King Norodom of Cambodia visits Saigon, 1888


Cambodian King Norodom (1860-1904) is known to have made three state visits to Saigon, in 1869, 1880 and 1888. Here are the press reports of his third visit, which lasted from 5 to 11 April 1888.

“King Norodom’s State Visit to Saigon,” from Le Courrier de Saïgon, 6 April 1888

From the first cannon shot which saluted the arrival yesterday of H M King Norodom’s yacht, a considerable crowd of onlookers, both European and Asian, massed along the quayside, stretching from the pier opposite the rue Catinat to that of the Loire.

Saigon harbour in the 1880s

The harbour was beautifully decorated, and close to the Rigault-de-Genouilly pier, garlanded with greenery and flowers, were gathered the officials who would receive the King of Cambodia. Among them we noticed General Chanu, Acting Lieutenant-Governor Navelle, Mayor of Saigon M. Carabelli, Commandant of the Regiment of Riflemen Colonel Miramond, Deputy Commissioner of the Navy M. Pontois, and Senior Physician M. Simon.

At 7.30am, the royal yacht anchored in the middle of river, just above the Atalante, while His Majesty’s royal band played the Marseillaise and the Marche des Volontaires. Rear Admiral de La Jaille, Head of the Naval Division of Indochina, immediately went on board to greet the king. This ceremony took several minutes, and it was nearly 8am when His Majesty, accompanied by his favourite interpreter M. Col de Monteiro, took his place in the launch which would convey him to the quayside. Dressed in a green sampot and a jacket trimmed with gold ornaments and epaulettes, and wearing the cap of Major General, he laboriously climbed the few steps of the wharf while leaning on the arm of a sailor.

After some handshakes with the deputation which awaited him, and some salutes to the crowd, a carriage pulled by four horses, bedecked with the colours of the French flag, took him quickly to the Palace of the Government General, where bugles sounded, the military band played the Marseillaise and the Naval Infantry, standing in two lines, presented arms.

King Norodom of Cambodia

The King’s visit to the Governor General was very short, and at 9am, M. Constans, accompanied by Mr. Klobukowski and his staff, accompanied him back to his yacht. Meanwhile, some of His Majesty’s retinue came ashore to walk around the streets in their strange and astonishing costumes.

Such were the results of the first day of the visit by the king of Cambodia. Judging by the preparations being made at the Hippodrome, the Town Hall, the Palace and the Philharmonic Society, the days which follow will be equally attractive, and will leave in the mind of King Norodom, as in those of all of his staff, an indelible memory.

“King Norodom in Saigon,” from Saïgon républicain, 8 April 1888

There follows news of the festivities organised for HM Sombach Preah Norodom, who between 5 and 11 April paid a reciprocal visit to Saigon following the visit to Phnom Penh last January by the Governor General of Indochina. The Saigon Races, which were to have taken place at the Hippodrome in March, were kindly rescheduled by the Racing Committee so as to coincide with the dates of the king’s visit. In recent days, our city has been beautified in the king’s honour, adorned with flags, banners, flowers and foliage, coats of arms and R. F. motifs.

If Asian people love festivals, we can hardly say that we hate them, indeed, we would gladly leave our places of work to go and admire jingoistic parades, festivals and receptions held in honour of sovereigns, even those of the Shah of Persia.

The fashionable tune En revenant de la revue [a popular chanson of the period which became an anthem for supporters of General Boulanger] characterises well our very pronounced taste for all that glitters, whether solid gold or gold leaf, and indeed we should not be ashamed of this, because it is our national heritage.

The Messageries-maritimes in the late 19th century

As we are discussing the visit by the King of Cambodia, one might think that to speak here of General Boulanger has the air of one of those fantasies permitted only to the most shameless columnist. In fact, our former minister of war is very popular in Phnom Penh. One of my friends, in a very short time, sold more than 10,000 lithographic prints of the man in grand costume, including 2,000 at the Palace. This Cambodian prince, in his admiration, has even ordered a general’s uniform…

The arrival

The king landed on 5 April at 8am. We had been told 7:30am, and we were all there on time. It is true that we, as the most spiritual people on earth, know how to alleviate the boredom of waiting with lively and animated conversation, with puns which prove that we are at least the most mischievous people of all creation. In the crowd which thronged the edge of the Rigault-de-Genouilly pier, I heard some very amusing stories, not to mention a lot of terrible noise.

One man, among others, said that the Governor General, M. Constans, had worn a false beard to come and watch the king’s arrival in cognito, and that, as soon as His Majesty had come ashore, he would return post haste to the Palace by some short-cut, in order to receive him there; another, that the Mayor, M. Carabelli, intended to sing the royal toast and that he planned to end on a C sharp with the words: “To the King’s health!” A Parisian journalist and talented painter of my acquaintance, M. Dumoulin, who was on his way to Japan, sat next to me taking notes on the event, for which he is the correspondent.

King Norodom making his way to the Palace of the Government

Near us was a young Chinese man, nephew of M. A-Cham. I presented the latter to my colleague as the reporter of Confucius in Cholon, and the conversation which followed between them was filled with the most delicious misunderstandings. Who knows what the subscribers of his newspaper will read in a few days’ time, not least that the Chinese also have chroniclers like ours in search of news items. But as we pursued these follies, excusable because the sun had already begun to beat down on our heads, a cannon was heard.

The King’s yacht, preceded by a launch carrying the princes’ seven sons and entourage, passed the Messageries-maritimes and was saluted by 21 cannons. On board, we heard the music of Norodom, composed by a Tagal, whose band played the Marseillaise and other pieces, including the Marche des Volontaires by Olivier Métra. It’s funny, said Dumoulin, this habit of receiving sovereigns to the accompaniment of operetta pieces and tunes we would hear at the Château-Rouge!

All French and foreign buildings in the city sported colourful flags; we spotted that of Cambodia, a pagoda on a red background. On top of the main mast of Norodom’s yacht was the royal standard, also red, with Cambodian characters.

A military parade in Saigon

The whole garrison stood at arms on the quayside; along with the police and sailors from the Loire, the marine infantry and artillery spread themselves out along the route which the procession would shortly follow in order to reach the Palace. The band of the marching regiment had been placed at the foot of the statue of Admiral Rigault-de-Genouilly.

The overall scene was truly curious, and above all picturesque: the entire population of European, Chinese, Annamites, Indians, Malays of both sexes, their costumes so bizarre and so varied, talking together in their many languages under a bright blue sky. What a wonderful picture of striking originality we saw before us, full of movement and colour.

On the pier waited Secretary General M. Klobukowski, General Chanu, MM. Pougin-Maisonneuve, M. Carabelli, M. Navelle, the commanding Colonel of the Riflemen and officer delegates of the Government of Indo-China.

A new salvo of 21 cannons, mixed with the masculine tones of the Marseillaise, sounded the arrival of the royal launch, which carried the king, sat between Rear Admiral de La Jaille, who led him off his yacht, and M. de Champeaux, our Resident in Cambodia, who had accompanied him. M. Col de Monteiro, his Interpreter, was also with these gentlemen. Norodom wore a green silk sampot which partly covered grey stockings, a military-style jacket and General’s cap. He was shod in patent leather shoes. His chest was covered with medals and around his neck was hung the red sash of the Légion d’honneur.

King Norodom of Cambodia

The king was small, like Alexander, Napoleon, Dupré and Thiers. It’s amazing that so many great men are so small in stature. His face and his smile sparkled with intelligence, subtlety and mischief.

A sailor – a brave Mathurin who will certainly remember this day – lent him an arm to help him climb an improvised catwalk trimmed with garlands of foliage and flower vases, a bit too steep for royal legs sore from gout.

With a huge flavoured cigarette affixed to his lips, His Majesty saluted everyone, right and left, and then took his place in the carriage which had been set before him, along with Admiral de La Jaille, General Chanu and M. de Champeaux, our Resident in Cambodia.

At the Palace of the Government

The Governor General M. Constans awaited his guest at the Palace of the Government, surrounded by all his civilian and military personnel. He received the king in the great salle des fêtes, which was wonderfully decorated with superb clumps of greenery, rare plants, and beautiful orchids borrowed from this colony’s so remarkable and lush flora, whose arrangement – tasteful and full of understated elegance – was due to the triple collaboration of MM. Moquin-Tandon, Maréchal and Martin. The palace’s magnificent and gigantic golden Buddha emerged from beneath this mass of foliage, and by the correctness and impassiveness of its attitude, full of reserve and prudence, it seemed to preside over the solemn meeting of the representative of the French Republic and his friend and protégé, King Norodom.

Just 20 minutes after entering the palace, the king headed back to his yacht, accompanied by the same procession and with the same ceremonial as that which had attended his arrival. A few minutes later, the Governor General went to visit him on board.

The young princes

A horse and carriage in the Jardin botanique

Captain Gauche, with his characteristic courtesy and friendliness, was made available to escort the young princes. At 4pm, he took them to visit the Naval Arsenal, and they seemed filled with wonder at this gigantic work and the explanations given to them by MM. Baruzzi and Gayot, simultaneously translated by M. Col de Monteiro. At 6pm, I had the pleasure of meeting these two young men at the Jardin botanique. They looked very fine in their half European, half Cambodian costumes – black jackets over traditional sampots, white stockings, leather shoes and straw sailor hats!

The reception

On Friday morning at 10am, the king received the French civil and military authorities on board his yacht – representatives of the Court, the Tribunal, the Prosecutor, the City Council and the Mayor. During the reception, the band of His Majesty performed a well-chosen repertoire.

The races, day 1

Last year, the first day of racing was 3 April, and it rained in torrents. In contrast, Friday’s meeting was favoured by superb weather – and scorching heat. Despite this, the event was attended by many people. In addition to Saigon’s high society in their fine carriages, there was a large crowd of local men, women and children, apparently following with interest the ups and downs of racing.

The Hippodrome in Saigon

At 4pm, the Governor and Madame Constans came with King Norodom and sat in the grandstand, which was already filled with guests, including many ladies in very elegant costumes.

On this day, Norodom had left his division general’s uniform behind and replaced it with a black jacket; beneath it, he wore a green sampot and purple stockings. A solid gold belt hugged his waist, and he wore on his head a Scottish-style cap in red cloth, richly embroidered with gold and held in place by a broach.

His sons were with him, as well as two officials – one carried a lit candle intended to maintain the sacred fire of the royal cigarette which was constantly clamped to the monarch’s lips, while the other carried a betel box of enamel, inlaid with very large diamonds. Did these perhaps come from the factory of Rebolledo featured in Auber’s comic opera Diamants de là Couronne? Perhaps. But the bell sounded and the first race began.

Dinner at the Town Hall

In a recent issue, our fellow newspaper the Indo-Chinois devoted much attention to the organisation of this part of the festivities, suggesting that it was somewhat less than egalitarian. I also heard many complaints about the dinner invitations which had been issued by the Mayor, mainly from the merchant traders of our city, who said, perhaps with reason, that having paid the piper, they would have liked to have been able to enjoy the tune. We can understand this quite legitimate desire. For its part, the municipality replied: “What are you complaining about? Because of the limited number of places, we had to invite only a select few; but haven’t we invited your representatives, the members of the Chamber of Commerce?”

The old Town Hall building in which King Norodom attended a banquet in 1888, pictured in 1902 after it became part of the Grand Hotel Continental

Tables with 120 covers were laid in a brilliantly lit fairy garden. The setting was beautiful. The installation of this improvised hall did much honour to the municipal services staff, led by M. Bergé, as did the general organisation of the event by the commissaires, and the table arrangement by M. Olivier, creator of the following much appreciated menu:

Crème d’asperges vertes à la favorite
Hors-d’oeuvre variés
Caviar Russe
Langue fourrée à L’écarlate
Turbans de filets de sôle sauce Normande
Cimier de chevreuil sauce Diane, garni de pommes de terre Duchesse
Timbales Régence à la Toulouse
Pains de foies gras à la Bonaparte
Marquises au Champagne en sorbets
Paons de Chaudec truffés
Jambon d’Yorck à la Macédoine
Petits pois de Clamart à la Française
Éclats de bombe glacée, panache aux avelines, pralines et framboises
Grosses pièces de pâtisserie
Corbeilles en nougat Parisien ornées de fruits glacés
Bastion cambodgien en Génoise
Fruits, dessert, primeurs
Bonbons et petits-tours
Médoc vieux en carafes – Amontillado
Margaux (du château) 1870
Clos – Vougeot – Champagne frappé
Café et liqueurs

This unfraternal and rather unfortunate feast had been scheduled to commence at 7pm. However, by 8.15pm we were still waiting, because His Majesty, apparently not feeling hungry, was resting elsewhere, like the king of Yvetot, with a smug air and that everlasting cigarette in his mouth. Meanwhile all the guests, starving, waited in the brightly decorated and illuminated Town Hall. If punctuality is the politeness of kings, it seems that this adage does not apply in Cambodia. Finally, King Norodom arrived, greeted M. Constans and the ladies, and took his place, striking up a conversation punctuated with smiles. His Majesty being served, we could at last take our places in the banqueting hall.

The King had, to his right the Governor General, Mme. Chanu, M. Klobulowski, Mme. Guy de Ferrières and a royal prince; to his left, Rear Admiral de La Jaille, M. Navelle. Mme. Monnin, Mme. Engler and the Chief Physician, M. Fontaine. In front of the King were Mme. Constans, and next to her on one side General Chanu, Mme. Ogliastro and a royal highness; and on the other M. Carabelli, Mme. Lidin, M. de Champeaux, Mme. Fonsales and M. de Mars.

