Adventures and Encounters is a compilation of travel writings by a batch of people from diverse backgrounds. The works that are chosen by Gullick in this compilation are significant as they portray various cultural observations of the South-East Asians in the eyes of foreign European writers. It is because of this foreign background too, that the validity of the Europeans’ stories are questioned, as to whether these writers have presented fair and objective views of local customs and societies which they had encountered.
One of the narratives in this compilation is “A Rambling through Saigon”, which was written by Isabella Bird, a prominent female travel writer. In this narrative, Bird narrates her experiences in Saigon, and writes about her observations and personal views of the situation there. Bird’s narrative revolves mostly around the people, their homes, the harsh climate and the travelling condition in Saigon. In terms of the domestic sphere in Saigon, Bird gives detailed descriptions of the homes she saw or went into – ranging from a native village, Choquan, to a native town, Cholen, and at last to a permanent floating village.
In her descriptions, the homes are all depicted in a pathetic state, which highlights the squalor and the poverty of the people’s living conditions. Bird uses words such as “primitive”, “ramshackle”, “wretched” and “forlorn” to describe the homes. Here, readers are able to see that Bird’s perception of things was governed by her ethnocentric view where civilisation and development are defined by the advanced condition in Europe, and anything less than that is considered the opposite, which is negative, uncivilised and backward.
David Spurr, in The Rhetoric of Empire, comments on Richard Harding Davis whose descriptions of the houses of Congo in a negative manner is somehow similar to that of Bird’s description of the houses in Saigon, Davis defines precisely the dilemma of the Western writer who, recognizing none of the familiar constructions of social reality, falls back upon the discourse of negation in writing of the non-Western world (96). Besides that, Bird also describes the people whom she encountered in Saigon – the natives, the Anamese, a French officer and the missionary nuns.
In the houses that she went into, Bird gives very detailed descriptions about the people that she had seen, ranging from the way they dressed, their daily activities to their physical features. Again, when it comes to the description of people, Bird continues to use her ethnocentric view to judge them. In this narrative, she describes the Anamese as “hideous” people in her eyes: I never saw such ugly, thick-set, rigid bodies, such uniformly short necks, such sloping shoulders, such flat faces and flatter noses…
The dark tawny complexion has no richness of tint… (“Ramble” 163). Just like other ethnocentric Europeans, Bird tends to measure and judge the people of Saigon by using the European yardstick. It was taken granted by Bird that anything or person that is not of European standard is considered ugly, revolting and unattractive. Even the way that the natives dressed in their homes seemed offensive to Bird, for Bird’s European culture could never tolerate children being left in a state of nudity, and women being draped just in petticoats.
However, Bird did consider the harsh climate in that country, and tried to be fair in defending them by telling the readers to understand their situation: “Remember the mercury was 92i??, so (they) may be excused… ” (“Ramble” 156). Besides that, Bird portrays the life of people in Saigon as apathetic, for they seemed to be so unconcerned and indifferent to things happening around them. Here, Bird admits to the ethnocentrism attitude held by herself and also her fellow Europeans when she commented, “These natives look apathetic, and are according to our notions lazy… ” (“Ramble” 161).
It was not just the people who had to bear the brunt of Bird’s criticisms, but even the animals such as the dogs there too were described as “pariah dogs” (“Ramble” 159) or “low caste, leggy, flop-eared, mangy dogs” (“Ramble” 155). That is why David Spurr points out to us the problems of the Westerners when it comes to writing about the non-Western people in The Rhetoric of Empire: … this is the projection of a uniquely Western problematic onto the rituals of a non-Western people… colonized peoples are systematically represented in terms of negation and absence – absence of order, of limits, of light, of spirit (96).
It was this Western problem too that the French artillery officer that Bird met, mentioned that “France is doing its best to promote the prosperity and secure the goodwill of the natives” (“Ramble” 162) in Saigon. To the Western forces, the colonized people were not capable of managing their country and also their own lives, thus the need for the French to be there to help them. William R. Roff comments in At The Court of Pelesu and Other Malayan Stories, It was widely believed, among men of this stamp… Oriental races’ were simply incapable of ordering their affairs competently, and that in consequence it could only be of benefit – to themselves and to mankind – to do so for them (xi). However, through Bird’s description of the deplorable living conditions in Saigon, it is clear to the readers that the French were not doing their job well in ruling the country. Therefore, it can be said that Bird was actually being fair to the natives by speaking out on their behalf, as she strived to make the French government aware of their plight and hence, bringing a hope of change for them.
