Friday, October 11, 2019

Indo-China, Part 1, November 1902 - March 1903

In November 1902 Toulet and Curnonsky embarked on a six-month tour of Indochina. A report on the Hanoï exhibition and World Fair1 was the excuse. Henri Dartiguenave (Les Nouvelles Littéraires, 23, ii, 1929) claimed that “Toulet, with Curnonsky, undertook the trip to Indo-China in connexion with a Parisian newspaper on the occasion of the Exhibition in 1900”. Jacques Dyssord claimed that there was an expectation of riches (wasn’t Montpezat, there since 1894, and working on his own behalf from 1898, already rolling in gold!) or at least a good quality “bénares”.

Notes on the voyage appeared in Le Damier, May 1905 (Aller et retour) and L’Ermitage in March 1906 (Carnets de voyage) Chroniques parisiennes appeared in 1904 in L’Echo du Tonkin. Curnonsky relates some of their adventures in Commentaires du Night Cap, published in Le Journal in 1911, calling  himself “Whynot” and Toulet, “Corzébien”.

1Organised by Paul Doumer, the Hanoï exhibition was open from November 1902 to January 1903. It proclaimed the great progress made in Indochina in the previous 4 years, since Doumer’s appointment as Governor-General of French Indochina. Upon his arrival the colonies were losing millions of francs each year so Doumer introduced taxes on opium, wine and the salt. He established Indochina as a market for French products and a source of investment by French businessmen. Doumer set about creating the infrastructure appropriate to a French colony in. Indochina, especially in Hanoï, the capital. The Long Bien Bridge linking Hanoï and Haiphong was among large-scale projects built during his term. It was built in 1899-1902 by the architects Daydé & Pillé of Paris, and opened in 1903. Before North Vietnam's independence in 1954, it was called the Paul-Doumer Bridge.

On 6 May 1932, Paul Doumer was in Paris at the opening of a book fair at the Hôtel Salomon de Rothschild, talking to the author Claude Farrère. Suddenly several shots were fired by Paul Gorguloff, a mentally unstable Russian émigré. Two of the shots hit Doumer, at the base of the skull and in the right armpit. Farrère wrestled with the assassin before the police arrived. Doumer is the only French president to die of a gunshot wound.
Andre Maurois was an eyewitness to the assassination, having come to the book fair to autograph copies of his book, and later described the scene in his autobiography, "Call No Man Happy". As Maurois notes, because the President was assassinated at a meeting of writers, it was decided that writers - Maurois himself among them - should stand guard over his body while he lay in state at the Elysée.)

In Toulet’s notes on the expedition, he refers in the very first paragraphs to a Hayashi kakemono and to the fashion for bonsai trees that hailed from that exasperating Lilliput that was Japan – almost the sole reference to that country despite the fact that he must have visited it. Be that as it may, on November 2nd the pair left Marseilles on board the Ville de La Ciotat of the Messageries Maritimes, whereupon Curnonsky lost no time in getting on familiar terms with both passengers and crew. Apart from some brief notes on the antics of the passengers, Toulet’s first notes were written from Port-Said on November 7th and then off Aden, remarking again on the passengers, and also on the porpoises and flying-fish. Columbo followed, as much a disappointment as Singapore was later to prove. Toulet’s disapprobation was more for the British colonial architecture than for the countryside, the horror of the Victorian style, gothic terraces and Ionic columns of reinforced concrete. The overwhelming heat, and the overcharging as he saw it at the post office, by the rickshaw drivers, the barmen, the currency changers all left a sour taste.
Although he doesn’t mention Malacca, neither in his correspondence nor in his Journal,  it is likely that Toulet stopped off there. The evidence is in Giraudoux’s novel, Suzanne and the Pacific, in which Toulet features and Curnonsky as his right hand man. Toulet, Giraudoux claims, spent a thousand piastres on lobsters so that he could drop them into the aquarium at Malacca just to see the octopus snap them up in their suckers and return the carapace empty. It sounds a likely anecdote, probably retailed on their return by Curnonsky.
By 23rd November they were off Singapore, comical and ugly, built by the British. (The following September he was dreaming again of Singapore, a Singapore more acceptable, he says, than the burning and glaring horror he experienced with its waters like metal). It seems to have been a brief landfall, because on 24th November he is writing of Saigon and his first impressions on Indochina, a green land of flat rice-paddies, and violet bougainvillea to enliven the shadows.
The pair were now on the Gironde, and not having a cabin, Toulet stayed in the bathroom, leaving the shower running to alleviate the heat. He describes with evident approval the local architecture, visible via the porthole, built of fired brick, and red as girls’ chignons.
After Da Nang (Tourane in French colonial terms), the next entry in the Journal is merely dated 1903. But in 1903 they were in the bay of Ha Long, a landscape so Chinese in character it reminded him of a garden constructed by a giant mandarin, half-submerged in the sea, reminding Toulet of a marine version of Karnak, and just a few hours from Haiphong. 

