Think hard; use your imagination. Try to remember the time when the world was not an oyster, with its pearl geolocalized on Google Maps, rated on TripAdvisor, its best sights already pre-dissected on The Lonely Planet and travel blogs. There was an era during which the world had not shrunk yet to a global playground easily explored with a smartphone and a wifi connection in hand or indeed, before planes, videos and even ballpoint pens. It was the epoch of explorers and discoveries, of years spent away from a home that less and less could be called as such. And this is the time during which Alfred Raquez wrote his travel journal, In The Land Of Pagodas, A Classic Account of Travel in Hong Kong, Macao, Shanghai, Hubei, Hunan and Guizhou.
The title says it all: Alfred Raquez, born Joseph Gervais, offers to share his insights as a backpacker at the turn of the 19th century. His wanderlust has an unflattering origin. Born in 1863 in Dunkirk, in the north of France, he worked as a lawyer before having to run away, bankrupt, from a warrant. Indochina, where he arrived in June 1898, became by default the cradle of his second life. His book is a collection of articles he published for a French magazine while traveling across Asia, ticking Hong Kong, Macao, Shanghai and various Southern Chinese cities off the list, with experiences ranging from a 3:00am excursion to Hong Kong’s Peak, a lavish feast at a mandarin’s table, to an exploration of the less than touristic mercury mines of Guizhou. It is a mixture of visual observations and briefs on the social, economic, judicial and cultural history of the cities he sets foot in.
Beware: Raquez is no Claude Lévi-Strauss, and his analysis can be plain and at times derogatory, like when he describes the locals standing around him as “as goggle-eyed as their slitty eyes will allow them.” On the other hand, his descriptions can be so minute—he reproduces the translated content of the contract between a boatman and his client, and compiles over several pages all the industries in Macau—that at times the reader is tempted to fast-forward through these tedious and overdetailed lists. Raquez has a tendency to dwell on his subject with the enthusiasm of a teacher failing to notice students’ suppressed yawns. The moments he spends on boats, with his accounts sometimes limited to a dry weather report and the distance covered, are not the most entrancing either. As he literally and figuratively drifts from one lake to another, the names of the countless places he visits start to swirl in one’s head, leaving little more behind than a vague eddy immediately erased by the next tide of exploration.
Neither food nor children are spared.
He regains his audience’s attention when he shares his awe for this terra incognita, even if it involves him getting eyeballed or pelted with stones by crowds of suspicious locals. “What I always admire in this country is the artistic way in which colors are combined,” he writes, as he details the sedan chairs carrying mandarins clad in silk robes, fanning themselves with eagles’ feathers, the long pipes smoked by a cabaret audience or the smiles of Buddhist gods.
Thanks to his vivid depictions of boats, churches, an orphanage and of course the pagodas which give the book its title, one can almost teleport oneself back in time, to witness, “guitar in hand, coolies carry[ing] pretty opera singers on their shoulders.” Plenty of old pictures, maps and drawings—as random as sketches showing Chinese factory furnaces—are supplemented as visual crutches to the reader’s imagination to complement these colourful vignettes, which read as a succession of postcards sent by a loquacious relative.
Raquez also proves to be at his best when he recounts anecdotes of cultural clash.
But the sauce is moving! Suddenly, something leaps out and lands in my cup of jiu. These are live shrimp, drunken shrimp, frolicking in my rice wine. Naughty shrimp!
Neither food nor children are spared, in a slightly sinister way:
Chinese children are good enough to eat! Why must they get older?
And if they fail to attract his interest, cities can be dismissed over the course of a single line, a more harsher treatment than any guidebook would today dare give:
The city holds nothing of great interest except for fruit similar in shape to unshelled beans but purplish red in color, which the Chinese use as soap.
Remember, Raquez is not just any “Western devil”. He is French, and he clearly does not want to let the reader forget it. The landscapes he comes across are compared to the mountain ranges of the Alps, the Pyrénées or the Massif Central, or a café in Montmartre; he regularly name-drops French authors such as Molière and Charles Perrault.
But it is perhaps on the food front that his Frenchness perspires the most, as he makes this debatable comment: “Chinese cuisine is very bland. It needs a serious dose of condiments,” while complaining of the lack of bread and likening rice wine to “our calvados”. One has to bear in mind that all of these were written for a French audience, but the grace of translation now allows a foreign audience to smile at these patriotic outbursts, a century later.
Despite the flaws of Raquez’s writing style, it is easy to forgive him, as his outspokenness and no-frills tone often prove to be refreshing:
I fell asleep reading an account of a journey through China, something that is bound to happen to my own readers.
Raquez can be regarded as the ancestor of travel bloggers, and today his honesty and humbleness might have probably propelled him to virtual stardom and earned him a steady stream of fans across social media. But because he was writing at another time, he remained an anonymous explorer, whose true identity was only revealed after his death in 1907. A fugitive writer his whole life, he thus discovered the world at his pace, without the shortcut of technology, the constant pressure of instantaneity and demand for faster updates.
This leads one to wonder whether today’s inescapable urge for efficiency has definitely quelled the poetic quality of traveling abroad.