“The Renovation of Annam” by Frédéric Brévili, Revue du Pacifique, 15 January 1933

The main gate of the Viện cơ mật or “Secret Institute,” which functioned as the Privy Council and key mandarin agency of the royal court

Those interested in the development of our colonial policy in Indochina will have read with real appreciation about the significant reforms which have been promulgated in recent days by Emperor Bao-Dai.

Less than a year, in fact, has elapsed since the return of the young prince from France. We still remember the cordial words of farewell addressed to him before he boarded his ship in Marseille by the Colonial Secretary, M. Albert Sarraut, promising all the support of the French government to the sovereign called to deal with a situation which his long absence had made difficult. For what was already being called in Indochina the “Bao-Dai experiment” posed a number of questions.

Emperor Bảo Đại pictured in 1935 (Fonds Sogny-Marien)

How could the actions of a monarch whose reason now seemed so perfectly formed to Western conceptions be accommodated to that of certain circles of “old Annam,” with their strong attachments to the political and moral traditions of Confucianism?

We know now how events have taken shape so far. Welcomed by eager people in Tourane and Hue, and then through all the provinces of the kingdom, the young emperor has quickly gained sympathy and confidence through a series of happy gestures, abandoning obsolete protocol and demonstrating his desire to live in close contact with the Annamite people.

Moreover, by his regnal ordinance of 12 September, he announced his intention to undertake many reforms in the administrative, judicial and educational fields. Soon after, finally, he called to the leadership of his own cabinet, with the rank and prerogatives of a minister, an entirely new personality from Tonkin, M. Pham-Quynh, whose influence amongst young intellectuals has always been considerable.

Against this background, around two months ago, the Nam-Giao Festival was held. The accomplishment of the rites of this ceremony was to Bao-Dai a new and definitive consecration of the imperial power with which he was now fully clothed in the eyes of his subjects.

Phạm Quỳnh (1892-1945)

The time of the reforms approached. By an order of 3 May last, in full agreement with Governor General Pasquier, the young ruler of Annam came to initiate them. Whatever his good intentions, Bao-Dai was not slow to realise that his initiatives could, to some extent, be paralysed by the “atmosphere” of the court of Hue. For, undoubtedly, a gulf already begun to appear between the desires of the sovereign and those of his respectable mandarins, all of whom had been in his entourage for a good many years. These were people for whom policy was always blended perhaps a little too much with the games of small intrigue so often forged in the ancient courts of the Far East. No-one would doubt that a figure like H E Nguyen-Huu-Bai, a scholar of senior years and Prime Minister of the Court of Annam for the past quarter century, remains worthy of the highest honours. Yet is it desirable that in future the gatekeepers between the emperor and his people should continue to be tied by invisible bonds to the forms and traditions of a bygone era?

Absolutely not, declared the wish of the Emperor, which on this occasion was consistent with that of the administration of the protectorate.

In fact, it was less a problem for Bao-Dai to address the final implementation of the reforms promised by last September’s regnal order than to tackle the issue of the “atmosphere” in which these reforms could and should be realised.

Emperor Bảo Đại’s new ministers, from left to right: Hồ Đắc Khải, Phạm Quỳnh, Thái Văn Toản, Ngô Đình Diệm (later RVN President), Bùi Bằng Đoàn

Basically, it was a question of ensuring the quality of his entourage – finding men who were ready to co-operate loyally with the emperor, to bring him the support of their enlightened wills. After all, how could the sovereign initiate reforms if he were unsure whether his closest collaborators would apply them with the loyalty and perseverance necessary, in a period of transition, for their efficiency?

So here, briefly summarised, is what was eventually determined by Bao-Dai immediately after the Nam-Giao Festival. The resignations of the six ministers already in office were accepted by the sovereign, who then took responsibility for changing the composition of the government. With the exception of H E Thai-Van-Toan, who was moved from Finance to Public Works (with the addition of Rites and Fine Arts), the Cabinet today consists of four entirely or mostly new personalities – Pham-Quynh (who also occupies the post of Director of the Emperor’s Cabinet) in charge of Education, Ngo-Dinh-Diem in charge of the Interior, Bui-Bang-Doan in charge of Justice and Ho-Dac-Kai in charge of Finance – with the former Minister of War having not been replaced. An important indication is that all these new ministers, who between them have an average age of just forty years, have only been invested for a period of three years, the Emperor having also taken care to clarify in his ordinance that he had chosen them only by consideration “of their personal value, of their intellectual and moral qualities, and of the good reputation they enjoy in the eyes of the people, regardless of their seniority or rank in the mandarin hierarchy.”

The original main building of the Viện cơ mật or “Secret Institute,” which functioned as the Privy Council and key mandarin agency of the royal court

Of course, in Annam, and even in the whole of Indochina, these decisions by Bao-Dai were not without a considerable impact: we must go very far back to find any trace in the political actions of an Annamite sovereign of such radical changes to the state of affairs in the kingdom. Of particular note is the fact that the emperor also announced his will always to chair personally the meeting of the Council of Ministers, or Co-mat, “taking himself the direction of the country’s affairs,” that is to say actually governing, in contrast to his predecessors, slaves to the rites and traditions of the court, who were content not to.

If the consequences for Annam of the new order established in Hue have already appeared, it is not superfluous to attempt now to take a look at the future: for, to have been approved by Governor-General Pasquier, Bao-Dai’s decisions must interest the protectorate in a special way.

In this respect, it seems that our representatives in Indochina have nothing to fear from this small “palace revolution,” to call it by its name, which the emperor has just completed with such flexibility. Not that the Resident-Superior in Annam has always met systematic opposition to his wishes at the court of Hue. Although in the early years of the protectorate, obstruction was common, it has over time become more and more rare. However, the archaic organisation of the court, the multitude of client relationships connected to the various personalities, and the games of intrigue, still created frequent difficulties. Happily, the road to the royal residence Kien Trung Palace is now more level than it was before.

Emperor Bảo Đại pictured in 1932 (press image)

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014).

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now and Huế Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.

“Forgotten Statues of Cochinchina,” from Le Monde colonial illustré (1937)

Monsignor PIGNEAU DE BEHAINE — place de la Cathédrale, Saïgon

On that admirable fresco of the French project in Indochina, a living and harmonious multi-racial synthesis of activities and hopes, a few figures clearly stand out in the light of history.

Francis GARNIER – place Francis-Garnier, Saïgon

Whether French or Annamite, these public figures are entitled to recognition. Each of them, in pursuit of their respective ideals, have met on the same path leading to common action.

Pigneau de Béhaine, protector of a prince of Annam, fugitive and unhappy, laid the first foundations of Franco-Annamite relations. Indeed, one may wonder what would have become of Indochina if this prelate had not devoted his intelligence to the service of the last Nguyen prince.

Did this permit French influence to take root in the land of Annam? Without a doubt! But it also prevented the installation of the Dutch or the English, on whom Nguyen-Anh’s protégé was about to call for aid. And it enabled Nguyen-Anh, as Emperor Gia-Long, to carry out a constructive work of great significance in the annals of this country.

DOUDART DE LAGRÉE – place Rigault de Genouilly, Saïgon

Later, circumstances required that, in order to command respect for our flag, Admiral Rigault-de-Genouilly came to anchor at Tourane. The French peace has since been extended to areas long disturbed by dynastic rivalries and struggles between neighbours. The statues of Rigault-de-Genouilly, Francis Garnier, and Doudart-de-Lagrée in Saigon attest to the heroism of our sailors and soldiers, the genius of their commanders, the sacrifice, in a word, of all those who, far from their native land, fell during the gestation of our colonisation of Indochina.

But our officers were not just fighters. We had some who were explorers and scholars. Such was Général de Beylié, archaeologist and ethnographer, who, during his investigations to extract the secrets of this Asian land, died in the rapids of Tha-Dua (Laos) on 17 July 1910. His works greatly enriched our museum in Saigon and paved the way for other scholars.

Général de BEYLIÉ – rue Blancsubé, Saïgon

Similarly, in the long chain forged by all of us to unite the destinies of Indochina with those of France, the link added by the botanist Jean-Baptiste-Louis Pierre is certainly not the least solid. This world-renowned scientist has inventoried the flora of the colony and thus prepared the field on which farmers and botanists can work more easily.

Besides our great colonialists, impartial history has retained the names of many Annamites — generals, scholars, diplomats, pacifiers — who have all done great service to their country.

Thus, in the dark days of Annam, there were some soldiers who permitted Gia-Long to restore order and security in the kingdom: Le-Van-Duyet, Marshal of the Emperor and Viceroy of Cochinchina; Vo-Tanh, General; Vo-Di-Nguy, Admiral; Le-Van-Phong, General; and many others.

Maréchal LE-VAN-DUYET — Gia-Dinh

Among them, Le-Van-Duyet occupies a special place. His courage, his devotion to the king and public affairs, his loyalty and his disinterest have made him one of the most seductive figures of old Annam and justify the quasi-religious veneration of which his memory is still the object in Cochinchina. It was he who, at the risk of displeasing his sovereign, did not hesitate to tell him the truth. It was again he who refused to read to the French an edict of expulsion which reached him from the court. For he declared that he could not forget the services rendered by them to his country.

Similarly, one cannot forget Vo-Tanh, that other valiant and stoic soldier, who remains engraved in the memory of his compatriots.

Général VO-THANH — village de Phu-Nhuan (Gia-Dinh)

Enclosed for two years in the citadel of Qui-Nhon, obliged at the end of the resistance to repulse the furious and repeated assaults of an opponent superior in number, he nonetheless discouraged Nguyen-Anh from coming to his rescue, persuading him instead to go and take Phu-Xuan (Hue), whose capture was more important. By the time the Emperor’s victory had been achieved and a rescue mission was launched, Vo-Tanh and his soldiers were dead.

The history book of Annam contains some other beautiful pages of the same kind. To ensure order, there have always been both leaders and humble auxiliaries ready to devote their lives to the cause. Pham-Van-Khanh, for example, victor of the attack on My-Tra by the plunderers of the plaine des Joncs on 22 July 1865; Le-Van-Phong, younger brother of Le-Van-Duyet; Phan-Thanh-Giang; and many others.

Capitaine Félix SALICÉTI — village de Trung-Ngai (Vinhlong)

In the work of pacification which followed the conquest, French and Annamites mixed their blood for the same cause. The Saliceti monument in the village of Trung-Ngai is proof of this. Captain Saliceti, who entered the service of France on 17 February 1872 at the age of 29, had his head cut off. At his side, also succumbing to the attack, were canton chief Tran-Cong-An, interpreter Vien, and militiamen Chon, Tao, Nay and Van.

The stele in Baria to the modest notable Bui-Thanh-Lièm is also worthy of the admiration of his fellows for his 40 years of community service.

When we move from the plan of collaboration for the maintenance of public order and security in the country to that of intellectual co-operation, we find another great Annamite, Pétrus Truong-Vinh-Ky, whose centenary will be celebrated in Saigon at the end of this year.

PETRUS KY — boulevard Norodom, Saïgon

Petrus Ky put his knowledge in the service of France and Annam, believing that true brotherhood lies in the heights of human intelligence.

This initiative of the Monde Colonial Illustré, bringing many forgotten faces out from the shadows, is one of the happiest. For it allows us to see, through the successive stages of colonisation, men who, each according to his own temperament, endeavoured to work for the greatness of their country.

It shows, above all, how their spirits and hearts merged to escape from daily pettiness and collaborate in the realisation of a unique, solid and eternal work.


