This photograph was taken at the Vôi asylum outside Hanoi, shortly after it opened in 1934. The second asylum to open in the French colony, like its predecessor in southern Cochinchina, Vôi was organized as a large agricultural colony, where patients would work the land on the path to healing and eventual liberation. By simulating the appearance of freedom and normal life, the asylum as agricultural colony projected a vision of an idealized colonial order, one premised on establishing a kind of continuity between the discipline of institutional order and life in the community. This was reflected in the design of the institution itself – including the explicit racial segregation of the patient population within the walls of the asylum - but also the regimes of self-discipline and industry that were taught to Vietnamese patients as an essential aspect of labor therapy. In the name of promoting psychiatric well-being, nearly a third of patients were kept busy performing tasks associated with every aspect of the daily running of the asylum: from the harvesting of rice and vegetables for meals, to the construction and painting of new pavilions, laundry and the sewing of patient clothing, making baskets, husking rice, manufacturing bricks and the production of latex from rubber trees that were grown on the asylum’s grounds.
The racial segregation of patients also found concrete expression in the quality of bedding and clothing provided, respective diets, as well as the organization of daily life and leisure activities. The regimes for Vietnamese patients were decidedly modest. They were provided with basic wooden beds and mats for sleeping. At mealtime, they received iron bowls and chopsticks to eat a diet of typical peasant fare, including freshly husked white or red rice of “inferior” quality, fresh or dried fish, pork or beef (or two duck eggs or two Vietnamese sausages), fish sauce, green vegetables, and tea. Beef was prepared Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, while fish was provided Thursday and Sunday. European patients, meanwhile, did not labor and instead spent the day reading, playing tennis and boardgames. They also ate meals prepared in the French style, including café au lait and pastries made with chocolate and butter for breakfast, and enjoyed red wine with their supper.
In this photograph, we see patient-laborers help with the preparation of meals. They were supervised by a Vietnamese asylum guard, most likely a former patient. What we do not see is the use of a range of persuasive and coercive measures employed by asylum directors – from monetary bonuses to packs of cigarettes - to encourage these patients to work. Indeed, despite the insistence on the voluntariness of patient labor, economic productivity played a primary role in the constant promotion of labor as a kind of therapy throughout the interwar period, and those who refused to work were also less likely to be deemed “cured” and ready to return to social life.
For more on Claire Edington’s work, please see her recent interview with the New Books network.