Governor General Ernest Constans

The moment of the toasts arrived: we would like to have reproduced them here, but as the press were placed so far from the speakers, we could only catch a few words. From the Mayor, we heard only those of future, prosperity, our hopes, politician, appreciated support, moderation, hard times to overcome, sympathy and affection…. and the conclusion: “Now let me drink to the future of France and its immortality.”

The Governor General thanked everyone in a few words and promised his most devoted support for the development of the Indo-Chinese Union. He toasted the health of the King, who raised his glass and said in French: “President of the Republic, Governor, Madame.”

During dinner, the orchestra of the Theatre gave a very nice concert. Among the works played, we noted La Patrouille Turque by Michaelis, if not any works by M. Trois-Étoiles, as had been stated in the programme, and especially the Marche Cambodgienne, composed by our own maestro, Meyronnet.

Theatre performance

After dinner, as crowds gathered on the sidewalk, we made our way from the Town Hall across to the Theatre. The performance there was a gala in name only; there were many empty seats, thanks no doubt to the sulky traders, who would not respond to this invitation alone. But it was a very jolly performance, and much fun was had as the audience enthusiastically sang along with the Austrian women’s group’s rendition of En revenant de la Revue!

The original Saigon Theatre in which King Norodom watched a performance, located on the site of the modern Caravelle Hotel

King Norodom expressed his joy and contentment at the performance of the actors during a series of monologues, including one which made him laugh heartily.

Norodom, in his majesty, reminds us a little of Louis XIV. I do not know if he is a tyrant with his own subjects; but I see that he has a playful manner in his social relations with Europeans. He seems, in short, to be a good king, not proud, whose banter with the Governor General may be seen as proof of his friendship both for him and for France.

Mmes Lacoutrière and Marcelly received very pretty bouquets, and after the second act, the King, led by the Mayor, went backstage to compliment the artists. We were offered champagne, and Miss Lacoutrière, thanking His Cambodian Majesty, toasted his health on behalf of all her comrades. Norodom shook her hand and congratulated her heartily.

“King Norodom in Saigon,” from Saïgon républicain, 12 April 1888

Before continuing my account of the festivities in honour of the recent visit to Saigon by the King of Cambodia, I must first supplement and correct a few passages of my previous column. At the races, the king wore a blue and not green sampot, as I mistakenly indicated. This is an important point, because one should record everything accurately, even the smallest details. I do not want my report to be viewed as the equivalent to that old song “Le bon roi Dagobert,”which ridicules the culottes of good King Dagobert. Another detail: If His Cambodian Majesty is sometimes late, it is said that he owns many opium pipes and will only set out after having sampled the delights of Eastern narcotics.

King Norodom of Cambodia

I am grateful to M. Sombsthay, a scribe of the Government General, for his authentic translation of the toast by the king. Here it is: “I raise my glass and drink to the health of the President of the Republic, the Governor General’s illustrious representative in Indo-China, the Mayor of Saigon, ladies, and all civil and military officials who honour the banquet with their presence.”

I was unable to procure the words of the Governor General’s toast; but, following the method of Cuvier, I managed finally to reconstruct at least part of its sense, via the memories of those standing next to him on the day. In essence, he said that the Mayor gave him far too much credit by placing him in the illustrious company of the President of the Republic and His Majesty the King of Cambodia. Neither could he accept the compliment that he was the only politician who could carry out the patriotic work of developing the new Union of Indo-China. However, as for the Mayor’s claim that there was none more dedicated than M. Constans to its cause and its interests, the latter could only wholeheartedly agree. He hoped that the Government of the Republic would accept his plans, which he believed would prevent the squandering of the resources of Cochinchina.

Incidentally, my answer to those who find my columns too dense and somewhat useless: I write not only for the residents of Saigon, many of whom, strictly speaking, have probably witnessed these events with their own eyes, but for readers from outside the city. Is it not our duty to describe all manifestations of life in the colonies, in columns which may then be echoed in newspapers larger than our own, who are interested in us, and thus create a movement of opinion useful to our cause?

The Ball at the Palace of the Government

The Palace of the Government, illuminated at night

It has been said: “If you haven’t seen the Balls of the Palace of the Government in Saigon, you haven’t seen anything!” In our enthusiasm for all that is beautiful, for all that is good, let’s describe for a moment the scene at the grand ball held in honour of King Norodom.

If in Saigon we don’t have the treasures of Paris, such as Sèvres porcelain vases, Gobelins tapestries, and paintings and sculptures by the great masters, to add splendour to our halls, we do have the colony’s flowers, trees and greenery. What flowers! What trees! How green! Nature has richly endowed our colony with a set of wonderful plants, which, in the hands of magicians like MM. Moquin-Tandon, Maréchal and Martin, may be transformed into ornamental and decorative motifs, conjuring up images of the Arabian Nights and the fairytales of good Perrault.

Using simple golden stakes to form a lattice topped with climbing shrubs, and then illuminating the scene with colored glass balls, M. Maréchal improvised a restful room in which His Majesty Norodom, his sons and his dignitaries could hold court and sample the exquisite cigars of republican government. The king was dressed in black of an antique and solemn cut and his entourage in silk uniforms of golden yellow hues. These gentlemen made a brief appearance at the ball and its annexes, and left at midnight.

The great Buddha of the Palace of the Government

A curious detail: neither the Chinese nor the Annamites are fond of our music and much prefer their own. However, it is not the same with the Cambodians, who seem to appreciate our music better. Norodom, after the Quadrille des Lanciers, congratulated the brave M. Simon, head of music of the marching regiment, and requested a copy of this beautiful piece for his Tagal colleague.

Let’s continue our exploration of the palace. After a moment’s rest in the living room, we left with regret, but then stopped for a while at an excellent buffet. Leaving with no less regret, we later paid a visit to the games room, where a king of a different realm reigned, and in which was practised, thanks to Norodom’s presence, a monetary circulation which made some laugh and others grimace.

Then we found ourselves in the collonaded gallery, which had been transformed into a beautiful garden and felt like a true Eden. In the park outside, in the trees, on the lawn, on the columns, in the window frames, in fact on every extremity of the vast palace, one could see Chinese, paper and coloured glass lanterns, numbering 15,243 in total, of which only two were broken and three slightly damaged. Yes, I counted! Are we not accurate and well informed at Saigon républicain, despite the modesty of our prices?

From the front porch, also filled with flowers, one could look down the broad avenue which runs from the Palace to the Mess des officiers; it was lined with immense triangles of lawn, its trees illuminated with “Republique Francaise” motifs, and at the end one could see a gigantic glass pagoda which created a most picturesque effect. The appearance of these illuminations, commented our colleague reporter from Courrier de Saigon, was truly magical and fantastic.

Another room of the Palace of the Government

We entered the ballroom, which was filled with a packed crowd of dancers, including military officers in great number. We noticed there Rear Admiral de La Jaille, General Chanu, Colonel Le Dantu, MM. Bauche, Luce and de Fésigny, and the commissioners and medical staff of the navy. The Governor General and Mme. Constans stood at the entrance to the room, receiving their guests. M. Constans was decorated with the insignia of Grand-officier de l’ordre du Cambodge. Mme. Constans wore with great distinction a very beautiful dress in white lace.

Performances of Cotillion, conducted well by M. Klobukowski and Mlle. Belol, and l’Aurore aux doigts de rose, drew the proceedings to a close. Before leaving the palace, we stopped to admire one more time the splendid spectacle before our eyes. The jumble of various plants at the rear of the ballroom brought to mind the entrance of one of these splendid dark forest retreats described in the works of Fenimore Cooper and Gustave Aimard, with long garlands of flowers, flaming red like the lips of a Castilian woman, falling from the chandeliers. All very beautiful and well organised. This was indeed one of the finest balls ever given in Saigon.

The races, day 2

Sunday’s race meeting was also favoured by a splendid sun, but what greenhouse temperatures we had to endure. The attendance was less numerous than Friday, the cause of this little desertion being, undoubtedly, fatigue after the previous night’s ball.

A horse race at the Hippodrome

MM. Brou and Niobey took to the rostrum and introduced the proceedings with courtesy and dedication. General and Mme. Chanu were there. This excellent afternoon was very well organised by M. Niobey who, for a whole month, had spared no pain, no sacrifice, to arrange everything. The absence of the Governor General and His Majesty King Norodom was both noticed and regretted; however, it was easily explained after days and evenings filled in such a tiring way.

I note with pride that all our favorites won, with the exception of Tia, which finished second in the first race after having suffered an injury the previous day.

Philharmonic and fencing

For most of Monday, we rested. We had earned it, but it would be a short rest! At 4pm, we had to attend a performance offered jointly to His Cambodian Majesty by the Philharmonic Society and the Fencing Club.

This was the first time that our young Fencing Club had organised a public event, and one must say that they acquitted themselves valiantly, and that even their coups d’essai were coups de maître. However, the King did not appear! He was suffering, they said.

The event, presided over by commissaires with a blue ribbons on their lapels, attracted an elite company who were eager to accept the kind invitation of these disciples of Orpheus and lovers of the blade.

A fencing match

The orchestra of the Philharmonic Society, established by M. Guichardon, first violin of our Theatre, was directed by M. Broussemiche and accompanied by the Austrian Ladies, all dressed in white with olive coloured belts. These blonde Gretchens lent a clear and happy note to the otherwise rather harsh gathering of black suits and military uniforms.

Just after 4pm, the Marseillaise announced the arrival of the Governor General. He was accompanied by Mme. Constans, M. Klobukowski and MM. Lambert and Boissière. We also saw in one of the boxes M. Richaud, our new Resident in Tonkin, who had just arrived the previous day. A tall man, he has a full beard and an imposing air.

General Chanu took to the stage, acting as President, flanked by Colonel Le Dentu on his right and M. Brou on his left. After the Marché hongroise by Berlioz, brilliantly executed by the orchestra, the party began!

First we saw a match between MM. Vergoz and Vallaud. One was a master of arms in the marine infantry and the other a corporal. This was a tight and proper game. Two amateurs came next: M. Louis Brochier’s game was excellent, and that of his opponent Goussot very elegant. Then came the San Malato of Saigon, Commander Clamorgan, with his furia francese, fencing in the Italian cut-and-thrust style against M. Vallaud, who waited cold and impassive on a firm foot, making effective parries and occasional strikes. An interesting assault indeed, and rightly applauded. M.Vergoz was then back again with M. Audouin, an excellent swordsman with the remarkable counter-riposte of a master. Our compliments added to the cheers of the room.

soiree-de-gala-11-01-1906During the entre’acte, the orchestra performed two fantasies full of delicacy and good taste, while we went to cool off at the excellent buffet. By this time we were nicely thirsty, and made the most of the many refreshments served.

A resumption of hostilities followed La Zamacueca by Ritter, the nuances of which were well observed. During the subsequent game between Commander Clamorgan and Audouin, the latter, by his simple game, offered a curious contrast to his partner, whose passion grew and was embellished. The matches which followed between MM. Bock and Tirard, Du Vaure and Goussot, and Vergoz and Vallaud, were all noteworthy.

Torchlight procession

Lanterns, lanterns and yet more lanterns, following each other in quick succession in a seemingly endless procession, accompanied by the military band and followed by a huge crowd of spectators. They stopped briefly at the Palace of the Government, where the Marseillaise was played, and then followed the rue Catinat down to the quayside, terminating at the Rigault-de-Genouilly pier, close to which the king’s yacht was moored. Having neared the king’s quarters, the band performed a serenade to the King, who did not, however, make an appearance.

Royal promenade

The Palace of the Government decked out for a state visit

On Tuesday morning, the king toured the city in the landau of the Governor General. He visited the atelier of M. Ruffier, sculptor, who had already started work on his bust, and was then delivered to M. Martin, photographer, who set about capturing his august features.

Essentially a democratic prince, Norodom then made his way to the Hôtel Laval to sample a glass of Madeira wine at a table on the verandah. Since that time, M. Laval has spoken of nothing else but his intention to burnish in gold letters on that table: “Here HM. The King of Cambodia, Norodom I, took madeira wine on Tuesday 10 April 1888.”

Harbour illuminations

The festivities in honour of the king’s visit ended on Tuesday night with a splendid illumination of the harbour and a serenade given by the band of the marching regiment of the Marine Infantry Regiment, in front of the royal yacht.

A pagoda made from coloured glass formed the main motif of the brilliant decorations. It was flanked by four huge pieces of wood on which white glass lanterns were placed. Everything was dressed with strings of lanterns, giving a rather nice effect. The Loire was also lit from bow to stern, its gigantic mass against the starry sky contrasting starkly with the black waters of the Saigon River. All of the naval boats were similarly illuminated, seemingly trying to compete with the millions of stars in the night sky. As these brilliant craft lit by a thousand lights glided across the water, they gave us a scene reminiscence of the Lido during the feast of Venice! Despite the wind, which caused some difficulties during this part of the programme, the overall effect was very beautiful!


King Norodom liked Saigon very much and even spoke of staying for a few more days. A little like the Prince of Wales in Paris, then?

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.

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80 Years of Viet Nam’s North-South railway line

A Transindochinois express train passes the Corniche de Varella at km 1231, close to the site where the final stretch of track was laid on 2 September 1936

Friday 2 September 2016 is an auspicious day in the history of Việt Nam’s railways, marking as it does the 80th anniversary of the completion of the “Transindochinois” or North-South railway line.

Paul Doumer, Governor General of Indochina 1897-1902

Originally the brainchild of Indochina Governor General Jean Marie Antoine de Lanessan (June 1891-December 1894), the “Transindochinois” did not become a reality until the arrival of his successor Paul Doumer (13 February 1897-October 1902), who made it the central component of his grand “1898 Programme.”

