A Little History of the French in Malaysia [fr]

The French have been much more present in Malaysia, in history, than we often think. Everyone knows that the Portuguese, the Dutch, and then the British were successive colonizers. But behind this institutional history, that of relations between states, where France did not finally earn its place in Malaysia until after independence, as an equal partner, there was also an exciting and abundant history: that of the men and women who came from France, settled in Malaysia and sometimes contributed crucially to the development of the country.

By telling the stories, undoubtedly more modest than the great history of the state powers, of the French who came individually to this country, we discover that deep and close ties have been woven between France and Malaysia over the centuries.

Follow us along the journey of some of these adventurers, some of whom have left exceptional traces which still persist in the Malaysia of the present day!

1- The First French Visitors

The first French to visit the Malaysian peninsula must have arrived in the second half of the 16th century. They are merchants, missionaries or adventurers, who generally only pass through Malacca - then a Portuguese possession, on their way to China or to Japan. At that period, "passing" by Malacca still meant, most of the time, making a stopover for several months, waiting for the winds to change direction to carry the sailing boats toward the South of the Malacca Straits, and then further East. The first visitors from France were therefore "non-residents", to use contemporary terminology, but they would nevertheless settle for a while in Malacca, one of the most developed cities in Asia.

French Catholic missionaries passing through generally waited patiently in Malacca for the continuation of their journey to the East. Malacca knew two distinct times for these travelers: the city was welcoming to them during the Portuguese period, because Catholics would help each other; but it became downright dangerous from 1641, when the city became Dutch and the persecutions against Catholicism were institutionalized.

As for the French traders, starting from the beginning of the 17th century, they were mostly interested in spices. They could sail down the Malacca Straits to pick up goods in the depots of the city, but they would also sometimes stop earlier, further North, for example in Langkawi, then also called Pulau Lada (Pepper Island). This was the start of an agricultural trade between France and Malaysia which remained flourishing and dominant until the mid-twentieth century. In terms of exports from Malaysia to France, traders came here primarily to look for spices (peppers, nutmeg, cloves, etc.). Then in the 19th century, with the first European plantations on the peninsula (and in particular with the first French plantations!), traders would be interested in purchasing sugar, tapioca, floral essences, and then of course rubber from the end of the 19th century, and finally palm oil (which is, again, a culture introduced into Malaya by a Frenchman, the famous Henri Fauconnier). Exports from Malaysia to France then started to be gradually supplemented by non-agricultural products such as tin, especially from the French mines of Perak, from the 1880s. From the mid-twentieth century, with progressive industrialization from Malaysia, manufactured goods gradually took over the agricultural trade.

On the French export side, our traders of course did not arrive in Malaysia with empty boats! Captain Montfort, commander of a merchant ship that came to Penang in 1850, gives us an idea of the French products which would flow there:

"We will place there advantageously and even quite easily fifty barrels of salt, twenty-five barrels of wine, fifty barrels of flour, as many cases of liqueurs, twenty barrels of brandy. Beyond that, anything we bring from France would be in danger of being wasted."

From the beginning of the 19th century, a triangular trade also developed which involved Penang, the French islands of the Indian Ocean, Bourbon Island (today Reunion Island) and Ile de France (today Mauritius, now an independent state). In 1837, the French government frigate L’Artémise, which navigated around the world, among others to collect trade and scientific data, noticed the presence in the port of Penang of three boats coming from the Reunion Island, and which sold wines, alcohol and food in Penang, then would leave empty to Burma in order to load wood and rice to meet the needs of the Reunion. But we should also note an interesting reversal in the direction of the spice trade: by the middle of the 19th century, French traders also came to Penang to sell cloves from Bourbon Island!

Fort Cornwallis, in Penang, as seen from the French frigate L’Artémise, in 1837

The first French to come to Malaysia were therefore, chronologically, traders and missionaries, but then came other adventures, and other objectives: planters, engineers, scientists, representatives of the French government, investors, artists and writers discovered Malaysia in turn, stopped here, settled down, developed their activities and thus forged the links that bring the two countries together today. We will present some of these individual stories that have contributed to our collective history. Some of these protagonists are already very famous, like for example the writer Pierre Boulle, but we will present less known aspects of their history. Other characters are largely or completely unknown, but some have left a deep mark on Malaysia, or have left us particularly interesting testimonies. Let’s meet them, following the journey of the French people in Malaysia since the 17th century!