List of Monuments and Locations
Monument d’Odera – Xuan-Lôc (province de Bienhoa)
Monument de l’Enseigne de vaisseau Lareynière – Tan-Son-Nhi (Province de Gia-Dinh)
Monument de Morère – Nui-Bara (province de Bienhoa)
Monument du Capitaine Paulus – Tan-Thoi-Nhi (Province de Gia-Dinh)
Monument du Capitaine Saliceti – Trung-Ngai (prov. de Vinhlong)
Pagode et Tombeau du General Vo Tanh – Phu-Nhuan (Province de Gia-Dinh)
Pierres tombales du Maréchal Nguyen-Ngoc-Thoai – au pied du Nui-Sam (province de Chaudoc)
Statue à la mémoire de Doudart de Lagrée – place Rigault-de-Genouilly, Saigon
Statue à la mémoire de Jean-Baptiste-Louis Pierre – jardin Botanique, Saigon
Statue à la mémoire de Lamaille – place Rigault-de-Genouilly, Saigon
Statue de Francis Garnier – place Francis Garnier, Saigon
Statue de Gambetta – parc Maurice Long, Saigon
Statue de George Washington – place George Washington, Saigon
Statue de l’Amiral Rigault-de-Genouilly Saïgon – place Rigault-de-Genouilly, Saigon
Statue de Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine – place de la Cathédrale, Saigon
Statue de Pétrus Ky – boulevard Norodom, Saigon
Statue de Quach-Dam – Marché central, Cholon (Gia-Dinh)
Statue du Général Léon de Beylié – rue Blancsubé, Saigon
Statues de P. Doan-Cong-Qui et E Le-Van-Phong – devant l’église de Chau-Doc
Stèle à la mémoire de Bui-Thanh-Liem – près du marché de Long-Dien (province de Baria)
Stèle à la mémoire de l’Administrateur Hugon – Soc-Trang, cimetière de la ville
Stèle à la mémoire de l’Administrateur-adjoint Luciani – Hoa-An (province de Bienhoa)
Stèle à la mémoire de Nguyen-Duc-Ung – Long-An (province de Bienhoa)
Stèle à la mémoire de Pham-Van-Kanh – My-Tra, Cao-Lanh (province de Sadec)
Stèle à la mémoire de S. E. Phan-Thanh-Giang – Bao-Thanh (province de Ben-Tre)
Stèle à la mémoire de Thoai-Ngoc-Hau – Thoai-Son (province de Long-Xuyen)
Tombeau de l’Amiral Vo-Di-Nguy – Phu-Nhuan (Province de Gia-Dinh)
Tombeau de Le-Van-Phong – Tan-Son-Nhut (Province de Gia-Dinh)
Tombeau de Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine – Tan-Son-Nhut (Province de Gia-Dinh)
Tombeau du Général Mac-Cuu – sur une colline à 200m. de Hatien
Tombeau du Maréchal Le-Van-Duyet – Gia-Dinh
Tombeau du Pere Jacob Liot – Tan-Son-Nhut (Province de Gia-Dinh)

Amiral RIGAULT DE GENOUILLY — place Rigault-de-Genouilly, Saïgon

LE-VAN-PHONG — village de Tan-Son-Nhut (Gia-Dinh)

Enseigne de vaisseau LAREYNIÈRE – village de Tan-Son-Nhi (Gia-Dinh)

QUACH-DÀM — Marché central, Cholon

BUI-THANH-LIEM — près du marché de Long-Dien, Baria

Jean-Baptiste-Louis PIERRE —jardin Botanique, Saïgon

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014).

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now and Huế Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.

Monograph of Saigon Parish, 1917

La première messe célébrée à Saigon (Cochinchine) – The first mass celebrated in Saigon – 1861

This unpublished document, housed in the library of the Archdiocese of Saigon, describes the early years of Saigon Parish.

1. Historic memories of the city of Saigon

The origins of the city of Saigon are rather uncertain. It appears that, before the time of Gia-Long, it was a simple Cambodian village. In 1680, however, it was for a certain time the residence of the second king of Cambodia.

In 1789, Gia-Long, after taking Saigon from the Tay-Son, commissioned the construction of the first Citadel, which was enclosed by the rue Testard [Võ Văn Tần] in the north, rue Mac-Mahon [Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa] in the west, boulevard de la Citadelle [Đinh Tiên Hoàng] in the east and rue d’Espagne [Lê Thánh Tôn] in the south. The centre, where the mast of the pavilion stood, was approximately at the site of the present Cathedral.

The city of Saigon was occupied by Gia Long for 22 years.

Marshal Lê Văn Duyệt

After his return from France, Monsignor Pigneau de Behaine, Bishop of Adran, lived in Saigon, in a house which Gia-Long had built for him at the outer corner of the Citadel, close to the site of the former maintenance shop in the nursery of the Botanic Garden, now the barracks of the indigenous militia. He accompanied Prince Canh to the siege of Qui-Nhon, where he died on 9 September 1799, at the age of 58 years. His remains were brought back to Saigon on the 16 September, and on the 16 December his funeral was solemnly held at the Tomb of Adran.

From 1811-1831, Gia-Long having established his residence in Hue, Viceroy Le-Van-Duyet peacefully ruled Lower Cochinchina until the year of his death. He was feared by Minh-Mang, who dared not undertake anything against him. The importance of his services and the authority he had managed to acquire made him almost invincible. Here is a fact which shows his good disposition. Once, when attending a cock fight in 1828, he was told of the first edict of persecution launched by Minh-Mang against the Catholic religion and the Europeans in general. “Why are we persecuting the co-religionists of the Bishop of Adran and those Frenchmen whose rice we still grind between our teeth?” He exclaimed. “No, as long as I live, we will not permit that. Let the king do what he pleases after my death.” His tomb, desecrated first by Minh-Mang, then repaired and maintained by the French administration, is located opposite the Inspection de Gia- Dinh.

After the death of Viceroy Le-Van-Duyet, Saigon fell into the hands of Nguyen-Van-Khoi, who revolted against the king. Minh-Mang retook Saigon in 1834. The sons of Khoi, the rebellious mandarins, and a French missionary, the Blessed Father Marchand, detained in the midst of the siege, were caged and taken to Hue for death. Minh-Mang then destroyed the Citadel raised by Gia-Long, and replaced it by a work of lesser extent, which was taken by the French in 1859. On the same site today stands the new Marine Infantry Barracks.

2. Beginnings of Saigon Parish after the occupation of the city by the French

The martyrdom of Saint Paul Lê Văn Lộc (1830-1859), unknown artist

On 11 February 1859, Admiral Rigault de Genouilly forced his way into Cap Saint-Jacques, and sailed up the Saigon River to seize the city. At that time in the prison of Saigon was a young Annamite priest named Paul Loc. The king’s judges, hearing of the arrival of the French, unexpectedly led him out to be executed. He was decapitated near the gates of the Citadel, at the corner of rue Paul Blanchy (formerly rue Nationale) and rue Chasseloup-Laubat. He was canonised by Pope Pius X on 2 May 1909.

At the time of the arrival of the French, a price had been placed on the head of the Vicar Apostolic, Monsignor Dominique Lefèbvre. However, he was able to escape, and on 15 February 1859, he boarded a French ship, where he was received with due regard for his dignity and person.

Finally, on 18 February 1859, Saigon belonged to France.

After the capture of Saigon, many Christians, fleeing persecution, came from everywhere to take refuge under the French cannon. This explains the presence today of so many Christians in the neighbourhood of Saigon. However, at that time, the parish of Saigon as a separate Christian community did not yet exist; Monsignor Lefèbvre spent much of his time founding it. In order to establish Christianity more firmly in the centre of his diocese, and to make it radiate outwards into other neighborhoods, he began by establishing major institutions and furnishing himself with devoted auxiliaries.


The first of the major institutions set up by Monsignor Lefèbvre in date and importance was the Seminary. Initially established in the swampy and tiger-infested area of Thi-Nghe, in the vicinity of the Annamite soldiers’ post, the Seminary was transferred to Xom-Chieu in 1860. But a few months later, the Mission obtained a large plot of land on the Boulevard Luro, and Monsignor Lefèbvre definitively installed the Seminary there, entrusting it to the care of M. Theodore Wibaux.

The Seminary in 1866

The latter constructed a large building which lasted for about 13 years. After that, it was necessary to rebuild the Seminary almost entirely. The new buildings, which still exist today, were thanks mainly to the intelligence and devotion of Messrs Julien Thiriet, second superior of the Seminary since 1877, Félix Humbert and Charles Boutier. In 1887, Monseigneur Colombert solemnly inaugurated the most important building, which occupies the central position. Thereafter, the two wings were added, both designed by Father Humbert, one destined for the students of the grand seminaire, and the other for the students of the petit seminaire.

At present, the total number of seminarists is 129, a figure made up of 26 in the grand seminaire and 103 in the petit seminaire.

Sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres

Having assured the recruitment of the clergy by founding the seminary, Monseignor Lefèbvre provided for other needs by calling on the Sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres, who arrived at Saigon in 1860. They were first charged with gathering the orphans created every day by the persecution, and the numerous pagan children abandoned by their parents, who wandered the streets of the city in rags, begging for food. This was the first nucleus of the work of the Sainte-Enfance (Holy Childhood) orphanage in Saigon.

The first building constructed for the Sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres

This work began very modestly in a large and rather unsuitable hut, located near the primitive first bishop’s palace, near the site of the old market. Two years later, Admiral-Governor Bonard gave to the Reverend Mother Benjamin, Mother Superior of the Sisters, another vast site on the Boulevard Luro, occupying the space between the Arsenal and the Seminary.

The establishment of the Sisters of Saint-Paul today consists of: (i) a Novitiate for the training of indigenous Sisters; (ii) a boarding school for European and mixed race girls; (iii) another boarding school for Annamite girls belonging to the rich families of the Colony; (iv) an orphanage for abandoned children; and (v) a refuge for poor Annamite girls who had been seduced and desired to rehabilitate themselves in their own eyes and in the eyes of others.

Indigenous Hospital

Monseignor Lefèbvre also created, for the benefit of sick and destitute indigenous people, a hospital, whose administration he entrusted to the Sisters of Saint-Paul. This hospital, located initially near the first bishop’s palace, was relocated in September 1864 to the north bank of the arroyo Chinois in Cho-Quan, by mutual agreement between the Mission and the government. Since 1909, the Sisters have been relieved of their duties at this hospital, but they do not cease to give their care to a very large number of patients in their own hospital in Thi-Nghe, which was built for this purpose 300 meters from the church in the parish of the same name. They thus continue the work begun by Monsignor Lefèbvre.


The Carmelite Convent

It is not enough to work for the salvation of souls. In the supernatural order, human efforts may end in no result if God does not support and nurture works with his grace. It was in order to secure perpetual prayer and to draw the blessings of Heaven upon his work and that of his auxiliaries, that Monsignor Levèbvre invited the Carmelite Order of Saint Therèse to Saigon. The first four Carmelites arrived in Saigon on 9 October 1861. They were welcomed by the Sisters of Saint-Paul, and settled soon after near the Seminary, on elevated ground on the other side of boulevard Luro. Their pious community has always prospered, and for a long time it has had around 40 Sisters, including 4 Europeans and 36 Annamites.

While Monsignor Lefèbvre worked to make Saigon a Christian town, the Admirals continued the conquest. On 1 November 1859, Admiral Rigault de Genouilly was replaced by Admiral Page. The expedition was continued in 1860 by Rear-Admiral Charner, and in 1861 by Rear-Admiral Bonard. On 5 June 1862, when the Treaty of Peace between Emperor Tu-Duc and France was signed in Saigon, the religious question was regulated in accordance with the principles of Admiral Bonard by Article 2: “The subjects of the two nations of France and Spain may practice their Christian beliefs in the kingdom of Annam; and the subjects of this kingdom, without distinction, who would desire to embrace and follow the Christian religion, may do so freely without constraint. But those who do not desire to become Christians will not be forced to do so.”

This treaty put an end to open persecution; but the arbitrary advances and vexations against the Christians continued almost as in the past, especially in Annam. Meanwhile, the Christians in Saigon and neighbouring provinces, being closer to the French, lived in greater tranquility.

Admiral Pierre-Paul de La Grandière by Mascré-Souville, Musée du quai Branly

Admiral de la Grandière, who replaced Rear-Admiral Bonard in May 1863, understood that the assimilation of the natives in Cochin-China could only be achieved through Christianity, and that the Christian element, the fidelity of which could not be questioned, was entitled to be treated with more consideration. His solicitude for the religious interests of the colony was manifested by the measures he took to protect the good Sisters and by the example of his irreproachable conduct.

3. Definitive foundation of the parish of Saigon and its development to the present day

Until the year 1863, the Missionaries residing at the Seminary or in the neighbouring Christian communities served the city’s religious and administrative communities with the Holy Sacraments. The time had come to found a separate parish, which would include the agglomeration of these various communities and all the Christians, French and Annamite, living in the city. This is what Monseignor Lefèbvre did, by appointing M Oscar d’Amplemann de Noioberne as parish priest of Saigon, and by fixing the parish limits, which have remained almost the same since its date of foundation.

Scope and limits of Saigon parish

The parish of Saigon is bounded to the north-west by the rue Richaud, which separates it from the parish of Tan-Dinh; to the north by the arroyo de l’Avalanche, which separates it from the parish of Thi-Nghe; to the east by the Saigon River, which separates it from the parish of Thu-Thiem; to the south by the arroyo Chinois, which separates it from the parish of Khanh-Hoi; and to the south-west by the rues MacMahon, Filippini, Taberd, de la Pepiniere, Chasseloup-Laubat and Lareyniere (up to rue Richaud), which separate it from the parish of Cho-Dui.

Since the construction of the new City Market in 1914 and the new Railway Station in 1915, the populous centre of the Annamite city has been moved, and the Christians who live on the streets below the station are now obliged to make a long detour in order to reach Cho-Dui Church.

Saigon, 1920

It thus follows that, whatever one may do and say, almost all Christians from that area now find it easier to come to the Cathedral for worship and for reception of the Sacraments. It would therefore be desirable that, for the greater good of souls, the limits of the parish of Saigon near Cho-Dui should be moved back as far as the rue Bourdais. In this way, the parish of Saigon would encompass the Market, which would fall under her by force of circumstances, and would be separated in a straight line running south from the parish of Cho-Dui along rue Lareyniere and rue Bourdais, cutting through the middle of the Jardin de la Ville.

