Home > Local News > Postcards show Cambodia, sunny side up

Postcards show Cambodia, sunny side up

By Chris Bergeron


Phnom Penh, Cambodia, postcard of a royal dancer

—”Postcards are, of course, artifacts … They are clouds of fantasy
and pellets of imagination.” Susan Sontag, “On Photography”
Joel Montague isn’t your typical tourist who stays in 5-star hotels, visits a few landmarks in the capital and buys some gift shop postcards before flying home in business class.
A frequent expatriate, the Wellesley resident has spent much of the last 30 years in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, directing health and development programs for relief organizations and local governments.
the years, I’ve got to know my way around,” said Montague, relaxing in
his home decorated with Buddhist statues, African carvings and
paintings from the Middle East.
Cambodia where he runs a malaria control program for Partners for
Development, he traveled in September to a remote mountainous area,
still peppered with land mines, to visit the cremation site of dictator
Pol Pot whose Khmer Rouge regime killed millions of its own people.
has brought to light a sunnier side of Cambodia’s tormented history in
his recently-published second book, “Picture Postcards of Cambodia,
has chronicled the people, culture, arts and architecture of one of
Asia’s most exotic jewels as portrayed by French colonizers via
inexpensive postcards created for domestic consumption.
the early 1900s, Montague observed, 18,000 postcards were produced
depicting Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, which France ruled under the
popular name Indochina.
whose resume lists 20 countries where he’s worked, observed French
colonizers used postcards as a sort of “marketing tool” to justify
their self-proclaimed “civilizing mission” in Cambodia.
Published by White Lotus Press in Thailand,
his 327-page book provides a rare visual archive of Cambodian history
as revealed through about 650 black-and-white and color postcards in 16
categories such as “The Mekong River,” “The Monarchy” and “Khemer Dance
and Music.” Montague believes his collection of about 1,700
colonial-era postcards, purchased in flea markets and over the Internet, is the largest of its kind in the world.
a century in which Cambodia’s true history has been erased by
colonization and revolution, Montague wrote in his book’s introduction
that picture postcards provide “an ephemeral record of early
twenty-century Cambodia.”
Since first visiting Cambodia in 1991 after the Khmer Rouge’s overthrow and withdrawal
of the invading Vietnamese, Montague began acquiring postcards that
depicted the nation’s visual history as seen through Western eyes
during the first half of the 20th century.
postcards depict life there as the kind of Indochinese paradise that
has excited Westerners’ imagination since Marco Polo — and still does.
will see very little genuine interaction between French and Cambodians
in the postcards which seem, instead, to show two distinct worlds.
“In the eyes of the French,
Cambodians were like infants who needed their protection,” said
Montague. “Some postcards made a pretense at pseudo-science that saw
Cambodians as ‘types’ for anthropological study.”
In the postcards the French
built stately mansions while locals lived in picturesque villages.
French administrators built schools, hospitals and roads while monks in
robes lounged in temples.
French children wear costumes to catch butterflies or perform in plays while bare-breasted Cambodian women bathe or pose with a casualness not found in France.
in New York, Montague graduated from Oberlin University in 1956, earned
his masters degree from John Hopkins University and served in the U.S.
army. Since 1990, he has been trustee and chairman of the board of
Partners for Development which operates several health programs in
is married to Dr. Shahnaz Montague, a Framingham-based specialist in
internal medicine whom he met while working in Iran. They have two
adult children.
years ago, Montague wrote with Michael Vann “The Colonial Good Life: A
Commentary on Andre Joyeux’s Vision of French Indochina,” about a
French artist whose cartoons about turn-of-the-century life in Saigon were remarkably insightful.
In addition to postcards, Montague also collects pharmaceutical labels and shop signs which he has exhibited in the Wellesley Library.
historians, the most striking postcards in Montague’s book feature
photographs from 1905 of the majestic temple complex at Angkor Wat,
which was then being recovered from the jungle, and photos of
considerable artistry by French photographer Pierre Dieulefils who
captured many scenes of everyday life.
Montague is working on a book project about Scotsman John Thompson who was the first man to photograph Angkor Wat in 1866.
first visiting Cambodia 20 years ago, Montague has been intrigued by
the question of how people in such a devout Buddhist country
degenerated into such violent chaos.
looked at postcards all those years until I had a sort of gradual
awakening that helped me understand why they show Cambodia they way
they do and not the way it really is,” he said. “Cambodia went through
a horrible stretch of history, including the bombing along the border
by the U.S. during the Vietnam war. I hope this book could be helpful
in its small way by filling in some of its history.”
“Picture Postcards of Cambodia 1900-1950”
By Joel G. Montague
White Lotus Co., Bangkok
327 pages, $67.50
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