While several of Indochina’s early railway and tramway lines were farmed out to private companies to build and operate, the Transindochinois was conceived from the outset as part of the government-run Chemins de Fer de l’Indochine (CFI) network, commonly known as the Réseaux non concedes (non-conceded networks). Built in five separate stages, the 1,730km line took nearly 40 years to realise.

The first three sections were completed before the outbreak of World War I. These were the 319km section from Hà Nội to Vinh (1903-1905), the 169km section from Tourane (Đà Nẵng) to Đông Hà (1906-1908) and the 411km section from Saigon to Nha Trang (1904-1913).

A Société Franco-Belge 4-4-0 “Américaine” locomotive

To haul trains on these earliest sections of line, the CFI initially purchased a fleet of Société Franco-Belge 4-4-0 locomotives, known due to their distinctive profile as “Américaines.” However, these were quickly supplemented by newer, more powerful 4-6-0 locomotives built by the Société française de constructions mécaniques (SFCM), the Anciens Établissements J F Cail and later also the Mitsui Company of Japan.

Known popularly as “10-wheels,” they quickly took over most passenger services, relegating the older “Américaines” mainly to freight duties.

A CFI passenger carriage

The earliest passenger carriages were built mainly from wood and offered rather basic facilities in all classes, but by the 1920s the CFI had introduced into service a range of new metallic vehicles with improved suspension, more comfortable seating in second class, and even plush armchairs in some first class compartments. However, the majority of those using the line were passengers of limited means who were obliged to endure long journeys in what amounted to little more than luggage vans.

Between 1923 and 1928, in order to meet the increasing demand for faster services on the completed sections of line, the CFI ordered from the Fives-Lille and J. F. Cail companies a fleet of second-generation superheated 4-6-0 “Ten wheel” locomotives, which were shared between the four completed sections of the North-South line and came to dominate passenger services until the arrival in the early 1930s of the “Pacific” locomotives.

A J. F. Cail 4-6-0 “Ten wheel” locomotive

Construction of the fourth and fifth sections of the Transindochinois – the 303km line from Vinh to Đông Hà (1927) and the final 524km section of line from Tourane (Đà Nẵng) to Nha Trang (1935-1936) – was delayed, firstly by war in Europe and then in the late 1920s as a result of the Indochina government’s brief flirtation with the idea of building a second, inland North-South rail route via Thakhek, Stung Treng and Kratie. Only after the abandonment of the latter project due to the onset of the Great Depression could the “Transindochinois” scheme finally get back on track.

In 1933, as construction of the final Tourane-Nha Trang section resumed, the CFI purchased a fleet of new superheated SACM-Graffenstaden 4-6-2 “Pacific” locomotives, which immediately took over all mainline passenger services, becoming the most prestigious locomotives on the CFI network.

An SACM-Graffenstaden 4-6-2 “Pacific” locomotive

In anticipation of increased traffic following completion of the “Transindochinois,” CFI even resorted to “filching” the fastest and most powerful locomotives from neighbouring Cambodia – following the reversion of the Phnom Penh-Mongkolborey line to government control in 1935, the CFI embarked upon a controversial locomotive exchange, aimed at “making better use” of Phnom Penh’s Hanomag machines, which they deemed too powerful for the Cambodian railway but ideal for the North-South line. By 1936, seven Hanomag 4-6-2 “Pacifics,” 10 Hanomag 2-10-0 “Decapods” and three Hanomag 2-8-2T locomotives had all been shipped to Saigon. In return, Phnom Penh received a motley collection of ageing Société Franco-Belge 4-4-0 “Américaines,” J. F. Cail 4-6-0 “Ten wheels” and Société Franco-Belge 2-6-2 “Prairies.”

On 2 September 1936, the two construction teams met at Hảo Sơn (km 1221) in modern Phú Yên province, putting in place the final piece of rail which not only connected Tourane with Nha Trang, but also marked the completion of the entire North-South line between Hà Nội and Sài Gòn.

Governor General René Robin accompanies the Emperor Bảo Đại to the completion ceremony on 2 September 1936

Officiating at this occasion were Indochina Governor General René Robin, who had personally sought to fast-track the final stages of construction, and the Emperor Bảo Đại. Later in the month, when Governor General Robin’s posting came to an end, he and his family became the first passengers to make the entire 42 hour, 1,730km journey from Hà Nội to Saigon on a special train, this being the first leg of their long journey back to France.

On 1 October 1936, the last stretch of line from Đại Lãnh to Hảo Sơn was officially inaugurated with the installation of a lineside monument at km 1221, 1km south of Hảo Sơn station. The Emperor Bảo Đại once again presided, along with Acting Governor A Sylvestre and Marshal Long Yun, Governor of Yunnan. The French inscription on the monument read:

“Here, the Transindochinois, conceived by Paul Doumer to seal the unity of Indochina, was completed on 2 September 1936 with the connection of the railway from the Chinese border with the railway from Saigon.”

A “Grand Gala Evening” was held on 2 October 1936 at the Saigon Municipal Theatre

On the same day, trains set out simultaneously from both Saigon and Hà Nội, heralded at both ends by grand military reviews involving processions of ethnic groups in their traditional costumes.

Then, in the seven days which followed, the launch of through train services between Hà Nội and Saigon was commemorated by special celebrations in both Hà Nội and Saigon, funded by a special grant of over 1 million francs. In Saigon, the authorities staged on 2 October 1936 a “Grand Gala Evening” at the Municipal Theatre, attended by Acting Governor Sylvestre. This was followed by a week-long sports tournament known as the “Transindochinois Cup,” which was held in the Jardin de la Ville (now Tảo Đàn Park), and featured cycling, football and rugby. A special commemorative stamp was also issued by the Saigon Post Office to mark the occasion.

A coastal section of the Transindochinois

The completion of the “Transindochinois” in September 1936 made it possible to travel 1,730km from Hà Nội to Saigon in 40 hours, on luxurious trains pulled by state-of-the-art “Pacific,” “Decapod” and “Ten wheel” locomotives. The modern and comfortable carriages offered 1st-, 2nd-, 3rd- and 4th-class seating, sleeper compartments and a buffet restaurant, as well as facilities for post and baggage.

Sadly, the “Transindochinois” functioned for just four years before Japanese forces invaded and occupied Indochina, imposing a significant reduction in civilian rail services in favour of military usage. Then, starting with the Allied bombing of 1944 and continuing through the devastation of the First Indochina War, the North-South railway line suffered catastrophic damage.

Railway sabotage during the First Indochina War

In 1952, officiating at the transfer of the remaining operational sections of the Réseaux non concedes to the State of Việt Nam administration, a senior French railway official recalled fondly the pre-war “golden era” of the CFI network:

“The globe-trotter of 1939, making the trip from Hanoï to Säigon in carriages comparable to European wagons-lits, and with a restaurant of repute, could compare our railway favourably with those of Europe or America.”

The Second Indochina War inflicted further ruinous destruction on the North-South line. This was followed after Reunification by several decades of economic hardship which precluded any major upgrade of rail facilities.

While some aspects of today’s rail services may still fall somewhat short of those offered during the “golden age” of long-distance rail travel, the national rail operator Đường Sắt Việt Nam has in recent years sought to create an efficient and competitive national rail network, with the North-South line as its focus.

On 2 September 1936 at Hảo Sơn (km 1221) in modern Phú Yên province, Governor General René Robin and Emperor Bảo Đại put in place the final piece of rail which not only connected Tourane with Nha Trang, but also marked the completion of the entire North-South line between Hà Nội and Sài Gòn

The lineside monument unveiled on 1 October 1936 at km 1221, 1km south of Hảo Sơn station

The interior of a CFI observation car

The interior of a CFI buffet car

Passengers in a CFI first-class compartment

Part of a CFI first class car

Fourth class travel on CFI

Tim Doling is the author of The Railways and Tramways of Việt Nam (White Lotus Press, Bangkok, 2012) and also gives talks on the history of the Vietnamese railways to visiting groups.

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

Join the Facebook group Rail Thing – Railways and Tramways of Việt Nam for more information about Việt Nam’s railway and tramway history and all the latest news from Vietnam Railways.

Emperor Ham Nghi in Exile

Prince Nguyễn Phúc Ưng Lịch, the former Emperor Hàm Nghi

Deported from Indochina in 1889 for his part in the Cần Vương uprising, the former Emperor Hàm Nghi spent the rest of his life in Algiers, living initially at the “Villa des Pins” and from 1908 until his death in 1943 at the “Villa Gia-Long” in El Biar. Here is a selection of press cuttings which describe Prince Nguyễn Phúc Ưng Lịch’s overseas visits, his artistic pursuits and his 1904 marriage to Marcelle Laloë, who gave him three children – Như May (born 1905), Như Lý (born 1908 and Minh Đức (born 1910).

“The King of Annam,” from Le Monde illustré, 23 February 1889

The Ministry of the Navy has recently received a telegram announcing that the King of Annam, Dong-Khanh, died in Hue on 27 January 1889 after a short illness.

Dong-Khanh was 25 years old. On 19 September 1885 he had succeeded his brother Ham-Nghi, whom the former regent Thuyet had led away from the capital of Annam after the attack of 5 July 1885. Ham-Nghi, dispossessed, led a miserable existence, resisting all attempts at conciliation until he was captured by the emissaries of Captain Boulangier.

We know that Ham-Nghi has just arrived in Algiers, where he has been installed in a villa at Mustapha. It is there that he learned of the untimely death of his successor.

The late young sovereign was very devoted to France. He leaves a three year old son. The telegram announcing the death of the King of Annam announced further that the mother of the former King Ham-Nghi had also died in Hue.

A drawing of the capture of Emperor Hàm Nghi

The capture of Ham-Nghi erased the last remnants of the insurgency in Tonkin.

We remember, in fact, that after his coup against General de Courcy in July 1885, Ham-Nghi provoked an uprising in the surrounding provinces and then came, repeatedly, to attack Hue and its environs.

It was thanks to the campaign led with intelligence and skill by Captain Boulangier that the fallen rebel is now in our power.

One afternoon, the captain’s company was informed that the former King of Annam, put to flight by the operations and pursuits of our skilled sharpshooters, had taken refuge with his companion Ton-Tat-Thiep, son of former Regent Ton-Tat-Thuyet, in a cai nha located in the small and remote village of Ta-Bao, hidden in the mountains of the haut Giaï.

The house was surrounded by the emissaries of Captain Boulangier and the door was broken down to reveal Ham-Nghi sleeping soundly next to Thiep, who had been awoken from sleep by the noise of the attack. Both had swords at their sides as well as some hand weapons, but resistance was useless.

Seeing his master taken, and to avoid the shame of the rebel king being dragged into captivity, Thiep tried to stab him; at that moment he was felled by a gunshot, because it was imperative that Ham-Nghi be captured alive. Thiep’s head was cut off and placed on a bamboo stake in the middle of bustling market of Dang-Kha.

Ham-Nghi himself offered no resistance and followed our troops to the place where later, the government fixed for him a date of departure. It was on the appeal of the dead king, Dong-Khanh, that the former ruler was exiled, and Algeria appeared to be the most suitable country, in its customs and climate, to receive the new captive. Ham-Nghi was taken on board the warship Bien-Hoa, commanded by Captain Caillard, and left Haiphong on 7 December last.

On Sunday 13 January, at about 3pm, the Bien-Hoa entered the port of Algiers. The King of Annam asked to be accompanied by his domestic staff. They comprised an interpreter, a steward and a cook.

“Ham-Nghi, former King of Annam, prisoner of France in Algiers – drawing by M Vuillier according to the sketch by Jean Locquart” 

Ham-Nghi is 19 years of age. His complexion is oriental, and his eyes, though small, are almond-shaped and breathe a lively intelligence. His cheekbones protrude and his entire face takes the form of a fairly regular oval. He is of short stature and beardless. We publish here a portrait of him which we obtained only after great difficulties, Ham-Nghi having only agreed to pose for a photographer on the formal order of the governor.

His Majesty wears excessively broad trousers made from calico or twilled cotton, together with coloured silk stockings. His feet are shod with sandals made from leather and velvet, adorned with gold chinoiserie and fine embroidery. Indoors, he wears only a long shirt or a long blue sleeveless tunic, rather like a woman’s blouse.

Ham-Nghi has now left the Hôtel de la Régence, where he stayed initially on his arrival in Algeria, to take possession of the princely Villa des Pins, located at Mustapha, near Algiers. It’s there that he has definitively fixed his residence.

At the time of his capture, various documents were found on his person, including several important notes indicating hiding places in the Citadel of Hue where it seems he had buried his personal treasures.

The captive king does not receive any visitors, and the information we can provide is all due to the kindness of his interpreter and his steward.

We give here, in addition to an authentic portrait of the king, a view of the residence of the Villa des Pins, in which which the rebel sovereign will remain in exile.

“The King of Annam in Médéa,” from L’Avenir de Bel-Abbès, 1 October 1891

The King of Annam, who has been interned for the last three years in Algiers, will be transferred this week to Médéa and placed under the supervision of the Général commandant of the subdivision. This measure is being taken as a result of the impulse of the young king to take flight and return to his country, which would have created the greatest difficulties in Annam.

Prince Nguyễn Phúc Ưng Lịch, the former Emperor Hàm Nghi, in Algiers

The King, now 23 years old, is very intelligent; he has adapted very quickly to French customs, he wears our clothing with ease and he speaks and writes our language very correctly. It is possible that, abusing the great freedom which we have given him, he could have left one evening for any departure point along the coast, or even for the port of Algiers, where it would have been easy for him to embark on an English ship and remain hidden until the time of departure.

The King of Annam does not live in Algiers itself, but about three kilometres outside the city, in El Biar, where M. Tirman installed him in a charming villa surrounded by vast fields, and from which the king could escape easily, without his departure being noticed.

