Dispatch Twenty-One

The table with the phonograph is set up; an inquisitive crowd surrounds it at a respectful distance, then suddenly the trumpets of the Triumphal March from Aida sound out. The effect is astonishing, literally. The good Ko first open their eyes wide, unable to understand how such an orchestral din could come out from this miniscule machine. Then mad laughter bursts out of every chest when a human voice, that of Maréchal, sings “Le Tonneau de Maître Pierre” and the exquisite opera singer Mademoiselle Boyé sings the “Air des larmes” from Werther. This time, reassured by the big man’s placid demeanor, the female contingent comes forward without compulsion, and as we sit calmly by the chattering instrument, we are able to cast an eye over the circle that just formed.

It would seem that two completely different races are represented in men as well as women. On the one hand, the pure Mongol type, with nose squashed at the top but wider on the sides and at the base, prominent cheekbones, and slanting eyes; on the other, the Indo-European type, no less pure, with straight or aquiline nose, oval face, and wide eyes. Some of the young women stare at us, facing us frontally with a provocative air or rather an air of bravado that makes them look most charming. True gypsies, I say again. Place a dozen of these women in a group of Roma, and you will not be able to tell one from the other. Here is an ethnographic conundrum we will try to elucidate later provided God and the Public Authorities lend us life and assistance.

The vocabulary we collect tonight and the customs we will study over four days among the Ko will prove what we sensed, namely that these mountain dwellers are not Kha and should not be confused with the Yao, Miao, or Lanten.

An idea occurs to us, put forward here without pretension or evidence. We know that in the thirteenth century, the Mongols led by Batu Khan, invaded the West. After devastating Hungary, Poland, Silesia, Bohemia, and southern Austria, they went home via Bulgaria toward the year 1240, taking with them, or so contemporary chronicles assert, 350,000 prisoners. The archives of those countries were taken away by the Barbarians, and from century to century, kept by them, then by the Chinese. A great Hungarian lord who is also a valiant pioneer of that science, Count Eugène de Zichy, located them in the Sea Palace in Peking. Are the Ko not the descendants of a group of victorious soldiers married to daughters of defeated enemies taken as booty? This would explain the dual atavism so clearly marked here that it strikes even the most superficial observer.

Some of these girls have pure white skin. Among the young men are superb fellows, bursting with vigor and strength, very handsome of face, too. By day, they do not flirt with the young women of the tribe. Instead, almost all of them stand in pairs before us, in languorous postures, arms around each other’s waist, the head of one resting on the shoulder of the other.

No European had ever visited this village, says the phaya luang; this is why he wishes the festivities to be comprehensive. While the meal is being prepared, the girls treat us to a concert. Some ten of the prettiest ones fetch bamboos as tall as themselves and of a substantial diameter, closed at one extremity and beveled at the other. The strike these sticks on a log lying on the ground, thus producing different sounds. It is not difficult to believe that this concert is more picturesque than those of all the performing ladies of Vienna or Budapest, with these girls’ headgear covered in small silver coins, seeds, tufts, and baubles of all kinds, the short jacket leaving the navel al fresco and the short skirt down to mid-thigh and revealing the two folds of the groin on one side and the start of the valley separating a woman’s two principal hemispheres. What a great success these Ko and their musical bamboos would be at Marseille!

Every effort deserves a reward. The famous trunk is open again and each musician received a souvenir. But now every virgin in the tribe claims the honor of playing the bamboo if this is necessary to obtain a mirror, a necklace, or a vial of perfume.

No, sweet children, you will all receive a bauble from the bearded man.

On hearing this, they assault the trunk. The ice has been broken, I assure you; no one is afraid any more, and Phaya Ton Pha Na Sai is in stitches when he sees us, a young beauty on each arm, as we inspect the revelers sitting around small rattan stools bearing bowl of beef ragout, sautéed pork, and chicken cooked in stock. The food is devoured; alcohol and rice wine are drunk; they are having a blow-out.

The old phaya prostrates himself to express his subjects’ joy. He proclaims me Pho Mae, his own father and mother, and wishes me a long life. At intervals, young men play khene, girls execute the Wedding Dance, which we will ask them to repeat tomorrow so we can record the steps. The old women throw rice in my direction again; children leap forward to clasp my hand, and the women insist on running theirs through my long beard, which twitches with enjoyment.

Conquest is complete!

This whole crowd of simple people is happy; they are having fun, and they let their joy burst forth. No one will convince these Ko of Muang Sing that the French are evil!

