In the Land of Pagodas: A Classic Account of Travel in Hong Kong, Macao, Shanghai, Hubei, Hunan and Guizhou
by Alfred Raquez (Edited and translated by William L. Gibson and Paul Bruthiaux)
Long out of print in the original French, this travel account of China at the end of the nineteenth century has been translated into English and annotated by William L. Gibson and Paul Bruthiaux. Even more surprising than how readable and modern In the Land of Pagodas is, is the fact that this English version was produced at all. Old travel accounts do not sell well. And if you’re wondering what exactly “not sell well” means in terms of numbers, I’m talking about really low sales; after the initial giddy heights of the book launch, during which time a dozen or two copies might be bought, any such title selling more than a copy per month is a relative bestseller. Heaven knows, you can hardly give away many of these old works. On websites such as Archive.org and Project Gutenberg, there are numerous outstanding Public Domain works available, which – despite being free – have download numbers in the low hundreds, or teens. I take my hat off to Gibson, Bruthiaux, and the publisher, the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (NIAS) Press.
Frenchman Joseph Gervais, a bankrupt lawyer in his mid-thirties charged with fraud and on the run from the police, arriving out East in 1898. He reinvented himself as Alfred Raquez and quickly gained minor celebrity as a journalist and explorer. The highlight of his exploration was leading a fifteen-month expedition through Laos and Tonkin (Vietnam) collecting material for the Marseille Colonial Exposition of 1906, for which he was awarded a medal of honour. He died in Marseille in 1907.
It was only in 2012 that Raquez’s true identity was uncovered by William L. Gibson, an American writer based in Southeast Asia, while he was working on the English edition. He had first become interested in the mysterious Frenchman after coming across some photographs and sound recordings that Raquez had made of Laos. Gibson soon found digital files of Raquez’s books, but Gibson’s French was not up to translation, so he asked an old friend, Paul Bruthiaux, for help. Together they have produced an outstanding annotated translation of In the Land of Pagodas.
The travelogue consists of three main sections. The first third covers Canton, Hong Kong and Macao. The middle section takes us to Shanghai, in particular the French Concession. The final third – and I think the best – describes a journey deep into the heart of China. Travel accounts of the Yangtze are two a penny but Raquez takes up a tributary, the Yuan River, across Hunan Province and into Guizhou.
Raquez is a talented travel writer able to convey the feel and flavors of what he is experiencing and seeing. We get impressionistic descriptions such as this one of picturesque river scenery in a January 17th entry:
It snowed a little.
Like a coquette searching for a novel effect by varying her raiment, the mountain reveals itself in a wintery garb this morning.
Light snowflakes cosset the somber foliage of the fir trees. Peaks crowned with pagodas resemble tiered wedding cakes garnished with caster sugar.
In the Land of Pagodas has a breezy, modern tone, especially evident with the short sentences and humorous personal asides mixed in with drier background information (which the editors say was largely copied from other books). Of the Hotel Victoria in Canton, Raquez writes, “The rooms are acceptable, and the cooking … well … think I will change the subject.”
Arriving in Hong Kong from Macau (“a pleasant little town”), the author struggles to find accommodation:
Scene One: Hong Kong hotel. “I am very sorry . . .” There are no rooms, not even the most miserable hutch; the hotel is full up. I turn around, followed by my boy and coolies carrying my bags.
Scene Two: In Queen’s Road, a large sign proclaims! “New Victoria Hotel.” “I would like a room – A room? But here, Sir, we only have a refreshment room with billiards tables and a dining room. – So why do you advertise this place as a hotel? You’re right, but that’s the way it is.”
Blast, this is getting serious! Will I be forced to set up camp with my boy, my coolies, my valises, and my boxes, or charter a sampan on which to spend night and day?
Scene the Last: Finally the Windsor Hotel. “I would like a room. – All right. – O joy!” I could have kissed the manager, German though he may be, but I held back lest he took me for a madman and packed me off to look for accommodation in the hospital.
Raquez prides himself – rather cheekily given his own circumstances – as an honest observer in the field, not someone repeating hearsay or looking to extenuate the weird for shallow sensation: “I only wish to register a protest against certain writings by armchair travellers, who are more numerous than we think among present-day authors.” His account is a largely even-handed one; he praises and he also finds fault as he sees fit. Raquez has some good things to say about Chinese food, less so when it comes to the locals’ penchant for generating noise. Of Lantern Festival, he writes:
As I write these lines on a rickety table by the light of a bad Chinese candle, a deafening racket engulfs the village. Through the cracks in the windows, I watch an entire procession of holders of paper lanterns of bizarre shapes filing past. Fantastical animals, dragons, serpents chimera light up the night. This is a vision of apocalypse. Even the blasts of the long Chinese tubas suggest the trumpet of the last judgment.
Meanwhile, tom-tom rolls and the beating of gongs continue without end or mercy. This has been going on for over an hour. Today is a festive day, but not for everyone. I have my traveling companions as witnesses.
Good Lord, what a night! Every half hour the watchmen insist on proving their vigilance with an orgy of gong strikes. Here we go again! Pata-pata-pan!
Raquez was in China 1898–1899 during the tumultuous tail-end of the Qing dynasty. The nation was undergoing a program of “self-strengthening” by trying to adopt modern Western technology, spurred on by the recent humiliation of defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-5). However, there was also strong resentment of Western influence, which would erupt as the Boxer Rebellion in late 1899.
Raquez’s months-long river journey was related to this push to industrialize. The expedition, which he managed to join simply as “a tourist,” – a testament to his ability to charm – consisted of a Austrian mining entrepreneur, Belgian engineers, and a Chinese official. Their purpose was to examine some mines in Guizhou before finalizing their purchase for a European company.
From the treat port city of Hankou they set off up the Yangtze in style.
It is three o’clock.
Full speed ahead: we are on our way!
Our flotilla is off proud and majestic.
At its head is the steam launch Titan, flying the imperial ensign by special permission of the Zongli Yamen, followed by our houseboats tied together in pairs, their masts displaying immense red standards proclaiming in Chinese characters that a second-ranking mandarin in charge of the exploitation of the Guizhou mines is aboard. Last is an armed Chinese junk, its soldiers clad in red tunics, with four short cannons at the prow and four large triangular flags flying from their poles at the aft.
We are honored with a salvo. Handkerchiefs are waved on shore. Good- bye, friends! May we all meet again in good health in a few months’ time!
As well as Au Pays des Pagodes (In the Land of Pagodas) and hundreds of newspaper articles, Raquez wrote a second travelogue, Pages Laotiennes, which describes travels through Laos in 1900. NIAS Press will publish a translation of this later in the year.
In the Land of Pagodas is a fun read full of unexpected delights. Editors William L. Gibson and Paul Bruthiaux have done a tremendous job bringing the book back to life. It’s beautifully translated and the introduction and copious notes add greatly to the pleasure and value of reading the book.