The personnel of his house comprise only a woman in charge of housekeeping services, an Annamite cook, and finally a Tonkinese secretary, who is also charged with monitoring the prisoner and accompanying him in his walks and in his visits, but whose services he often dispenses with.

It is understood how easily such monitoring could be foiled: the young king goes wherever he wants, whenever he pleases; thus, there are occasions, as it has been noticed, when he has returned to his home at rather a late hour of the night.

The Government general is concerned about this, and to prevent such prolonged stays in the city, sometimes until the next morning, which may facilitate his complete disappearance, it has ordered its prisoner to remain indoors at night time.

To be admitted to the Villa des Pins, current residence of the King of Annam, one has always needed special permission from the Government general, thus he has few visitors. But he has still gone everywhere, indeed while M. Tirman governed Algeria, he attended all of the great receptions, and the municipality invited him to all of its parties.

All of this will now change; the Government general of Algeria, now better informed about the intentions of the prisoner of France, has taken on its part measures of prudence and firmness, so that the king of Annam does not follow the example of the famous Tuareg leader, one of the assassins of the Flatters mission, who was interned in a small farm and took advantage of the situation to escape on horseback with one of the domestic servants.

French Algeria

But the King of Annam will surely not complain, for France has made him a pension of 25,000 francs a year, so he will have enough money to live at ease in the beautiful countryside of Médéa.

“Prince Ung-Lich,” from Le Matin, 29 May 1893

The young Prince of Annam, Ung-Lich, currently interned in the neighbourhood of Algiers, has been authorised, upon his request, to come to France to visit Vichy.

We know that last year, the government allowed the young pretender to engage freely in the pleasures of bicycling. Several of our colleagues condemned this hobby, believing that it could facilitate at some point the flight of the young exile.

It is to Captain Gosselin that will probably accrue the delicate task of escorting Ung-Lich when he steps on French soil.

“The Prince of Annam in France,” from La Fraternité, 16 June 1895

Ham-Nghi, Prince of Annam, accompanied by Captain Gosselin, arrived recently in Paris, coming from Algiers, where the French government fixed his residence after dispossessing him of the throne of Hue.

The young traveller – he’s only 24 years old – wears the Annamite costume, a shirt without ornament and wide trousers, in grey cloth for everyday activities and in silk for special occasions. A black turban surrounds his Greek chignon, which closely resembles that of our women. Ham-Nghi’s hands and feet are extraordinarily small. His glove size is 5¾, they say – little more than that of a girl.

Excerpt from “Majesties in Exile,” in Le Gaulois, 5 January 1899

French Algeria

Another “fallen majesty” is Ham-Nghi, better known under the name of Prince Ung-Lich, who reigned in Annam and gave such a headache, to use a popular phrase, to our General de Courcy.

Ung-Lich lives in a delightful villa in the neighbourhood of Algiers, which the government has “gracefully” placed at his disposal.

The former ruler of Annam is a young man in his thirties and of strong artistic tastes. A man of great intelligence, possessed of a very cultivated mind, he consoles himself for his loss of power by indulging his passion for painting and music. It seems that he has a nice stroke of the brush, and paints excellent landscapes.

Last year, the Minister of Colonies allowed him to stay for a few weeks in Paris. Every day during that trip, Ung-Lich spent hours at the musee du Louvre, absorbed in the contemplation of artistic masterpieces. The guards mistook him for a Japanese art student. He was also a regular at the salon du Champ de Mars, and one could see him almost every evening at the Opéra or the Opéra-Comique.

In fact, where music is concerned, Ung-Lich has a preference for the works of Mozart, Wagner, Saint-Saëns and Massenet, proving the eclecticism of his artistic tastes. At El Biar, the neighbourhood inhabited by the prince, he performs on the piano the music of his favourite composers.

One of his main distractions is to attend performances at the Grand-Théâtre d’Alger, having been granted this right. In short, the French Government does not keep him under too close surveillance, and has even given him a nice pension of 25,000 francs per annum, not counting his purely free use of the villa. Ung-Lich can receive visits from his friends at El Biar, and often improvises instrumental music sessions there.

“Happiness in Obscurity,” from L’Aurore, 7 October 1904

One day in 1888, Captain Gosselin-Lenôtre, brother of the distinguished historian and brilliant writer of the plays Colinette and Varennes, took charge of a 15 year-old Annamite who had been captured by our troops. It was Prince Ham-Nghi, ruler of Annam since the age of 12, who had fomented uprisings and whose army had surrounded the palace occupied by General de Courcy. Captured at 7pm on 1 November 1888, he was transported to Saigon, and from there to Algiers, where since 1889 he has been interned under the name of Prince Ung-Lich.

In Algiers, the prince – who does not lack freedom – has fallen in love with a pretty girl and will marry her in a few days. Mlle. Laloë is the daughter of the President of the Chamber at the Algiers Court of Appeal. When first hearing about the marriage, her father did not approve of the match, but the girl loved the former emperor and managed to convince him.

Marcelle Laloë, who became Prince Nguyễn Phúc Ưng Lịch’s wife, from Le Figaro-modes à la ville, 15 November 1904

It’s in Algiers that this rather unexpected marriage will be celebrated. The couple, in the meantime, has come to spend an enjoyable vacation in Versailles.

The former monarch has become very European, and during the afternoons he goes out into the park to paint the château of the Sun King and to dream of fallen splendours.

Sometimes in Algiers, sometimes in Avesnes at the family home of his protector Mr. Gosselin-Lenôtre, the prince has seen many golden days: he receives a 30,000 franc annual pension from France, and this amount will, it seems, be doubled on his marriage. This transplanted Annamite must have little cause to regret his kingdom.

“The Ex-Emperor of Annam marries a Frenchwoman” by Fernand Hauser, from Le Journal, 4 October 1904

Recently, in a park in Versailles, a young Annamite sat down in front of an easel and conscientiously began to paint. Who was this young Annamite, next to whom stood, respectfully, a man who looked suspiciously like a plain-clothes policeman?

“It’s the former Emperor of Annam,” said one of the staff of the château whom I questioned.

“The former Emperor of Annam?” I immediately set off to find out more information and learned that this young Annamite, wearing cai ao and cai quan and coiffed with cai khan, was, indeed, the famous former Emperor of Annam, Ham-Nghi, who was dethroned by France in 1885, captured by our troops in 1888 and interned in Algiers in 1889.

“And for what occasion has the former Emperor of Annam come to Versailles?” I asked the person who had informed me so kindly.

“He comes, they say, to give his heart to his fiancée.”

“An Annamite?”

“No, a Frenchwoman.”

The marriage of Prince Nguyễn Phúc Ưng Lịch to Marcelle Laloë in 1904

This strange story interested me, because, like any journalist, I am curious. I followed the former emperor to the hotel where he was staying, and presented him with my card. It was nearly noon; the lunch hour had arrived, yet despite the indiscretion of my visit at this time, the ex-Emperor received me immediately.

We were seated opposite each other, in a living room decorated with antique furniture; on the walls, portraits of characters from the court of the great Sun King seemed to watch us.

“And how may I help you, monsieur?”

The ex-emperor was the first to break the silence.

“They told me that you are the former Emperor Ham-Nghi.”

The prince smiled. “They told you that.”

The emperor in exile

And he looked at me with his big eyes. The former emperor is small in stature; he must be young, but he definitely looks younger than his age; one would even say a young Adonis, an elegant young Adonis, and with a chignon. His face is lit by two ivory and extremely mobile eyes; his lips are topped by a drooping black moustache; when he smiles, the ex-emperor, who is unaccustomed to chewing Annamite betel, reveals teeth of dazzling whiteness; and when he raises his hands, one perceives that they are the finest in the room.

“And you have come to Versailles to marry?”

“Oh! That’s a private matter. I’m getting married, yes, but I’m not in Versailles for that; I know about a number of other French cities, so I also wanted to get to know Versailles. This is one of the most beautiful cities which has ever existed, the memories of yesteryear are abundant; at every step, it feels like the great shadow of Louis XIV will appear. And the Petit Trianon, so poetic, is the most troubling little place I know; at every corner, you expect to meet the guillotined queen. All the while, one thinks about the terrible revolutions of nations, the vicissitudes of kings, the fragility of thrones.”

Versailles, Petit Trianon

All this is said in a soft voice, so soft that it is moving; one could believe that one was hearing a woman who lisped a little…. but only a very little.

“And you love to find a spot in some park grove where you can translate your feelings onto canvas?”

“Yes, I adore painting. The French scenery is lovely; the trees are so beautiful, especially in the autumn when the leaves are falling. It is very beautiful.”

“And will you remain for some time in Versailles?”

“No, I must leave very soon; I have been waiting for the the strike in Marseille to end; otherwise I would have left some time ago; the Ministry of Colonies is of the opinion that I have already spent too long in France.”

“So, you’re not a free man?”

“Oh! No, not since the day I was captured by French troops. For many years I have been a prisoner in a villa in Algiers; every time I want to travel, I need permission; to get married, I had to get permission.”

“You will marry a Frenchwoman?”


“Of what religion?”


“So, you are baptised?”

“No, I profess the religion of Confucius; although it is a philosophy, more than a religion.”

“Have you been a prisoner for a long time?”

The marriage of Prince Nguyễn Phúc Ưng Lịch to Marcelle Laloë in 1904

“Twelve years, maybe more. I haven’t been counting.”

“You left Annam while you were still young?”

“I had reached an age of reason.”

“And you miss your country?”

“One always misses one’s country.”

“You still have, I think, the right to re-ascend the throne of your ancestors?”

“That right is incontestable; but it is contested.”

“And you hope?”

“I no longer hope for anything.”

“However, if one day….?”

A brilliant light shone in the eyes of the exile.

“I am not even permitted to see my country again.”

“And when you are married?”

“I think it will be the same; I console myself by thinking that France is a beautiful country, and my residence in Algiers is very agreeable.”

The deposed ruler rose and stretched out his hand.

“Goodbye monsieur. And thank you for your visit.”

The bride of Ham-Nghi

On leaving the Hôtel de France, I went to see a Versaillaise of my acquaintance who keeps abreast of everything that happens in the city of the Sun King, and I learned from him that the ex-Emperor of Annam, since his arrival in Versailles, has gone every day to the residence of a Lady Wenck, grandmother of his fiancée. This young lady was, in fact, passing her holidays with her grandmother.


Mlle. Marcelle Laloë, daughter of the President of the Chamber at the Algiers Court of Appeal, is a charming young lady of at least 20; the former Emperor Ham-Nghi became smitten with her and proposed marriage; this was an important matter.

At first, M. Laloë refused to endorse the union, because of the race and religion of Ham-Nghi. But the girl loved the ex-emperor; she wept, she pleaded; and now the marriage will be celebrated very soon in Algiers.

Ham-Nghi has now left Versailles, in fact, he left last Friday evening, travelling to Marseille where he was due to embark for Algiers yesterday; Mlle. Laloë and her father took the same ship. The former emperor left France with formal permission to marry, signed by M. Doumergue, Minister of Colonies.

At the Ministry of Colonies, I was given the following information about this marriage:

Ham-Nghi was crowned Emperor of Annam after Hiep-Hoa, successor to the famous Tu-Duc; he was born in 1871.

In 1885, Ham-Nghi fomented a revolt; his army surrounded the palace where General de Courcy was staying. The battle was terrible; General de Courcy, thanks to the soldiers of Colonel Pernot, managed to escape. Ham-Nghi fled into the mountains of Kouang-Si, from where he led a partisan war against France. Captured at 7pm on November 1, 1888, he was taken to Saigon, and from there to Algiers, where since 1889 he has been interned as the prince Ung-Lich.

The Government of Indochina has since given him a pension of 30,000 francs per year; on the occasion of his marriage, the pension will be increased to the sum of 80,000 francs.

The former Emperor will marry in a few days. Will he receive, on that occasion, the congratulations of his successor, Emperor Thanh-Thai? And will he think, on that joyful day, of the Spring Festivals over which he once presided in Hue, when he was the sovereign of Annam?

Colonial Algiers

Will he see again, in a flash of memory, the sculpted golden plough with which, every April, the “Emperor of the South” traced a furrow before his prostrating subjects, entreating the Buddha for enough crops to burst the barns?

“The Wedding of the Prince of Annam,” L’Ouest-Éclair, 11 November 1904

Algiers, 10 November – The marriage of the former prince of Annam with Mlle. Laloë, daughter of the President of the Chamber at the Algiers Court of Appeal, was celebrated this morning in the town of Algiers. A large crowd of guests, onlookers and friends attended the ceremony.

The prince wore national costume, a tunic of black silk, his long hair gathered in a chignon and held in place by a turban, also of black silk. The bride wore a simple white dress.

The Mayor of Algiers addressed to the newlyweds good wishes on his behalf and on behalf of the Algerian population. After the ceremony, the newlyweds went to receive the nuptial blessing of the Archbishop of Algiers; at least 30 people were received in the chapel. The ceremony was very short.

The Prince and Princess of Annam then went to the home of M. Laloë in Mustapha, where a lunch was attended by the elite of the Algerian population.

From “Births,” in La Revue diplomatique, 1 October 1905

We recall with pleasure the wedding of the very distinguished Prince of Annam, Ham-Nghi, who last year married a charming French woman, daughter of a counsellor at the Algiers court.

From their Villa des Pins at El Biar near Algiers, the Prince and Princess have just announced the birth of their daughter, Nhu-May.