2- Alexandre de Rhodes (1591-1660)

The first French people to really settle in Malaysia, as "residents", were Catholic missionaries, starting from 1782. They were the bearers of an incredible history, and their impact on the development of Malaysia was considerable, through the network of schools they founded all over the country and which still operate today. But before that, before the period of settlement in the country, the first French missionaries were only passing through Malacca, on the road to China or Japan.

This is, for example, the experience of Alexandre de Rhodes, a Catholic missionary, member of the Society of Jesus, who called at Malacca in 1622. There he was in the Portuguese city, forced to stay for 9 months to wait for the winds to change direction in order to continue his journey to Japan. At that time, it sometimes took several years to go from Europe to China, and you would only arrive at your destination alive, after facing storms and diseases, with a bit of luck...

Here are some extracts from Alexandre de Rhodes’s observations in Malacca.


"On the twenty-eighth of July 1622, we landed happily at the port of Malaque, where I was obliged to stop for nine whole months, because the winds proper to go to China had already ceased. The reader will be glad that I say briefly what I saw remarkable in this city so renowned. […]

When I entered there, I found a very beautiful city which the Portuguese had built, with a very strong and well-furnished citadel. There were several richly decorated churches, where the devotion of the people was admirable. There were only five parishes there, but the monasteries of the monks were much more numerous. The college of our Society was large and filled with several great figures, who did great good for this whole city, where foreigners came from everywhere. "

Alexandre de Rhodes therefore perceived Malacca as a kind of paradise on earth, in particular for French Catholics, well received by the Portuguese Catholic power (sharing the same religion is not however a guarantee of harmony, and the battle of influence between the French and the Portuguese in Asia would rage shortly after!). Father de Rhodes was also very favorably impressed by the fruits of Malacca:

"When I was once at a table, where I had been invited, I counted eleven of various kinds of very good fruits that I had never seen or heard of. There are whole forests of these beautiful palms which are called coco and which are so famous because with these trees you can build, equip, provision and load a ship, as all the stories of the Indies tell us. But I find there is something quite admirable that few people have noticed. It is that to make these trees very fertile, men must live under their branches. I do not know if it is the breath of men that serves them, or if there is some secret sympathy between the two, that nature has hidden from us.

I don’t want to say anything about the other fruits which are found as well in the rest of the Indies, as in Malaque, the pineapples, the jambi as big as apples, very healthy, the mangoes roughly similar to peaches, but they are salted like olives, Indian figs, which last all year round and are longer and not as big as ours. The star fruit is as big as our biggest plums, the shape and the color are different but it has almost the same taste. Papayas are like little melons, but they come on trees and they almost all come out together.”

And Alexandre de Rhodes is probably the first Frenchman in history to explain to his compatriots, and with enthusiasm, what is the most beautiful of all fruits: the "durion"!

“The most beautiful of all these fruits is the durion, which is only found in the lands of Malaque. It is as big as our biggest pavies (note: probably a variety of peach). It has a very hard skin, and inside it is full of thick, sweet white liquor. It is entirely similar to blancmange, which is served at the best tables in France. It is a very healthy and very delicate thing that one can eat. "

De Rhodes ultimately did not reach Japan, but he continued his Asian mission to Vietnam, where he contributed to the Romanization of the Vietnamese language. Back in Rome, he promoted missionary work in Asia, prefiguring the creation of the Missions Etrangères de Paris (Paris Foreign Missions Society), which subsequently played an essential role in the development of the French Catholic presence in the region, in particular in Malaysia.

3- An anonymous missionary

During the Dutch period (from 1641 to 1824), Malacca changed entirely in the eyes of French Catholic missionaries passing through. From heaven on earth, it rather changed into hell ... The tension was then very great between France and Holland; religious strife, commercial competition and the political situation in Europe combined to make the stopover particularly dangerous for the missionaries. Travelers were actually aware of the necessary caution: it was better to stay on their boat - even if they had to spend several months there, to hide their religious clothes and dress like a common man, and to have daily necessities brought to them by men on board who ran less risk by going onshore.


But our anonymous French missionary, who gave his testimony in the review "Le Mercure Galant" in January 1691, thought he had obtained the assurance that he would not be harmed if he went to Malacca. He had, indeed, to do some shopping...