By 1863, Monseignor Lefèbvre had successfully completed all his undertakings; He had gathered under the parish the various new elements (communities, French, Annamites) in the city of Saigon. In the following year, 1864, the Apostolic Vicar, feeling his strength to be diminishing, asked the Holy See to be released from his office. He ceded the government of the Mission to Monsignor Miche, the first Apostolic Vicar of Cambodia since 1852. When the new bishop arrived in Saigon, Admiral de la Grandière gave him a triumphal reception, which produced the strongest impression on the Annamite population.

A few months later, on June 1865, another religious event came to rejoice and comfort the Christians of the city and its environs in their faith. For the first time, the Fête-Dieu was publicly celebrated in Saigon; and the God of the Eucharist was carried in triumph through the same streets and public squares where Christian blood had once flowed. An immense population, hastening from afar, came to contemplate this extraordinary spectacle. The communities of all the neighbouring parishes, preceded by their banners, together with the orphans of the Sainte-Enfance, the Christian Brothers, the Sisters and the Schools formed a cortege of Jesus the Saviour, which thus took official possession of the capital and of the whole colony.

La première messe célébrée à Saigon (Cochinchine) – The first mass celebrated in Saigon – 1861

Twenty missionaries preceded the canopy, under which the Apostolic Vicar elevated the sacramental Host. It was escorted respectfully by a large number of soldiers and officers, the Admiral Governor at their head. When they arrived on the quayside opposite the ships, the Holy Sacrament was deposited on a magnificent altar made by the sailors themselves, and then the blessing descended upon this immense multitude, while a salvo of 21 cannon shots announced in the distance the triumph of Christ, the splendours of his religion, and the faith of his worshippers.

This imposing religious manifestation, which had the advantage of recalling to our compatriots the memories of their absent homeland, and of giving to the natives, both pagans and Christians, a high idea of Catholicism and of France, was repeated every year down to 1881. At that time, for reasons of neutrality and freedom of conscience, our troops were no longer authorised to take part officially in such ceremonies, so the episcopal authority thought it necessary to suppress this procession, which could no longer be carried out with the same grandeur and solemnity. But the government never banned it. To this day, the parishes around Saigon, Tan-Dinh, Cho-Quan, etc, continue this old tradition every year in their own communities. The Christians always display great zeal in adorning the streets, and flock in crowds to accompany the Most Holy Sacrament, which is carried through their villages.

By all that we have just said, it is easy to see that Admiral de la Grandière really had at heart the development of Catholicism in the colony. He proved this by bringing the Brothers of the Christian Schools to Saigon. Six of them arrived on 6 January 1866, the Mission having given them the Collège d’Adran, which had been founded two years earlier by M. Puginier. They immediately set to work, devoting themselves to the education of youth until the end of 1882, when they were obliged to retire.

“La première résidence des Gouverneurs à Saigon” – the Salle de spectacles or events hall of the first governor’s palace, from the 1931 book Iconographie historique de l’Indochine française (1931) by Paul Boudet and André Masson

The work they had begun was seconded at first, then continued by the Collège Taberd; But in the meantime, several changes had taken place in the Christian community of Saigon. Monseigneur Miche died in 1873, and was replaced by Monseignor Colombert. On my side, M. Oscar de Noioberne, the first parish priest of Saigon, left office, and ceded his post to M. Henri de Kerlan. It was Henri de Kerlan who, in 1874, at the same time as the Cathedral was transferred from the lower town into the salle de fêtes of the old Palace of the Government, founded the École Taberd in its old outbuildings.

At this time, the present location of the Institution Taberd housed the temporary Cathedral, the Presbytery and the School.

Directed initially by the Missionaries, the École Taberd was, in 1889, entrusted to the Brothers of the Christian Schools, who had been invited here by Monseignor Colombert. Tody this College teaches more than 800 pupils, both Christian and pagan, European, mixed race, Annamite, Indian and Chinese. It is located at the corner of rue Paul Blanchy and rue Taberd. Its buildings, large and well furnished, were built largely by Monsignor Mossard, now Apostolic Vicar, and completed by the Christian Brothers. They are the property of the Mission.

M Henri de Kerlan died in 1877, and was replaced by Henri Le Mée, who remained priest of Saigon parish until 1897. In the year of his installation he had the joy of seeing the construction of the new Cathedral, and next to it a beautiful Presbytery, which is still in use today.


Inauguration of the (first) cathedral constructed in Saigon by the French government in 1863 (after a sketch by Naval Lieutenant Dumont)

First among all the religious edifices of the colony is, of right, the Cathedral of Saigon. Yet it was not always so. At the beginning, Monseignor Lefèbvre converted an abandoned pagoda into a church. Then in 1863, Admiral Bonard had a more suitable church built in the lower town, on the site now occupied by the Justice of Peace. But, after 10 years, this edifice, built almost entirely of wood, was devoured by white ants. In 1874, it was necessary to set up a temporary church in the salle des fêtes of the former Governor’s Palace, on the site where the Collège Taberd now stands. Clearly this provisional measure could not be permitted to continue indefinitely. Admiral Dupré (1874-1877) had the merit of understanding that France, now firmly established in Saigon, had to assert its faith and consecrate its conquest in this distant country, by elevating to God a definitive temple, more worthy of His Supreme Majesty.

On 7 October, 1877, Monsignor Colombert, in the presence of the Governor and all the authorities of Saigon, blessed the first stone of this sacred edifice, which was to be constructed in an excellent position at the top of the rue Catinat, the highest point in the city. The work was carried out so rapidly that the blessing of the church could be achieved after just two and a half years, on 11 April 1880. It was dedicated to the Immaculate Conception and to St Francis Xavier.

The Cathedral of Saigon is a Romanesque style building which measures 93 metres from the front porch to the extremity of the apse; The width of the transept is 35 metres, and the towers rise 36.6 meters from the ground and house six bells, together weighing 25.85 tonnes. Two spires of 21 metres, completed in 1895, take the height of the Cathedral to 57 metres total. The interior of the building is adorned with sobriety and good taste. At the top of the triforium, a series of stained glass windows depict a procession of the Saints of the Old and New Testaments, who pay homage to the Immaculate Virgin, patroness of the Cathedral, whose image is located in the apse of the church.

The (second) Saigon Cathedral pictured soon after its inauguration in 1880

The high altar, made from precious marble, is adorned with three magnificent bas-reliefs, and supported by six angels carrying the Instruments of the Passion. On either side is a monumental Way of the Cross, each Station serving as an altar in one of the lateral chapels which stretch along both sides from the transept to the front doors, paved with rich mosaic and decorated with 20 large and artistically crafted chandeliers. Radiating out from the sanctuary are the chapels of the Blessed Virgin, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Saint Joseph, Saint Paul and Saint Francois Xavier, also decorated with stained glass images which relate to the themes of each altar.

It is under the vaults of this temple that, on great ceremonial days, crowds of Frenchmen, Annamites, Chinese and Indians gather and the liturgy unfurls in all of its inimitable majesty.

Since the month of October 1913, a thousand electric lamps, installed by M Soullard in the chandeliers and around the columns, have added a new shine to the beauty of these ceremonies. It is above all in the Pontifical Masses and on the day of the First Communion of the Children that our beautiful Cathedral is adorned with all its finery and shines in all its light. In particular, we will remember for a long time the extraordinary pomp, the rich ornamentation, and the magnificent songs on 17 October 1909, when 5,000 people crowded into the Cathedral to honour St Jeanne d’Arc, beatified just a few months before by Pope Pius X.

Beside these extraordinary solemnities, the preparation of which require more time and more work, the occupations of the parish priest of Saigon are the same as everywhere else; “his time, as regards the administration of his parish, is divided between administering the sacraments, visting the sick, giving instruction to children, and serving religious communities.” Such was, in summary, the view of M Le Mée, the third parish priest of Saigon.

The Pigneau de Béhaine statue in front of the Saigon Cathedral in the early 20th century

M Le Mée was succeeded in 1898 by the current Apostolic Vicar of Cochin-China, Lucien Mossard, who established in the parish the Work of the Tabernacles, the purpose of which was to furnish the poor Christians of the Mission with the necessary ornaments for Divine Worship. The ladies who were part of it contributed their money and their labour to the making of these ornaments. The work, which counts some 60 members, prospered as long as it was directed by Mesdames Teillard d’Eyry and Beer; However, it then suffered the fate of many parochial works of its kind which have been attempted in countries like ours. These sorts of works have no chance of sustaining themselves for a long time, for the simple reason that most families of officers and employees come here only to spend two or three years at most, They are soon replaced by others who do not make a longer stay, and their work soon disappears along with the elements of which it was formed.

Monseigneur Mossard, who was to leave the parish to take charge of the government of the Mission, begged M Moulins, a missionary for many years in Mytho, to come and replace him in the parish of Saigon. M Moulins occupied this latter post only from April 1899 to January 1900, when illness forced him to go to Hong Kong, where he died. He was succeeded by M. Charles Boutier, who remained until March 1906. In 1902, in front of the Cathedral, in the middle of the garden which adorns the square, was erected the statue of Monseigneur Pigneau de Béhaine, Bishop of Adran. This statue, the work of sculptor Lormier, depicts the great Bishop extending his arm to his pupil prince Canh, and holding in the other hand the edict of the French government which helped restore that young prince’s father to his throne. Monsignor Mossard, surrounded by a numerous clergy, gave the benediction to the monument with great solemnity.

Governor General Doumer, Lieutenant Governor Lamothe, Admirals Pottier and Bayle and all the civil and military authorities, as well as the great notables of Cochin-China, attended this imposing religious and patriotic ceremony. Numerous delegations from the Annamese parishes in the neighbourhood of Saigon, who had come with their banners, could be seen massed around the lawn, in the middle of which stood the statue of the Bishop of Adran.

Inauguration of the Pigneau de Béhaine statue in front of the Saigon Cathedral in 1902

In this way were the Church, France and Annam gathered together to honour worthily the hero of the day, Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine, Bishop of Adran. His memory will be perpetuated by this high monument in his honour, which will remind future generations of the great influence he has exercised over the future of this country, and the services he has rendered to Annam, France, and the Church.

No important event worthy of notice has taken place since that time, apart from the great feast in honour of Jeanne d’Arc, which I mentioned at the end of the notice I gave on the Cathedral.

In March 1906, Mr. Boutier returned to France for health reasons. Eugène Soullard has succeeded him to this day in the administration of the parish.

The Christian population of the parish of Saigon has hardly changed over the last 10 years. It now amounts to about 5,530 souls, including 4,000 Europeans, 800 Indians, 700 Annamites and some 30 Chinese. It has, however, decreased considerably with regard to the Europeans since the mobilisation in 1914. The pagan population is approximately 45,000.

Eugene Soullard, Parish Priest,
Presbytery of Saigon, 13 November 1917

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014).

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now and Huế Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.

“The Hôtel du Gouvernment in Saigon: Capital of our Cochinchina territories,” from Le Magasin pittoresque, ed. M. Edouard Charton, 1872

Hermitte’s Palace of the Government (1873)

Parisian architect Achille-Antoine Hermitte (1840-1870) was responsible for the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Guangzhou (1866) and the first Hong Kong Town Hall (1869) before he designed his best-known work, the Palace of the Government (later Norodom Palace) in Saigon.

A spiritual correspondent of the Tour du Monde once said: “Cochinchina is to China what Belgium is to France,” and with these words we could well enough grasp what we might expect to meet in our new colony, which is neighbour to a state with no less than 35 million inhabitants of different nationalities. It will be easy to understand the importance of our new possessions when we say that the total area of the French provinces in Cochinchina is 22,380 square kilometres, out of which the province of Saigon accounts for 1,500 square meters.

The city of Saigon, fallen to the power of Admiral Rigault de Genouilly on 17 February 1859, is built 55 kilometres from the sea. It is located at 104° 21′ 43″ longitude east and 10° 46′ 40″ latitude north. A few years ago, it was not less than seven kilometres in length by five kilometres wide. The largest part of the population was made up of 20,000 Asians.

Here is what was written in 1866 about the capital of our new colony:

“Saigon previously formed an agglomeration of more than 40 villages, representing a population of at least 50,000 souls. At the start of our expedition of conquest, all of these villages, with the exception of one – Cho-Quan – were destroyed by the enemy, who wanted to leave us only ruins. Since that time, 11 other villages have been formed around us and under our protection. These 12 villages have 830 registered inhabitants, who represent a total of approximately 8,000 souls. ¹

As for the European city, which contains the citadel, the governor’s residence, the offices of the administration, the barracks, the military hospital, the church, the arsenal, etc, it is enclosed between the river to the east, the arroyo ² Chinois to the south, the arroyo de l’Avalanche to the north, and the territories conceded to Annamite villages to the south-west. On 1 January 1865, its population included 557 Europeans, 600 Malabars and 12,000 Chinese, not counting the troops of the garrison and the crews of the ships and boats in the harbour.

