Dispatch Twenty-Two

During the thirty-six hours we will pass among the Kui, these kindly folk will provide us with all the ethnographic information we will ask of them. They will hand over without any difficulty cloaks, sinh, necklaces, and musical instruments, especially khene of a very special type.

They have fun like children as they listen to the phonograph and end their blow-out with dances that are to us a revelation. Here is the bourrée we had occasion to witness five years ago already at Xieng Kok in the hospitable home of Commandant [George Louis Joseph] Jacquemart, the distinguished head of the hydrographic mission to the Upper Mekong. This is the Dance of the Mousseux [Lahu], which looks nothing like the other dances we watched in the Far-East. Questioned later, the Kui tell us that they are the brothers of the Mousseux and that along with four other groups, they form the various branches of one and the same tree.

The khene have resumed their imitation of a Breton biniou. The musicians are part of the circle and puff as they dance. The women have joined the group, not letting go of their pipe, some of them with a baby wrapped in a scarf on their back. These little Kui-Kui learn to dance young. Ouch! The mothers stomp their feet on the ground with vigorous, virile energy. Everyone whirls and whirls. The weather is superb, the photographs excellent.

The invited Yao have not been any less gleeful but without mixing with the Kui, who are now engaged in a confab. They push forward a tall fellow, a real colossus with a friendly, cheerful face, and the entire group heads in our direction.

Why shouldn’t we go and visit them, too, in their rai? Their villages are many, and we would organize an enjoyable boun. This is the nature of our request. The old Yao chief, Phaya Kham Lu, who can no longer travel, would be so happy! From the fork in the forest, a four-hour horse ride is sufficient to reach the chief’s village.

Good grief! Explaining our excellent reasons to this man is like preaching to the converted. We will need five days to prepare the festivities, we argue. We will reach the fork in five days, when the sun reaches such and such height in the sky.

Transports of joy! These good Yao seize my hands, call me their father and mother, ask what family relations I will leave behind in this country and for an hour go out of their way to provide me with a cortege. No wonder I love these savages!

Among the Yao

The Yao of Upper Mekong are said to be great lovers of horses, and today they provide us with proof that this reputation is deserved.

At the fork in the main path, where the left fork leads to the Kui and the right to those who invited us, stands a group of Yao, who are awaiting us at the promised time and day. Their horses, all of them superb beasts, neigh as our own mounts come near. Following the customary greetings, a cortege assembles and proceeds in Indian file along rather steep paths. This is why we kept Quan Dao, the goat horse, in reserve for this portion of the journey, and the Yao laugh heartily when they see the courageous little animal climbing and hurtling down slopes with its heavy load with no more difficulty than if it carried a jockey. Later, they confessed that they have never seen such a mountaineer, and one of the notables even insists on massaging the beast himself and on giving it double rations.

On four more occasions, a new group of horsemen awaits the visitor at the fork. Greetings are exchanged in the Chinese manner. Following cries and with the stallions pawing the ground and kicking, the cortege begins to stretch out. This harnessing of every type, from caparisons in the old style to bedside rugs tied to wooden saddles hacked with an axe, is an amusing sight.

There are now about thirty small horses trotting along and carrying their rider to the foliage of ancient rai now claimed back by nature or in the deep shade of gigantic, mossy trees, spared so far from iron and fire.

Finally, the village of Phaya Kham Lu appears, with its vast houses with low roofs and stables and cattle sheds raised on stilts. As among the Yao, the houses have beaten earth in lieu of floor. A complicated system of gutters made of bamboo brings limpid water from a spring to the dwelling. Running water on every floor… but no gas.

Men and women are assembled: the men as gloomy as undertakers, in costume at least, with their ample jacket and wide trousers in the Chinese manner and their voluminous turban, all of it as black as the product of the Hongay mines, the women, clad in beautiful, rich tunics with rectangular clasps of pure silver as wide as the palm of the hand and covered in fine chiseling. A double line of large red tufts line their lapel and collar, from which hang ornaments of multi-colored pearls and enamel held by plaited silk threads. Their trousers, very wide but rather short, are covered at the hem with embroideries in yellow, blue, red, or green silk. Most of them consist of stars or swastikas, each one carefully executed. In their enormous black turban, the women string small silver chains or rows of small bells.

Not in the least wild, by some fair reciprocity, they are interested in the various components of the foreign visitor’s costume, and comments flow freely. Practical women that they are, these Yao work, embroider and sew even as they walk about and jabber like budgerigars. One of them cannot disentangle her silk skein; we offer to assist her, which she accepts with good grace to loud guffaws from her companions. Here we are unwinding silk in a God-forsaken village in the Laotian mountains.

The Yao do these things well. A charming little villa with a bedroom, shower room, dining room, reception, kitchens, and stables was built of solid bamboo and decorated with flowers. As practical ornaments, they added forty bottles of alcohol—the Yao do not make rice wine—forming a frieze in the dining room.

These savages are highly organized, and they know how to prepare a feast: beef, pork, and chicken simmer in basins. There are one hundred and eighty men here and a large contingent of women, all of whom have to be fed. Eighteen low rattan tables have been set up on the vast esplanade opposite the sala. Ten men take up their places around each one in an orderly manner, everything having been decided in advance, and the head of each table comes up to me to present the chopsticks he will use for eating, bows before me, and requests for his comrades and himself permission to commence the meal. Isn’t this quite charming?