"Being informed by a Portuguese merchant from Malaque who came onboard, we heard no news of war. As we necessarily had to make for ourselves Chinese clothes, otherwise we could not enter China, we addressed Mr. Chabandar (note: it is the shahbandar, the master of the port since the Sultanate of Melaka), to find out if the Governor would allow us to enter the city, to buy the things necessary for our trip. The Governor made us answer that we could enter and be safely in the city to do what we wanted, and two hours after having brought us to his house, he put us in the hands of the Major of the Fort who told us that the Governor was holding us prisoners of war because some Company vessel coming to India had been taken by vessels from Dunkirk. We were put in the guardhouse of a bastion named under the Portuguese "of the Eleven Thousand Virgins" and since by the Dutch "Henriette". This is where we were kept very tightly for seven months. […]

I must not forget here the obligation we have to a good Catholic from Malaque named Francisco Rodrigo, and to his family. For if these good people, despite their poverty, had not undertaken to feed us, with the little that the Gentlemen of the Company provided us we would have been very sorry for our subsistence. Malaque is the most expensive country in the Indies. The Dutch, in order to attract all commerce to Batavia, ruined that of Malaque, although it has the best location in the Indies for grand commerce. There are still in Malaque about nine hundred Catholics, all of them Portuguese of the Indies, led by a good priest from Goa who is unknown there to the Dutch, who impose big fines onto these poor people when they catch them making assemblies or having Mass."

After 7 months in prison in Malacca, this anonymous missionary was brought to Batavia (Jakarta) and finally forced to board a boat to return to Holland. We do not know if he eventually reached China...

4- Pierre Poivre (1719-1786)

Born in Lyon, in a family of relatively humble silk weavers, Pierre Poivre was a missionary for a time, then a trader. He eventually worked for the Ministry of Marine, and became the Deputy Governor of the Ile de France (now Mauritius Island). He pursued an ambition: to break the Dutch monopoly on spices and to develop, on Mauritius, an agriculture for export which could compete with the products of the "Indies". In his botanical garden, now called "Jardin de Pamplemousse", Pierre Poivre collected plants from Asia and Africa with the aim of acclimatizing them, then launching cultivation on a large scale. This man, altogether administrator, scientist and farmer was part of the Enlightenment movement and he therefore was also opposed to slavery, which deserves to be emphasized.

Pierre Poivre traveled to Malaysia, and in 1768 he even sent there His Majesty’s Corvette "Le Vigilant", on a mission to Port Queda (Kuala Kedah) to smuggle out plantlets of nutmeg trees, behind the back of the Dutch and with the complicity of Bugis merchants. It was a secret mission, entrusted to Poivre by the Minister of Marine, the Duke of Praslin, in person. This mission ultimately failed, but Poivre later managed to procure and acclimatize many commercial plants in Mauritius and Reunion - to the point that, half a century later, it was the Reunion Island which exported its cloves to Penang. His personal observations on the Malaysian peninsula, published in 1768 in a book entitled "Voyages of a Philosopher", are particularly penetrating! He wrote about agriculture, of course, but also about the political system of the time, about which he made a fairly harsh judgment - it was the idealistic judgment of a philosopher of the time, and of a man of the Enlightenment, who saw in the feudal political system the source of the decline of a civilization.


“This country was once very populated and therefore well cultivated. The people who inhabited it formed a considerable power, and played a brilliant role in Asia. It covered the sea with its ships and carried on an immense trade. It apparently had other laws than those that govern it today. A multitude of colonies emerged at different times, which populated step by step the islands of Sumatra, Java, Borneo, and Celebes or Macassar, of the Moluccas, the Philippines and the countless islands of this whole archipelago, which bounds Asia in the Levant. […]

All the inhabitants, at least those of the coasts of these islands are the same people, they speak almost the same language, they have the same laws and the same customs. It is quite peculiar that this nation which occupies such a considerable part of the earth is hardly known in Europe. […]

The Malays are governed by feudal laws, by these bizarre laws imagined to defend, against the power of one, the freedom of the few, by consigning the multitude to slavery. They have the mores, the customs and the prejudices that these laws give.

A chief who bears the title of King or Sultan, commands great vassals who obey when they want. These have back-vassals, who often treat their superiors similarly. A small part of the nation lives independent under the title of Oramçai (orang kaya) or noble, and sells its services to whom pays them best, that is to say that the body of the nation is composed of serfs , and lives in slavery.