Early colonial Saigon

The plan of Saigon, drawn up on 10 May 1862, has been executed in large part. We have laid out and paved numerous wide streets amounting to 30 kilometres in length, opened or deepened canals, built bridges and quays, filled swamps, built a church, a hospital, and stone houses; and constructed a 53 metre long by 4 metre deep dry dock; Finally, we have also installed a floating dock which will receive ships of the highest tonnage.”

These lines were written at the most five years ago, and one only has to consult the excellent Annuaire de la Cochinchine ³, just published in Saigon under the administration of the excellent Rear-Admiral Dupré, to get an exact idea of the progressive improvements which have succeeded one after another since that time. Notable buildings of more than one kind have been constructed in the European city, and, what’s more, essential institutions have been founded there, including hospitals, asylums, and schools where young natives are eagerly received. It will give a fair idea of what the latter institutions may produce in future when it is known that 19 schools are now in full operation, teaching no fewer than 790 students.

This number is eloquent, no doubt, but many others could easily be listed here which would attest to the solid hopes of our colony. In order to offer some, even without commentary, to the reader’s meditations, we will recall that from 1 January 1870 to 1 January 1871, 551 ships entered the port of Saigon, while 554 left.

Here we ignore cabotage, a sector now more active than ever, and agricultural labour, the detail of which we spare the reader, saying only that for the year 1869 it produced for the administration receipts of 8,322,559 francs 19 cents, although there was a slight decrease in 1870, which only offered the figure of 8,053,689 francs 10 cents. An unofficial account suggests that the revenue from 1871 will reach 9,500,000 francs, but new information suggests that the final figure may be as much as 12 million francs. Rice exportation this year will amount to 350,000 tonnes and will employ more than 600 ships, including some very large ones. This export represents a sum of 90 million francs. One sees all that one can expect from so recent an acquisition.

Perhaps the reader is wondering why such emphasis on these figures in an article about a monument. In fact, they serve to help people understand the importance attached to certain buildings, especially those which aim to impress the Asian population with their imposing mass.

Hermitte’s Sacred Heart Cathedral in Guangzhou (1866)

It was on 23 February 1868, that Vice-Admiral de la Grandière, Governor and commander in chief of the colony, laid the first stone of the new palace. For the young architect, M. Hermitte, who had drawn up the plan, this was not his first attempt. Having arrived early in the country of Annam, and then settled in China, he began his work at Canton with the construction of the vast granite cathedral, the completion of which will require perhaps many years. Having lost as a result of war the buildings which he had acquired, the unhappy artist abandoned his labours there and took refuge in Cochinchina. It was here that his too short career would end; he died here in 1870. M. Codry succeeded him.

Preoccupied no doubt by memories of his native land, the architect of the Palace of the Government in Saigon did not show much originality in his original conception. It is curious, however, that at the moment when a dreadful fire deprived Paris of the edifice conceived by Philippe Delorme, a rather faithful image of the Tuileries took shape at the extremity of the Asiatic world.

The Palace of the Government of French Cochinchina stands at the corner of the route de Cholon and the boulevard de Saigon. It has not less than 80 metres of facade, and is placed in the middle of a rectangle which extends 450 metres on one of its sides and 300 metres on the other. Eight main roads extend outward from the road which encircles the palace and its park.

The Annuaire we have just mentioned says nothing about the new building; Nonetheless there is a sentence which sufficiently explains the extent of territory which will be governed from this vast edifice.

“Custom has preserved in French Cochinchina the division of the provinces as they existed under the Annamite regime; But this denomination no longer employs any special administration in each province. The administration now emanates entirely from Saigon.”

Hermitte’s Hong Kong Town Hall (1869)

Neither should it be forgotten that if the European population of our colony increased three years ago to 585 inhabitants, that of the Asians amounted to 1,183,913 individuals of both sexes, requiring extensive administrative provision.

The palace, with its large reception room and offices, had to be built to large proportions. We know from recent news that gardens are now being planted. The exact surface of the park is 13 hectares.

A large cistern, destined to supply the palace daily with 500 litres of water free of impurities, is being dug by the hour. The question now is whether to create a large lawn or a water feature in the space between the main entrance and the front steps. That space is not less than 200 metres in length.

¹ As an official source, see the Notices sur les colonies françaises (1866), p. 539. We shall also indicate, for the benefit of those who wish to have general notions of the empire of Annam, some works recently published, such as the following books: Tableau de la Cochinchine, written under the auspices of the Société d’ethnographie by Messrs E. Cortambert and L. de Rosny; L de Grammont’s Onze mois de sous-prefecture en basse Cochinchine, 1863; Les Ports de l’extrême Orient, 1869, by Dr. A. Benoit de la Grandière; Cochinchine Française by Charles Lemire, 1869; Dialogues Cochinchinois, published in 1871, with an indication of the weights and measures and divisions of time by M. Abel des Michels, professor at the college du France; and finally M. Barbié du Bocage’s Bibliographie Annamite of 1867.

² This Spanish and Portuguese word is used to describe a small waterway

³ Annuaire pour la Cochinchine française, Imprimerie nationale, Saigon, 1871. This precious work is aimed at Europeans, natives and Chinese. The divisions of time are marked according to the calculations adopted by the three races.

Hermitte’s Palace of the Government (1873)

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014).

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now and Huế Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.

Christmas in Saigon, from La Revue du Pacifique, 15 January 1935


This year in Saigon, the Christmas celebrations were exceptionally brilliant.

Many people came from every province to celebrate the festivities in this city, which is known universally as the “Pearl of the Far East.” In the animated streets, French and Cochinchinois came together and headed towards the many places of distraction.

After midnight mass, they all gathered around the tables of the great restaurants and dance halls of the city, where couples danced wildly until morning, waltzing to the sweet intoxication of the finest champagne.

The poor and the unemployed were not forgotten. At a gala evening honoured by the presence of the Governor-General and Secretary-General Y. C. Chatel, many Christmas trees were installed so that poor children could come and choose their favorite toys.

All these events had the effect of creating a great bustle of activity in all the shops of Saigon, which in recent days saw many customers coming in to buy traditional gifts.


Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014).

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now and Huế Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.

“A Visit to Petrus-Ky,” from En Indo-Chine 1894-1895: Cambodge, Cochinchine, Laos, Siam Méridional, by Pierre de Barthélemy

Pétrus Trương Vĩnh Ký (1837-1898)

Reminiscences by soldier, explorer and writer Pierre Sauvaire de Barthélémy (1870-1940) about his visit to the house of Vietnamese scholar Pétrus Trương Vĩnh Ký.

Petrus-Ky is one of the most distinguished Annamite pupils of the Missionary School of the Paris Foreign Missions Society. Petrus-Ky is the name which was given to him at his baptism by the Brothers, while Truong-Vinh-Ky is his Annamite name.

Pierre Sauvaire de Barthélémy (1870-1940)

He speaks fluent French and his conversation is that of a true scholar. He has retained, along with the religion of his former masters, a great gratitude for them; But I heard him utter against them a slight reproach, which I cannot deny is well founded.

At the schools of the missions, they insist on to promoting the study of Latin over the study of French; At one time, this trend went so far that, in the early days of the occupation, one could only find Latin-speaking interpreters!

If it had not been so heartbreaking for the victim, one story told about this would lead us to laughter. During the early days of our occupation, a brave sailor was ordered by his commander to hang four rebels. However, instead of four rebels, our matelot saw five Annamites gathered near the tree where the execution was to take place. “The commander is mistaken,” he said, “there is one more.” So, after having hanged the four first convicts, he set about executing the fifth. “Ego sum Petrus, Interpretus,” cried the unhappy man, defending himself. “Ah! You’ll get what’s coming to you Mr Interpretus,” grunted the sailor, hoisting the poor man into the tree alongside his compatriots. By the time the commandant returned, it was too late. The unfortunate interpreter had paid with his life for speaking only a dead language.

Fortunately, the need for the natives to speak French in order to find employment hastened the disappearance of Latin, which was of little use, and its replacement by modern languages.

Pétrus Ký teaching his students

After completing his education, Petrus-Ky began to study with care the history of his country. Today, he knows all the dialects of Indo-China and the ethnography of his country. His opinion on the indigenous natives, the Moys or Khats of the Annamite chain, is absolute. The Annamite, he adds, came from Tibet; that race is mingled with Chinese and Malay, mostly fishermen or boatmen who were brought here by the current and shipwrecked, and, deciding not to return to their own land, instead sought asylum in the Annamite villages along the coast. As for the Cambodian race, according to the opinion of our native scholar, they were the result of Hindu immigration into the region. One finds evidence of these origins in the ruins of Angkor and in the Cambodian language, where Sanskrit and Pali predominate. The indigenous people there are the Pnoms, who are settled between the Mekong and Annam. The word Pnom or Penong is Cambodian. The Penongs and the Moys are the same race, but their name changes according to whether they live in Annamite or Cambodian territory.

France, says Petrus-Ky, has an excellent influence on education in Cochinchina. At present, beside the practical French courses, the Interpreters’ College has a Chair in Chinese, currently held by our learned interlocutor, who teaches a reasoned course in Chinese language and writing.

Pétrus Ký’s house in Chợ Quán

Every Annamite loves to visit Petrus-Ky’s house, so we did not forget to ask him for an invitation. Though less rich than the house of the Phu of Cholon, the house of Petrus-Ky is no less curious. One particular trinket among the many which fill its Asian interior attracted our attention: it is an ebony table with inlaid mother-of-pearl, an essentially Annamite work. The images inlaid on it depict the occupation of Annam and Tonkin by the French. In the centre of the table, our compatriots are seen at rest, sipping absinthe and gesticulating around a table; A little further away, we see a ship bringing officials from across the sea; on its deck is a table prepared with a glass and a bottle. Around these two main images, French forces are depicted fighting, chasing the Chinese from Lang Son and beating the Annamites in Hue. This simple trinket is a manifestation of the observant spirit of the Annamites. They have noticed, first of all, this typical habit we have of resting, drinking slowly around a table and discussing with great zeal things which are often indifferent to each of the interlocutors.

Among other trinkets, Petrus-Ky also possesses guns dating from the reign of Louis XV, which have been inlaid with gold by the Annamites and inscribed with dedications from one mandarin to another. It was Dupleix who first succeeded in establishing a trade flow between Indo-China, the Indies, Madagascar and the Metropolis. The dream of that great coloniser has been resumed in the present, though now through a calm internal policy by a wise government which is less concerned with opposition, permitting the accomplishment of his grand design.

The inauguration of the Pétrus Ký statue behind Saigon Cathedral in 1928

We also noted, in the living room, a fine collection of sabres of honour presented by Annamese mandarins. These sabres do not have moon images on the blade like the sabres of the Chinese, and several, in their form, suggest that they are in fact European swords which have been adorned in their own way by the natives.

After thanking our host, we were about to take his leave when he detained us for a moment. This was in order to offer each of us a copy of his Histoire d’Annam, a very interesting work which would prove very useful to us later, when we began to study this beautiful country.

“One of the most remarkable details of the character of Petrus-Ky,” said Monsieur M., the administrator who introduced us to him, “is his modesty. Despite being showered with honours, decorated with the Légion d’Honneur, the Order of Isabelle la Catholique, an award from the Pope, the officier de l’Annam, the officier du Cambodge and several other Far Eastern decorations, he remains simple, welcoming and very devoted to the European cause. But what he is most proud of is to be able to say that he is 22 times a grandfather, and that all of his children speak French.”

A good Christian, an honest father of a family, a distinguished scholar, here indeed is a result of the good efforts of the missionaries, and the gratitude he has vowed to his masters is surely the best reward they have ever obtained.

May the excellent scholar live for a long time in his quiet village of Cho-Quan and be an encouragement to the colonising efforts of the mission! But do not forget, brave Fathers, that in order to make useful auxiliaries for your compatriots, the first step of your education must be the study of French. Reserve the study of Latin only for the best of your students, who alone will be able to appreciate its literary beauty!

For other articles relating to Petrus Ky, see:
Old Saigon Building of the Week – Petrus Ky Mausoleum and Memorial House, 1937
What Future for Petrus Ky’s Mausoleum and Memorial House?
Petrus Ky – Historical Memories of Saigon and its Environs, 1885, Part 1
Petrus Ky – Historical Memories of Saigon and its Environs, 1885, Part 2
Petrus Ky – Historical Memories of Saigon and its Environs, 1885, Part 3

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014).

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now and Huế Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.

“The Royal Court,” from Les Annamites by Frédéric Baille, 1898

A royal screen in the Citadel

A fascinating recollection of the court of Emperor Đồng Khánh (1885-1889), written by Frédéric Baille, who served as Acting Resident Superior of Annam from 28 November 1894-26 April 1895.

The courts of Annam were, until the last days of the reign of Thu-Duc, relentlessly closed to profane eyes.

Emperor Đồng Khánh (1885-1889), BAVH 3, 1941

They were always enveloped by an immense mystery, which has served as an accomplice to many crimes. Even today, despite the large and perhaps rather hasty concessions made to European curiosity, it is impossible, apart from in the performance of official duties, to enter the royal palaces, and in particular the building where the king’s mother lives.

