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"French memories in Malaysia"  

"(...) And suddenly, at the bottom of an abyss, here is the earth...My promised land! Malaya! This country of my youth, this immense country, mysterious,(...). This is the same emotion, the love at first sight of my first initiation. Conquered again, bewitched, I abandon myself to the spell, to the magic of things (...)."

Henri Fauconnier (1879-1973), Retour en Malaisie (Return to Malaya), Notes, 1957.

Sailors, planters, engineers, writers, numerous are the French who have loved the Malay Peninsula, its cultures and its people. Sometimes forgotten, often unknown, they have lived the history and the development of Malaya with fervour.

Thus, as far back as the 17th century, geographers have sketched somewhat approximate maps of the area. Then, at the end of the 19th century, an engineer, Jacques de Morgan while looking for tin deposits later run by French companies, drew the first map of Perak. His stay and his encounters with the local population made him a renowned ethnologist for his work on the Orang Asli.

It is also in the 19th century that researchers and missionaries became interested in the Malay language and wrote the first French-Malay dictionary, this work being often carried out along with educational and charitable actions.

At the dawn of the 20th century, young French men initially longing for adventures became planters. Cultivating rubber trees on the seaside, like Henri Fauconnier they soon realised the advantages of extending this type of plantation to the mountain areas, and most of all introduced oil palm tree cultivation in the region as early as 1912. Inspired by his experience, Fauconnier later wrote a novel, Malaisie (The Soul of Malaya) which was awarded the Goncourt prize in 1930. However, he did not remain the sole "planter - writer" as Pierre Boulle also published Le Sacrilège malais (Sacrilege in Malaya) in 1952 where he narrates his experience.

We could also mention the Terengganu carpenters originating from Brittany whose techniques in shipbuilding are still used today by their Malay descendants. Léon Dru who in 1882 had in mind the project of digging through the Krau Isthmus, the architect Emile Brizay who contributed to the edification of Central Market as well as two planters, Bunge and Grisar whose names gave the Bangsar district in Kuala Lumpur.


Henri Fauconnier and Franck Posth disembarked in 1905 in Singapore to become rubber tree planters. Michelin had just adapted tyres to cars, which set a high demand for rubber on the world market. The two friends promptly saw the multiple advantages here in Malaysia. They settled in Rantau Panjang beyond the Selangor River. This was to be the first plantation outside the swampy and poor lowlands of the coastal area. Henri Fauconnier will have his "Maison des palmes" (House of palm trees) built there in 1906. He founded in 1909 with his Belgian friend, Adrien Hallet and with the help of British capital, the Société des Plantations Fauconnier & Posth (the Fauconnier & Posth Plantations Society), that will become SOCFIN. In 1912, after a trip to Sumatra, a new adventure begun: Oil palm tree cultivation in Malaysia... In their foot steps, other French companies such as SAFIC-ALCAN, will settle in the Malay Peninsula.  

The House of the Palm Trees Henri Fauconnier. Hevea tapping, 1910 Packing up crepe rubber soles, 1920's "The French Planter"

Writing and painting

While these new explorers first came as planters, it is under the influence of Malaya's charms that they became poets, writers or painters in this land of inspiration...

Henri Fauconnier, as their precursor, published his first poems as soon as 1910 and his novel Malaisie (The Soul of Malaya) received the Goncourt Prize in 1930. His brother Charles, also a planter, devoted himself to painting, drawing and engraving. He illustrated one of the editions of his brother's novel. Pierre Boulle, also a planter with SOCFIN before and after the Second World War, is famous for his novel Le Pont de la rivière Kwai (The Bridge over the River Kwai). He found his inspiration in his Malay years to write Le Sacrilège malais (Sacrilege in Malaya) and Aux Sources de la rivière Kwai (To the Source of the River Kwai).

Illustration by Charles Fauconnier, Visions, 1948 Illustration by Charles Fauconnier, Visions, 1948 Henri and his brother Charles, House of the Palm Trees, 1922

Illustration of Malaisie, Henri Fauconnier Illustration of Malaisie, Henri Fauconnier
Exact, Human and social sciences

In 1884, whereas French companies were already extracting tin in the States of Malacca and Perak, the mining engineer Jacques de Morgan was systematically exploring the latter in order to find new veins. Nicknamed "Touan Kouat", "Strong Man", he travelled without neither luggage nor food supply, only living on fruits, drinking the sweet water from coconuts, stopping in villages to share the meals and the hospitality of the locals. In Klian Lalang, he found an extremely rich tin vein whose concession he obtained in exchange for his drawing the first water distribution map of the Kingdom of Perak for the British Governor. His stays among the aborigines led him to publish rich ethnographic studies on these areas and their environment.

In the 19th century, other pioneers such as Edouard Dulaurier and Aristide Marre have studied and edited passages of Malay literature. Later, in 1936, George Coedès published his studies on the ancient Malay State of Srivijaya. His works led naturally to the foundation of a branch of the Ecole Française d'Extrême-Orient (French School of the Far East) in Kuala Lumpur in 1988.

Arrival and weighing of tin Frenchmen working in tin mines, Kampar, 1930's

Malay language and PantouM

Pierre Favre (1812- 1887)

From the beginning, French writers and linguists have been attracted by the poetical form of expression of the Malay Pantoums. Early missionaries who settled in Penang soon faced considerable communication problems due to the heterogeneity of the local dialects. On this Malay land, where no language really stood out, the Bishop Garnault decided at the end of the 18th century, not only to learn Malay but also to teach the language. In 1875, Pierre Favre, Professor at "L'Ecole des Langues Orientales" (the School of Oriental Languages), published the first French-Malay dictionary, after a long stay in the Malay Peninsula.

Over the same period, France discovered the Malay Pantoum. Victor Hugo's Les Orientales (The Orientals) and Charles Baudelaire's Harmonie du soir (Evening Harmony) feature a framework traditionally used in Malay literature. Other poets such as Leconte de Lisle, Théodore de Banville and Paul Verlaine also tried their art in this genre described by Victor Hugo as a "delicious originality".

Education and Charity

In the early 1850's, the Missions étrangères de Paris (Paris Foreign Missions) sent representatives from two religious orders, les Dames de Saint-Maur (Sisters of Saint-Maur) and les Frères de la Salle (the de la Salle Brothers) to the Malay Peninsula. These representatives founded institutions dedicated to children instruction and education, particularly for orphans. Following the foundation of the first institutions in Singapore in 1853 and in Malacca in 1860, these centres progressively spread across the country: Kuala Lumpur and Taiping in 1899, Kota in 1903, Seremban in 1905, Ipoh in 1906, Johor in 1925 and Cameron Highlands in 1935. Some of these institutions still remain today with the same mission of educating poor and abandoned children.

Cour de récréation, Penang, années 1930 Enfants abandonnés, Penang, années 1930 Gymnastique, Penang, années 1930 Repas, Penang, années 1930

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