Victor Segalen is a great French writer who has long gone unrecognized. Born in 1878 and deceased in 1919 at the age of 41, he is best remembered for his books on China – such as the collection of poems Stèles, or the novels René Leys and Le fils du ciel. In recent decades, he has become much more widely known, and joined the prestigious Pléiade collection in 2019.
In 1902, he spent two and a half months in San Francisco, en route to Tahiti, where he was posted as a naval doctor. Throughout his life, he pursued a dual career as a military doctor and author. A true jack-of-all-trades of genius, he even wore many other hats: explorer, archaeologist, sinologist, professor, publisher and letter-writer.
At the time, there was already a strong French presence in San Francisco, many of them having been attracted by the gold rush. They had their own consulate, established in 1849, their own church, Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, founded in 1856, their own library and even their own fire department!
The first place Segalen visited in San Francisco, unintentionally, was the French hospital. Indeed, while crossing the United States by train, he caught a typhoid fever that nearly took his life. His stay began with a forced convalescence, under the protection of the consul who came to visit him. The hospital was then called “La Maison de Santé de la Société Française de Bienfaisance Mutuelle” – a fitting name for the times. Today, the Kaiser Permanente French Campus building on Geary Street can still be seen, having replaced the old hospital, but retaining an architectural element with its red bricks.
Once he had recovered, Segalen took great pleasure in strolling the streets of the city, which he found “infinitely nicer than New York”, as he wrote in a letter to one of his friends. He enjoyed strolling along Market Street, with its music halls, concert cafés and operetta halls. In his diary, he recalls a crossroads to which he often returned and which represented one of his singular landmarks: the intersection where Market crossed Geary and Kearny, with, amidst the comings and goings and the noise of the crowd, the golden cast-iron fountain from 1875, Lotta’s fountain, which can still be admired today. He liked to take the Geary Street cable car, which westward “gets lost in the dunes, rocks and sands” (the town was less sprawling).
One of his walks takes him to Point Lobos, where he describes the Seal Rocks tourist attraction. He also recalls the tramway that at the time ran along the ledge, just a yard away from the cliff, providing access to the Bay’s entrance: the Golden Gate – just over thirty years before the construction of the famous bridge. He also visits the town’s oldest monument, the Mission Dolores church, which at the time was “only a hundred and some years old” (built in 1778) and which, for the author, contrasts with all the newly-built painted wooden houses.
The Chinatown district was another key place in Segalen’s life during his stay in San Francisco. Even then, it was one of the largest Chinatowns in the United States. During his convalescence, Segalen strolled through the markets, bazaars and stalls, buying calligraphy materials. Some saw this as a harbinger of his future passion for China. But it was above all a certain Chinese theater that left the most lasting impression on him. On several pages of his diary, he recounts a performance he attended, with actors wearing make-up and colorful costumes, amid a cacophony of gongs and cymbals. He doesn’t understand much of the play, which leaves him completely bewildered. A real shock of exoticism that both destabilizes and fascinates him. Today, you can still see the city’s last remaining Chinese theater: the Great Star Theater, on Jackson Street. It was built later, but it’s easy to imagine the writer coming out of it still in awe.
In a letter addressed to a dear friend, Segalen described San Francisco as the “cosmopolitan repertoire of the Great Ocean.” Throughout his life, he was endlessly fascinated by the diverse cultures he encountered, and it was in this city that he first experienced this rich tapestry. The Chinese theater in San Francisco became one of his initial encounters with the “shocks of diversity,” leaving an indelible mark on him and shaping his future artistic endeavors
By Guillaume de Pracomtal, author of « L’appel du Divers, sur les traces de Victor Segalen à San Francisco », Phœnix, cahiers littéraires internationaux, Marseille, 2021