Gontran de Poncins, a solitary traveler recording with pen and brush the genius of cultures hidden away in remote corners of the world, wrote this journal almost fifty years ago in his walk-up room in the Sun Wah Hotel in Cholon. He chose Cholon, the Chinese riverbank community snuggled up to Saigon, because he suspected the ancient customs of a national culture endure longer in remote colonies than in the motherland. In effect, he was studying a bit of ancient China, using the same intimate process he had used his best-selling Arctic account, Kabloona, reissued recently by Graywolf Press.
Everything he saw intrigued him-Chinese eating habits, their medical practices, their elaborate theater, their aesthetic talents, their varied physiognomies, their rich philosophy- indeed everything. All this is laid out for the reader, written with a light and humorous hand, just as it was lived by the author. As a writer and an artist, de Poncins also shows us the beauty in commonplace things: the street vendor's display of lettuce; the water-lily leaf folded into a sack to carry a live fish; the artistry of motion of the sampans on the river, poled by bent figures with supple reeds. He glories in the same texture caught in the film Indochine.
De Poncins' 42 sketches offers short-clad truck drivers, water-carriers, the simple lines of Chinese shears, and a bicycle-mounted night fritter stand lit by lantern light. Lewis Galantire writes "he had the rare gift of infusing with excitement the very meaning- spiritual or social-of what he described."