Decree of 23 October 1906, from Bulletin officiel du Ministère des colonies, 28 October 1906

The Villa des Pins, which served as Prince Nguyễn Phúc Ưng Lịch’s home until 1908

Considering the request of 4 July 1906 made by the Prince of Annam, Ung-Lich, to obtain an advance of 200,000 francs which is necessary for the purchase of land and construction of a villa in El Biar (Algeria). Considering the report of the Governor General of Indochina.
A sum of 200,000 francs levied on the Pension and Welfare Fund of Annam will be placed at the disposal of the Prince Ung-Lich to permit the purchase of land and construction of a villa at El Biar (Algeria). This sum, non-productive of interest, will be reinstated in the Pension and Welfare Fund of Annam by means of 10 annual installments of 20,000 francs each, deducted automatically from the annual pension provided by the Government of Indochina to Prince Ung-Lich and eventually to his wife or to his children.
The Colonial Secretary is responsible for the execution of this decree.
Done at Paris, 23 October 1906.
Signed: A. Fallières.

From “Births,” in La Croix de l’Algérie et de la Tunisie, 30 July 1907

We announce the birth at El Biar last Wednesday of the second daughter of His Highness the Prince of Annam, who has received the graceful name Nhu-Ly (plum blossom).

“A Christmas Tree at the Villa des Pins,” from L’Afrique du Nord illustrée, 4 January 1908

On Tuesday last week, a party was held at the Villa des Pins. The Prince and Princess of Annam had the generous idea to give a few hours of joy to children from poor families in El Biar.

The little ones having barely arrived, they were carefully arranged in the front yard and the distribution of cakes, sweets and mandarin oranges began – each child was amply supplied. This scene was not, however, without a prelude.

A huge Christmas tree was installed in the courtyard. What a tree! Never had anyone seen its like. It was splendidly illuminated by electric lights, stars and candles of all colours, and a thousand toys were hidden in its branches.

Prince Nguyễn Phúc Ưng Lịch playing tennis in Mustapha, from Illustration Algérienne, Tunisienne et Marocaine, 19 January 1907

Accompanied by the sounds of a gramophone record, the occasion was presided over by the charming little Princess Nhu-May, perched on the arm of her nanny, who directed the distribution of the toys with childlike pleasure. The “harvest” was indeed abundant – harlequins, dolls, drums, trumpets, diabolos, wooden horses and other toys, all patiently crafted throughout the previous year by Her Highness the Princess of Annam, found their way into the arms of the astonished little guests. They all received far more than they could carry.

When the day finally wound down, votes of thanks, made graciously by two senior guests, to the accompaniment of an Aragonaise on the phonograph, signalled the time to leave. Under the guidance of their teachers, the little group, heavily laden, went happily out into the night, heading back to their homes.

Prince and Princess, for the trouble you have taken, for the happiness you have given, thank you.

“The Ex-Emperor of Annam wishes to serve,” from Histoire de la guerre, par le Bulletin des Armées, 15 August 1914

The Prince of Annam, Ham-Nghi, former Emperor of Annam, in residence in Algiers, has just sent to the Minister of Colonies a letter in which he states that, in the light of current events, it is his duty to offer his humble services to France, a country which he has learned to know and love, in whatever capacity it would please the Minister to confer on him.

“Tu Xuan (Theu Sounn) Prince of Annam exhibits his paintings” by André Warnod, from Comœdia, 14 November 1926

At his home in El Biar, the man who was once crowned King of Annam likes to occupy much of his time painting. He has now decided to show his works publicly, and is giving an exhibition in Paris. If his name as King was Ham-Nghi, the name under which he exhibits his painting is Prince Tu-Xuan (Theu Sounn)

One of Prince Nguyễn Phúc Ưng Lịch’s paintings, reproduced from “Hàm Nghi artiste: le peintre et le sculpteur” by Amandine Dabat

While he supervised the hanging of his paintings in the Galerie Mantelet like a professional painter, the prince agreed to tell us about the pleasure he gets from painting. Coiffed with a turban, and wearing a grey suit with a half-European, half Asian cut, he is a man with an energetic face. He has very sharp eyes and his thin drooping moustache adds much to the character of his physiognomy.

The prince talks readily about painting, which, along with music, opened up to him after his exile a welcoming place of refuge. While he struggled at first to understand and speak French, he found that he could easily express himself through the language of the fine arts. Thus was an immense world of new sensations opened up for him. His studio became his preferred residence. At El Biar, his workshop occupies part of the lower floor of his villa; it is a large room paved with marble and illuminated from above. He spends much of his time there. The workshop is the centre of the house, a house surrounded by tall pine trees, a house to which so many of his memories are attached. Was it not there that his children were born and grew up?

The prince did not, strictly speaking, have an art teacher; he learned to paint according to his own heart; but the artists of Algiers have always been regular guests at his house in El Biar.

While we spoke of his studio and his painting, we thought, while looking at him, about that legendary Annamite hero, the little king aged 15 who spent three years in the forest trying to evade our soldiers. What a painful and tragic past! Three worrying years until, betrayed by one of his supporters, he was delivered to those who were chasing him.

Legend has it that Ton-That-Thiep, who had fiercely pushed the king into the resistance, rushed towards him at the point of his capture trying to kill him, so that he would not fall alive into the hands of the invader; but was shot before he could complete this act. The king, surprised in his sleep, jumped to his sword, but was disarmed.

What a picture of poignant melancholy is presented by this scene: the little captive king with his head down, dark and silent, seeing and hearing nothing, surrounded by French troops, while the bugles sounded in the fields outside. But these are memories which are so painful that we dare not invoke them.

One of Prince Nguyễn Phúc Ưng Lịch’s paintings, reproduced from “Hàm Nghi artiste: le peintre et le sculpteur” by Amandine Dabat

Prince Tu-Xuan, at this exhibition, has presented landscapes painted in oil and drawn in pastels. He likes to capture the fleeting effects of sunsets at that moment when the skies are lit with thousands of lights, or to present the imposing mass of great trees or the delicate silhouettes of pines against the clear sky – those same tall pines which surround his home at El Biar under an Algerian sky, so far from his country of Annam.

“About an Annamite Prince, Painter and Sculptor” by E Dejean de la Batie, from L’Écho annamite, 25 February 1925

Oh! Let’s exile nobody! Oh! Exile is ungodly! – Victor Hugo

“At the place Saint-Philippe du Roule, another gallery is currently showing the paintings and sculptures of a prince who was emperor.” Thus begins a paragraph – less than 20 lines – which appeared recently in l’lntransigeant.

So much in so few words!

Above all what errors, because the paragraph which follows the above passage reflects its author’s complete ignorance of the events surrounding that which colonial historians call the “Ambush of Hue” of 1885, which marked with a bloody trace a painful page in the history of Franco-Annamite relations.

Of him who was its hero and most unfortunate victim – because he lived through it; because, as a prisoner of imperialism, he was exiled, far from his land and the throne of his ancestors on which he had only just ascended – the Parisian press evokes both the sad past and the present melancholy, while recognising in him an artist of great value.

Following in the footsteps of colleagues in the Metropole, the Cochinchina newspapers have reproduced a photograph representing the fallen majesty, standing before his paintings, in the company of M. Albert Sarraut, former Governor General of Indochina and former Minister of Colonies. The latter freshly shaven, fat bellied, with the arrogant and disdainful air of the plush financier; and the former, in a black turban, wearing national costume in memory of his absent country!

The artist Prince Tu-Xuan, aka Prince Nguyễn Phúc Ưng Lịch

Ham-Nghi has the grey beard of scholars from his home country which one hardly ever sees any more, the reserved attitude, the resigned smile, indeed all that seems to represent the serene philosophy of the Far East. Together, these men surely present a true picture of the relationship between conqueror and conquered!

Some have wanted to draw from Ham-Nghi a living example illustrating their thesis of reconciliation between the Annamites and the French, arguing that the former emperor, now known as “M. d’Annam” and being the husband of a Frenchwoman and the father of métis children, is the imperial model of peaceful interpenetration of the two races. Yet nothing could be more further from the truth!

The case of H. M. Hàm-Nghi, indeed, far from advocating Viet-Phap entente, seems on the contrary to fight against it, and with what eloquence!

The prince undoubtedly holds such bitterness that even today he continues to remain silent about the details of his flight from Hue, led by Regent Ton-That-Thuyet and accompanied by the queen mothers, even queen grandmothers; or about his adventurous life, which lasted from 1885 to 1888.

To those writers who had the honour of approaching him and who, tempted by the hope of snatching from him some unreleased secrets – writers are naturally curious – questioned him on this subject, he would invariably reply: “What good is there in talking about it? Let’s talk of other things,” and would then turn the conversation to “other things.”

What terrible memories, quickly repressed, must have returned to him at those moments?What mysteries of his martyrdom did he entrust to his palette and communicate through his art works, in the silence of his studio? Mysteries which, perhaps, he will take with him to the grave.

Does he perhaps owe his talent to the ordeal he went through, because, for the artist as for the poet, that is often the way of creativity. Man is the apprentice, pain is the master.

Prince Nguyễn Phúc Ưng Lịch in his later years

Prince Ung-Lich ascended the throne of Annam in that troubled time which followed the death of Tu-Duc. The Annamite empire then faced many difficulties: on one side, the French, who had already annexed Cochinchina, wanted to impose their protectorate on Tonkin; on the other, the ambition and rivalry of the regents Nguyen-Van-Tuong and Ton-That-Thuyet was devastating the Court of Hue – a banal spectacle typical of the history of any country in decline or lacking a firm hand to direct its destinies.

Regencies have always been full of intrigues which have affected nations and peoples. A minority reign may often be regarded as a misfortune for a nation’s subjects. Ham-Nghi certainly came to know this sad truth.

Tuong and Thuyet raised him to the supreme dignity in preference to his two older brothers, who, like him, were nephews and adoptive sons of Tu-Duc. These two “pillars of the Empire” feared losing their considerable influence and could not risk enthroning a master who was older and therefore more able to act by himself.

The ceremonies of the coronation took place without any foreign intervention. This was the initial cause of all the unhappiness of the unfortunate monarch. The Resident-superior of France in Hue, M. Rheinart, considered the dignity of France to have been undermined. He demanded that the court ask his permission to enthrone the young prince and that the coronation be held again in his presence.

Although no clause in any Franco-Annamite treaties had insisted on such formalities, indeed to the contrary, those treaties were unanimous in recognising the full independence of Annam with regard to its internal affairs, the court dignitaries obeyed.

The request for investiture was written in chu nom, which M. Rheinart saw as an impropriety. New challenges! The resident of France ordered it to be rewritten in Chinese characters, according to the old traditional used in honour of the relations between Annam and its secular suzerain, the Emperor of China.

Satisfaction was given to the desire of the representative of France, whose arrogance, however, Nguyen-Van-Tuong, and especially Ton-That-Thuyet, could not forgive. The two mandarins initially contained their anger – and for good reason! But they were only waiting for the opportunity to manifest it.

The throne in the Cần Chánh Palace (Điện Cần Chánh 勤政殿) in Huế Citadel

Their rancour deepened in the presence of the haughty and inflexible attitude of General de Courcy.

At this juncture, General Millot, Captain Guerrier, a sergeant and six hundred soldiers arrived in Hue from Hanoi. They prepared to hold talks on the issue of the establishment of the French protectorate in Tonkin.

Complications now arose again, borne of a pattern which we consider trivial today, but which were intensified by the intransigence of some and the pride of others. The French demanded to march their soldiers through the main gate of the Citadel. The court categorically refused, arguing the millennial custom which granted only to foreign ambassadors the right to enter this gate.

They had a lively discussion on this; negotiations on the fate of Tonkin were adjourned.

The French seemed to take pleasure in stirring things up.

One evening, a delegation of mandarins, carrying gifts, presented themselves to General de Courcy, aiming to address the question of precedence which was then in question. But the General refused to receive the delegates and sent them away with their presents.

This was the straw which broke the cup of humiliation inflicted on the Annamites.

Ton-That-Thuyet decided to avenge the affronts made to his country, and one night, as General de Courcy hosted a semi-formal dinner for French officers and civilian officials, the cannon of the Annamite citadel thundered suddenly and the French residence was burned to the ground. The next day, a military operation ensued. Results: 16 dead and 80 wounded on the French side and about 2,000 dead on the Annamite side.

Prince Nguyễn Phúc Ưng Lịch in his later years

Taking advantage of this event, the royal family fled. The perilous life of Hàm-Nghi began; it ended three years later, following the betrayal of Truong-Quang-Ngoc and Nguyen-Dinh-Tinh. They surrendered their young emperor – he was 18 – to the French, who exiled him in Algeria.

The case of H M Hàm-Nghi is not unique. France, which boasts of being the most generous of the colonial powers, has another title of which it has no reason to be proud! – The nation which likes to proclaim itself the most democratic in the world is also one which has the highest number of exiled sovereigns it has dethroned after seizing their territories. Annam alone accounts for three princes overthrown by the will of the conqueror.

Of course, more good reasons to argue for reconciliation between France and its colonies.

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.

King Marie I of the Sedang

Marie-Charles David de Mayréna (1842-1890), posing as “King Marie I of the Sedang”

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

Many will have heard of Englishman James Brooke, the so-called “White Rajah” who in the 1840s established the Kingdom of Sarawak, or indeed of French lawyer Orélie-Antoine de Tounens, who in 1860 founded the Mapuche Kingdom of Araucanía and Patagonia. Perhaps not so well known is the short-lived attempt in 1888-1890 by French adventurer Marie-Charles David de Mayréna to carve out an independent kingdom in the Central Highlands of Việt Nam.

A Sedang warrior

Born in Toulon on 31 January 1842, Marie-Charles David de Mayréna first came to Indochina in 1863, serving for several years in the French navy in Saigon. He was later decorated for bravery after being wounded in the Franco-Prussian War. Described as “good-looking, a crack shot…. intelligent and energetic,” de Mayréna spent the rest of his life as an “unscrupulous adventurer.”

