Friday, 10 March 2017

Touring China with a shady Frenchman, by William L. Gibson

In the Land of Pagodas: A forgotten tour through late Qing China with a fugitive Frenchman by Alfred Raquez edited and translated by William L. Gibson and Paul Bruthiaux is a book of travel history, with an intriguing history of its own.

It is the first English translation of Raquez’s long out-of-print account of a tour he took through China at the end of the 19th Century.

Here William L. Gibson, an American writer and translator based in Jakarta, explains how and why the In the Land of Pagodas has now been made available to new readers, everywhere.

On 16 June, 1898, a man appeared in My Tho in the Mekong Delta in Cochinchina using the name “Alfred Raquez,” which is the name he would be known by for the next 110 years.

His real name was Joseph Gervais, a bankrupt lawyer from Lille with a warrant out for his arrest for fraud.

As Alfred Raquez, Gervais made a name for himself as a respected journalist and explorer of the Far East. In addition to many articles, he wrote several book-length works, including two travel narratives: Au Pays des Pagodes, which details his trip through China in 1899, and Pages Laotiennes, which relates his travels through Laos in 1900. In 1904, he lead Mission Raquez, a fifteen-month expedition to collect material in Laos for the 1906 Colonial Exposition held in Marseille. In June 1906, the Ministry of War awarded him a medal of honour for his work on behalf of France. He died in Marseille in January 1907, supposedly of smallpox, though rumours of suicide were in the air.

He is remembered today, if at all, for the nearly 200 postcards of Laos he created for sale at the Marseille Exposition, which are highly sought after by collectors. Though it was long-known that "Raquez" was a pseudonym, it was not until 2012 that his true name was uncovered - by me, William L. Gibson.

As a travel writer, Raquez captures the impressions of a journey, the taste of a strange dish, or the sounds and sensations of being carried up a mountain in a sedan chair, but also the political nuances of travel, what can and cannot be done without official approval, and how travellers can find ways around such rules. 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 is also fearless, trying new foods, chatting with strangers of all races, and often striking far off the beaten path. Raquez’s style is often a form of bricolage – it brings together elements from a range of sources. 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 add to this textual melting pot. All of this makes for a style that is refreshingly modern.

Raquez arrived in China amidst one of the most dynamic decades in Chinese history. 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 modernise 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 second half of this book finds Raquez in Hunan province, voyaging up the Yuan River with an Austrian mining entrepreneur, his Belgian engineers, an Italian doctor, and a Chinese potentate. Raquez’s descriptions of this remote region humanises the trip in a way that dry historical accounts cannot.

With a sustained translation project underway by the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies Press, Raquez's unique perspective will now be available for readers in English. Now In the Land of Pagodas has been published, a translation of Raquez's second book, Pages Laotiennes, will be forthcoming later in the year. 

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.

Details: In the Land of Pagodas is published By NIAS Press in hardback and paperback, priced in local currencies.