The mother of Dong-Khanh has always lived a cloistered life, hidden from the view of all except those of her immediate retinue, as befitting a woman of her rank. No European is permitted to contemplate her features. It seems that this lady and her life are surrounded by a mystery even more impenetrable than that of the other princess who bears the title of Queen Mother, the mother of Thu-Duc. We were given a glimpse of her during the passage of M. Vial, Résident-Général, who had solicited the honour to present to her his respects.

That spectacle was, moreover, one of the more curious to have remained in our minds. After travelling for more than 20 minutes through an inextricable maze of gardens and corridors, we were brought into a fairly large courtyard, surrounded by high walls. Two orchestras of women musicians, arranged in parallel lines, filled the air with their strange sounds. We owe it to the truth to add that the age and physique of almost all these artists commanded respect, and that even they would have left even the most outgoing stranger frozen in awe. After several minutes of waiting, we were finally admitted to a relatively low room.

The main hall of the Diên Thọ Palace, official residence of the Queen Mother

At the back of this room, we saw a blind made of thin bamboo strips and decorated with multicolored dragons. In front of it, wearing full dress, knelt the king, his hands folded in the attitude of prayer which among the Annamites denotes respect. Behind this blind, hidden from profane eyes in the twilight of a sanctuary, stood the old Queen Mother. First the king, and then the Europeans, did their homage to her. Then, from behind the blind, we heard a voice, or rather a barely noticeable whisper, in response to our display. Suddenly the thin bamboo blind rose slowly, like a theatre curtain.

There stood the motionless idol, dressed in dress of royal yellow, with a fixed stare, her yellow-white complexion resembling the ivory of an old crucifix. It was only a vision, nothing more. The blind fell almost immediately, with a quick movement. New compliments were exchanged, and the king, once more at great length, knelt before the blind to make his lais of farewell.

Such was the short ceremonial of this interview, a supreme concession made by royal majesty to the new order of things, and to satisfy our sacrilegious curiosity.

An external view of the “Second Queen Mother’s Palace,” aka the Trường Sanh Palace, in 1928 (Fonds Sallet)

Every day, the king is assisted by a staff of women taken from all hierarchical classes of the women’s quarters. Thirty of them stand guard around his private apartments.

Five women are always near his person, taking turns, alternately, to provide for his personal care and grooming. It is they who dress him, maintain and clip his long nails which denote his scholarly standing and are at least as long as his fingers, perfume him, wrap his head coquettishly with a delicate and silky scarf of yellow crepe, and finally ensure even the smallest details of his costume.

These are the women who also serve him at his table.

His Majesty usually takes three meals a day; at six and eleven in the morning and at five in the evening.

Each meal consists of 50 different dishes prepared by thuang-tieng, who, numbering 50, accomplish the service of the royal kitchen. Each of them therefore prepares one dish, and when the bell sounds, passes them to the thi-viés (chamberlains), who convey them to the eunuchs.

The courtyard of the Càn Thành Palace, where the emperor ate and slept, in 1925 (Fonds Sallet)

These, in turn, transmit them to the king’s most senior women servants, and it is only they who will have the honour of offering them, kneeling, at the royal table. His Majesty barely touches some of these dishes and drinks some kind of special eau-de-vie made with lily seeds and perfumed with aromatic plants. That was at least the old etiquette. Dong-Khanh drinks wine from Bordeaux, which doctors have prescribed to repair the disorders of his fairly poor health.

The rice eaten by the king, which forms the basis of his nourishment when he is alone and not forced to eat European food, must be very white and specially selected, grain by grain. It is cooked in a clay pot which is broken after every meal. The quality of the chopsticks which his Majesty uses to eat is also important. Ivory chopsticks seem too heavy for the royal hand, so the ones used by the king must be made from bamboo which has just come into leaf, “and renewed every day.”

The amount of rice eaten by the king is carefully determined, and the agreed is never exceeded. If he does not eat this amount, if he feels less hungry, he immediately calls his doctors and demands remedies, which he will only absorb after they have been tasted beforehand.

The royal cortege leaves the Citadel for the Nam Giao Esplanade, BAVH 1, 1936

Each province of the kingdom sends to the court, for the royal food, the best productions of the soil, part of which comes from taxes paid in kind. For example, Cochinchina formerly sent rice from Ba-Thac, fish caught in the big lake (Kho-ha), dried shrimp, mangosteens, palm grubs (big grubs found in the heads of date palms and coconut trees), young caimans and lychees.

In the second month of each year, after three days’ abstinence, the king goes with great ceremony, escorted by the whole court, to celebrate the feast of Nam-Giao, that is to say to offer sacrifice to heaven. The ceremony, the most solemn of all year, takes place near a fan-shaped high hill covered with pine, which, according to Annamite legend, serves as a screen and defence for the citadel.

On that day, the sovereign, usually almost invisible to his people, is shown to all, carried in the ngoe-lo, a sort of covered chair with glazed windows, from which he can see and be seen. Tents are pitched in advance within the walls of the Esplanade des sacrifices so that he can spend the night there with his court. Right in the centre is a masonry platform which is accessed by high stairs. It’s there that the altar, decorated with yellow and red fabrics borrowed from the palace, is prepared. This is also where the sacrifice takes place. At midnight, the military mandarins immolate a buffalo, and the king offers it in great pomp to heaven, which he salutes with five consecutive lais while a mandarin reads aloud the prayers prescribed by the rites, at the same time burning numerous pieces of silk. The feast is usually ended by dawn, and His Majesty then returns to the Citadel.

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014).

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now and Huế Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.

“Emperor Bao-Daï returns to Annam,” Le Petit Parisien, 3 August 1932

Emperor Bảo Đại (1925-1945) pictured during his voyage home in 1932 (Mondiale Photo-Presse)

The young emperor Bao-Daï of Annam will soon return to his country, which he aims to modernise.

He began by attending classes at a Parisian lycée, then he continued to receive lessons at home while, along with other young men of his age, he was initiated into the beauties of constitutional law and political economy at the School of Political Science.

Crown Prince Nguyễn Phúc Vĩnh Thụy (later Bảo Đại) attending Khải Định’s 40th birthday celebrations in 1924 (BAVH, 1925, 2)

Yet instead of arming himself with an imperial and arrogant demeanour, this young student made himself perfectly at ease with his comrades, joking with them and permitting some to become, perhaps, a little too familiar, by cavalierly slapping the young sovereign on the shoulder, in sharp contrast with Marshal Lyautey’s respectful bows at Vincennes.

H. M. Bao-Daï lives in a luxurious residence built especially for him in the avenue de Lamballe. This is where I met him. He lives there with his tutor, the worthy M. Charles, former Resident in Annam, to whom the late emperor himself entrusted the education of the little prince.

He’s a strong young man, sportsmanlike, with a direct manner. He speaks without an accent, in very pure French. He has been conquered by the most modern ideas.

It’s no surprise, therefore, to learn that this young man has taken ardently to the joys of riding. He loves horses and is considered by the military school an excellent rider.

Tennis is also a sport he is keen on. He handles the ball skillfully, and his elegance and flexibility are renowned on the courts, where he plays with his friends, and with young women and young girls carefully handpicked by Mme. Charles.

Intellectual and artistic recreations are not neglected. The emperor is not a very fervent reader of books, but he loves shows, and especially musical performances. It’s quite curious that this young Oriental delights above all in musical concerts, particularly the classics. He never tires of Bach or Beethoven, for example.

Although very musical, he is not, however, a skilled musician. He plays a little piano, but does not claim to virtuosity.

In short, despite the courses he was obliged to follow, he has had a happy time during the 10 years he has spent in Paris. So we may understand the regrets that the little king does not hide when leaving France.

Emperor Bảo Đại during his enthronement on 8 January 1926 (BAVH, 1931, 1)

“I so love your country,” he has said, “to which I owe my intellectual formation. And how could I forget the kindness of all my friends?”

We know that H. M. Bao-Daï would have liked to prolong his one-year stay in Paris. But sovereigns have duties to which they are bound even more rigorously than the common man.

Everything in Annam is now ready for the emperor’s return, and he cannot shirk his obligations. In his homeland, big things are expected from the return of the monarch. Most serious spirits have high hopes for this young emperor, whose mind has received a western education and is open to modern ideas.

“However,” explains M. Charles, “No-one among his subjects could reproach him for having broken with the traditions of his race. I have been very careful not to tear him from his roots. I wanted him constantly to remain connected to his country. He’s had with him an old Annamite teacher, a scholar of the old school, who has taught him Annamite and instructed him in the difficult knowledge of Chinese characters, the ‘Latin’ of the Annamites.”

Thus, the young emperor is completely ready to reign. It’s not with a light heart that he embarks for Annam, because he knows that his days of recklessness, car rides with classmates, cavalcades, and ardent mornings at concerts are now at an end, but he leaves France with full awareness of the serious responsibilities which will weigh upon his shoulders.

They will indeed be heavy, but H. M. Bao Daï is still young. He longs to do good for his country and, as it is so very closely tied to France, there is hope that he will lead Annam in a sincere spirit of Franco-Annamite collaboration.

Bảo Đại’s cousin Prince Nguyễn Phúc Vĩnh Cẩn was sent with him to France to be educated in 1922 under the tutelage former Resident Superior and Honorary Governor General of the Colonies Jean Charles (Fonds Sogny-Marien)

He will find a friend and valuable guide in the person of the Resident-Superior in Annam, M. Yves Châtel, who, in agreement with the Governor General, has been conducting a discreet and enthusiastic publicity campaign simultaneously across the country, in favour of the young sovereign.

Itinerant singing troupes have been travelling everywhere, stopping on the banks of rivers, on the corners of crowded streets, in remote villages in the middle of rice fields. Accompanied by the high toned monochord, and in their nasal voices, they have eulogised the young king and the benefits he is expected to bring to the whole country. Justice will be simplified, the mandarins will no longer prevaricate, education programmes will be redesigned.

The youthful radiance of the emperor will add a little joy to the splendid palaces where he will now spend the rest of his days. The Imperial Palace, a succession of luxurious buildings buried in gardens and parks where rock gardens alternate with flowering lotus ponds, shelters behind a triple ring of walls in the middle of the famous Citadel of Hue, surrounded by moats and canals full of still water.

There exists in the last park a modern looking building which contrasts strongly with all the other palaces with fretted roofs. This building, built specifically to plans by the Emperor Khai-Dinh, late father of the current ruler, is called Kien-Trung Palace. It’s here that H. M. Bao-Daï, when he has had his fill of ceremonies and rites, will come to relax and steep himself in a European setting.

Recently he has commissioned from two decorators a suite of ultramodern furniture for the two rooms destined for his personal use. He intends to install a radio set and to there to receive his closest friends, including his cousin Prince Vinh, who was raised with him in Paris. He will also entertain there the many young Annamites with whom he studied, as well as high-ranking officials such as the Minister of Finance, H. E. Tai-Van-Toan, who came to visit him in France and whose lively and curious mind has also assimilated the most modern innovations. This youngest of mandarins subscribes to our greatest literary magazines; he is very interested in the contemporary intellectual movement and he will certainly be a most faithful and agreeable companion to his young sovereign.

Soon after his return, Bảo Đại embarked upon a tour of all the provinces his realm. He’s seen here visiting a royal tomb in Chiêm Son (Quảng Nam) in 1933 (Fonds Sogny-Marien)

The young emperor, who lived among us for 10 years and became used to the pleasures of Parisian life, will certainly need to escape the heavy yoke of ancestral influences and come to relax at times in an atmosphere which will remind him of the banks of the Seine. Dressed in a well-cut dinner jacket, he will drink a glass of champagne while listening to the latest fashionable songs on his gramophone. But that will not stop him, moments later, from putting on his heavy gold silk robe and receiving in his great audience hall the high and mighty mandarins, who respectfully bow before the “Son of Heaven, Father and Mother of his subjects.”

It will surely be the great merit of H. M. Bao Dai’s reign to reconcile harmoniously modern ideas with respect for the past.

The tasks with which he is encumbered will be difficult, but on the shoulders of this young athlete, the responsibilities of state will be executed with ease.

A 1930 view of the facade of the Kiến Trung Pavilion, rebuilt in east-west fusion style by Khải Định in 1921-1923 and destroyed in early 1947 (Fonds Morin-Edmond)

Another 1930 view of the facade of the lost Kiến Trung Pavilion (Fonds Morin-Edmond)

A 1930 view of a side entrance to the lost Kiến Trung Pavilion (Fonds Morin-Edmond)

The antichamber of the lost Kiến Trung Pavilion in 1928 (Fonds Sallet)

The billard room of the lost Kiến Trung Pavilion in 1928 (Fonds Sallet)

The salon of the lost Kiến Trung Pavilion in 1928 (Fonds Sallet)

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014).

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.