In 1883, De Mayréna left France in a hurry after being accused of embezzlement. He then spent nearly a year in Java before being deported by the Dutch authorities in August 1884, apparently following another embezzlement charge. Returning to Cochinchina, he set up a plantation in Baria.

During this period, Siam began to extend its influence over the ethnic groups of the central highlands, then still a loosely-administered border region. In February 1888, French Jesuit missionary Father Jean-Baptiste Guerlach (1858-1912) succeeded in setting up, within the French sphere of influence, a Bahnar-Rengao Confederation based at Kontum, but the Sedang and the Jarai remained outside of this grouping.

Marie-Charles David de Mayréna (1842-1890), posing as “King Marie I of the Sedang”

Seeing an opportunity to enrich himself, de Mayréna persuaded the then Governor of Cochinchina, Charles Le-Myre-de-Vilers, that he was the right man to lead a secret expedition to negotiate treaties with Sedang and Jarai, and definitively to woo the various central highland ethnic groups away from Siamese influence and into the arms of France. Under the guise of prospecting for gold in the Attapeu region, an expeditionary force was assembled and placed under de Mayréna’s command. A bemused Father Guerlach was requested to provide de Mayréna with all necessary support.

Dressed in all his military finery, and accompanied by Father Guerlach and another French adventurer named Mercurol, de Mayréna made a great impression on the ethnic chiefs. However, instead of securing their submission to France, de Mayréna convinced them that, since they had never been vassals of the emperor of Annam, they should instead form their own kingdom – under his rule.

On 3 June 1888, in the village of Kon Gung (now Dak Mar commune in the Đắk Hà district of Kon Tum province), the chiefs of the Sedang, Bahnar and Rengao submitted to de Mayréna and elected him as “Marie I, King of the Sedang.”

The flag of the Kingdom of Sedang

They then signed an 11-point document known as the Constitution du Royaume Sedang (Constitution of the Sedang Kingdom), which declared a hereditary, absolute monarchy with its own flag (solid blue with a white cross and a red star at the centre), and a royal capital at Kon Gung, which henceforth would be known as Pelei Agna or “Great City.” Human sacrifices were banned and all religions were to be freely practiced in the Sedang kingdom.

In September 1888, after cementing alliances with the other ethnic groups in the region, “King Marie I” went to Quy Nhơn and then to Hải Phòng, where he secured the publication of the Constitution of his new kingdom in the French newspapers. He then opened negotiations with the French authorities, offering to surrender his kingdom in exchange for a monopoly on the region’s mineral rights, while simultaneously spreading the rumour that the management of his territories had been left in the hands of missionaries “who were ready to take up arms at his merest signal.” When French officials declined his offer, de Mayréna hinted, treasonably, that if the French showed no interest, then perhaps the Prussian government might do so instead.

The “Ordre du Mérite Sedang”

In early 1889, having been dismissed as a joke by the French authorities, de Mayréna travelled to Hong Kong, where was received by the British authorities. Although nothing came of the subsequent discussions, he did occupy his time there by commissioning the manufacture of a range of royal regalia – including a set of official stamps and various gold insignia, including the “Ordre de Sainte Marguerite” for military valour and the “Ordre du Mérite Sedang” for services to the king.

A few months later, de Mayréna returned to France, where he is said to have “graced many high society functions” and “held court in many of the fashionable cafes of Paris,” all the while selling titles, medals and mining rights to anyone who would offer him support.

In July 1889, seeking to escape an ever-increasing volume of law suits, de Mayréna relocated to Belgium, where he persuaded an industrialist named Somsy to pay off all his debts and finance his return to Indochina. He eventually left Marseille under the assumed name Comte de Mars, along with a team of supporters, 11 cases of arms and ammunition, and plentiful supplies.

One of the official stamps of the Kingdom of Sedang

However, when the party arrived in Singapore in February 1890, the arms were seized by the police and de Mayréna was informed by the French Consul that he could not return to Indochina. He then sought permission to enter the Central Highlands via Siam, but this request was denied.

By this time, the patience of the Indochina authorities was running out. In early March 1890, Pierre-Paul Rheinart, Resident-Superior of Annam, instructed the Resident of Quy Nhơn to lead an armed force into the Central Highlands to take control of the region for France. This force very easily secured the submission of the highlanders, and soon afterwards the Bahnar-Rengao Confederation was placed under French control and a Delegation de Kontum set up, initially under missionary control.

In that same month, a despondent de Mayréna left Singapore and took refuge, along with a colleague named de Villenoy d’Augis, in Pulau Tioman, a tiny, uninhabited island in the Straits Settlements. Both men died there under mysterious circumstances on 11 November 1890, one by poison and the other by gunshot wound. The bodies were discovered the next day.

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.

At the House of the “Chinese King” (1927)

Prince Nguyễn Phúc Bửu Lân, the former Emperor Thành Thái

Following his La Réunion interview with the exiled Prince Nguyễn Phúc Vĩnh San (the former Emperor Duy Tân), An Emperor of Annam in La Réunion, published in the Écho annamite newspaper on 7 March, Charles Wattebled went searching for Prince Vĩnh San’s reclusive father Prince Nguyễn Phúc Bửu Lân (the former Emperor Thành Thái), who had also been exiled on the same island. The following article by Marcel [sic] Wattebled, published in the Écho annamite on 9 March, is translated below, along with a critical editorial published in the same newspaper a week later.

If, by his affable manners, distinction and friendliness, Prince Vinh-San has attracted the sympathies of the elite of the Bourbon population, his uncle [sic], the former Emperor Thanh-Thai, who calls himself Prince Buu-Lan, on the contrary does not enjoy the same popularity on the island of La Réunion. He lives, moreover, in the fiercest retirement.

The race course in St-Denis, La Réunion

He stands accused of some acts of cruelty that I cannot mention here; I will simply quote to you the latest: being the owner of a pretty Australian mare named Crémone which he trained himself, he one day, in a fit of rage after it lost a race, put out its eye with a crack of his whip.

When I presented myself at the address which had been given to me, no-one seemed to know about him.

Seeing on the street corner an attractive dark-haired lady with gleaming white teeth smiling behind her stand full of juicy mangoes, perfumed bananas and stinking jackfruit slices, I asked her:

“Can you tell me, dear child, where is the home of Prince Buu-Lan?”

“Who that? Who Prince Buu Lan?” she replied in a sing-song voice, “Me not know.”

Then, after reflecting for a moment:

“Ah! Maybe you look for “Chinese king?”

“Yes, that’s him, the “Chinese king.”

“Oh! Me not know! But his house not in rue St-Denis. His house in rue Ste-Anne, tenth door along.”

A street in St-Denis, La Réunion

Passing through the latticework gate to which I had been directed by that lady, I saw, in the shade of a large mango tree and surrounded by beautiful rose bushes, a wooden house of humble appearance.

No one answered my call, so I opened the door. In the middle of an unfurnished anti-chamber swarmed a dozen Annamite boys, some naked, others dressed in a short tunics; they fixed their great fearful eyes on me, not understanding any of my questions.

Just then, a nice girl with a bright expression arrived and stared inquisitively at me with her pretty eyes.

“Please can you tell me, where is your father, Prince Buu-Lan? I wish to see him.”

“No, me not know where he go.”

And raising a fine and graceful hand, the daughter of Thanh-Thai beckoned to me that he had gone very far.

“I will return later,” I told her, and went out, while the servants, still looking frightened, made a gesture to see out the “makoui” who had dared to enter the house.

Out of spite, I placed my camera in position in order to take a photograph. Even if I could not take a picture of the “Chinese King,” I thought, I can at least take one of his house. Then suddenly, as a strong breeze began to blow through the large clumps of flowers, sending out puffs of fragrant air, a voice came from neighbouring house:

La Réunion

“Here he comes, the Chinese King!”

Turning, I saw at the bend in the street a small, stocky man, wearing a khaki suit and a grey hat. He had the peaceful demeanour of a good bourgeois returning from market; the basket which he held on his arm was full of fruit, preserves and Chinese joss sticks. At his side walked a very pretty Annamite woman who very gracefully wore a long and richly-decorated black lace tunic over broad white silk trousers. As soon as he approached, I noticed that his dark glasses concealed a kind of exotropia [a form of eye misalignment in which one or both of the eyes turn outward]; his look was very hard, his lips tightly pinched.

Politely I approached him, but I had hardly mentioned the word photography when he replied abruptly:

“You are wrong! I am not the king of Annam!”

“I know you are no longer king.”

A passer-by, hearing this strange conversation, turned and looked at us with a disturbed air.

Due perhaps to his pride at being caught in humble attire, or even because he wanted his life to remain mysterious, the “Chinese king” – because it was, indeed, he who did not want his picture to be published, at least in his present state devoid of ceremonial costume – replied gruffly:

“You should not surprise people like this. If you wish to see me, come back in the afternoon.”

Prince Nguyễn Phúc Vĩnh San, the former Emperor Duy Tân, pictured at his house in St-Denis, La Réunion

“Alas, I cannot. I must return to the port earlier to board the Dumbea. Your nephew [sic], Prince Vinh-San, understood this; he very kindly posed for my camera this morning.”

“Oh, him, that’s all he wants; but me … I’m not the same.”

However, when I presented my card – made from a fine strip of Japanese wood and adorned with a beautiful Japanese landscape – his arrogance dissipated.

“Your card comes from Japan!” he said in surprise. “So you know that country?”

“Yes, for nearly 20 years, and I like it very much. You also?”

“Oh! I have travelled from north to south; I know the big cities; Tokyo, Kyoto, Kobe. I spent three years in Japan as a cavalry captain!”

And we embarked upon an exchange of impressions of Japan, recalling shared memories.

“Well!” He said finally in a softened tone, “As you cannot return later, and because I do not want to let you go away empty-handed, wait a moment. I’ll give you my portrait.”

And, a few moments later, inside his house, he gave me a photograph of him dressed in Annamite costume, with the Légion d’honneur around his-neck.

And we parted good friends.

The Hôtel de ville in St-Denis, La Réunion

I had hoped that during this conversation, the friend who had accompanied me would hasten to photograph the scene, but he told me as we left that, suddenly captivated by the fresh beauty and bewitching eyes of the “Chinese Queen,” he did not give one thought to operating the shutter of the camera.

And that is why I cannot show you today the image of the house of the former Emperor Thanh Thai!

Marcel Wattebled

Editorial, 16 March 1927: Their Majesties Thành-Thai and Duy-Tan – A word about the errors of Monsieur Wattebled.

However, when I presented my card – made from a fine strip of Japanese wood and adorned with a beautiful Japanese landscape – his arrogance dissipated.

“Your card comes from Japan!” he said in surprise. “So you know that country?”

“Yes, for nearly 20 years, and I like it very much. You also?”

“Oh! I have travelled from north to south; I know the big cities; Tokyo, Kyoto, Kobe. I spent three years in Japan as a cavalry captain!”

And we embarked upon an exchange of impressions of Japan, recalling shared memories.

A view of St-Denis, La Réunion

This passage is taken from the article by Monsieur Marcel Wattebled (whose first name was Charles when he signed his previous interview with the former Emperor Duy Tan, perhaps he has two first names, and uses each in turn according to his preference?) when he shared with us his interview with the “Chinese king.”

These lines could be cited as a model of fantasy reporting, and at the very least we may say that the subject’s comments about Japan were only uttered to mystify the interviewer, a caprice which would hardly be surprising from Thanh-Thai, from whom we know of other exploits of a similar kind.

We have said that which needed to be said in the “Premier-Saigon” column of the Écho Annamite last Saturday.

In fact, the “Chinese king” has never set foot in the land of the Rising Sun; this being the strongest reason why he has never served the Mikado as a cavalry captain.

Certainly, Thanh-Thai could not have served in such a capacity before ascending the throne, that is to say before he reached the age of 10 years!

Furthermore, he could not have done so after his accession. Khai-Dinh was the first king of Annam “in office” to venture outside his kingdom, in order to attend the famous parade at the Exposition coloniale in Marseille in 1922, and this deviation from the ancient traditions earned him many critics, whether justified or not – though we do not have to discuss it here.

Revolutionary Prince Cường Để (Nguyễn Phúc Đan), who went to Japan in 1905

As to the idea that Thanh-Thai stayed in Japan after his forced abdication, and above all that he was recruited, in any capacity, into the Japanese army, nothing could be more absurd, because we may understand perfectly that the French government would, in all of its authority, have opposed and prevented it.

Probably Thanh-Thai knew some information about the country of chrysanthemums, either through reading or through the epistolary relations he would have had with Prince Cuong-De, who himself acquired there over a period of many years, information that the former emperor could have called upon cleverly in order to give an air of reality to his imaginary stay in that archipelago. An archipelago which is visited, with tragic regularity, by earthquakes!

Anyway, we will admit, until proven otherwise, to the documentary value of Monsieur Wattebled’s reports, originally published by our local sister paper l’Opinion, about the lives led by the exiled Annamite princes, and that is why we have reproduced them in our newspaper.

All the same, it is surprising that almost all of the information contained in the above report is of such an inexactitude such that some people might be tempted to place all of Monsieur Wattebled’s articles in the same boat, leading therefore to a loss of authority, because of their questionable nature.

The following extract from his interview with Prince Vinh-San, is no exception to the rule – if necessary, one may call it a “rule of error” or “rule of fantasy.” In it, he recounts many incontestable truths amongst the inaccuracies regarding that which is commonly known as the Hue conspiracy of 1916.

