October 16, 2014

Literature Review: Vientiane: Transformations of a Lao Landscape

Title:  Vientiane: Transformations of a Lao Landscape
By:  Marc Askew, William S. Logan, Colin Long
Publisher/Year:  Routledge, 2007
ISBN:  9780415596626
Price: $30-40USD
Book cover picture of Vientiane: Transformations of a Lao Landscape

I've always found that reading up on the history of certain cities to be fascinating.  Hence, I saw this and had to read it.  It's a detailed history of Vientiane.

The details about this city through time is quite interesting.  The book goes through initially a bit on Lao history and identity as a whole.  Then it goes on with Vientiane's earliest recorded history, that of primarily from the late 1890s when it was under French domination and then the book of course continues through to modern history.

For example, the book mentions that in the 1930s, there were more Vietnamese in the city than there were Lao, approximately 10,000 vs 9000 Lao.  It goes on to explain that this was because of how the French brought in and employed the Vietnamese to try to increase population growth and fill in positions with French speaking employees.  There is a poignant note to make regarding France's occupation of Laos and in particular its treatment of Vientiane.  That is, that Vientiane was not attributed the same level of attention and resources in developing itself as compared to Hanoi, Saigon and Phnom Penh.

In paraphrasing the authors, Luangprabang was a well established city with its own character before the French arrived.  Vientiane on the other hand had smaller population that was more spread out and there was less existing development such as buildings and roads and not quite as much character.  What the French attempted to do was to try to make it into a real city - however the success or failure of it is debateable.

There's also a small section discussing the short lived Japanese occupation (or "intervention" as it's called in the book) of Vientiane in the 1940s.  While the Japanese have been said to be brutal in other parts of Indochina that they had occupied, their presence in Laos was considered less so.  As with many things, there's often a silver lining.  Japanese intervention, as the author argues, was essential (though not the only source) in helping fuel Lao nationalist feelings.  Interestingly though, Japan itself was attempting to be a regional colonial power and on the other hand it attempted to aid the anti-European based colonialism and imperialism sentiment throughout southeast Asia - "Asia for Asians" as it were. 

In any case, those are just snippets of what the book discusses.  If any of what I just wrote interests you then you should definitely pick up a copy.  This book is a part of the publisher's "Asia's Transformations" series.

Its table of contents is noted below.  The arrangement of the chapters do flow together as a complete book.  Note that each chapter is written like an individual essay by the authors.  Definitely a good read.  I only wish there were other definitive historiographies of other Lao cities.  Luangprabang and Vientiane are written about but other cities are often overlooked by academics.  I'm sure there are more things we can learn about Savannakhet, Pakse, or Xieng Khuang, for example.

Table of content:

List of Figures - x
List of Tables - xi
List of Plates - xii
Acknowledgements - xiv
Note on Lao/Thai Word Transliteration - xvi
Acronyms - xvii
Foreward by Martin Stuart-Fox - xviii

1 - Vientiane, capital on the margins: urbanism, history and Lao identity by Askew, Logan and Long - p.1
2 - Urbanism and the Lao world of the Mekong Valley by Askew - p.16
3 - From glory to ruins by Askew - p.43
4 - Land of the lotus-eaters: Vientiane under the French by Logan - p.73
5 - Arena of the Cold War by Long and Askew - p.111
6 - The Pathet Lao capital by Long - p.151
7 - Reshaping Vientiane in a global age by Long, Askew and Logan - p.176

Notes - p.208
Bibliography - p.240
Index - p.258

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