With such laws, the Malays are a disquiet people, fond of navigation, war, plunder, emigrations, colonies, reckless enterprises, adventures, gallantry. They speak incessantly of honor, of bravery, and in truth they pass among those who frequent them, for the most treacherous and fiercest people there is on earth; and what seemed very strange to me was that they speak the softest language in Asia. […]

More attached to the senseless laws of their alleged honor, than to those of justice and humanity, we always see among them the strong attacking the weak. Their peace and friendship treaties never last beyond the interest that made them do it. They are always armed and always at war with one another or busy plundering their neighbors. […]

The land owned by the Malays is generally of very good quality. Nature seems to have enjoyed placing the most excellent productions there. We see all the delicious fruits that I said to be found in the territory of Siam and a multitude of other pleasant fruits that are specific to these islands. The countryside is covered with fragrant woods, such as eagle or aloe wood, sandalwood and cassia odorata, a kind of cinnamon. You can breathe in a fragrant air with a multitude of pleasant flowers that follow each other all year round, and whose sweet smell penetrates to the soul, and inspires the most seductive pleasure. There is no traveler who, while walking in the countryside of Malacca, does not feel invited to fix his stay in a place so full of amenities, whose nature pays all the costs. […]

In the midst of all these gifts of nature, the Malays are miserable. The cultivation of land abandoned to slaves, is an art despised. These unhappy cultivators, ceaselessly wrested from field work by disquiet masters, who prefer to employ them in war and in maritime expeditions, rarely have the time and never the courage to give their lands good plowing. The country remains almost fallow; it is not made to produce rice, or the grains necessary for the subsistence of its inhabitants. "

Despite this harsh judgment, despite the role played by Pierre Poivre to remove from the region his monopoly on the cultivation of spices, this botanist may have contributed indirectly, without knowing it, and a century and a half later, to the development of the agriculture in Malaysia. Indeed, it would seem that the oil palm seeds, used for the first time in a commercial plantation by Henri Fauconnier in Selangor, in 1917, came from palm trees of the botanical garden of Bogor in Indonesia, and that these had actually their origin in the collection of Pierre Poivre’s garden in Mauritius! It would be a great story, but we’re not entirely sure it’s true - so we’re appealing to the goodwill of historians to piece together the journey of oil palm to Malaysian plantations!

5- Joseph Donadieu ( ? – 1850)

There were many famous French planters in Malaysia. Henri Fauconnier was one of them of course. He arrived in 1905 to participate in the rubber adventure, and his estate was at the origin of one of the largest agricultural enterprises in Malaysia (SOCFIN). He was also the first ever to establish a commercial plantation of oil palm in this country, and on top of all this, he received in 1930 France’s highest literary prize – the Goncourt prize - for his magnificent novel "Malaisie", a superb exploration of the soul of the country. Everyone should read this essential novel, recently reprinted in French by Editions du Pacifique, which remains available in English under the title "The Soul of Malaya" and which has just been translated into Bahasa Malaysia, under the tital "Nurani Tanah Melayu" by Muhammad Haji Salleh. Pierre Boulle, another French planter in Malaysia, was a SOCFIN employee between 1936 and 1948, and is the world famous author "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and "Planet of the Apes".


But before the planters of the 20th century, there was a first generation of French planters who arrived in Malaysia in the 1840s. They are much less known, but they too have had a profound impact on the development of agriculture, especially on the mainland part of Penang (formerly called Province Wellesley, and now Seberang Perai).

Joseph Donadieu, whom I chose to represent these planters, is not the most famous of his generation either. We could have talked about Chasseriau and his sons, or Hardouin, who both succeeded very well in their business and left behind a small agricultural dynasty. But Joseph Donadieu may have been the first French planter to settle in Malaysia. In 1841, this pioneer arrived from the Ile de France (now Mauritius) and obtained a concession from the British authorities in Province Wellesley, just opposite the island of Penang. His intention was originally only to come to Penang to recruit coolies, but he was “so struck by the possibilities of the place, its soil, its climate, its workforce..." that he decided to settle down; and therefore he acquired an estate in Jawi. He is considered to be the first to plant sugar in Province Wellesley. He had to clear the forest, recruit labor (Chinese and, already, Tamil), plant, and then try to generate profits. French planters of the 19th century did not yet cultivate rubber trees (whose market only developed toward the end of the century) but rather at first sugar cane, before diversifying their production: tapioca, coconut, rice, fruit and even various flower essences.

Two years after his arrival, Donadieu was already well established. Here is what the British captain Henry Keppel, who visited him in 1843, wrote:

“Our object was to visit an enterprising Frenchman, who had penetrated miles into the dense jungle and opened up a sugar plantation. We landed from the (small steamer ship) Diana at the mouth of a small creek, up which we had to paddle some eight miles. On landing, an elephant awaited us, fitted with a double howdah. We were received by Monsieur and Madame Donadieu. From the landing place, with the exception of the 12-foot-wide road, was a jungle, where the relations of the Bengal tiger might be concealed within a foot of where we were. We found our hosts’ bungalow prettily situated on rising ground, cleared all round for a quarter of a mile of the dense jungle, and protected by a substantial iron fence. The inside of the building was a perfect bijou; you could fancy yourself within hail of Paris. Our dinner, too, was perfection, including a Malay curry.”