It may have been there, or more likely in Saigon, that the voyagers spent Christmas. There is no mention of it as such, just a reference to the Asiatic winters spent by the fire reading old copies of the Revue des Deux Mondes, or English adventure stories, far from the “glaring oppressiveness of this port of Cochinchina …and the pewter sky that hangs over the teeming ant-heap of Cholon” – in Toulet’s time an independent town, now a district of Saigon and considered the largest Chinatown in the world by area.

In commenting on the Tonkin landscape, (the name used since 1883 for the French colonial Tonkin protectorate, a constituent territory of French Indochina) Toulet recalls the fields of home, the reapers lying under the shade of a plane trees, and Toulet waiting in ambush behind a hedge to kiss the the harvesters returning from the well - the subject matter of Contrerime XXXI.
A Chinese parade at Haiphong caught his eye, with dancers, children riding miniature horses,  floats, firecrackers, and fakirs with cheeks pierced by enormous needles, for the most part stoical except for one misfortunate who looked as if her had been to the dentist, with a cloth held to his mouth to muffle his cries. The final figure was a toothless crone, her cheeks pierced through and through, waxen in her bloody shroud as if taking part in her own funeral procession.
In February Toulet was in north-east Tonkin, where he visited the Ky-Lua caves, near Lạng Sơn. He does not describe them, only relating with ill-concealed glee that the most serious member of his group split the top of his head on a stalactite.  (The two caves, well illuminated, with Buddhist altars, are the Tam Thanh Cave and the Nhi Thanh Cave.)  He claims to have travelled from Sơn Tây, 35 km west of Hanoï,  to Đồng Đăng by rickshaw, a distance of some 200 kilometres. Perhaps he took a rickshaw only to Hanoï, as the Hanoï - Đồng Đăng rail link was inaugurated on 1900.  Đồng Đăng is within a few kilometres of the Friendship Pass border crossing, one of three main border crossings with China. It was built in the early Ming dynasty with the name of "South Suppressing Pass" or Zhennan Pass (Zhennanguan). Toulet knew it as the China Gate - Porte de Chine. He found the place full of sacks of rice, presented by the Governor of Indochina to the Chinese Marshal Sou, military chief of Guangxi province, a regular payment for keeping Chinese bandits under control and on his side of the frontier.

Toulet was back in Hanoï for Mardi Gras, (Tuesday February 24th ) as he diverts into a longish narrative of a night spent in an opium den.

Hoan Kiem (Returned Sword) Lake, covering 12 hectares (30 acres), is possibly the most popular place in Hanoï.  There is a small, four-tier pagoda on a small island at the south end – Thap Rua, the Turtle Tower.  One of Hanoï’s most iconic attractions, it was constructed in 1886 to commemorate a local folk hero, Le Loi, who had freed the Vietnamese from Chinese forces back in 1425.
One evening Toulet and Curnonsky, in a schoolboy prank (Toulet was 35, Curnonsky 30!) and out of sheer boredom, decided to paint it. Here is Toulet’s account of the adventure, in one of his Letters to himself, on a postcard  from Tourane (Da Nang) depicting Hanoï lake, and dated 2 April 1903; and repeated in his Journal with just “Hanoï
, 1903” as date and location:

TOULET, Hanoï, 1903
To oneself. Dear Mr. Toulet, let me tell you the travails of a pagoda. Formerly a daring scholar had it "adorned" with a cast-iron reduction of Bartholdi's statue of Liberty. Another city councilor, better informed, removed La Liberté (a rather ordinary phenomenon) and replaced it with a Chinese gable. It was then that someone painted the whole a delicate chamois shade (buff, camel, ecru) that you could have admired if you had come with us in Indochina. But, one night, in our boredom, Sailland and I took a boat and a pot of indigo, and painted the unfortunate monument blue.
The city were quite surprised the next day; and, numbering 102,000 inhabitants (plus the floating population), assembled on the edge of the lake. Came a shower: everyone went home. But the indigo took advantage of the moisture to mix with the red layer of buff, and when the populace returned the pagoda had become purple like an amethyst. After night fell the indigo, continuing its unspeakable manoeuvres, reached the lowest yellow layer; after which the pagoda became green and the town Hanoï insane.