It’s the ex-emperor Duy-Tan speaking, at least Monsieur Wattebled related his words directly:

Prince Nguyễn Phúc Vĩnh San, the former Emperor Duy Tân, pictured at his house in St-Denis, La Réunion

“After occupying the throne of Annam from 1907 to 1916, the best years of my life, I was one day misguided by some members of the ‘Young Annam’ party, who wanted me to lead a revolutionary movement. I fled the palace of Hue on the night of 3 May 1916 to join the conspirators. My flight was quickly discovered. Four days later, remorseful, I went to see Messieurs Le Fol and Saunier, who led me to the Resident-Superior, Monsieur Charles.”

“After occupying the throne of Annam” – this would suggest that Duy-Tan was no longer emperor on the outbreak of the 1916 affair in which he was involved.

In reality, Duy-Tan was still emperor when the plot was discovered; and it was under that title that he participated in it, giving it a meaning which was much more severe, and also of increased gravity; his gesture was dictated neither by the spite of having lost the crown, nor by the ambition to win it back.

“Four days later,” we read again, “remorseful, I went to see Messieurs Le Fol and Saunier.”

The truth is that, after the discovery of his retreat – a pagoda near Hue – Duy-Tan was arrested. A Tonkin newspaper even reported this response by His Majesty to someone who asked him if he was armed: “Do you think if I was armed I would let you talk to me in this way without punishing you for your insolence?” This reply is far, I would suggest, from a reflection of any remorse, and is entirely consistent with Duy-Tan’s pride of character, which was well known at that time. In addition, it indicates that if the young king was taken to Messrs Le Fol and Saunier, this was certainly not of his own accord.

But the 1916 uprising attempt deserves to be known in more detail, if only for historical interest. The articles of Monsieur Wattebled do, at least, have the merit of providing us with the opportunity to begin to tackle a task which has long tempted us.

E. Dejean de la Batie

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.

An Emperor of Annam in La Réunion (1927)

Prince Nguyễn Phúc Vĩnh San, the former Emperor Duy Tân, pictured at his house in St-Denis, La Réunion

This article by French Journalist Charles Wattebled about his chance encounter in La Réunion with Prince Nguyễn Phúc Vĩnh San, the former Emperor Duy Tân, was published in L’Écho annamite: organe de défense des intérêts franco-annamites on 7 March 1927.

The isle of La Réunion is accustomed to receiving “fallen” characters; thus did it once host Saïd-Ali, Sultan of Comoros, and Queen Ranavalo of Madagascar, both now deceased; and most recently the former emperors of Annam, Thanh-Thai and Duy-Tan, who at present still live in the capital, St-Denis.

The eight-year-old Emperor Duy Tân after his coronation in 1907

I was already very curious to know more about the kind of life led by these two exiles; so who would have thought that chance – that great god of journalists – would enable me meet one of them in person, and in the most picturesque of circumstances!

One evening, as I returned very tired from a long trip to the mountains and walked slowly up the beautiful, wide rue de Paris, inhaling the deliciously fresh night air, I was suddenly brought to a halt outside the Hôtel de ville by the chords of a familiar symphony; the Philharmonic Society was rehearsing Peer Gynt. My old passion for music suddenly reawakened, I entered the large hall. There on the stage, a dozen instrumentalists applied themselves harmoniously, under the baton of a long-haired conductor, to the death of Ase. Two or three listeners listened religiously, hidden in the shadows.

After a few moments, I noticed that my neighbour, an elegant young man with Asian features, was following the score; during the intervals, he climbed onto the stage and conversed familiarly with the conductor and musicians.

Intrigued, I said to him:

“You like the music of Grieg, Monsieur?”

“Very much” came the reply. “I play the violin, and also, in the orchestra which you are listening to. I often play the oboe.”

“Really? Then you must know Peer Gynt very thoroughly, since you do not find it necessary to rehearse tonight.”

“Oh no, I usually attend rehearsals assiduously; but last Sunday I fell from my horse. I was taking part in the Grand Prix, riding Verdun, a beautiful but fiery beast, which, alas, sent me into the ditch before the start of the race. Look, my right hand is bandaged up.”

“Oh! Excuse me! So, therefore, you are an oboist and a jockey.”

Prince Nguyễn Phúc Vĩnh San, the former Emperor Duy Tân, pictured at his house in St-Denis, La Réunion

“And many other things: photographer, laureate of the Société académique Sciences et Arts. My favorite composers are Beethoven, Saint-Saëns and Gounod. I also spend time listening to the radio, and I love driving my automobile.”

Increasingly taken aback, I continued to converse with this singular young man, who seemed able to do everything, and whose curious accent, slightly creolised, left me feeling rather disconcerted.

I found the answer to the riddle when we exited the hall and exchanged cards; on his, I read:

Grand Croix du Dragon d’Annam
St-Denis, Réunion

“Grieg be praised!” I exclaimed. “I was only just wondering if I might visit you, and now, by pure chance, I have been able to make your amiable acquaintance!”

And very kindly, the former Emperor Duy-Tan, known in La Réunion by the name of Prince Vinh-San, or “The Chinese Prince,” offered me an appointment at his home the very next morning.

At the house of Prince Vinh-San

Arriving in the low-rent district of St-Denis, on the rue du Conseil, I arrived at a single-storey wooden house, fronted by a tiny courtyard.

At the door to greet me was Prince Vinh-San, small and thin, with a tanned complexion, his raven hair combed back. Dressed in a stylish grey jacket, he greeted me courteously, with a friendly smile framed beneath large spectacles.

Prince Nguyễn Phúc Vĩnh San, the former Emperor Duy Tân, pictured with a race horse in La Réunion

He gave me a tour of his apartment of three small, cramped rooms. In the first, a desk cluttered with dusty papers and disparate objects, a rickety chair and a music stand; in the second, a wireless set and disorderly piles of photographs; two modest iron beds entirely filled the third.

While I set up my camera equipment, the Prince told me his story in the most correct French:

“After occupying the throne of Annam from 1907 to 1916, the best years of my life, I was one day misguided by some members of the “Young Annam” party, who wanted me to lead a revolutionary movement. I fled the palace of Hue on the night of 3 May 1916 to join the conspirators. My flight was quickly discovered. Four days later, remorseful, I went to see Messieurs Le Fol and Saunier, who led me to the Resident-Superior, Monsieur Charles.

Afterwards, I bitterly regretted that which I regarded as an act of madness. But you already know about this unfortunate affair, so I need not say more.

Travelling on the Guadiana, I arrived at the Pointe-des Galets on 20 November 1916, after a non-stop journey of 17 days.

At that time, I was just 19 years old. I was completely disoriented, and at first I found it very difficult to acclimatise to La Réunion; I was frequently gripped by fever and I suffered three bouts of Malarial Haematuria.

Admittedly, however, I have only praise for my relations with the inhabitants of La Réunion; they have always been very considerate towards me.

Prince Nguyễn Phúc Vĩnh San, the former Emperor Duy Tân

I cannot complain about this admirable country, in which I have visited all the beautiful sites – I especially like Cilaos, its wonderful setting of mountains, fantastic canyons, ideal climate – but all these beautiful places cannot make me forget Annam.

With the very small pension I receive from the Government General of Indochina, I live as you see, very simply, together with my brother, Prince Vinh-Chuong. For private reasons, I have no contact with my uncle [sic], the former Emperor Thanh-Thai.

I only agreed to take part in the horse races as a jockey because I wanted to augment my income; it has at least made possible the purchase of that small car which you will photograph.

My dearest wish, however, would be to live in France, in Paris, the only place where I could really indulge my passion for music, which I learned without a teacher – and for literature, because twice I have been a laureate of the Académie de la Réunion.”

As he said this, the prince presented me with a book which he had authored, entitled Trois nouvelles, published in St Denis in 1922 and dedicated to a “Mademoiselle F..”

More exactly, this book contained two short stories and one comedy in two acts. Do not be fooled by appearances, it was written in a French which lacked nothing in elegance; I noticed in it many Parisian as well as Creole expressions.

See also Wattebled’s second article At the House of the “Chinese King” which describes his interview with Prince Vĩnh San’s reclusive father, Prince Nguyễn Phúc Bửu Lân (the former Emperor Thành Thái).

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 Madness of Emperor Thanh Thai

Emperor Thành Thái (ruled 1889-1907)

Nguyễn dynasty Emperor Thành Thái (ruled 1889-1907) is often remembered at best as eccentric, at worst as mentally unstable. Some historians have claimed that his madness was fabricated by the French in order to diminish his authority. Others have suggested that Thành Thái himself feigned madness in order to confuse the French. While there may be good reason to doubt some of the more lurid accounts of Thành Thái’s behaviour, it’s clear that by 1907 there was a serious constitutional crisis at the court of Huế.
Here is a selection of contemporary French descriptions of the events leading to Thành Thái’s eventual detention and removal from the throne.

Excerpt from Henri Turot’s “Indo-Chine, Philippines, Chine, Japon: d’une gare à l’autre,” 1901
A curiosity of Cholon is the elegant mansion of the Phu (prefect), where lovers of culinary peculiarities will be initiated into the complicated mysteries of Annamite cuisine.
The Phu also has two very sweet daughters, each with her own story to tell.
One was formerly in love with a young officer who died unexpectedly before the nuptials, and whose tomb is piously maintained by the Phu. The other had the good fortune to attract the attention of the young Emperor of Annam when he came to Saigon to visit Governor General Paul Doumer. It’s said that at nightfall, the Asian sovereign jumped over the wall of the palace, where he had been offered rather formal hospitality, and made his way to Cholon to engage, under the window of the Phu’s daughter, in manifestations incompatible with royal majesty. M. Doumer, who does not take such matters lightly, was called to come and put things right.

A young Emperor Thành Thái (ruled 1889-1907) with his two brothers, from Quelques notes sur l’An-Nam, L. de Sainte-Marie, 1895

“Le Roi d’Annam” (The King of Annam), in La Croix, 5 October 1906
The Courrier d’Extrême-Orient, which arrived yesterday in Marseille on the ship Calédonien, has provided us with the following account, which is reproduced here with the most express reservations.
“The old palace of the kings of Annam has been the scene of a new act of madness by Thanh-Thai. Recently, with the return of his bloodthirsty fantasies, this prince killed some of his women, in circumstances which displayed the heinous and dangerous state of mind of the master of Annam. Now, the king has murdered with a revolver the prince president of the Council of the Royal Family. The victim, who enjoyed general respect, was already of great age, with him was extinguished the last son of the Emperor Minh-Mang.
Afterwards, the king locked himself in his private apartments, refusing to receive the Résident supérieur, that is to say an act which is considered an affront against the representative of France in Annam. His own ministers also were the object of a similar exclusion.”

“La Folie d’un Empereur” (The Madness of an Emperor), from Le Progrès, 3 July 1907
There’s currently a great deal of talk in colonial circles about the sanctions which will be imposed in response to the lamentable excesses committed by the Emperor of Annam.
Thanh-Thai, who only last year was received with great pomp and ceremony in Hanoi, has become mad. In his own palace he has committed cruelty on the people around him reminiscent of that of the decadent Roman emperors. One of his wives was delivered naked to tigers, others were riddled with bullets, others tortured in a hundred abominable ways: In truth, it’s already a few years since Thanh-Thai, obviously suffering from some physiological defect, began to indulge in this kind of bloodthirsty sadism. We were able to recognise in him some traits which left no doubt in this regard. We knew that he has always rebelled against any moral direction. When M. de Lanessan was Governor General of Indochina, Thanh-Thai, then barely 15 years old, already had a harem of a dozen women. One of them, the daughter of one of his ministers, exercised great influence over his mind and ruled him entirely through the senses, pushing him to the most culpable wrongdoing.
M. de Lanessan recounted how that intriguing minister had himself thrown his daughter into the arms of the emperor, the better to establish his authority in Hue. His plan was to get rid of the Queen Mother, and once that unwelcome guardianship had been discarded, to seize power entirely for himself.
During a trip to Hue, M. de Lanessan had the occasion to get to know Thanh-Thai. He struck the Governor General as being like a little boy, capricious but intelligent. Yet he seemed ignorant and badly brought up. M. de Lanessan admonished him severely about his conduct.

Jean Marie Antoine de Lanessan, Governor General of Indochina 1891-1894 (Photographie Marius)

But already, to another resident of France who had previously made similar representations to him, the young emperor had answered: “Why are you criticizing me? It was you who raised me.”
It’s unfortunate that Thanh-Thai never received a proper education and that while he was still young he was abandoned to the violence of his perverse instincts. Following the admonition of M. de Lanessan, he promised to correct his flaws. But scarcely had the Governor General left than the young sovereign resumed the course of his vicious life.
Thus, over a long period, were the pranks, the eccentricities and the criminal follies of this degenerate kept secret. The old mandarins of the court knew them so well that they had gave Thanh-Thai only their official deference. The old Queen Mother deemed the problem so severe that she was always opposed to his freedom.
What is new is the sudden fuss which is now being made about the excesses of this unbalanced prince, given that in the past everyone seemed content to deplore his activities in silence. The result of the publicity surrounding his behaviour is that the emperor was submitted to an examination by doctors, who declared the “non-accountability” of the sovereign.
Thanh-Thai has been detained in his palace so that it is impossible for him to cause any further harm. What should be done now? M. Beau, the current Governor General of Indochina, has studied this question and the Minister of Colonies has given him full powers to resolve the issue.
Several solutions come to mind. Whatever course of action is decided, it is very important that the government of the French Republic remains in the background as much as possible, or at least gives the appearance of so doing, and that it is seen to yield in accepting the pressure of the court, of the Co Mat (Council of Ministers), the literati.
This much is certain: Thanh-Thai is already discredited in the eyes of the Annamite people. Since the day he appeared in a chauffeur’s costume, hair cut short under his cap and large dark glasses on his nose, driving a motorcycle furiously, he was lost to them.
Accustomed to see their rulers only from afar and in a setting of apotheosis, with their chignons gathered on their heads, advancing majestically in silk robes, the Annamite people have only the most profound contempt for an emperor who drives around the streets, exposing himself to all curiosity, to all the familiarities and taunts of the crowd.