Go ahead, comrades! To wish you good appetite would be an insult.

Phaya Kham Lu, an old man well stricken in years and much consulted and respected, takes me by the hand and leads me to the table of the village chiefs, who with raised cups, wish to toast to my good health.

Thank you, good people, and to yours!

Good grief! What did I do when I omitted to plead an out-of-condition stomach! I now have to go from table to table and to empty a small cup of at each one, for failing to do so would be a serious affront and a mark of contempt. Eighteen cups of rice wine! You need solid insides to make merry with the Yao.

Only men feast on the esplanade. But the women are in no way forgotten, having distributed themselves among the various houses of the village.

Phaya Kham Lu insists on taking me to each one to allow me to witness the joy reigning everywhere. Pearly laughter bursts out from under each bamboo roof.

Inside their homes, the Yao keep an altar to the ancestors, with red cards with large black characters bearing the patronym of each resident of the house, in addition, among the wealthy, to five objects, or vou kong, incense burners, candelabras, and flower holders. The phaya offers me another cup of alcohol, but raising both hands to my forehead, I deposit it in homage on the altar of the ancestors. The good man thanks me effusively for this gesture, which he finds touching. We are now firm friends.

If I had not slaked their thirst for music, I believe the Yao would still be all ears before the phonograph when these lines appear in print.

Meanwhile, the men sing and dance. The women start a kind of round, with the participants walking rather than dancing to the sound of a shrill bagpipe, stepping in one direction, then in another.

The men dance alone what I would be tempted to describe as a Great Chahut [a form of can-can dance]. To the sound of a tom-tom, about thirty of them shake their arms and legs, leaping like clowns, bending down until they touch the ground with their lower back before straightening up as if launched from an elastic trampoline. This looks very much like a sideshow from one of the creations of Valentin le Désossé.

Putting an end to my admiration, the old chief comes forward carrying a grimoire bearing ancient Chinese characters. This is the Book of phi, and my new friend wishes to give me a particular mark of his affection by exorcising me. He will utter the solemn incantatory formula that is supposed to put to flight all those malevolent phi that found a home deep in my interior. But this exorcism is quite a ceremony; first, the Dance of the phi.

The phaya’s brother holds in his hand a bamboo about one meter in length and closed at each end with a sheet of paper stretched like a drumskin. He starts dancing, or rather hopping on one foot while striking each of his tambourines alternately with his hands and from time to time executing another bizarre move with the stick as he waves it above my head.

I would willingly offer the Great Buddha in Hanoi fifty sapèque for my colleagues from the Sel Hybat [see note below] to see me being exorcised by these leaping Yao.

The phaya’s son enters the scene and begins wrestling back-to-back with his uncle the conjurer. For ten minutes, the two men strike each other vigorously in the fleshiest part of their physical being, and I assure you they are putting their hearts into it! Ouch! This is their way of squeezing out all of my phi, it seems. If any are left and still resisting, it is because I am home to an excess of particularly tough phi. Bam! Bam! It’s your uncle, not your father! Considering his age, this excellent conjurer can surely hit with his back. I fear something might break under such jolts to the entire organism. If both are not totally stupefied by the time the dance ends, it is because their head is as tough as their back. Bam! Bam! Bam!

Phaya Kham Lu raises a hand. He considers the phi sufficiently squeezed; the two men stop.

Chanting like a priest declaiming the Epistle, the old man utters the solemn formula over me, which the entire audience hears, bowing; I do not even think of laughing, for the good man is convinced he is rendering me a major service. Only [Joseph] Fadovic, our interpreter, has all the trouble in the world keeping a straight face.

It is over. Go in peace!, says the phaya. The phi are no longer with you.

Is it to this new state of innocence that I owe the strange request from the sweet child who steps forward toward me? I Deng, the Red Virgin, for this is her name, came to complain about her parents. Her father and even her mother smoke opium night and day, forcing her to work so they can satisfy the lethal passion. She is eighteen years old, and asks to go away with me.

Lightning striking my big toe would not have left me more astonished than this request from the little Yao girl. The whole village supports her, it is true, the gossips assure me. I Deng is very unhappy; her parents are wretches, and we must come to her aid.

The child is ravishing, definitely the prettiest of all those surrounding me. Her costume would be a great success in the Laotian section at Marseille, but the severe voice of Conscience calls out: non licet! [The Latin phrase Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi literally means “What is permissible for Jove is not permissible for a bull”].

I take my leave of these good mountain people with sadness in my soul as two large pearly tears come through the long eyelashes of pretty I Deng, the daughter of opium smokers.

***

Note: Raquez hosted salons in the clubroom at the Hotel Métropole in Hanoi, swinging soirees for the city’s bachelors he styled “Sel Hybat” (pronounced by a French speaker exactly like célibat), with lavish meals, copious alcohol, live music, and laddish behaviour. See William L. Gibson, Alfred Raquez and the French Experience of the Far East, 1898-1906 (forthcoming from Routledge, May 2021) for more details.

These passages originally appeared as “Au Laos” in La Revue Indochinoise 1:29 (March 15, 1906): 363-367.

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.

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