Organized Panel Session
At the dawn of the colonial era, Saigon was at the center of a contiguous “water frontier”—a maritime borderland frequented by southern Chinese junk traders and itinerant merchants (Li 2004). A key participant in the Southeast Asian age of commerce, the Saigon’s rice trade, dominated by Chinese merchants, connected Southern China to the riverine networks in the Mekong Delta and to littoral zones in the Straits of Malacca and the Indian Ocean. This trade revolutionized the landscape of colonial Saigon: it precipitated the urbanization process; drew in waves of labor migration to the city; and instigated broad demographic and urban political changes. As French colonial capitalism intensified patterns of commercial and cultural interactions, the Chinese exercised an effective monopoly of the rice trade and acted as local contingents in the businesses of deal-making, production, advertisement, processing, and shipping.
This paper examines how the Chinese rice trade—its magnitude, agents, and operational networks—transformed the political economy of French Cochinchina and contributed to the making of cosmopolitan Saigon. In so doing, it analyzes the ramifications of this trade for the interlinked urbanization process which launched Saigon into a global port city and a key node of the Southeast Asian rice trade. Moving beyond the dominant “trade and economics” approach in the literature, this study further investigates the dialectics between the evolution of capital networks, urban growth, and contentious politics that had important implications for the fate of Cochinchina’s rice economy and the urban development of Saigon.