CEA Forum Online writes, She consistently criticizes European governments for their misunderstanding and mishandling of native populations. Through her careful descriptions, she endeavors to spark genuine interest that might lead to better, more responsible governance (Volume 30. 1 Winter 2000 ISSN: 0007-8034). She even mocks the French government’s way of ruling the country by mentioning, “The French don’t appear to be successful colonists” (“Ramble” 162). To Bird, the poor state of affairs that she observed and described were all due to the French colonialists’ poor governance.
However, it is significant to note that Bird is not a voice for anti-colonialism, as she does not condemn the French acts of colonizing Vietnam. Instead, her intention was to see improvement in the colonial state that they were ruling in. However, to be fair to Bird, her descriptions does not just focus on the negative aspects, but she does mention about the good things in her observations as well. She admits that she was impressed by the natives’ courtesy and generosity to her.
The family which she met in Choquan also projected their integrity when they refused to accept Bird’s token of money. She was also impressed by their physical build and also their means of resistance towards illnesses despite the fact that they lived in deplorable conditions. Although Bird does project the decent aspects of Saigon, her depiction still could not run away from her ethnocentrism attitude. This was because, even when she praised the people there as being gentle and mannerly, her remarks were also indirectly implying that they were uncivilized: .. I was not mobbed or rudely treated in any way. The people were as gentle and inoffensive in their manners as the Japanese, without their elaborate courtesy and civilized curiosity (“Ramble” 161). Other than that, when she comments that “the Mongolian face is pleasant in childhood” (“Ramble” 159), she seems to be implying a meaning beyond that. At first glance, readers might think that it is a compliment, but then, this comment can also indicate that the Mongolian face of a person when he or she becomes an adult might not be that pleasant after all.
Since Bird focuses on both the positive and negative aspects in her observation, it can also be believed that Bird was merely being honest and direct about what she felt. She is the type of writer who is objective and truthful enough to depict the real situation, rather than attempting to embellish the negative details of her observations. She was determined to present to her fellow Westerners her own version of reality about the East that was seen through her eyes. It was written in the CEA Forum Online, … dozens of women wrote about their adventures in foreign lands for British and American readers.
The travel narratives of Isabella Bird… are among the best examples. These women believed their travel writing contributed to their nation’s understanding of the world (Volume 30. 1 Winter 2000 ISSN: 0007-8034). Her portrayal of the negative side of the East was also actually meant to shatter the Western illusion that the East is a mythical and exotic place. That is why she brings forward her observations of the squalid and primitive living conditions in Saigon. Bird wanted the Westerners to open their eyes to the real condition of the East, and not to romanticize and idealize it.
The Westerners’ tendency to romanticize everything about the East was a phenomenon brought about by the Western media that was inclined to write about the East in their imagination as a beautiful and unusual place. David Spurr comments in The Rhetoric of Empire, The tendency to treat certain subjects as having inherently aesthetic value has special consequences for representations of the Third World in the Western press. Above all, the cultural and geographic distance of Third World reality makes it more susceptible to a kind of aesthetic treatment, however imperfect or corrupt, than is the case with subjects closer to home.
The Third World continually provides what writers call “material” of a special nature: the exotic… (46). Another narrative in this book is “Sultan Yusuf Faces Death – and Turns Back” by Hugh Clifford. It is through this story that Clifford brings out his observation of the royal family at that particular period when Sultan Yusuf became very ill and was on the brink of death, and also the issue of occult versus Western science through this incident.
There is a tendency among readers to believe in the validity of Clifford’s work although he is an European and this narrative involves the occult. This is because history has shown Clifford to be an expert in writing about the Malay culture and its way of life. In fact, Clifford was fluent in the Malay language, and he was able to mingle well with the Malay locals and the rulers, and also to immerse himself in the cultural life of a Malay. That is why Victor R. Savage comments in “Environmental Cognition and the Malayan Colonial Process”, Clifford’s) adeptness with the Malay language and their almost complete cultural submergence into Malay culture yield some of the most interesting insights into Malay life, customs, beliefs and superstitions… (he was) in fact (an) amateur anthropologist adopting participant observation to record a plethora of Malay cultural activities. What Clifford… (has) done for Malay culture is to put in writing an oral tradition of folklore, folk tales and myths that even the present day Malay might find a revelation.