The pair were in Manilla in early March. Toulet’s brief Journal entry for February 28th is labelled “Près Manille”; and his  March 3rd Journal entry states that he had arrived (“me voici à Manille”). Francis Carco mentions, in Memoires d’une autre vie, that Léon Barthou gave him a little diary of Toulet’s in which he had noted brief impressions, including this: “1903, debarked at Manila, a Spanish town with Yankee signs. Extraordinary fuss with the customs. Promenade round the “Luneta” and the sea beneath a fading violet sky.”
The next entry in his Journal is labelled “Near Hong-Kong,  March 9th”, in which Toulet recounts his visit to the Philippines, and wonders what on earth Sailland and himself were doing there. In this note he refers to being there on a Sunday, which was most probably March 1st,  and heading back to Hong-Kong on the Hoïhao – a boat he describes as suspect, having been refloated after sinking in China. But he doesn’t state in this entry that he was on the Hoïhao  - could he have been on the Rosetta Maru ? (See March 11th entry). 
Of Hong-Kong he had little to say, taking up most of the entry with an anecdote about a Japanese colonel, and prefacing his tale with “On reproche aux Japonais de ne point nous aimer”; which may indicate that he had already visited Japan.

In the 11th March entry in his Journal, aboard the San-Cheun off Canton (Guangzhou), Toulet lists the various departures made since leaving Hanoï; the lack of organisation is evident - at Haïphong, there were no rooms available; the pair spent four hours in a sampan, under the influence of opium, searching for their boat which they were unable to recognise. Manilla, detained by customs, and dragging themselves from pillar to post looking for a hotel. Arrival at Hong-Kong to find the hotels full and obliged to sleep on board the Rosetta Maru, whose purser would not accept the local currency. Arrival at Canton – once again the hotels were full up,  the pair were obliged to sleep in an ambulance. They left Canton with the intention of going to Macao but the boat was fully booked so they ended up back in Hong-Kong! 

(Not all of their experiences in Canton were disorganised. Fifty years later, Curnonsky reminisced: “…the great Chinese Ignace Bou, who we knew from Canton, and who spoke very pure French, was able to tell me at the end of an excellent dinner, aboard a flowery boat…: Your friend Toulet has a very bad temper, but so even! ... As we had proclaimed, Toulet and I, our enthusiasm for Chinese cuisine, justified by an admirable swallows nest soup with and a delicious lacquered duckling: Yes! said Ignace Bou, I raise this glass of champagne in a toast to the only two peoples who have created the two most beautiful things in the world, cuisine and etiquette!”)

It would seem therefore that Toulet was in Japan either between 11th and 21st March; or between March 3rd and March 9th, which seems too brief a timescale, unless he sailed directly from the Philippines. But that is unlikely as he states in a letter to Mme Bulteau dated 28 March that he sailed from Manilla to China, with no mention of Japan. (The Rosetta Maru was a Japanese boat, of the Toyo Kaisen Kabushiki Kaisha, which certainly had routine sailings between Japan and Hong Kong.)

In his Letters to Himself, dated Hoïhao, 22 March 1903,  when off the island of Haïnan, he wrote on a post-card of the Bronze Horse Temple Nagasaki, so he must have been there by then. He starts off with “Que n’ai-je, très honoré monsieur, ce cheval de bronze à ma portée.He had left Quantchéou-Wan (now Guangzhouwan), a territory on the Luichow Peninsula in southern Canton (Guangdong) province the previous day, finding the French military installations praisworthy while wondering if there were more dug-outs than inhabitants  – were it not for “the multitude of fishing boats where the innumerable Chinese live out a fishy existence.” Japan was on his mind even before he set sail from France. Travelling by train among the vineyards of Guienne, a siren from the port brought to mind a kakemono in the Hayashi sale* where “perched on a rock, a species of vulture with a blue plumage on his belly, hungry watcher of the sea, seemed with his golden eye to  weep that he too could not eat nor love his fill. But the ladies preferred to buy  these tortuous little trees, Dodone or Libane, of that exasperating Lilliput that is Japan….”

*Hayashi, Tadamasa. Objets d'art du Japon et de la Chine; peintures, livres. Don't la vente aura lieu du lundi 27 janvier au samedi ler février 1902 inclus, dans les galeries de MM. Durand-Ruel. 1902.

His dissatisfaction is also expressed in this ironic Letter, dated Canton, March 1903:
How right you were, unlike me, my dear friend, of not going to Japan. Your systematic mind, the depth of which is not equalled, if I dare to write thus, but by the very breadth that it presents, would have been blunted, in a way, by the restless frivolity of this edgy race that is dying to imitate Europe before understanding it ...”.

