Richard Gervais’ Lost City of Exotica

Richard Gervais at his Souk. (Photo by France Viana)

Walking into the Richard Gervais Collection “souk” (Middle Eastern market) in the San Francisco Dogpatch/Bayview area is like wandering onto the movie set of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” The cavernous 15,000–square-foot warehouse is filled to the rafters with a dizzying array of antiquities, ethnic and primitive art, artifacts, garden sculptures and décor from many Asian ports of call. Carved Shivas dance with marble Ganeshes, stone bululs (rice gods) Philippine santos (religious icons), ceramics, furniture, musical instruments and textiles all shine amid giant trees and ferns, giving the visitor the feeling of stumbling upon a veritable lost city, unearthed.

Richard Gervais himself presides over the kingdom, a gracious gentleman, more explorer than merchant, clearly besotted with his finds. One expects to find the director of this domain in a pith helmet and bush jacket, but his only concession to the stereotype is a pair of worn khakis. How did he get to be the Bay Area’s premier dealer of Filipiniana?

Philippine National Artist BenCab (center) sketching at a private fundraiser for Filbookfest in Richard Gervais' Souk. (Photo by France Viana)

It all began in the ‘60s when Gervais met Filipino Manuel Nieto at a school mixer; both were attending colleges in San Francisco. They clicked, becoming fast friends, and Manuel invited Richard first to Spain, where his grandfather was Philippine ambassador, then to the Philippines. Richard, ever the travel bug, did not need much convincing. 

On an early trip to an open market in Zamboanga, Gervais tried to cool off with a few San Miguel beers at a roadside stall while deciding what to buy first. Casually, he reached for the nearest trinket, a betel nut container. Holding it up to the sun admiringly, he was captivated by the craftsmanship and remarked, “If anyone had half a brain, he’d be collecting all of these and selling them in the States.” His Filipino friend, Manuel Nieto, into a few beers himself, chimed in eagerly, “Us! Us! Let us do it!” 

A betel nut case like this one started Gervais on the whole importing adventure, a trip that has enchanted him for the past 40 years. (Photo copyright © the Richard Gervais Collection)

A betel nut case like this one started Gervais on the whole importing adventure, a trip that has enchanted him for the past 40 years. (Photo copyright © the Richard Gervais Collection)

A Mindanao xylophone (Photo copyright © the Richard Gervais Collection)

A Mindanao xylophone (Photo copyright © the Richard Gervais Collection)

A Kamagong wooden bowl (Photo copyright © the Richard Gervais Collection)

A Kamagong wooden bowl (Photo copyright © the Richard Gervais Collection)

A Capiz shell window (Photo copyright © the Richard Gervais Collection)

A Capiz shell window (Photo copyright © the Richard Gervais Collection)

So began the Richard Gervais collection as a small boutique in the Polk Gulch area of San Francisco in 1970 named “The New Manila Importing Company.” The little shop offered Philippine handicrafts, baskets and textiles long before anyone was interested in them, and was mostly an excuse for Richard to fund his wanderlust and exotic shopping addiction. 

But all those anitos (household deities) he had in stock obviously had a blessing reserved for him. One day, a scheduled delivery of a 40-foot container van filled with imported Philippine baskets was severely delayed. Arriving hours late with only minutes before his permit expired, he had helpers quickly unload the van, haphazardly filling up his store, stocking the show window floor to ceiling. As it was too late to arrange them, he simply closed shop thinking he would attend to the lot the next day. He left, but not before turning on the lights to the show window. 

With over 42 years in the business, Gervais has amassed a vast collection of art from the Philippines, India, Bali, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Macau and Japan. (Photo by France Viana)

Well, who would happen to drive by that night but the famous interior designer Michael Taylor, known as the creator of the “California Look.” Taylor called a groggy Gervais the next morning and inquired as to the price of the baskets. Gervais had never heard of him, but quoted one. Taylor thought for a minute or two then announced he would take them all, every single one of them. Later he ordered several more containers on an exclusive, and Richard Gervais was now really in business.


On an early trip to an open market in Zamboanga, Gervais reached for the nearest trinket, a betel nut container, and remarked, “If anyone had half a brain, he’d be collecting all of these and selling them in the States.”

Forty-two years and over 50 trips later, Gervais is still enamored of Philippine art, although he had since expanded to other South East Asian countries, importing treasures from India, Bali, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Macau and Japan. His passion for all things Eastern is clearly visible not only in his shop, but also in every corner of his home; his garden is adorned with 100-year-old railroad ties of Philippine molave wood, "the hardest wood in all Asia," he claims. 

A sugar cane crusher (Photo copyright © the Richard Gervais Collection)

A sugar cane crusher (Photo copyright © the Richard Gervais Collection)

A stone "Bulol" (Ifugao Rice God) (Photo copyright © the Richard Gervais Collection)

A stone "Bulol" (Ifugao Rice God) (Photo copyright © the Richard Gervais Collection)

A rice winnowing basket (Photo copyright © the Richard Gervais Collection)

A rice winnowing basket (Photo copyright © the Richard Gervais Collection)

A Kalinga rice storage jar (Photo copyright © the Richard Gervais Collection)

A Kalinga rice storage jar (Photo copyright © the Richard Gervais Collection)

A Song Dynasty jar, part of an extensive collection salvaged from a shipwreck in Jolo. (Photo copyright © the Richard Gervais Collection)

A Song Dynasty jar, part of an extensive collection salvaged from a shipwreck in Jolo. (Photo copyright © the Richard Gervais Collection)

Now, Gervais is easing into semi-retirement and is considering returning to dealing exclusively in Philippine goods at his souk and his SOMA gallery. More than a cultural ambassador, Gervais is also a pillar of the SF Bay Area community, generously donating his time, space and goods to many local Philippine charities. “What interests me about Philippine art is its wonderful diversity. You have three or more different cultures all in one place—the Spanish colonial, the Chinese, the primitive art from the North--so different from the South. Every craft is present, from ceramics and pottery, to textiles to baskets, to wood carving--there is no richer source for treasure hunting than the Philippines,” he exclaims. 

For the collector, for those wanting to reconnect with their roots, or the simply homesick, Gervais offers an unusual combination of a discerning eye and a reasonable price–be it for a carved Kalinga rice storage jar, a coconut grinder or kamagong (Pacific teak) bowl, a santo, a bulul, a capiz (shell) window, or a narra frame. A trip to his souk is a trip back to genteel lifestyles past and vibrant cultures present. Thanks to one fateful betel nut box, we have a lot of Philippine heritage to chew on, right here in the Bay Area.  

Gervais' Souk offers a wealth of antiques and artifacts. (Photo by France Viana)

Visit the “souk” at 1465 Custer Ave. San Francisco, CA 94124. Hours are Mondays to Fridays 10am to 5pm; Saturdays 11am to 5pm, or online at www.richardgervaiscollection.com

 

 

France Viana is a journalist, visual artist and marketing consultant. She is an active board member of Philippine International Aid and the Center for Asian American Media, sponsors of the CAAM Asian American Film Festival.