Donadieu lived for 9 years on his land, in his plantation of Jawi then in that of Val d´Or - a French name, meaning “Golden Valley”, which has remained until today, under the form of "Kampung Val d´Or". He had a troubled life and a tragic end - a few years after being accused of murder (and acquitted), he himself was murdered near his plantation in 1850.

It is interesting to note that the development of agriculture in the middle of the 19th century already raised the question of preserving the environment and that of deforestation. The frigate L’Artémise was a French government ship which sailed around the world between 1837 and 1840. Here is what her captain, Mr. Laplace, wrote in 1848, recalling the impressions he felt when he saw trees being felled on Penang Island:

"In recognizing all around the ravages of the ax, in seeing a large number of these old hosts of the forest, formerly the pride of this district and the object of the admiration of its visitors, ignominiously knocked down at my feet, to make room for weak nutmeg trees, I became interested in the ones which still existed and I ardently hoped that they would remain for a long time, in their impregnable positions, sheltered from such a fate.

But would they escape the rage of clearing that seemed to have taken hold of the settlers of Poulo Pinang? I dared not believe it when I observed, on the steep slopes of the neighboring mountains, these long reddish areas announcing that the planters, that is to say iron and fire, had passed there. […]

All the educated people of the colony, called by their position or by their talents to occupy the first ranks of society, also blamed this fury of clearing, which will have as result, if it is not soon contained within just bounds, the complete denudation of the highlands, consequently the drying up of the streams which fertilize the plain; and, even more, will undoubtedly cause unfavorable changes in the climate of Poulo Pinang ”.

This text was written in 1848. It is striking to observe that the debate has hardly changed, more than a century and a half later. And it is striking to see how right Captain Laplace was: the clearing is almost finished, and the climate has indeed undergone "unfavorable changes", but all this on a worldwide scale and not only in Penang...

French planter at Bukit Tambun (perhaps Hardouin), photo by Jules Claine, 1890s (Bibliothèque Nationale de France / Gallica collection))

6- Claire Panot (1827-1861)

It is a little-known French nun whom I have chosen to present here, a little sister rather than a great bishop or a Mother Superior. And yet we don’t know much about her life. But she represents, in my eyes, the dozens of Infant Jesus Sisters who have lived in Malaysia since the middle of the 19th century and have bequeathed this country an exceptional educational heritage.

The history of French Catholic missionaries in Malaysia is a history of churches and schools. The Paris Foreign Missions Society (Missions étrangères de Paris, or MEP) was founded in the 17th century to evangelize Asia. In Malaysia, the first MEP Fathers arrived in 1782 in Kuala Kedah (which was then called Port Queda in French). They received protection there from the Sultan of Kedah, at a time when the Kingdom of Siam had just prohibited Catholicism. The French MEP Fathers, from these modest beginnings, gradually developed their activities to the point of establishing in total, in a century and a half, dozens of churches throughout the peninsula, for the benefit of the Chinese and Indian communities in particular, but also of some aboriginal communities, near Malacca and Seremban in particular. From 1852, the MEP Fathers also took the habit, for each established church, to call to their help missionary orders specialized in educational action so that they would open schools for girls and boys, orphanages... It is this complementarity between the MEP Fathers and the educational missionary orders which explains the rapid development of the French Catholic network in Malaysia.

The Church of St. Anthony, in Kuala Lumpur, one of the many churches built in Malaysia by the Fathers of the Paris Foreign Missions Society

Claire Panot was born in 1827 in Haute Garonne. She entered religion, joined the teaching congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Infant Jesus and took the religious name "Sister Saint Euthyme". She arrived in Penang in 1852, part of the very first group of Infant Jesus Sisters to land in Malaysia. The trip, back then, was extraordinarily trying. Of the five sisters who had left France, only three actually arrived at their destination. One of them died during the trip, another left the congregation upon arriving in Singapore. Claire herself had been injured on the boat by a beam which had fallen during a storm. We know that she died in 1861 in Penang.