Furthermore, in this narrative, Clifford himself was a participant-observer, partaking in this incident. Hence, Clifford takes the role of a sentimental narrator where he is not just interested in providing the descriptions of the culture, but also his personal sentiments regarding the whole situation. According to Mary Louise Pratt in Imperial Eyes, Sentimental writing explicitly anchors what is being expressed in the sensory experience, judgment, agency, or desires of the human subjects. Authority lies in the authenticity of somebody’s felt experience (76).
Therefore, readers tend to believe in the authenticity of this story, as this narrative is a description of Clifford’s personal experiences. J. M. Gullick also affirms the incident by commenting in the introduction of this story in Adventures and Encounters: There is a core of fact in this story. In 1885 the miserly, much feared, and cordially detested Raja Yusuf… was afflicted by a tumour of the brain, which the European doctors predicted would be fatal. However, for some reason there was an unexpected remission and the patient recovered to live on for another eighteen months (96).
In this narrative too, Clifford uses a lot of dialogues to depict the conversations that were going on in this story. The usage of the dialogues are significant as they help to validate Clifford’s observations and also to evoke the dramatic atmosphere of the real situation in the mind of the readers. Apart from that, many archaic terms are used in the conversations to evoke a feudal setting that was found in that particular period of time. Clifford took pains to create a setting which is as close to the real situation as possible, in order to depict his cultural observations accurately.
However, the most intriguing part of this narrative is Clifford’s encounter with the natives’ belief in the occult, which dwells on sorcery and superstitions. Clifford surprisingly tries to present this issue in a less judgmental way, when it is normally rampant among Western writers to be sceptical about spiritual issues in the East. The reason for Clifford to be less judgmental could be explained from a few perspectives. One of them might be that he was personally involved in the whole dramatic episode and had witnessed himself the miraculous healing of Sultan Yusuf.
Furthermore, the healing only happened when Megat Pendia, the assumed person who cursed the king died, as told by the King himself to Clifford: “I am told that Megat Pendia died when the day was dawning… it was at that hour that the Evil One left me” (“Sultan” 104). Although Clifford might find the whole experience to be baffling, due to his first hand account of witnessing this mystifying happening, Clifford tends to be less prejudiced towards the occult by reserving his judgments and presenting it exactly as what he had observed.
Besides that, Clifford discloses that he sent for a doctor immediately to conduct an autopsy when he got hold of the news of Megat Pendia’s death. This action of Clifford could be interpreted from two different perspectives. It could be either Clifford was sceptical about the natives’ belief and was trying to verify his doubts; or Clifford was just carrying out his duties to ascertain that no foul play was involved. If readers choose to see from the first perspective, it could be said that Clifford is also a narrator who still could not disassociate himself from being ethnocentric, despite his close connection with the Malay community.
This is because when Clifford narrates his observations of the medicine-men at work, he also commented, “But among a superstitious people hope is never lost” (“Sultan” 100). The word “superstitious” that was used by Clifford, connotes irrationality and the inability of the Malay people to think in a logical way. Here, readers could also see a clash of the Western and Eastern belief, as Clifford brings out the contrast between the East and the West by comparing the traditional medicine-men and the Western doctors’ treatment of the King.
He narrates all his observations on how the medicine-men carried out their rituals to try healing the Sultan; and at the same time too the Western doctors’ diagnosis of the Sultan’s condition. Clifford writes about his doubts of both prognosis and leaves the ending open-ended for the readers to decide on who to believe: The European doctors explained that the growth of the tumour on the King’s brain had been suddenly arrested, and the case was quoted as one of unparalleled interest.
