Oct 9, 2013

"Closing Colonial Mobility Gaps: Cars and Roads in French Indochina"

  Stéphanie Ponsavady, Assistant Professor of French Studies, Wesleyan University

Motoring in colonial Southeast Asia

This presentation uses multiple French-language sources to demonstrate the nature and extent of motoring in colonial Southeast Asia, often overlooked in iconic representations of the automobile experience. Relying on case studies (from a 1908 French Prince’s expedition from Saigon to Angkor to the 1930s road safety surveys in Tonkin), it documents the diversity of drivers and passengers, their journey purposes, and the common experiences and symbolism of automobile uses. Motoring in colonial Indochina in the early twentieth century involved European colonials and tourists who traveled on political assignments, for pleasure, or to promote road construction. These trips were tests of technological engineering, personal resourcefulness, and luck. Rapidly, motoring extended to all parts of the population, including colonial subjects, and it helped define new roles and identities in relation to one’s place on the road and in the automobile. The potentials and localizations of colonial automobility point to a new technology of empowerment mediating colonial governance, science, and leisure along and across racial and social lines.

Stéphanie Ponsavady holds a Ph.D. from the Joint Program of the Institute of French Studies and the Department of French at New York University. Her dissertation titled “Moteurs de désir et de mécontentement: Automobiles et routes en Indochine Coloniale, 1898-1939,” received the NYU GSAS Dean’s Outstanding Dissertation award in 2013. She is currently an Assistant Professor of French Studies in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at Wesleyan University. She has articles and reviews on mobilities in contemporary France and French colonial Indochina published or forthcoming in Transfers: Interdisciplinary Journal of Mobility Studies, the Journal of Transport History and Siksacakr: The Journal of Cambodia Research. She has presented her research at Brown University, Columbia University, and the Association for the History of Transport, Traffic and Mobility’s International Summer School in Berlin.

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