In Comme une fantaisie, published in 1918, Toulet has M. l'Églantin, the sentimental professor of geography, refers to some quaint Japanese habits :
“Japan is a rainy country, where you can admire a mountain like a cocked hat (Fujiyama). The inhabitants are brave, and they like the patent leather boots that usually, going barefoot, they carry at the end of a stick. An American named Loefcadio who, during his lifetime, taught English at a Pomeranian elementary school, has told about them a thousand cheeky stories taken for the most part from the Jesuits of the 18th century. Thus he claims that the women bathe without any clothes, in front of their door, in blue-flowered porcelain bowls. But for a long time they have, thanks to the Protestant missions, turned to modesty, without, however, becoming lascivious; which is a hateful contradiction.”

La Jap’, qui raffole, dit-on,
De chaussure vernie,
Les porte – chacun sa manie –
Au bout de son bâton.

Ainsi l’éclat les en décore
Sans blesser leurs pieds nus.
Aimsi, sans doute, eût fait Vénus :
J’en sais d’autres encore….

Lafcadio Hearne wrote a number of books about Japan from 1894 up to 1904, the year of his death. They garnered great popularity and were much translated. It is certain Toulet came across them before he set out. About Hearn he seems to have been somewhat ambivalent, as Contrerime XLIX (first published in 1910 in La Grande Revue, under the title “Le Foujiyama”) and its earlier variant express.

J'ai beau trouver bien sympathique
       Feu Loufoquadio,
Ses Japs en sucre candiot,
       Son Bouddha de boutique ;

J'aime mieux le subtil schéma,
       Sur l'hiver d' un ciel morne,
De ton aérien bicorne,
       Noble Foujiyama,

Et tes cèdres noirs, et la source
       Du temple délaissé,
Qui pleurait comme un coeur blessé,
       Qui pleurait sans ressource.

In 1913, the early variant was published in Vers et Prose, octobre-decembre. In it these lines occur:

Je n’aime pas – je m’en explique –
Ce Japon idiot
Qu’a peint  feu Loufcadio
Du sein de l’Amerique.

The last line is quite untrue, as Hearn moved to Japan in 1890, and remained there for the rest of his life, married the daughter of a Samurai family, had four children with her, and wrote all his Japanese books there. He may have become more popular in France due to his enthusiasm for French authors, translating into English Gérard de Nerval, Anatole France, and most remarkably Pierre Loti, who was casually racist about the Japanese in some of his writings. One wonders if Toulet picked up on that, as not only does he not chronicle his Japanese visit, he is less than flattering about the Japanese he encounters elsewhere on his trip.

Japan bookends the Indo-China section of Toulet’s Journal. He began with the “exasperating Lilliput”, and concluded, in October 1910, with a Loti-like memory of Tokyo:  One evening while in Japan, the moths were banging against the coloured paper lantern. It was that of my three neighbours, one of whom was always dressed in blue and and another nude. But the third, in pink, was watching  through the bars of her window the moon play in the bay of Shinagawa.”

The 22 March note written aboard the Hoïhao on the Japanese postcard was followed by another where he views the town of Hoïhao (Haikou) on the northern shore of Hainan while aboard the eponymous steamer.
They sailed west, at Pakhoï (now Beihai), sweaty and smelly,  on March 23rd, to reach Haïphong on March 26th, when they left by the night ferry for Tourane, arriving on the 28th. He left for Hué  on Sunday, March 29th by the steam boat Thuan-an.

In the letter to Mme Bulteau dated 28th March, within view of Haïphong, Toulet says: « Tous ces paquebots, où je passe mes jours, et hélas, mes nuits, depuis cinq semaines, sont fort abominables… Il y a eu un mois et demi à Hanoï de pluie, de brouillard et de moisissure qui aurait rendu un officier anglais neurasthénique. Vous jugez si j’y ai échappé ; et malgré un beau feu de bois qui brûlait sans cesse à côté de mon lit, j’ai passé là quelques-unes des plus horribles heures de ma vie.»

At six a.m. on March 31st  Toulet took a steam sampan from Hué to tour various sites, including the tombs of Gia Long – where he was received by an elderly grand-daughter of the Emperor -  and Tự Đức . 

The tomb of Gia Long (officially Thien Tho Tomb) is a royal tomb of the Nguyễn Dynasty which is located in the Hương Thọ commune of Hương Trà district, some 20 kilometres south of the city of Huế. Gia Long ( 1762 –1820), was the first Emperor of the Nguyễn dynasty of Vietnam. Unifying what is now modern Vietnam in 1802, he founded the Nguyễn dynasty, the last of the Vietnamese dynasties. The tomb of Tự Đức, officially Khiêm Tomb,  is located in Huế, Vietnam. It was built for the Nguyễn Emperor Tự Đức and took three years to build from 1864–1867. It is divided into a Temple Area and a Tomb Area.

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