But the Malays say that the King went near to lose his life at the hands of Megat Pendia’s Familiar, and that the timely death of its owner alone prevented the Evil One from completing its work of destruction (“Sultan” 105). However, in his depiction of the local royalty, Clifford paints a picture of a corrupt palace, where the people are either greedy or pretentious. With regard to them, Clifford can be quite critical and openly states his suspicion of their motives at the time when the King was on the brink of death,
The younger concubines of the King behaved in a manner… While the convulsions held the King, they aided others in shampooing him in a somewhat perfunctory manner; and unless I am much mistaken, they made this part of their duty serve as an occasion for touching and pressing the hands of one or another of the young Rajas whose devotion to their dying monarch had ostensibly called them to his bedside… they sat a little back, and entered with spirit into what the Malays call the ‘game of eye-play’ with such of the visitors as chanced to take their fancy…
Only one of his wives showed any real sympathy with his sufferings, or anxiety to stay his ebbing life: she was his Queen, and her rank and importance both hung upon the length of the King’s days (“Sultan” 99). The reason that Clifford is critical of the people is because he himself was at the scene, and he managed to witness the reactions of the members of royalty during that crisis. Coupled with his astute ability of observation on the body language and face expression of the people around him, Clifford managed to give us an insight into the real motives of those characters.
For the concubines, it was reasonable for Clifford to deduce that they were not genuinely concerned for the King, for their actions and expressions which were observed closely by Clifford betrayed them. However, it was not justified for Clifford to suspect that the Queen had ulterior motives for showing her anxiety and sympathy to the King. This was because there were no actions or words by the Queen to sufficiently justify Clifford’s accusations against her.
Hence, it can be said that in this case, Clifford was not being fair to the Queen and was bias and prejudiced towards her. Apart from that, towards the King who was his dear friend, Clifford did not allow their close relationship to hinder him from giving a fair and objective view of the King. From the narrative, readers are given entry into Clifford’s personal feelings about the King, “For many nights I sat by the King’s side, sad at heart now that in my truth my old friend was dying; pity for his sufferings… (“Sultan” 99).
But then, putting aside away emotions that would affect his objectivity, Clifford later reveals the truth of the King’s sinful nature, “The King lived to break all his pious vows, and died a couple of years later with a heavy load of new crimes to bear” (“Sultan” 104). Hence, from this revelation of Clifford, readers are able to see that Clifford can be a fair and objective narrator, without allowing emotions to take over his rationality. Other than that, Clifford also describes about the beauty of the local natural environment.
He gives vivid descriptions regarding the flora and fauna that he had seen and compares it to the polluted atmosphere in the palace, which was filled with greedy hypocrites: As I passed through the fruit groves in the cool freshness of the early morning, the strong contrast to the stuffy, squalid place in which I had spent the night made it difficult to realise that the two scenes could be part and portion of the same land. The trees and shrubs and all the masses of greenery about me were drenched with dew… he chorus of the birds… a pack of monkeys were whooping and barking… I revelled in the beauty of the scene, and tried to persuade myself that the sordid death-bed of the King, with all the greed and lasviciousness which had made it hideous to witness, was but an evil dream… (“Sultan” 103). From his descriptions, readers are again aware of Clifford’s objectivity, for although he was frustrated with the scene in the palace, he was still able to keep his mind intact and to enjoy the beauty that local nature was able to offer.
He did not allow the string of unpleasant happenings to affect his perceptions and sensitivity towards nature. Victor R. Savage comments that Clifford extolled the beauties of nature and enjoyed its aesthetic attractions (“Environmental”). For Clifford, the pristine beauty of nature outside the palace compound acted as a refuge for him to escape from the stifling environment of the palace.
Through this picture of his escapade into local nature and also the comparison that he made, Clifford somehow seems to be indicating that he was disappointed with the cruel nature of those people in the palace, either waiting for the King to die, or hoping for the King to live for their own selfish purposes. In conclusion, in both stories, the writers are perceptive people who are able to narrate to the readers their keen observations on their experiences.
However, the influence of ethnocentrism could still be seen through their writings, especially in Bird’s. But then, Bird’s attitude of being honest and direct seem to indicate otherwise. For Clifford, though he is less judgmental on the traditional cultural belief, certain parts of his narrative still reveal his skepticism on certain people and issues. However, it can be said that both writers should be applauded for their efforts in attempting to project a fair and objective view on the local cultural customs and society that they had observed.