Vietnam 100 years ago: the Cochinchinese gentleman


The Cochinchinese gentleman, like his prototype among other and more enlightened nations, generally exhibits in his physique and manners the evidences of superior breeding.

When nature has had fair play, he is taller and more erect than the average specimens of his countrymen of the humbler orders, while they are
infinitely his superior in muscular development.

He has never done a day’s work in his life. His hands are small, well formed, and soft like a woman’s, while, as an indication of their utter uselessness, the nails of his third and little fingers are permitted to grow, or are cultivated, until they rival vulture’s claws. Some of his actions, too, might be aptly compared to those of the king of birds.

If he be a government official, he is frequently severe in the treatment of subordinates; for it is he, together with his chief, who are responsible for their behaviour. In consequence of this system, clannish outbreaks are less frequent in French Cochin China than among the Chinese of Singapore and Penang.

The life he leads is an indolent one; when at home, he lolls on a couch or chair, surrounded by half-a-dozen attendants, one probably hunting for
insects in the hair of his head, another fanning him; while a third, who watches the inanimate face of his lord, anticipates a wish, lights a pipe or cheroot, and quietly places it between his master’s lips.

Should a friend drop in for a chat, he fills his mouth with betel-nut and seri, as a polite intimation that anything like an animated conversation is not to be thought of, and only suited for the vulgar.

The friend is then invited to do likewise; and when both have the nut sufficiently chewed, gurgling growls, emitted through the plash of
mastication, are interchanged, intelligible only to their own highly-tuned ears.

A notable exception to the above type of native gentleman was Monsieur Petruski (Petrus Ky), a Cochin Chinese Christian, occupying the post of professor of his own language in the College des interpretes of Saigon. He had been educated in a Roman Catholic college at Penang, and I shall never forget my surprise when first introduced to him.

Text: John Thomson
From the book: The straits of Malacca, Indo-China and China; or, Ten years’ travels, adventures and residence abroad
by Thomson, John (1837-1921)
Publication date: 1875
Publisher: London, S. Low
Photo: old photo from internet


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