“The Illness and Death of King Dong-Khanh – Proclamation and Coronation of King Thanh-Thai – Organisation of the Council of Regency,” Le Temps, 26 March 1889


From our special correspondent in Tourane

It is not yet possible to measure in an accurate way the political consequences which may be forthcoming for the kingdom of Annam, as well as for our protectorate, following the sudden death of King Dong-Khanh. This death, which occurred like a bolt of lightning at the very hour that this king had raised our finest hopes for his reign, could and will probably prompt a thousand guesses. Yet before recent events are transformed by legend, it’s good to establish, according to certain testimonies, how things actually happened.

Emperor Đồng Khánh (1885-1888)

For seven or eight days, the young ruler had complained of headaches, and at the same time had given clear signs of irritability of mood. He ate little and slept badly, and his sleep was punctuated by nightmares and also, it is said, by hallucinations, which greatly concerned the court.

Then the fever took him. He was unable to attend the sacrificial ceremony in memory of Ming-Mang, then he ceased all royal audiences and could not leave his residence. Local doctors vainly exhausted him with their complicated therapeutic techniques. Irritated, he dismissed them harshly, punishing them by having them locked up and declaring that he was prepared to accept the advice of a French doctor. The Resident Superior, who had just returned home from a trip to Tonkin to be informed in Tourane, by news reports, of the progress of the illness, had called Dr. Cotte, Senior Medical Officer of the Navy, and went with him at night to the palace. The patient’s bed had been placed in one of its remotest and most mysterious rooms. Only after following, by torchlight for nearly half an hour, a series of long meandering wooden corridors and galleries, were the two visitors, accompanied by the royal interpreter, finally able to reach the patient. Only a few maids and eunuchs were watching over him in that gloomy bedroom, with its high walls of dark wood, where many candles were barely enough to give even a little light. The king was lying on a very low wooden bed, encrusted with mother of pearl. His head rested on a long hard pillow made from bamboo filaments, like those seen on all Annamite beds.

The king was wrapped in a large blanket made from yellow silk. He was already very weak, and when his two visitors were announced, he could barely lift his head. Muttering in a low voice, he thanked them for their visit and asked that they should heal him quickly so that he could as soon as possible attend to “affairs of state.” The doctor examined him with great care, and, without hesitation, said that the external symptoms suggested a pernicious fever. He did not hide from the Resident Superior the seriousness of the situation, above all if the hiccups, which had already been convulsing the patient’s body for many hours, continued to worsen, and the quinine did not work a miracle.

Dr. Cotte made up various potions, carefully prescribing the exact dosage, and left the palace after giving precise instructions to those who looked after the patient, etiquette and rites strictly forbidding a European from remaining overnight in the royal bedchamber. That night was relatively calm, but the patient was unable to keep down the potions that were administered to him.

The former Cần Chánh Palace (destroyed in 1947)

Towards morning, when the French doctor returned, His Majesty asked how long it would be before he could get up, and whether he might be allowed to consume something other than the remedies. The good doctor naturally objected to the idea of the king leaving his sickbed, because his weakness was extreme, but said that he could take, if it were possible, a little sweetened milk. Soon, however, the hiccups resumed with renewed intensity. Towards evening on 28 January, the Resident Superior was warned that the king’s condition had worsened severely, and that the presence of the doctor was once again required urgently.

The Resident Superior, accompanied by his Chief of Staff, M. Boulloche, and a Navy physician named Dr. Barrat, immediately made his way to the palace. As they neared the first guard post, an interpreter ran towards them and exclaimed: “The king is dead.” Dong-Khanh had indeed passed away peacefully, without agony or external appearance of suffering. It was 10 minutes past eight in the evening.

The Resident Superior naturally judged the utility of confirming the death himself, so he was introduced once again into the king’s bedchamber. There an old priestess was reciting prayers, and fled at his approach. The high yellow drapes on the bed had been closed, so a kneeling eunuch pulled them aside. The king’s face was covered by a red silk scarf. The doctor felt his pulse and confirmed that he was dead. After bowing respectfully, the two visitors withdrew immediately.

All around, and in the adjacent guardrooms, mandarins and princes gathered, speaking in low voices, their eyes wet with tears. Yet in the royal courts of the Far East, pain, even when it is sincere, is always expressed cautiously. Regrets for a late Majesty are seen as an insult to the new Majesty who will soon be enthroned. Hardly had the eyelids of the young king been closed to the light, than it was already fashionable to discover in him terrible flaws, to recall his vices, his excesses, his brutality. In this country, as in any other, meanness, just like honour, has its propriety, and men of quality are not lacking in it.

The young Emperor Thành Thái (1889-1907) with siblings, from Quelques notes sur l’Annam, 1895

The question of the succession to the throne occupied everyone’s thoughts. This catastrophe, which had occurred so fast, took everyone by surprise and confounded all calculations. Dong-Khanh had two sons, but they were aged just four and three years, leaving the frightening prospect of a long Regency with the door left wide open to all eventualities. In any case, the Queen Mother, who in accordance with ancient rites had been consulted about the succession, had discounted the offspring of Dong Khanh from the outset.

It was anticipated that the Resident Superior, M. Rheinart, who, thanks to his long experience, knew this country perfectly, would manoeuvre with dexterity in the midst of these unknown dynastic complications.

Yet time was pressing. The throne must not be left vacant. No doubt, power was exercised in the interim by the Co-Mat, but that power was without prestige, directionless and unable to resist unforeseen adventures. In addition, never had the death of a king taken place at a more inappropriate political time. This was the eve of Tet, that most important political-religious event of the year, when superstitions ran free, when happy or unhappy omens were seen to presage future events. Already, the popular spirit, quick to judgment and influenced by ancient legends, was inclined to see in the timing of this death a solemn manifestation of the wrath of heaven against the French and all those who owed their power to us.

The Annamite people, accustomed to the long reigns of Ming-Mang, Tu-Duc and many other former kings, could not without irony notice how fragile and short were the royalties we pretended to create with our own hands, how quickly and finally the stigma of foreign investiture had killed these men. Superstition in these countries may be either the most powerful ally or the most terrible enemy. On this Tet festival, an annual celebration for which people’s expectations were always raised, everything brought discontent. An edict of the Queen Mother forbade any celebration. Thirty Chinese who had attempted, despite the prohibition, to explode some firecrackers in a suburb of Hué, were arrested, imprisoned and placed in the cangue by the Phu-Dien (prefect of police).

Among a people so fond of gaiety and laughter, everything suddenly went silent. Without doubt they had planned come out, at the time of Tet, wearing their fine new clothes, silk dresses, turbans with a thousand clever folds, but then suddenly their world became slow and without noise.

A court mandarin

Not a cry was heard, and even those who have regularly accused the Annamites of dark designs could see how quickly a people deeply ingrained with the monarchical education could became docile and ready to bow with propriety under the affliction of official mourning.

The Resident Superior, after many talks and numerous eliminations, eventually selected a son of Duc-Duc, that king who had reigned just a few days and whom the court had left to die of hunger after France had protested his elevation to the throne and declared his enthronement void on the grounds that it had been conducted without consultation. The child in question was 10 years old. The choice that we made of him also had the advantage of restoring the direct lineage of the Nguyen. Since the death of his father, he had lived in captivity with his mother and a brother, in an isolated dwelling within the walls of the Citadel. The choice proposed by the representative of France was confirmed quickly by the Council of the Court and the Co-Mat.

Envoys presented themselves at his residence and, addressing his mother, asked her to fetch her eldest son. “Here he is,” she said. “What do you want with him?” “It is he,” they answered, “who will become king of Annam.” Then she burst into tears and refused to permit them to take her child, begging that they spare him such a frightening prospect. Yet heaven had spoken and must be obeyed, so the child was taken the same evening to the palace and placed, until the time of his coronation, in an apartment not far from the royal audience hall. “Where am I, where am I being taken?” he asked the royal interpreter. “Highness, you are in the library of the kings, a library which will soon be yours.” “Good,” replied the prince, “then please give me the Analects by Confucius.” This request had much meaning, for in fact this 10-year-old child is already a scholar, fashioned by an excellent teacher. He can read and write Chinese characters and even knows the French alphabet.

He is relatively tall for his age and well built. However, his demeanour is less attractive and less aristocratic than that of Dong-Khanh, with a flatter nose, a darker complexion and a rougher skin. He has an intelligent and attentive look, but none of the rather feminine softness which accompanied the smile of the late sovereign.

When the choice of the court had been made, and on the directions of the protectorate had been officially approved by the French government, the Resident Superior, accompanied by M. Boulloche, his Chief of Staff, and M. Baille, Resident in Hué, returned to the palace to inform the future king of the decision and to present him with their compliments. By a bizarre coincidence, this was the first day of Tet. They found the child standing in a palace hung with blue drapes, surrounded by servants and mandarins.

Resident Superior Pierre Rheinart (BAVH, 12, 1943)

When the Resident Superior had been announced, the young king came out to meet him in the small courtyard in front of the palace. He was dressed in a long blue robe with stiff pleats, and wore on his head a black turban. A eunuch protected his face from the rays of the sun with a large parasol. He shook hands with the Resident Superior and his two companions, and gestured solemnly to them to sit around a table on which tea had been served. The interview was short, we understand, and limited to simple compliments. The young future sovereign then led his visitors out of the palace, sheltered as before under his parasol and walking with an already slow and regal gait.

Before paying this visit, the Resident Superior and the officials he brought with him had gone to pay their final respects to the body of Dong-Khanh. That same morning, immediately after the king’s body had been enbalmed, it had been placed in an open coffin on a funeral bier covered in precious fabrics. The body was dressed in ceremonial robes adorned with much jewelry, including diamonds and a large golden pendant inlaid with emerald dragons, which he had worn around his neck just before he died. On his head was a large ceremonial helmet, from the top of which brilliant pearls and sapphires hung on long gold threads.

The coffin itself, made from teak, was large but quite simple. Dong-Khanh, feeling full of life and hardly expecting to die so early, had not thought to have a special one made in advance, in observance of the customs and ordinary precautions of his predecessors and even of many of the rich people of this country. The coffin rested on a makeshift catafalque, draped with yellow silk and supported by two simple trestles.

The late king was laid in the royal audience hall, on the exact spot where he had once sat on his red and yellow velvet-covered throne, receiving visitors and graciously offering them tea. The courtyard in front of this hall, paved with slabs of green stone, was lined with parasols, each guarded by a eunuch. Inside the hall, lit by countless candles, were several large Buddha shrines loaded with offerings and flowers, plus objects used in the daily life of the late king which since his death had become sacred. Fragrant joss sticks smouldered slowly on the altars, filling the air with their fragrance.

The Thái Hòa Palace

After entering this hall, the visitors remained for just a few seconds, bowing in front of the remains of the prince who had so greatly loved France, and then walking out again silently.

The mandarins and the courtiers stood at the sides of the hall, just a few metres away from the coffin. At that moment, with the sun setting beyond the horizon and the silhouettes of the great Citadel gates highlighted against the clear background of a Far East twilight, the distant sound of the drums of the palace guards announced the first watch. Thus ended a momentous day of melancholic grandeur.

The former king will be buried in the same magnificent tomb he was constructing for his father, on the banks of the river and where, in recent times, he had rested so often to view one of the most beautiful mountain landscapes. The actual burial will take place on 20 February. Starting on 16 February, the court will wear the costume of official mourning, which, as we know, is white.

The royal astrologers having, after careful consideration, declared 1 February as a most auspicious day, the enthronement was promptly fixed for that date.

On the previous day, according to rites, the young prince had made his lais to his royal ancestors in the Can-Chanh Palace and received the royal regalia. He should also have received the jade family seal known as the Ngoc-Bi, but this had been taken out of the palace by Ham Nghi during his flight and lost in the mountains of Quang-Binh.

The prince was presented with the ivory plaque of the “royal order,” which served as his laisser-passer to access the Gold Book in the Can-Chanh Palace. This Gold Book, which is opened only at the start or finish of each reign, is presented to every future sovereign. The character written in it denoting his rank of succession will be his own name. That of the new king is Chiêu, meaning “light of wisdom.”

A mandarin dispensing justice

The mandarins attached to the Noï-Cat (Cabinet of the King) then select a number of literary expressions formed from two characters with the most favourable meanings in the eyes of Heaven. The list of such characters is then offered to the new king, who chooses from it his regnal name. That name is then transcribed in the Gold Book and displayed in all the temples of the ancient kings and in the Nam Giao (Temple of Heaven). The new King of Annam will be called Thanh-Thai, which means “absolute happiness and success in all things.”

The coronation ceremony was held with great pomp and ceremony. Against custom, French troops had penetrated through the gate and were lined up alongside the terrace leading to the Thai-Hoa Palace. Since the new king was about to receive the investiture of France, it was appropriate that our troops came, as had happened during the coronation of Dong-Khanh, to give character and meaning to the ceremony through their presence in the interior palace.

With the Commander of the Brigade, the Head of Cabinet, M. Boulloche and the Resident, M. Baille by his side, the Resident Superior advanced into the royal audience hall. All the officers who were not under arms stood in a group some distance away.

