The curious case of mr Alfred Raquez, a Parisian fugitive on the run in the Far East

Interview with William L. Gibson and Paul Bruthiaux about their new book: “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.

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!

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!

Read the full interview