young men with education, training, and leisure activities (fig. 19).
The Saint-Rambert-en-Bugey abbey for girls
The first girls arrived in France the same year as the boys, in 1947. In 1949, about forty of them, aged between 8 and 10, left Vietnam and moved into the former abbey of Saint-Rambert-en-Bugey (Ain), in the village where Mother Jeanne was born. It was she who suggested buying this property to William Bazé (fig. 20). Bazé entrusted the abbey to the congregation of Notre-Dame-des-Missions and charged them with making it a home for Eurasian girls, saying that “it is necessary to supervise them closely, to provide them with the support of a caring, understanding, and maternal presence” (1). The federation provided for the wards who had been entrusted to it, but did not pay the nuns, who carried out their educational mission in pleasant surroundings, isolated in the countryside. Over 500 Eurasian girls thus were raised at the center that was referred to as “the abbey.” Many of them emphasize that there, they lived as “recluses”, without any connection to the outside world: no newspapers, television, or radio. There, “life was very austere,” as well as repetitive: wake up, chores, meal, study, lights out, dormitories closed—all usually in silence, with a schedule that had to be respected and which was marked by the sounds of bells and whistles (fig. 21).