Soon, the cries of the Thi-vié heralded the approach of the sovereign. He entered slowly through a rear door behind the throne. This time, he was dressed in a royal robe decorated in gold brocade and laden with precious stones, the weight of which, although he was supported by the chief eunuch, weighed singularly on his child’s frame. He greeted the Resident Superior and his three companions, and then, not without some difficulty, ascended the steps to the throne. French batteries fired a 21-gun salute, bugles sounded in the fields and troops presented arms. The Resident Superior stepped forward, and, on behalf of the Government of the French Republic, recognised him and saluted him as King of Annam.

The emperor is carried in procession from the Đại Cung Môn to the Thái Hòa Palace

His Majesty Thanh-Thai responded in a few words, expressing his gratitude and his deep attachment to France. He read a speech which was inscribed in Chinese characters on the ivory plaque which he held in front of him, and his small but unwavering and assured voice was very well heard throughout the large colonnaded hall. As he spoke, the Thi-vié waved long fans all around him. At the foot of the throne, the perfumed smoke of an immense joss stick floated slowly towards him. The royal tablets which would be presented to him were placed on a table, locked in a gold box. After the exchange of official compliments, the Resident Superior saluted the king and moved to the right side of the room. The Annamite ceremony began.

Princes in their grand costumes, spread out around the sides of the room, now stepped forward and, standing around 15m in front of the throne, did their lais. Most were old, bent and broken by age. Five times they prostrated themselves on their knees, face against the ground, their white beards sweeping the stone slabs of the audience room. Then, royal government ministers moved forward and executed the same genuflections with similar majesty.

The great exterior courtyard was by this time filled with the busy ranks of the mandarins. On the right were massed the mandarins of higher rank, on the left those of lower rank. Groups were formed according to order of precedence, from the highest to the lowest officials of the court, and everyone was dressed in grand ceremonial costume. At a signal given by the Minister of Rites, the long lines of mandarins turned simultaneously to face the audience hall, where the child-idol sat on his throne in hieratic immobility, his feet perched on two great gold dragons.

Then there arose in the distance a bizarre and prolonged type of guttural chant, which seemed to end almost as an echo of itself. This was the signal for the huge assembled crowd of mandarins slowly to prostrate themselves, lowering their faces against earth so that they just touched the paving stones. Long robes in a thousand colours bent and collapsed, flooding the ground with their folds. The chanting continued. When it ceased, this sea of people, motionless and calm for a moment, stirred once more and rose to their feet.

Mandarins on the terrace of the Thái Hòa Palace

Then it began again. This was repeated five times, with that strange and disturbing song accompanying the lais. Each one lasts less than four minutes, and it was clear that this tough exercise was quite hard work for more than a few old mandarins. Sweating profusely in the burning sun, the courtiers continued to bend down, stand up and bend down again in silent adoration, commanded by the sacred rhythm.

I can’t think of any larger and more imposing spectacle, nor of any better staged piece of theatre to help us understand the monarchical principle in the East, and to what extent it dominates the lives of the people.

During the interval between the lais, the Minister of the Interior, Bui-Di, advanced alone towards the throne. Kneeling, he offered the new king the tribute of members of the royal family and subjects of the kingdom of Annam.

The speech ended like this: “Today, His Majesty Dong-Khanh went to join the hosts in Heaven. Already his chariot and his retinue have reached the homeland in the clouds, and we would seek in vain to keep him here. But the throne can stay empty no longer. Our late king leaves only children of young age, who are unable to sustain the great edifice of the kingdom. We are sure, sire, that we honour the noble soul of His Majesty Tu-Duc in making you the successor of Dong Khanh. We have the consent of Her Majesty the Queen Mother and of France to place you on this noble and majestic throne. We swear to be solemnly faithful and to give you our absolute dedication, proclaiming you as our master and working together to consolidate this great edifice raised by the Nguyen.” This speech was written on a register of gold so that it could be preserved in the archives of the kingdom.

Other minor officials attached to the various offices of the palace were also admitted to present their lais, and then, after the ceremony had finished, the young king was placed on a special throne of yellow velvet and carried out of the hall by six Thi-vié, who finally installed him in his apartment inside the palace.

The Queen Mother leaves her palace

We recall that on the following day, when he was presented with a report on which he had to place a little red sign as a mark of his approval, the young king hesitated for some time before taking the brush and asking what it was. It was explained to him that this was a measure prepared by the Council of the Royal Family and the Co-Mat, which required nothing more than his sanction. He asked: “So, I will also be responsible for it?” Then, seizing the brush, he signed his name in red.

Those who surround him closely know well that, barely a month before his elevation to the throne, still guarded within his prison walls, this boy collected wood each day for the fire on which his mother cooked her meagre cuisine. They describe him as an energetic, very intelligent child, who displays maturity and even perhaps a precocious mistrust. When he was first brought to the palace to await his coronation, he was served with tea. Silently, he looked at the teacup without picking it up. A mandarin, understanding the hidden meaning of his hesitation, took the first sip. Only then did the boy himself take the cup and drink the tea. Since poison and other attacks have decimated his family, it is hardly surprising that the poor child continues to be stricken with suspicion of all those around him.

A Regency Council was organised immediately under the supervision of the Resident Superior. It consists firstly of Prince Haï-Duc, President of the Council of the Royal Family and one of the sons of Ming Mang; secondly of Nguyen-Tran-Hiep, former Kinh-Luoc of Tonkin and lately Minister of the Interior, a big man, very intelligent and well educated, who has been made Commandeur de la Légion d’honneur by France; and thirdly of Truong-Dang-Quang, son of the highest dignitary of the empire under Tu-Duc and currently Phu-Dien in Hué.

The young king’s tutor will be Nguyen-Thuat, former Minister of the Interior, and currently Tong-Doc of Thanh-Hoa, one of the most open-minded and gifted men in the kingdom and, moreover, one of the friendliest to France, being one of the closest in spirit to the French by virtue of his character and natural gifts. The new charge with which he has been invested has a first-rate importance.

The royal interpreter Cilong, who was educated at the Lycée d’Alger and has received a Bachelier ès sciences from one of our universties, will continue to guide the sovereign in the study of the French language. The Court and the Co-Mat appear very satisfied with the composition of the Council of Regency, and it is certain that, given the nature of the men within our political influence, they cannot but consolidate and make progress.

A later image of Emperor Thành Thái (1889-1907)

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014).

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.

The “Affair of the Tombs,” 1912-1913

The Khiêm Mausoleum of Emperor Tự Đức (1848-1883), where the illegal excavations were carried out in December 1912

In late 1912, an illegal treasure hunt in the Tự Đức tomb compound in Huế reduced the 13-year-old Emperor Duy Tân to tears, ended the career of the Resident Superior of Annam Georges Mahé, and was cited by Vietnamese nationalist Phan Châu Trinh as one of the immediate causes of the Hà Nội bombing of 26 April 1913. Here is a selection of newspaper reports on the events surrounding the so-called “affair of the tombs.”

Straits Times, 17 May 1913: Hanoi bomb outrage – two French commandants killed, Europeans and natives injured

L’Avenir du Tonkin prints an extensive report of the bomb outrage in Hanoi mentioned in our telegraphic columns recently.

A bomb exploded on the terrace of the Hanoi Hotel on the evening of 26 April, killing two French superior officers and injuring a number of Europoeans and Annamites. The date mentioned was a Saturday, on which evening the hotel was more than usually crowded. About 300 people had assembled and were seated, some on the terrace, some in the restaurant room. The scene of pleasure and animation was rudely distubed just after half past seven by a loud report on the terrace and clouds of smoke ascended. This was followed by cries of pain.

Commandant Chapuis, one of the two French officers killed in the bombing of 26 April 1913

When the smoke cleared, it was seen that a number of people had fallen to the ground. Blood seemed everywhere on the floor, and windows were shattered. At once the cry was raised that a bomb had been thrown, and it was discovered that the miscreant responsible for the dastardly outrage was an Annamite. It had fallen right in the entrance to the hotel, mortally wounding Commandant Montgrand of the Son-Tay, and Commandant Chapuis, old comrades who had met to renew old acquaintance. They were seated at a round table in the entrance. Several people seated at the next table received terrible injuries and were removed to hospital. Others in different parts of the building were more or less injured, one man’s hat being riddled.

Despite the late hour, the news of the outrage spread rapidly, and soon all the officials, including the Governor General and the Police, were on the scene. Soldiers were posted in the cafés, and precautions were taken to prevent a recurrence of the outrage. Commandant Montgrand died after terrible suffering at 10 o’clock the same evening, and Commandant Chapuis expired at 1.30am. The police made 65 arrests. The funeral of the victims took place on Tuesday. It was attended by the Governor General and military officials.

Bulletin de l’Institut colonial de Nancy, May 1913

INDO-CHINA – De-Tham, our old enemy, died on 11 February 1913. His death can only serve the cause of peace.

On the other hand, the 26 April 1913 bombing in Hanoi was a revolutionary act which could not be considered a simple incident. It has drawn our attention to the wisdom of monitoring in China those nests of conspiracy which are likely to organise unrest in Tonkin. Punishments have been handed out to 85 defendants: seven were sentenced to death, 14 imprisoned and 60 sentenced to forced labour or prison. This shows well enough the extent of the criminal process, but from the French point of view, there will be much to fear if the indigenous people harbour feelings of union with these conspirators who have learned to handle bombs.

It comes soon after “affair of the tombs of Hue,” which certainly caused injury to the traditionalist sentiments of the Annamites. It was an administrative error to carry out excavations in an imperial tomb which, in the eyes of the native people, had thus suffered desecration.

Le Journal, 1 May 1913: The bombing of Hanoi

Georges Mahé, Resident Superior of Annam, who lost his job for carrying out the illegal excavations

Monsieur Georges Mahé, the Resident Superior in Annam, has been recalled; he will be given compulsory retirement.

The Governor General of Indochina has not yet addressed new information to the Minister of Colonies about the bombing of Hanoi; we think that Monsieur Sarraut has not wished to send details on the progress of the investigation by cable, preferring to ship them by post and thus to exclude any possibility of indiscretion. Be that as it may, the report of Monsieur Sarraut on this case is eagerly awaited; we hope to receive it via the first Trans-Siberian mail.

On the subject of Monsieur Sarraut, the rumour was spread that the Governor General had also been recalled, but it is not so. Since his departure, the Governor General, who went to the Far East with the firm intention of carrying out long-term work, has never taken any leave, and right now, when his presence in the colony is most needed, he would never consider taking the ship home. As for the government, it has no reason to recall the Governor General, who has its confidence. However, just a few days before the attack in Hanoi was known, the Minister of Colonies recalled from office Monsieur Georges Mahé, Resident Superior in Annam.

Having been told confidentially by an indigenous person that treasure was hidden in the area around the tomb of Emperor Tu-Duc, Monsieur Mahé asked the Governor General for permission to proceed with excavations inside the sacred enclosure, but Monsieur Sarraut forbade him from doing so. Ignoring this prohibition, Monsieur Mahé obtained from ministers of Annam a resolution authorising an excavation, and proceeded with the violation of the tomb of Tu Duc. The indigenous population was outraged, and Monsieur Sarraut, sharing their indignation, ordered the cessation of excavation and reported the incident to the Minister of Colonies. It was for this reason that Monsieur Mahé was recalled. We understand that he will be given compulsory retirement as soon as the matter has been heard by the minister, his personal responsibility for the affair being, we are assured, absolute.

The violation of the tomb of Emperor Tu Duc gave an extremely disastrous impression in Annam. The young Emperor Duy Tan, who is 13 years old, visited the tomb of Tu Duc, and there, bursting into tears, he reproached his ministers, who were present, for the sacrilegious desecration of which they were guilty. His reaction was, we are told from Hue, very moving.

All of these events occurred before the bombing of Hanoi; however, we are assured by cable from Saigon that there is no correlation between these incidents and the attack.

Georges Mahé, Resident Superior of Annam is received in Thanh Hóa province by its Resident Pierre Pasquier and provincial governor Tôn Thất Nhiệm in 1912 (BAVH 3, 1941)

It is difficult to pronounce on the case before circumstantial details are available; but we believe that the spirit of the indigenous group which manufactured and launched the bombs was determined by various causes, including Chinese revolutionary agitation involved in anti-dynastic activity against Duy-Tan and renewal of the alcohol monopoly. Perhaps the affair of the tombs also added to the excitement of the agitators.

Whatever the case, Indochinese officials currently in France – and they are of the highest grade – regard the bombing in Hanoi as a very serious symptom. According to the latest news from Hanoi, the funerals of Commandants Chapuis and Montgrand have been celebrated in this city with solemnity. Monsieur Albert Sarraut addressed an emotional farewell to the two officers who died in battle; The French and the indigenous population remained calm.

Fernand Hauser

Les Annales coloniales: organe de la “France coloniale modern,” 6 May 1913: Cochinchina

Although we are still unable to speak with absolute certainty, there is now more and more reason to believe that those who carried out the armed attack of 26 April 1913 (our readers will already know the detail: a bomb in Hanoi killed two French officers) have a close relationship with Chinese revolutionaries. The Cochinchina community believes that this is the natural consequence of our cowardice towards the indigenous people.

