In the Land of Pagodas: A forgotten tour through late Qing China

“Alfred Raquez” is the pseudonym of Joseph Gervais, a bankrupt, reprobate lawyer from Lille. With a warrant out for his arrest, he fled France in March 1898 and headed East. He continued traveling as far as Guizhou in China, before settling in Hanoi, where he declared himself a publicist.

In 1904, he was appointed to organise and lead Mission Raquez, a fifteen-month expedition to collect material in Laos for the 1906 Colonial Exposition in Marseille, where he would act as delegate for the Laotian section. He died on the Corniche in Marseille in January 1907, supposedly of smallpox, though rumours of suicide were in the air.

In his brief life as Alfred Raquez, Gervais made a name for himself as a respected journalist and explorer. He wrote three book-length works, the first two travel narratives: Au Pays des Pagodes, or In the Land of Pagodas, which details his trip through China in 1899, and Pages Laotiennes, or Laotian Pages, which relates the story of his travels through that country in 1899 to 1900. In 1904, he would assume the role of Editorial Director of the periodical La Revue Indochinoise, but he also wrote extensively for other colonial periodicals, including L’Écho de Chine and L’Avenir du Tonkin (owned by F. H. Schneider, the publisher of the Revue Indochinoise). He also published in the Parisian press, with articles appearing in La Dépêche Coloniale as well as its supplement La Dépêche Coloniale Illustrée; he also published in L’Illustration: Journal Universel. An avid photographer, Raquez’s images were sometimes published without any accompanying text, though he often published them in combination.

Shortly after this death, his true identity was revealed in the French press, stirring a minor controversy before he faded into oblivion. He is remembered today, if at all, for the nearly 200 postcards of Laos he created for sale at the 1906 Exposition, which are highly sought after by collectors. Though it was long known that Raquez was a pseudonym, it was not until very recently that his true name was rediscovered.

Raquez’s China travel journal begins on 1 September 1898 in Hong Kong and ends on 24 April 1899 in Shanghai. About two months later, his writings began to appear serially from June 10 to November 6 in L’Écho de Chine: Journal des intérêts français en Extrème-Orient, a newspaper published in Shanghai by Presse Orientale, which would later collect and publish the articles in book form as Au Pays des Pagodes.

Raquez arrived in China amidst what has been described as one of the most dynamic decades in Chinese history. To local observers, more changes were happening more quickly than ever before, and this was largely due to the impact of Western imperialism – which brought with it new ideologies and technologies – as well as humiliating military incursions by Japan. The key changes that affected local economic structures and ruling elites and led directly to the civil conflicts that would eventually establish the modern Chinese Republic can be traced to this period: the rise of the mercantile comprador as a political force; the imperial reform and “self-strengthening” movements that attempted to adopt Western methods to help modernize Chinese industry (and were frequently quashed); attacks on missionaries in remote provinces and the legacy of ethnic strife in the border regions, such as the Miao Uprisings and Black Flag movements; industrial strikes, the expansion of the Western concessions, and the rumblings of the incipient Boxer Rebellion. Raquez was a front row witness to this nexus of rapid change in the Middle Kingdom.

The first third of the book finds Raquez drifting from Canton to Hong Kong to Macau, finally arriving at the French Concession in Shanghai, which kicks off the middle third of the narrative.

His visit to the French Concession came when the concession was growing. It had been established in 1849, but it was not until 1899 that significant expansion rights were granted, thereby enlarging the French claim from 66 to 144 hectares. However, this came at the price of friction with local landholders, which, as Raquez vividly describes, could quickly spill over into violent riots.

The final third of the book finds Raquez voyaging up the Yuan River with a mining entrepreneur, his Belgian engineers, an Italian doctor, and a local potentate. This journey puts a face to what could otherwise be seen as numbingly dull colonial economic activity. It is one thing to say that a French company opened a mercury mine in remote Guizhou. It is another to read about the human exertion required to pull off such a feat.

Raquez’s description of his travels with these men into a remote region of China humanises the people he encountered in a way that dry historical accounts cannot. His style is often a form of bricolage. He moves easily from his own impressions to information copied nearly verbatim from history books or travel guides, here and there inserting dinner menus, shipping timetables, translations of Chinese songs, and stories and jokes. Photographs and illustrations supplement this textual mélange. There are hand-drawn diagrams of dinner table seating arrangements, along with illustrations of Chinese money and carefully drawn depictions of military training.

His writing is concise, often with single-sentence paragraphs that show him keeping a sharp eye out for the telling detail. There is also an emphasis on the personal experience. He relates his own sensations, including his bodily and emotive reactions to the environment, which give a sense of immediacy and dynamism to his writing that is not found in the works of his contemporaries.

With a new translation project underway by the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies Press, Raquez’s unique perspective will now be available in scholarly editions for readers in English. The first book in the series, a translation of Au Pays des Pagodes, will be published this year, with Raquez’s second book, Pages Laotiennes, forthcoming. After more than a century, the wandering life and precise observations of this extraordinary man are finally being given the attention they so richly deserve.

