In the land of the pagodas
"In the land of the pagodas", published by NIAS Press

Alfred Raquez’ was the pseudonym of Joseph Gervais, a bankrupt French lawyer who fled to the Far East in the late 1890s and had access to some of the powerful players in French Indochina.

He wrote prolifically about China and Indochina, took some of the earliest photographs of Laos and made the earliest field sound recordings in that land. He died under mysterious circumstances in Marseille in 1907.

California- native William L. Gibson is a writer, researcher and occasional sound artist based in Southeast Asia. A prolific academic author and editor, French-born Paul Bruthiaux now lives in Thailand. You can buy the book here.

Interview with William L. Gibson and Paul Bruthiaux.

How did you discover the story of "Alfred Raquez"/Joseph Gervais?

William first came across Raquez's work in a boxset of CDs of Southeast Asian 78rpms records [read about it here]. The set included a lavish accompanying book illustrated with period postcards. It was from researching those postcards that William began to uncover this amazing story, and from there, he began to read Raquez's books in French, all of which, since they are public domain, have been digitized and are available online.

William's skills in French are not strong enough to translate entire books, so he approached his long-time friend and former colleague from Singapore, Paul Bruthiaux. After reading Raquez's work, Paul realized what a treasure was sitting undiscovered. They agreed to do an annotated translation of Raquez's first book, In the Land of Pagodas, and happily, that was picked up by NIAS Press!

If you were to invent this guy for a novel, editors would say he's not believable.

Can you tell us something about his fascinating and incredible story?

If you were to invent this guy for a novel, editors would say he's not believable. From what we have learned so far, Joseph Gervais was a lawyer living in the French city of Lille. He was married and very active in lay Catholic organizations. Gervais got himself into debt, and created an elaborate con game to try and earn the money back. He must have spent a lot of time in Paris as well because he knows an incredible amount about the swinging nightlife of the period…those were the days of Moulin Rouge! Eventually, his con game was discovered, he was declared bankrupt, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. But he was gone!

He shows up a few months later in the Mekong Delta using the name "Raquez," and over the coming decade, he wrote three books and hundreds of newspaper articles and published hundreds of photographs of Indochina using that name. He moved in some of the highest circles of the French Concession in Shanghai as well as in Indochina, and in 1906, he was awarded a medal of honor by the French Ministry of War…all the time using the name "Alfred Raquez." The indications are that when he died in early 1907, everyone still knew him by that name.

This opens up all sorts of intriguing questions about who knew what and when and whether he was helped to maintain his secret identity by the French colonial propaganda machine in return for his contributions to its efforts or whether he fooled them all. His death is also mysterious. Officially, he died of smallpox, and there was a smallpox epidemic in Marseille, where he died, at the time. But rumors of suicide were also in the air. Did his wife confront him? Or a former creditor threaten to expose him? We don't know, and we may never know. It's the dark intrigue of a film noir, only in real life!

What is the legacy of Alfred Raquez?

Not much of anything. His travel book on Laos, Pages Laotiennes, published in 1902 (we are currently working on a translation for NIAS Press), is sometimes footnoted in studies of French Indochina, but otherwise, his writings are mostly forgotten. This is especially true of his first book of his travel through China. He is best known today for the nearly 200 postcards of Laos he produced for the 1906 Colonial Exposition in Marseille. These are still highly sought after by collectors, and it is due to postcard collectors that he is remembered at all.

group of Miao women from sedan chair with chair pole visible at left
Group of Miao women from sedan chair with chair pole visible at left

Can you tell us some details of his writing style?

Readers will find that Raquez's style is incredibly modern. In advertisements for subscriptions to the book, he is described as being both "erudite" and "humorous," and much of that learning and humor still shines in the book. His use of irony is remarkable in a travel book of the period. He also is a great collector of ephemera such as newspaper clippings, menus and seating arrangements at banquets, as well as photographs and the stories and anecdotes concerning the people he encounters. 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. Raquez is masterful at synthesizing all this material into a narrative that keeps a brisk pace while still revealing telling details about traveling.

The original cover
The original cover of "In the land of the pagodas"

Was his secret identity on the verge of getting discovered?

The evidence suggests that it was only after his death that his true identity became known, though it seems colleagues in Southeast Asia were aware that he had a dubious past in France. This information was quickly forgotten (or ignored), and he came down through history as Alfred Raquez. There was only one reference to this being a pseudonym (in a book published in the 1930s), so some people were clearly aware of it, but until William uncovered his true identity a couple of years ago, no one knew who he really was. There was a pretty crazy theory floating around the rather small world of collectors of French colonial postcards of Asia that he was a homosexual pharmacist, but that wasn't even close to the mark.

Readers will find that Raquez's style is incredibly modern

What places did he visit in China?

The book is divided into thirds, with the first third being travels around the coast from Canton to Hong Kong and Macao. The middle third is set in Shanghai, where the lively descriptions of the French Concession sometimes read like a novel, and the final third finds him traveling up the Yuan River as far as Guiyang then deeper into Miao country in modern Guizhou province. There are not many descriptions of this part of Southwest China from this period, so that section of the book is particularly valuable.

Stone bridge, Guizhou
Stone bridge, Guizhou

What evidence is left of his travels in the country?

Not much. I spent a week at the Zikawei library in Shanghai recently going through old copies of L'Écho de Chine, one of the daily French newspapers in Shanghai, to uncover the paper trail—and there are some intriguing clues in there—but otherwise, as with so many other foreigners, his passage through the region left no trace….except in his writings, of course!

wedding procession
Wedding procession

Alfred Raquez lived during tumultuous times but crucial to the modern history of China. The country was facing rebellions and external threats but also new ideas and modernizing impulses. Are these factors perceivable in his writings?

Absolutely! In the Introduction, we say that his book takes readers to the heart of the French "soft" colonialism of the time. Larger historical events are commented upon as they unfold: at one point, he says that the residents of Shanghai didn't even know if the Chinese Emperor was still alive! He calls it "government by candle-snuffer." But readers will also see the tensions between traditional Chinese culture and the impression being made by Western technology on those traditions. Most intriguing is the voyage he takes up the Yuan River to inspect mercury mines. It was natural resources the Europeans were after in China, and much of the technology they introduced was meant to extract these resources for their own benefit, but of course, they were helped by local elites and intermediaries who also stood to profit. The implications of these machinations are depicted in the book in gritty detail that brings this tumultuous period of Chinese history vividly to life.

What did audio/photographic equipment he used?

Jules Richard Vérascope,early 20th century model
Jules Richard Vérascope,early 20th century model [photo source: flickr]
Raquez tells us in this book and in other sources that he used a Vérascope Richard camera with a Zeiss lens. The Vérascope Richard as a small, hand-held device that shot stereoscopic images both on glass plates and on paper. The quality was relatively grainy, and the exposure control was limited compared to other period cameras, but the portability of the device made up for those deficiencies.

He did not make any audio recordings in China that we know of, but starting in 1904 he made, he claims, over 300 recordings in the field in Laos using a Pathé No. 3, or a "Le Français" phonograph, from 1902 or 1903. Experts agree that these are very likely the first ever field recordings made in Laos.

Both glass plate images from Raquez's Vérascope Richard as well as the audio recordings were available for audiences to hear at the Laos Pavilion at the 1906 Colonial Exposition in Marseille, for which Raquez organized the Laotian materials and personnel. Unfortunately, the recordings are now lost, though some of the glass plate images may appear on the postcards he produced that are still sought after by collectors.

Interview by Matteo Damiani

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