The Governor General suspects further that one of those who has funded the revolutionaries in our colony is the brother of Sun-Yat-Sen, but thus far he has sent no evidence about it to the Department.

Preparations for attacks had been made for several months already in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Macau. The main Annamite involved would be the son of Te-Kieu, a big landowner and former gang leader in Tonkin.

Vietnamese nationalist Phan Châu Trinh (1872–1926)

A meeting took place in Saigon on 30 April to protest against the policy of abandonment followed towards the indigenous people, which, by encouraging protest, is dangerous by virtue of the audacity and ambition it gives to the Annamites. Yet, while this meeting was going on, another voice was heard here in Paris.

The mandarin-scholar Phan-Chau-Trinh (who was sentenced to death in 1907, then pardoned and sent to Poulo Condor, where he spent three years before his release on the intervention of our collaborator Maurice Viollette, before being given permission to enter France), has confided to our friend Fernand Hauser, in the Journal.

In particular, he told him: “The alcohol monopoly has been renewed, although it was solemnly promised that it would not be; our patriots still languish in Poulo Condor prison, although they were promised grace; the education we demand is always denied us; the contempt of which we complain is always thrown at us; and to all these faults are added new ones: Now they have even violated the sacred tomb of Emperor Tu-Duc in search of money!

In that there are both truths and falsehoods. Phan-Chau-Trinh-mocks the public when he says: “There is talk now of establishing a regime of terror in Annam. That’s easily said. But when you’ve arrested 500,000 persons and cut off their heads, what then? You will only inflame passions.”

But it becomes truly grotesque when the mandarin clearly shows us what sin we have committed by increasingly admitting our Annamite protégés to various administrative positions, saying: “Do you not think that it is in the interest of France to get along with the Annamites? On the day when it gives the people of Annam their autonomy, France, by instructing us, by preparing us for freedom and by giving us that freedom peacefully, would retain our sympathies, and we would remain close friends and allies.”

Oh come on! Was it for such a comedy that Annamite land was watered everywhere with the best French blood? Our dead would rise from their Asian mass graves in protest on the day when France would act this way. For there is no doubt that, after many years of political carelessness, according ever-increasing autonomy to the indigenous people, they would now waste no time expelling our compatriots from the land they conquered at the price of their lives.

Members of the Council of the Government pictured at the Imperial palace in Huế, including Governor General Albert Sarrault and Resident Superior of Annam Georges Mahé (BAVH 3, 1941)

Where Phan-Chau-Trinh was mistaken – because we refuse to believe that he abused the good faith of Monsieur Fernand Hauser – is when he talked about the contempt for the French which has been nurtured amongst the indigenous people. During the rule of Monsieur Sarrault? Nobody would believe it for a moment, not least our settlers! What would they say?

Le Temps, whose communiqué is official, said that the Indochinese police had been informed for several months of preparations by revolutionaries based in China, and before 26 April they had succeeded in preventing any attacks.

Phan-Chau-Trinh infers that the attack of 26 April is a direct consequence of the famous “affair of the tombs.” Read more:

“What do you think the population thinks of that? Ah! When I learned about the sacrilege committed in Hue, I shuddered! I thought something bad might happen, in fact I warned a friend of the terrible consequences of this desecration, which had occurred after so many previous harmful acts! I know that the government was informed of the letter in which I raised my concerns. And just 22 days after I wrote, that bomb exploded in Hanoi!”

Phan Chau-Trinh probably believes that in France there are only people ignorant of all that which has been contrived for years by indigenous communities to try to make us swallow such nonsense. That we should submit to the demands of the Annamites for privileges which prejudice our own, that’s something we will never permit, indeed only a fool or a madman would agree to such a thing. It would be the death of all colonisation!

A word in conclusion. Phan-Chau-Trinh also told Mr. Fernand Hauser: “This oppressive regime [it’s the so human and so benevolent regime of Albert Sarraut which Phan-Chau-Trinh judges thus!] is the wood accumulated in the hearth, and only a small spark could start a fire! Beware! I love France. I hope with all my heart that it retains its reputation for justice and that it will wish to weigh the public interest and specific interests regarding our country; enabling it to see that it has everything to gain by giving us the necessary reforms.

Vietnamese nationalist Phan Châu Trinh (1872–1926)

The French administration will say, perhaps, that nothing is urgent, that the situation is not serious. I am of the opposite opinion, and it’s because I love France deeply that I tell you this. To those we love, we owe the truth.”

These sentences undoubtedly contain a threat, the truth of which the mandarin has incompletely articulated. If Phan-Chau-Trinh knows something and believes he can advance the facts, if he loves France, his duty is clear. If he loves his country, even in his own interests, his duty is to dispel the misunderstandings of these ambiguous words. And perhaps the duty of the authorities would be to question him further on this.

The bombing of Hanoi has deeply moved, as we have said, the Saigon population. We have already reported on a meeting held recently in Saigon, which was attended by over 600 of our compatriots. The chairman of the meeting, Monsieur Foray, sent us the following telegram:

“Saigon, 3 May – The French people of Cochinchina, gathered in a large meeting under the chairmanship of Monsieur Foray, are rightly concerned at the recent series of crimes, including that in Hanoi, and believe that the situation has been aggravated primarily due to the policy advocated by some parliamentarians, who are unaware of the real relationships existing between the various elements inhabiting our colony. It is they who have spread their false humanitarianism and sought unhealthy popularity by exciting the dregs of the indigenous population against alleged colonial excesses, even at the expense of the vast majority of honest and loyal Annamites. The said French people, convinced that this situation poses the most imminent danger to the interests acquired by our compatriots at the price of innumerable sacrifices consented by themselves in men and money since our establishment in Indochina, protest strongly against the continuation of this harmful policy. They demand the full reinstatement of indigenous justice, in order to remedy a situation which has become unbearable, and to prevent the inevitable recurrence of attacks similar to those already perpetrated, and to this end they are ready if needed to support their legitimate demands by all means within their power.”

It should be recalled that out of Saigon’s 70,000 inhabitants, there are 7,000 Europeans, including over 6,500 French (civilian population), and 2,000 French in the rest of Cochinchina. This telegram reflects clearly the opinion of the majority of French people in the colony.

Chợ Lớn in the early 20th century

We should add that Monsieur Foray, a lawyer in Saigon, is a candidate for a parliamentary seat.

Recently, on 27 or March 28, a band of 500 Annamites, enlisted by the enemies of our domination, marched out of the interior, in particular from Mytho, Tanan and the banks of the Vaïco, to disturb the peace in Cholon. A total of 80 arrests were made. These individuals were dressed in clothes made almost all from white cloth. The security police raided the home of a rickshaw company manager named Tu-Mang on quai Testard, Cholon, seizing 16 combat swords. They are continuing their search for other weapons. Searches were also made at the premises of an indigenous hôtelier, but they found only the works of Pascal, Rousseau, Descartes and Lamennais. The conspirators, who were mainly engaged in crimes against persons, said they left their family homes at the instigation of certain leaders to come in great number to Cholon and Saigon. There they were to have been given weapons and all necessary instructions. One of the leaders was a certain Truong, of Tang-Tru, in the province of Cholon. Numerous patrols are now criss-crossing Saigon and Cholon, their officers are armed with revolvers. Many of the European population have also bought Brownings and even Mausers and Lebels – the city’s armourers are doing a great trade at the moment. The Administrator of the province of Cholon posted a large sign warning the Asian population against the actions of some individuals and demonstrating the absurdities contained in the seditious placards. His call for peace has, it appears, produced favourable results among all the Asian population.

Le Matin: derniers télégrammes de la nuit, 19 May 1913: The case of the tombs of Annam – the first punishment

In response to the question put to him by Monsieur Doisy, Socialist deputy from the Ardennes, who wished to know whether responsibility was being sought regarding the desecration of the imperial tombs of Hue and what sanctions had been or would be taken, the Minister of the Colonies made this statement, which was published yesterday in the Journal officiel: “The responsibilities have been thoroughly investigated and the necessary measures taken.”

The Khiêm Mausoleum of Emperor Tự Đức (1848-1883), where the illegal excavations were carried out in December 1912

The first punishment was given to Monsieur Georges Mahé, Resident-Superior of Annam, who has been placed in retirement. Monsieur Mahé, who is 53 years old and has completed many years of service, will soon return to France. There will be other punishments. Those will most likely be handed out after Governor General Sarraut has, by a thorough enquiry, established the responsibility of each person. Moreover, only after much thought will decisions will be made, with all the necessary sang-froid.

Le Petit Parisien: journal quotidien du soir, 21 May 1913: Profanation of the tombs of Hue

Marseille, 20 May – Monsieur Georges Mahé, Resident Superior of France in Annam, arrived in Marseille this morning on the ship Ernest-Simons of the Messageries maritimes Far East courriers. Asked on arrival about the excavations that were made last December in the imperial tombs of Hue, Monsieur Mahé refused to provide any information, saying that he had nothing to say as he had not yet met with the Minister of Colonies.

As yet, the news of the forced retirement of this official, published a few days ago, has no official status. It is only after the Minister of Colonies has spoken to Monsieur Mahé that he will make a formal announcement.

Let me say first that the desecration of the imperial tombs of Hue has no connection with the bombing of Hanoi on 26 April, a work planned long ago by Annamite revolutionaries based in China.

According to reports, the Resident Superior in Annam was the victim of intrigues which he would not be happy to acknowledge. Several ministers, part of the Regency Council of the young Emperor of Annam, suggested to Monsieur Mahé that secret treasure was hidden in a royal tomb in Hue. The Regency Council is divided into two rival clans, each of which deploy a prodigious arsenal of tricks and machinations. In the circumstances, one of these clans would eagerly have seized any opportunity to lead our protectorate into trouble.

The Khiêm Mausoleum of Emperor Tự Đức (1848-1883), where the illegal excavations were carried out in December 1912

The Annamite population has conserved a religious respect for the person of its sovereign. In addition, it observes to a very high degree the worship of ancestors. The excavations at the royal tomb in Hue were seen as a desecration, because according to the Annamite custom, the body is never buried in the actual tomb assigned to it. The imperial tombs are spacious gardens with lawns, walkways and woodlands, and it is in any part of a tomb enclosure, with no external distinguishing mark, that a body may be buried. In this way, taking a pick axe or shovel to any area inside the enclosure, according to indigenous beliefs, risks violating the royal corpse.

This is why the excavations, although they were quickly stopped, produced a feeling of discontent which was quickly exploited by xenophobes. Monsieur Mahé, who had thought to enrich the reserve funds of the colony without damage to anyone, was thus heavily deceived. These, we believe, are the facts with which he has been charged, and for which he must now find justification.

Le XIXe siècle: journal quotidien politique et littéraire, 22 May 1913: The affair of the tombs of Annam

Marseille, 20 May – This morning at 8am, the Messageries Maritimes steamship Ernest-Simons arrived from the Far East. On board was Monsieur Mahé, Resident-Superior of Annam, who had been called home by the Minister of Colonies to provide explanations on the violation of the imperial tombs of Hue, an act which was committed last December.

Interviewed after coming ashore, Monsieur Mahé refused formally to answer any questions, saying that he had a duty to provide explanations to the Minister first. Monsieur Mahé left for Paris in the evening.

Le Temps, 11 July 1913: Indochine: A short speech by the King of Annam (from our special correspondent)

Hanoi, 12 June – According to agency telegrams, the Governor General has installed Monsieur Jean-François Charles as Resident Superior in Annam, in succession to Monsieur Mahé, whose departure was prompted by the famous “affair of the tombs.”

The Emperor Duy Tân as a child

The memory of this unfortunate incident is completely erased today, and the action taken with regard to Monsieur Mahé seems to have produced a favourable response in the Annamite community. An outstanding and entirely unexpected event has also shown the excellent disposition of the court of Annam. His Majesty Duy-Tan usually responds to speeches by the Governor General merely by reading a short statement in the Annamite language, which is then translated directly by an interpreter. This time, however, to everyone’s surprise, the king spoke in French and delivered the following speech, which he had prepared himself, without the knowledge of the Governor General:

“I would like, Governor General, to express my gratitude and to tell you what a precious comfort you have been for everyone here in the wake of the sad events which plunged Tonkin and all Indochina into mourning. Annam feels today as never before the need for the support and protection of France, and you came, responding to the secret call of my heart, like the silent desire of the Annamite people, to bring through your presence the certainty of that protection, the assurance of the interest that a great nation carries to her adoptive child.

On behalf of my people and myself, I also address to you, Governor General, the expression of our gratitude for the appointment of Monsieur Charles to the post of Resident Superior in Annam. We have known him for a long time and I am happy to say here that he has our confidence.

I drink to the health of the President of the French Republic, to your health, Governor General, and to the health of the Resident Superior.”

For those who know Annam, this royal initiative is a small revolution. I understand, moreover, that the king has spent much time with the Governor General and has testified to his satisfaction at the liberal policies being followed by France in Indochina.

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014).

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.