“Dinner on a Canton Flower Boat,” from Chapter Three, “Here and There in Canton”

Darkness is falling. Everywhere, lights shine and feasts are being prepared.

We descend to the boat’s large hall. Mats cover the floor. On each wall near the door are mirrors and inscriptions in paintbrush set in glass-fronted frames: tales, aphorisms, drawings, mementoes of sweet moments spent under the awning.

The walls are lined with wide seats made of Canton wood and covered with thick cushions. The fabrics are predominantly red. Low tables stand between the seats.

Further on are daybeds, also made of wood and equipped with large tables made of marble, onyx, or alabaster accommodating the tobacco or opium smoker’s paraphernalia.

Here too are tables designed for four guests, with mirrors and multicoloured fabrics.

At the back near the kitchen, which occupies the rear of the boat, waiters are setting a large circular table.

Oil lamps diffusing a bright light hang from the high ceiling. These illuminations are linked to each other and to the walls by garlands of flowers that form all kinds of arabesques. Next to us are tiny but gorgeous baskets made of countless jasmine blossoms, tuberose, ylang-ylang, and some 20 other flowers whose powerful fragrance bothers us but that at night, brilliantly lit up, newly arranged, and bedewed with artificial moisture, enchant our eyes. We truly are on a flower boat!

The Cantonese are veritable artists when it comes to flower arrangements. I have never seen anything comparable at Lion’s, Desbrosses’, or any other of the major florists along our boulevards. Their structure is absolutely marvellous and their colour nuances exquisite.

By way of apéritif, waiters serve eggs boiled in sweetened tea. After a few minutes, the egg is retrieved and shelled so that it becomes impregnated with the scented fluid. Delicious!

Our host calls one of the nearby mamas over. Assisted by his companions, who seem to know the resources of the floating city intimately, he draws up a list of 25 singers he assures me are the most renowned.

The mama goes off in search of the ladies in question in their respective dwellings, and some of our performers begin to arrive along with their orchestra.

The orchestra consists of a kind of long guitar with a small round sound box covered with a snake skin, a small violin whose bow is held permanently between the two strings and which the musician plays by resting the instrument on his left knee, and a sonorous piece of wood shaped like an orange sliced down the middle and placed between three bamboo rods that serve as a tripod. The singer accompanies herself by striking this bizarre instrument with two small sticks, emitting different sounds according to whether the instrument is struck in the middle or on the edges.

The singers are dressed in wide-sleeved silk gowns in blue, pink, black, or red hues, festooned from top to bottom with multicoloured scallops.

All wear broad silk trousers that drop straight down and are decorated at the bottom with varied parallel embroidery patterns.

A few have mutilated feet, but many wear odd-shaped shoes made to look like canoes. It takes a great deal of practice to learn to walk on the blades of this skate-like footwear.

Their black hair has been artistically twisted into a bun held by beautiful gilded pins, worked or graced with (more or less) precious stones or pearls.

But what gives these ladies’ hair its unique appearance is the string of barely open blooms arranged in the shape of a crown that surrounds the bun, while others, even more powerfully fragrant, create a coiffure as elegant as it is elaborate.

Their faces, some of them pretty, are coated with rice powder and

carmine. Their eyebrows have been traced with a black brush.

On their wrists are heavy gold bracelets while some wear a gold ring around their neck.

A Canton singer is an odd-looking doll.

But the concert is about to begin. The music rises: odd-sounding, high-pitched tones as the violin squeaks, the guitar emits low notes, and the drumsticks strike, sometimes fast, sometimes slowly, but always in cadence.

The listener is surprised at first by the strange nature of these songs, so different from those we habitually hear. But once that initial impression has passed, what comes across is a melody not without charm, with well-ordered delivery, grave and slow at the start but faster and embellished with vocalisations later, always in a minor key, ending on an ample, once again slow phrase, this time in a striking major key.

Four or five singers are on the boat simultaneously, and while one of them performs, the others smoke metal pipes, munch watermelon seeds, or flirt with our Chinese companions. But this familiarity is nothing like the kinds of conversations heard in our Latin Quarter brasseries.

Almost feral toward Europeans, these gamines exchange gleeful comments at my expense. But I must concede that they behave with absolute propriety toward their compatriots, exhibiting no forwardness, not even conversing with them, coyly pretending to ignore them. How different from our European singers!

I do not refer solely to what took place on our host’s boat but also to what I could see everywhere as I wandered about the platforms. I was absolutely astonished at the reserve of the Chinese. To believe that these flower boats are orgiastic dens is a profound error.

I do not suggest, of course, that meetings occurring in such conditions never lead to the occasional lapse; far from it.

I only wish to register a protest against certain writings by armchair travellers, who are more numerous than we think among present-day authors.

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