* * *

It is morning. Young Ko women come to the sala to bring fresh water for our morning ablutions, and, taking the stranger by the hand, take him on an inspection of the houses, under which the female portion of the population is busy pounding rice with a pestle worked with the foot. Many of these workers have taken off jacket and brassiere, leaving on only their skirt. They are more immodest than naked women, Monsieur Béranger would say, drawing a veil over his face.

I am led into one of these vast houses, which are home to a family and all its allies. Such an invitation is the greatest proof of trust that could be offered a European.

These houses divided into two rooms are curious: one side for the men, another for the women. Yesterday’s old dancer, really proud of the golden pearls that still adorn her, leads me into the gynaeceum, the women’s section, and the interpreter explains the living arrangements.

Men and women spend the night each in their own apartment and sleep side by side without partitions forming rooms. But from time to time, the husband must have the legitimate desire to exercise his rights and fulfill his duties to his mate’s greatest joy and utmost benefit for the race. Furtively, at the dead of night, he slinks up to the small passage to the gynaeceum in search of his other half while doing his best not to make a mistake. This is not easy on dark nights, for he must not awaken his legitimate spouse’s female neighbors, who might burst out laughing at the gravest of moments.

Imagine this husband waiting for everything to be at rest around him and then crawling to the door of the male dormitory. But he is not out of the woods. Should he run into a man, whoever he may be, leaving the ladies salon or, like him, attempting to enter it, custom requires that the two males should pounce on each other and fight it out frenetically. Try getting married in such conditions! It is enough to put you off this millennia-old institution!

This seems to be the appropriate moment for restart the Wedding Dance, outlined yesterday, with the fading day as well as the burning, crackling nearby rai lighting up the azure by dimming the stars.

Nothing is easier, for Ko of both sexes and the bearded man are now best friends.

Three young women form a line by sweetly resting an arm on each other’s shoulders. Three more, similarly entwined, face them some ten paces away. Softly, very softly, almost from mouth to mouth, these gamines sing sweet nothings; then a trio bursts out. The dancers take one step forward with the left foot, which is then joined by the right foot on the same line. A deep curtsey is performed jointly with the bust angled sharply. The three girls hop with both feet, and when they fall back to earth, bend their knees and point them forward. Immediately straightening up, they throw the bust backward and repeat the same series of steps. Meanwhile, their tutus twirl in every direction, and, suddenly halted in their tracks, no longer know which way to turn.

A second trio of dancers repeats the same procedure as the first, which has now joined them, and returns to its original position. Then the six young women gather into a circle while holding on to each other around the waist or the shoulders and break into gentle, naughty songs about two young lovers tying the knot. Very merry this morning, they must be taking my paunch as the theme of a song that amuses the entire audience. Feel free, girls! You will never charge the fat man too much for the spectacle you have been offering him since yesterday.

A young woman’s calf is wrapped in dirty rags, and she seems to be in pain. We ask her to come close so we can have a look at the wound, which is hardly pleasant to contemplate at the aperitif hour. Never mind!

Boy, the traveling pharmacy!”

A through cleansing, a sturdy dressing, a few extra meters of gauze, and the woman goes off happy.

Good grief, what did I do! For three hours, the sick, the wounded, the feverish file past. Fortunately, the trunk is abundantly provided with quinine, boric water, eyewash, bichloride, compresses, and strips of absorbent cotton. We see numerous wounds to legs caused by thorns in the brush and a great many eye conditions caused by smoke from rai or hearths in insufficiently ventilated houses.

This is not a very enjoyable job, I must say, but think of the rewards! In a while, I will be able to satisfy men, women, and girls. These people will overwhelm me with their kindnesses; following a curious custom, they will hold a thumb straight above a clenched fist in my direction to say: “You are number one!,” “Number one piece,” as the Chinese pidgin puts it. They will promise to come and see me at Muang Sing, and they will keep their promise. In fact, on three occasions, Ko women came without the slightest fear to the post where I was staying to be treated and bandaged. There were almost one hundred of them at the boun I held in their honor, and they danced the Wedding Dance in full daylight before the Commissioner and his deputy. Even in the market, they came up to hold my hands and allowed themselves to be arranged in groups to enable me to snap attractive photographs.

“They must find you fascinating,” said the excellent Monsieur Ardouin, Government Commissioner in Muang Sing. “I’m amazed!”

Among the Ko as everywhere else, seduction is easy.

A little finesse, a great deal of patience, some trinkets, a few small coins, and the courage to overcome a degree of repugnance: this is the recipe. Anyone can put it into practice.

Among the Kui

The Kui are an interesting tribe because according to everyone, they share common characteristics neither with the Ko nor with the Kha of these regions. The women have regular, attractive features and very white skin, say the Lue.