But as anonymous as she may be today in the wider historical picture, she did in 1852 actually take part in this essential project: the foundation of the first school for girls established in Malaysia, and perhaps the first ever in Southeast Asia. Convent Light Street, the first educational institution founded by the French Infant Jesus Sisters in Malaysia, served as a model for more than 60 schools established all over the peninsula by the Sisters between 1852 and the mid-twentieth century. These Convent Schools, where girls were taught regardless of ethnicity or religion, still operate today and often remain the most reputable schools in their city. They have had an extremely profound impact on the history of women and their education in Malaysia. The French origin of these schools has been largely forgotten, in part no doubt due to their nationalization in the 1970s. But it is nevertheless a contribution to the development of education in Malaysia of which the French can be proud. Over 60 boys’ schools were also founded across the country by the French La Salle Brothers, and a few other congregations, bringing the number of mission schools established in Malaysia by the French to over 120.

Convent School Pulau Tikus (Penang), one of the more than 60 schools founded by the Infant Jesus Sisters in Malaysia

The Infant Jesus Sisters were adventurers: they left their homeland in the prime of life, to faraway countries - months away by boat to Malaya, accepting the risks of a trying journey, with no real prospect of return. They had to be equipped with an iron will; they also had to learn enough English to teach in that language, and Malay, Chinese or Tamil to communicate with the community. And then they were basically “entrepreneurs”, and today we would say “startuppers”, starting from scratch, with one or two sisters, to set up educational businesses, looking for local funding, recruiting and training teachers, and ultimately managing to establish educational institutions that have become among the most influential in the country. Many of them dedicated their entire lives to this educational work. Over a century, between 1850 and 1950, 57 sisters born in France died in Malaysia. But the result is worth the sacrifice. Convent Light Street Penang, Convent Bukit Nanas Kuala Lumpur, Convent Infant Jesus Johor Bahru, Main Convent Ipoh…: these symbols of educational excellence, these schools whose alumni form the elite of the Malaysian society, were created by French Sisters, and it is high time to let people know! The extraordinary history of French missionary schools in Malaysia was recently compiled by Hélène Ly-Batallan, and you can consult it here: consulter here.

Bukit Nanas, in Kuala Lumpur. On this hill French missionnaries founded a girl’s school (Convent Bukit Nanas) and a boy’s school (St John’s Institution)

7- Jacques de Morgan (1857-1924)

A freshly graduated mining engineer later devoted to a great career as an archaeologist in Egypt and Persia, Jacques de Morgan was still very young when he arrived in Perak in 1884, at the age of 27. He was put in charge, by a French company, of a mission of prospection of investment opportunities in tin mining. At the same time, and in exchange for the promise of a concession made by the British Resident Swettenham, he also undertook to draw up a precise cartography of the regions he crossed, which had not yet been well documented. But not content with taking on these two missions, he added on to that, out of passion for knowledge, a personal work of ethnography dedicated largely to the Aboriginal populations (Orang Asli) of the mountain areas he travelled.

His fine observations, his splendid drawings of the region and of its inhabitants reached us thanks to the notebooks which he carried with him in the perilous expeditions led for several months in the jungle of Perak. A wonderful book was published in France in 2003 by the National Center for Scientific Research, taking up all of Morgan’s observations in his "Exploration in the Malay Peninsula". The first months of 2020 allowed us to give wider access, in Malaysia itself, to this fascinating story. Indeed, the Alliance Française de Kuala Lumpur and the French Embassy in Malaysia organized, thanks to the superb work of Antonio Guerreiro, an exhibition retracing the journey of Jacques de Morgan through his documents and drawings. His Royal Highness Sultan Nazrin Muizzuddin Shah ibni Almarhum Sultan Azlan Shah, Sultan of Perak Darul Ridzuan, did us the honor of inaugurating this exhibition in January 2020. This exhibition will thereafter circulate in several cities in Malaysia. In addition, a superb English version of the 2003 book has just been published by the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, from which the book can be ordered directly (www.mbras.org.my). Finally, it is strongly recommended that the reader follow Jacques de Morgan’s journey on the beautiful webpages devoted by the French Ministry of Culture to the man and his life, and more particularly those devoted to his work in Perak: https://archeologie.culture.fr/jacques-morgan/fr/voyage-malaisie (click, at the bottom of the page, on "Morgan’s exploration" to follow him day after day in his wanderings – in French).

The Sungai Raya river, close to Simpang Pulai village, in Perak, drawn by Jacques de Morgan in 1884, and photographed today

The aim of these publications and exhibitions in Malaysia is to share with the population precious French sources on the history of their country. Jacques de Morgan’s observation on the Orang Asli of Perak is marked by the deep humanism of this young engineer, who approaches his interlocutors with interest and respect, contrasting with the colonial spirit and the feeling of superiority which prevailed at the time among large numbers of Europeans. This quality also counts for a lot in the value of his testimony.

The explorations of Jacques de Morgan could serve as the basis for a very beautiful touristic route in Perak, a heritage and cultural trail, based on observations made in 1884 along Morgan’s path, and allowing visitors, Malaysians and foreigners, to get closer to the nature as well as to the aboriginal populations of the region, and to immerse themselves in its historical roots. This is a suggestion we make to anyone who wants to take it up!

Inauguration of the Jacques de Morgan Exhibition at the Alliance Française de Kuala Lumpur, in January 2020, in the presence of His Royal Highness the Sultan of Perak et of Her Royal Highness Princess Zatashah of Selangor, President of Alliance Française

8- Brossard – Mopin

Jules Brossard and Eugène Mopin may never have come to Malaysia, but they founded a construction company, based in Saigon, then French Indochina, in the 1880s. Forty years later, in the 1920s, the company had extended its activities to the whole of Asia and was a pioneer of reinforced concrete architecture, allowing architects to give free rein to their imagination thanks to the solidity of these new techniques.

In Malaysia, the Brossard Mopin firm and its French engineers constructed some of the most prestigious buildings of the time, which are still today icons of the country’s architecture: the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Johor Bahru, in 1921 (in which the statue of the Virgin Mary is a gift from the Sultan of Johor); the "new wing" of the Eastern & Oriental hotel in Penang, in 1929; the Mercantile Bank of India building in Ipoh in 1931; the magnificent palace of the Sultan of Perak in Kuala Kangsar in 1933; and even the new central market in Kuala Lumpur in 1937.

The history of the French imprint on architecture in Malaysia is being written at the moment. It will be exciting!


9- Jeanne Cuisinier (1890-1964)

Jeanne Cuisinier was a French ethnologist, a great figure of the social sciences of her time, who spent almost two years in Kelantan in the early 1930s, and wrote two fundamental, learned books on magic dances and on shadow theater of Kelantan. She lived an intense human experience in Malaya, befriending members of the royal families as well as Aboriginal communities, and she brought back valuable insights into Kelantan’s society and traditions.


We have lived with her a true intellectual adventure since 2018. Indeed, while we were preparing an exhibition telling her story, for a special program on Kelantan at the George Town Festival, we came across, among the archives of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, the manuscripts of exceptional conferences that Jeanne Cuisinier gave on French radio, in the 1930s, to explain Malaya to the general French public. And so we decided to publish these conferences, translating them into English, in the form of a small book which gives the Malaysian public access to the experience and observations of Jeanne Cuisinier! Released in bookstores in November 2019 by the publisher Buku Fixi, the book is called "What I Saw in Malaya" and is now available from bookstores or online.


Malaysian writer Chuah Guat Eng paid tribute to Jeanne Cuisinier and to this little book by publishing an article in the daily newspaper The Star, recommending the book as "vital" read for Malaysians. These texts show how much French people such as Jeanne Cuisinier took an interest in Malaysia, a country they loved deeply. These testimonies of the past, seen from an outsider’s perspective, may perhaps provide useful insights to the contemporary Malaysian society when it is looking, as we all are in a world that changes too quickly, for its roots and its identity.

You will find an introduction to the story of Jeanne Cuisinier in Kelantan on the following page of the French Embassy’s website.

And we offer here the following suggestion: it would be fascinating to take visitors in the footsteps of Jeanne Cuisinier. From traditional dance to regional cuisine, including aboriginal populations, following this exceptional guide from 1934 to meet the Kelantan of today would provide a great opportunity to develop cultural tourism and to preserve the arts, dances and traditional music of the region!

10- Pierre Boulle (1912-1994)

Pierre Boulle is one of the two great French writers who spoke of Malaysia in their literary work in the 20th century, alongside Henri Fauconnier of whom we have already spoken. Pierre Boulle is very famous in the world thanks to his two star novels, "Planet of the Apes" and "The Bridge on the River Kwai", whose adaptations to the cinema gave him his international fame. But very few people, including in Malaysia, know that he has lived and worked in this country twice, for 5 years in total. Even fewer know that he has written three novels of which Malaysia is the backdrop. And even less that he was a member of the Free French in Malaysia during the Second World War.