The nearest Kui village is a day’s march from Muang Sing; we will journey there to make observations. First a fast horse ride across the plain dotted with small woods and Lue or Tai Neua villages, then an exquisite clearing that detains us for one hour as we ride along a handsome park-like alley with just enough obstacles to break up the monotony of an over-regular track. Sounds are heard in the undergrowth ten paces from the road: three silvery pheasants are unhurriedly but majestically climbing up an incline. For the first time, our guns are not included in the excursion, and the plump wild hens we come across a little further on know it. Game will goad us thus until we return, and the nearby torrent, the Nam Dai, bouncing from rock to rock, seems to emit little mocking laughs.

After a three-hour march, we halt in a narrow gorge. Our guide informs us that difficult climbs are about to begin and we will not find any water for some distance. But the spot is exquisitely picturesque with its giant trees between which thick lianas play like the waist of a coquette, and its waters, which we hear bellowing past but barely discern through thick thorns.

This mountain is ferocious for anyone assaulting it in the noon hour, and the name given to it suits it to perfection: Doi Ngia Thao Hai, or the Mountain of the Old Weeping Grandmother, as the natives call it. The guides tell us that a family of poor farmers in search of fresh land for their rai once climbed these slopes. Men and women in their prime sweated and panted for breath but managed to make progress when a poor old woman, the oldest in the household on the move, sat down exhausted on the edge of the path and began to weep.

Having left a little before eleven o’clock and recording 900 meters elevation at the foot of the mountain, we record 1,650 meters at eight minutes past midday followed by a series of undulations. Up to that point, the path followed the line of the steepest slope before reaching the crestline. It will now snake along the hillsides before taking us toward two o’clock to a fork, which leaves the guide indecisive. The man finally confesses that he cannot quite remember the road we should follow as “we rarely visit the Kui.” He has only been there once on tour with Monsieur Chambert, the Administrator, and he now has only vague recollections. The path to the right must lead to the Yao, he believes; we should therefore follow the one to the left.

Such indecision does nothing to reassure us of a forthcoming stage halt, even though it will be greatly appreciated, for the day is hot and the walking arduous.

All traces of a path are lost in an immense rai in its first year of production and filled with large, half-burned tree trunks our horses are forced to get around. Yet this devastating work is a sign of an upcoming settlement; but here are some Kui coming forward to meet us, complete with crossbow, spears, and machetes. The kingdom’s senam forewarned them of our visit. A boun is prepared; a fatted calf will be killed, and tonight other groups of Kui and even some Yao, their nearest neighbors, will arrive from various folds in the mountain.

And indeed, we find some fifty families in Ban Hua Heng, the Village of the Hard Head, and groups of Kui and Miao from various neighboring emerge from every path in the vicinity on their way to the festivities.

True, Kui girls are sweet and almost white, but they could use a conference on tobacco abuse were a member of the League against such immoderate use to pass by, for they all smoke long pipes they barely relinquish at night, we are told.

Most welcoming, not remotely timid, Kui of both sexes congregate around the traveler. Since there is no sala in the village, which is off the beaten path, young men and women are now busy constructing a shelter complete with appropriate camp bed as per regulations. Looking at the excursionist’s paunch with a mocking eye, several young women urge the young men to test the solidity of the bamboo frame, four at a time. Pleasantries flow freely.

Without going into the details of their costumes, let us say that one of the male Kui’s coquettish practices is to wear around their neck a necklace made of triple, or even quintuple, strings of pearls alternating between white and red. Their jacket is short, their trousers wide, and on their arms are tricolor trimmings. Almost all of them wear a turban of red muslin. Behind the young men as they walk floats a kind of cloak like that of a Roman prelate or a court usher, which drops to their ankles.

Almost all of the women have adopted the costume of the Lue. But their sinh are slightly different.

***

These passages originally appeared as “Au Laos” in La Revue Indochinoise 1:29 (March 15, 1906): 357-363.

The second image of the Ko people presented here was taken by Alfred Raquez and is held in the collection of the Natural History Museum in Vienna. It is reproduced from Old Postcard Series Vol 1: Laos, Lao Postcards by Alfred Raquez, edited by D. Ande (White Lotus Press, 2015). For more information on the Vienna archive of materials Raquez collected in Laos during his mission, see William L. Gibson, “Mission Raquez: A forgotten ethnographic expedition through Laos in 1905,” History and Anthropology (2018) https://doi.org/10.1080/02757206.2018.1474351.

Do you like what you’re reading? Learn more about our translations of Raquez’s travel books published by NIAS Press, In the Land of Pagodas and Laotian Pages. https://www.niaspress.dk

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