Pierre Boulle worked as an employee of the large French rubber plantations SOCFIN, before and after the Second World War. At the time, he had not yet started his literary career. But this Malaysian experience deeply fed his inspiration. This is the case, directly, for "Le sacrilège malais", written in 1951 and whose action takes place in SOCFIN plantations. Two other of his novels also draw their inspiration directly from Malaysia: "Les voies du salut", published in 1958, whose story takes place during the period of anti-communist "emergency"; and "Le malheur des uns", one of his last works, published in 1990, a much darker novel, which describes the cynicism of a French latex producer, owner of plantations in Malaysia, vis-a-vis the profits he can draw from the AIDS epidemic. Pierre Boulle also explained that his stay in Malaysia had provided him with many elements to fuel other novels, including "The Planet of the Apes", which benefited from his observations in the jungle.

Another very little known aspect of Pierre Boulle’s life is his commitment to the French Resistance during the Second World War. Malaya, which remained British until its occupation by the Japanese army at the beginning of 1942, in fact hosted small cells of "Free French" (in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Ipoh), who rallied General de Gaulle early and carried out solidarity actions, for example by raising funds in the community. Pierre Boulle led a particularly adventurous expedition to try and infiltrate French Indochina, then controlled by the Vichy regime. Boulle, who had at first been called from Malaya to be mobilized in Indochina at the start of the war, had joined the Free French in August 1941 in Singapore, after his demobilization. The local organization was chaired by François de Langlade, SOCFIN managing director and General de Gaulle’s representative in British Malaya.

In the summer of 1942, Boulle was charged with a mission consisting in smuggling into Indochina to help organize resistance to the French authorities loyal to Pétain. Leaving with Langlade, both equipped with false identities and masquerading as British, they made an incredible journey to reach Indochina by land, passing through Burma and China. Pierre Boulle ended the trip alone with a hazardous project of successive descent, on a makeshift raft, of the Nam Na river, the Black River then the Red River in order to reach Hanoi. After four days of descent, having escaped drowning several times, Boulle had barely crossed the border and entered French Vietnam when he was arrested by the police. He spent two years in the jails of the Vichy regime in Hanoi, until November 1944. He recounted this extraordinary adventure in an autobiographical book entitled "The Source of the River Kwai" – as indeed once again, it is in this personal journey through Southeast Asia that he drew inspiration for one of his most famous novels. Little is known about the history of the Free French in Malaya. We hope that a historian will take a closer look at these interesting moments and bring them back to life!

The three "Malaysian novels" of Pierre Boulle are worth reading. They each bear witness to a different era and are all imbued with the particular look, both empathetic and incisive, that Boulle had on his contemporaries. "Le sacrilège malais" was recently reissued in French by Editions du Pacifique; the other two may still be available as second-hand books. In English, "Le sacrilège malais" was published under the title "Sacrilege in Malaya" or "S.O.P.H.I.A"; and "Les voies du salut" was published in English under the title "The Other Side of the Coin". These novels can be found as second-hand books. Pierre Boulle’s novels on Malaysia definitely deserve a reprint in English!


11- A journey through the French history of Penang

In 2020, the French Embassy in Malaysia, in partnership with Think City and the Alliance Française de Penang, launched a heritage trail to lead visitors into the discovery of sites of French memory in Penang - on the island and on the mainland Seberang Perai. The project consists in allowing a dive into these individual stories of French people who, since the end of the 18th century, have contributed to the collective history of Penang. And through this journey, it is about offering Penangites as well as Malaysian and foreign tourists a concrete approach to the history of the city and its expatriate communities over more than two centuries.


Indeed, French people arrived very early in Penang, and they actively participated in the development of the city - and, from Penang, in the development of Malaysia. There were of course the Catholic missionaries, who arrived in the first months after the creation of George Town in 1786, and who built not only churches but above all very many schools, for boys and girls, and who branched out from Penang all over the peninsula. There were also the first French planters, who arrived in the 1840s, long before the rubber boom. And then there are many other French stories in Penang, sometimes tragic like the sinking of the destroyer Le Mousquet during the First World War, and fortunately often much more joyful stories, as for example with the twinning established in 2018 between Penang and the French city of Arles, both listed as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO!

The maps and documents of the “Penang French Heritage Trail”, published and disseminated widely on the internet, will allow everyone to grasp these stories. It is another opportunity to remind everyone how much France and Malaysia have in common, and how closely we have been forging ties for so long!

Frédéric Laplanche
My gratitude to Serge Jardin for his thorough proofreading

Latest modification 13/07/2020

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