Thành Thái and his brother in 1900

If, thus, the emperor were to be deposed, his disrepute is such that the people will likely do nothing to restrain the hand which removes his crown.
If approached by the Governor General, members of Co Mat of the Annamite empire will surely not be far from seeking his deposition. But it is understandable that M. Beau does not wish to approach them until all the ministers are fully agreed on this matter.
Another solution would be to consult the people by way of referendum. But it seems a priori difficult to organise such consultation.
In addition, once the emperor has been deposed, should we replace him or should we instead abolish the monarchical principle in Annam? Paul Bert already considered such abolition, several years ago, giving thought to the idea of equipping the country with parliamentary institutions. There is no shortage of scholars who would support a move in this direction. But what would the people think of a solution which, in depriving them of their sovereign, removes the religious leader of Annam?
More numerous, it seems, are those inclined to replace the deposed sovereign. But then the question arises regarding the choice of successor. With whom should we replace Thanh-Thai? Most would argue that a prince of the imperial line should be called to the throne. Some have already posed the candidature of Ham-Nghi, who has now lived for several years in Algiers. But we oppose this candidacy, on the grounds that Prince Ham-Nghi, having married a French woman, would have no influence over his people from the religious point of view, and would only cause us serious embarrassment.
In the meantime, M. de Lanessan has asked the Queen Mother to issue an edict dispossessing Thanh Thai of his prerogatives and investing all royal powers in a Regency Council. Thanh-Thai, confined to his palace, may one day be cured of his madness. In any case, being isolated, he will be harmless.
M. Beau is currently studying these various solutions. What is important, regardless of the decision taken, is that the Co Mat is seen by the Annamite people to assume all responsibilities for that decision.

Riverside decorations in preparation for a river trip by Thành Thái

“L’empereur d’Annam” (The Emperor of Annam), in Bulletin de la Société de géographie commerciale de Paris, August 1907
The Emperor of Annam, Thanh Thai, having indulged in numerous acts of violence which denoted a veritable intellectual impairment, obliged us in 1906 to impose certain monitoring measures to prevent the recurrence of his deplorable excesses.
However, we have recently had to reach a more rigorous decision regarding him.
On 30 July 1907, the Résident supérieur arranged for the detention of the emperor in his palace and the setting up of a Council of Regency to take charge of affairs under the control of the Résident supérieur.
A phantom of a sovereign, Thanh-Thai was only a hieratic idol, dressed in yellow silk; he never took active part in the government.

“l’Intèrnement du Roi d’Annam” (The Detention of the King of Annam), in Journal des débats politiques et littéraires, 2 August 1907
Readers will recall that in the month of August 1906, after Thanh-Thai, King of Annam had indulged in many acts of violence, veritable movements of madness caused by habitual debauchery, the Résident supérieur was obliged to take, with the Co Mat (Council of Ministers), measures to put an end to the king’s scandalous conduct.
Since that time he has been monitored constantly, and for a while it seemed that he had returned to a state of reassuring calm. But towards the end of May 1907, the mandarins placed at his side expressed concern about some changes in his manners, some alteration of his features, outward signs by which, periodically, his acts of madness were manifested.
Furthermore, the Résident supérieur had to be brought in to witness the awakening of the king’s bad instincts when he inflicted the most serious abuse on members of his entourage.
All of the facts and specific information gathered by the Résident supérieur now leaves no doubt about the disorder observed in the state of Thanh-Thai, on his recklessness and on the dangers of letting him continue to exercise royal power.
In these circumstances, the government recently decided that it was necessary to detain the king in his palace and to establish a Regency Council, composed of members of Co Mat and chaired by the Minister of Justice, under the overall and ongoing control of our representative in Hue.

Emperor Thành Thái (ruled 1889-1907)

In implementing this decision and in accordance with instructions of the Minister of Colonies, the Résident supérieur proceeded on 30 July 1907 with the detention of the king in his palace and the establishment of the Regency Council, which immediately took over the direction of royal affairs, under the supervision of the Résident supérieur.
The Governor General, in providing the information above, remarked that these measures were executed without any incident occurring.

“L’Empereur Fou” (The Mad Emperor), in Les Annamites: société, coutumes, religions by Colonel Édouard Diguet, 1907
The Emperor Thanh Thai will be deposed, but no one yet knows whether the monarchical principle in Annam will be removed or maintained.
M. Beau, Governor General of Indochina, has been concerned, since his arrival in the Far East, with the Emperor Thanh-Thai, who is now confined to his palace, out of harm’s way.
Members of Co Mat or Council of Ministers of the empire of Annam, when approached by the Governor General, were unanimous in asking for the mad emperor to be deposed. They have proposed as his successor a child, descendant of the Emperor Gia Long. The candidacy of Ham-Nghi, the dethroned former Emperor, was ruled out by the Co Mat, the latter having lost, through his marriage with a French woman, any link with his race; indeed, the return of Ham-Nghi would have been viewed very badly in Annam, where the prince is now considered a stranger.
M. Beau, before formally consulting the Co Mat, wondered if we might profit from the deposition of Thanh-Thai by abolishing the monarchical principle in Annam, and replacing royalty in this country by a sort of parliament. This is an old idea which Paul Bert came up with some years ago when he thought of creating in Hanoi a permanent Congress of all the Councils of Notables. A certain number of Tonkinese and Annamite scholars, those dedicated to civilising ideas, would not take a dim view of the introduction of such a parliamentary system in this country. But what would the people think of a solution which, by depriving them of their sovereign, removes the religious leader of Annam?
This issue is indeed very serious. M. Beau is studying it very carefully, and we know that the Minister of the Colonies has given him full authority to resolve it. It’s in Annam, and not in Paris, that this matter must be determined.
From all points of view, whether a new emperor ascends the throne in Annam or a parliamentary system is introduced, the fate of Thanh-Thai is in no doubt. This mad sovereign, when the issue is laid before the Co Mat gathered in solemn assembly, will be deposed.

Paul Beau, Governor General of Indochina 1902-1908

But it is understandable that M. Beau is prudent enough not to proceed until members of the Co Mat are all agreed on the correct course of action in retaining or abolishing the monarchical principle in Annam. – F H

“La Folie de l’Empereur d’Annam (The Madness of the Emperor of Annam), in La Lanterne: journal politique quotidien, 7 September 1907
The newspaper l’Opinion, while expressing reservations about this information, relates that a few weeks ago, the Emperor of Annam experienced an acute fit of madness, the tragic manifestations of which required the intervention of M. Lyce, Résident supérieur of Annam, who, if warned in time, could have prevented a scene of carnage in the palace of the young sovereign.
Armed with a revolver, Thanh-Thai rushed into the apartments of his concubines, and, at close range, allegedly killed three of his women. Continuing into the private apartments of high ranking concubines, he proceeded to tie up two of them, including the Empress herself, and whipped them until they were bleeding.
The Co Mat, which is the great Council of Ministers of the Annamite empire, moved by the demented attitude of the sovereign, has drafted a report containing eight complaints about Thanh-Thai, among which, apart from the above facts, is one very serious in the eyes of Annamites – bathing naked in the river of Hue.
Since ancient times, the Annamites, like their educators the Chinese, like to surround the majesty of the sovereign with a mysterious and divine character. It would have been clever of the French government to keep this character in the emperors we ourselves placed on the throne of Annam, those who had already committed, in the eyes of the people, the crime of being our creatures. But, like awkward and curious children, we broke the idol which represented the Annamite design of royal majesty. The Emperor Thanh-Thai promenades around the city on a bicycle, or in a Victoria carriage with one or two of his wives, thus exposing himself to a promiscuity which greatly undermines his prestige. What must his subjects think?
We could see the concern in their eyes at the 1897 celebrations in Saigon and at the Hanoi Exhibition in 1902. One whom the Annamite regards with not a shudder of awe, only a curious eye and a tad of maliciousness, cannot be his king. He thinks bitterly that we should have left untouched the majesty of the emperor, whose sovereignty we had already removed.

Emperor Thành Thái (ruled 1889-1907)

“L’Internement du Roi d’Annam (The Detention of the King of Annam), in La Quinzaine coloniale: organe de l’Union coloniale française, 1907
Thanh Thai, the King of Annam, has been detained by order of the government. One cannot say that this measure is a surprise. Indeed, it’s more than a year already since the government signalled its intention of taking this decision, and at that time everyone agreed with the idea, finding it amply justified by the scandalous fantasies and atrocities which surrounded the name of Thanh-Thai, both in his kingdom and throughout the Far East, an orgy of bloodthirstiness and debauchery.
However, under the influence of considerations whose value now escapes us, it was eventually thought better to give him the benefit of the doubt. Sadly, if we were hoping to see from the young king some kind of repentance, recent events have been quick to show that we overestimated his wisdom. After seeming, for a few months, to have mended his ways, Thanh-Thai returned to his bloodthirsty excesses.
This time, the government had to recognise that it was no longer possible, under pain of incurring grave responsibilities and provoking perhaps an uprising in the Annamite population, to continue to entrust the exercise of royal power to a sovereign who has, for his subjects, became an object of ridicule, disgust and hatred. It was therefore decided to detain Thanh-Thai in his palace and to establish a Council of Regency, composed of members of the Co Mat, which will operate under the chairmanship of the Minister of Justice and under the control our representative in Hue.
It must be said that the stern measures which have been taken to address the delicate and complex situation created by the state of dementia displayed by Thanh-Thai have not given rise to the slightest criticism. The constitution of a Council of Regency is viewed, indeed, as the only regular and normal way of ensuring continuity in the exercise of the royal function in a country where a sovereign who is unable to reign nonetheless remains invested with the title of king.
But isn’t it the case that press coverage of the events which have just occurred in Hue have been, if not inaccurate, at least incomplete on an essential point? When we telegraphed from Saigon that the king had been deposed without difficulty or incident, we purposely emphasised the word “deposition.”

The Đại Cung Môn, main entrance to the Forbidden Purple City in the Huế Citadel

This was to show that Thanh-Thai was not only seen to be removed from the exercise of power, but also that he had been deprived of the title and dignity of king. In other words, the government had opened the vacancy of the throne for an indefinite period, effectively removing the monarchy.
If that were so, this matter would be extremely serious. It would be nothing less, in fact, than a revolution in the inner constitution of the kingdom, a tacit abrogation by unilateral means of the conventions which govern the organisation of our protectorate in Annam and determine the nature of the relationship which binds the Annamite nation to France and its representatives.
One will understand, under these conditions, that a further explanation of the nature and scope of the measures taken by the government appear to us essential. We hope that those explanations will permit nothing to subsist of the hypothesis that we have issued. If it were otherwise, we can only regret a dangerous sudden change of course in our Indochina policy, by a measure imposed by no necessity.
Thai-Thanh himself, despite his follies and bloodthirsty extravagances, has never been an embarrassment to us; his detention has rendered him harmless, without any need to take away the title of king. If one decided to go that far, it could only be on the condition of nominating a successor immediately, who, whatever the choice of candidate, will not more seriously hamper our actions.
In short, whatever the personality of the sovereign, what is needed is to retain the monarchy, which in this country is little more than decor, facade, but a facade to which the Annamites are accustomed, an important component of their traditional institutions behind which our action is exercised with ease and freedom. Indeed, we could not exercise that action to the same open and convenient degree without the visual deception provided by this fiction.
We would like to think that the government does not think differently from us on this point and that the deposition of Thanh-Thai did not take place in way we have dared to imagine above. This is one more reason why the authorities must hasten to put things straight by means of an authorised communication which defines precisely the new situation created by the measures taken in respect of Thanh-Thai.

The young Emperor Duy Tân (ruled 1907-1916)

“Un Roi Fou” (A Mad King), in Le Journal, 7 October 1907
Thanh Thai has abdicated and it is the young Duy-Tan, aged only eight, who has succeeded him on the throne.
Marseille, 6 October – The newspaper Le Courrier Saïgonnais, which arrived this afternoon, gives the following details on the abdication of King Thanh Thai and the ceremony of elevation to the throne of his fifth son, aged eight, the second of his surviving children, who will reign as Duy Tan.
In the morning, in the presence of the Governor General and the Résident supérieur, various rituals took place aimed at choosing the regnal name of the sovereign and presenting the royal regalia.
Official receptions were held in the afternoon. The new king thanked the French government, in the person of the Governor General, for the support which it has always given to the kingdom of Annam. The Governor General responded with his wishes for the new king to enjoy a long reign and for the prosperity of Annam. Then, on behalf of the French government, he declared the recognition of Duy Tan and led him to the throne, accompanied by the Résident supérieur. The ceremony completed, the king accompanied the Governor General out of the throne room.
The next day, 6 September, His Majesty Duy-Tan, accompanied by members of the Council of Regency and senior mandarins of the court, visited the Governor General. The king again thanked the French government for the powerful support it continues to lend to Annam in all circumstances.
The President of the Council of Regency, on behalf of His Majesty, members of the Regency Council and the mandarins of the court, thanked the French government for agreeing to nominate a new king for Annam and giving the country a government in line with its Constitution.
Responding, the Governor General offered His Majesty Duy-Tan the best wishes of the government of the French Republic. “The protectorate government,” he added, “will partner Annam with great heart, as it has always done, supporting the work of moral and material progress. France will continue to offer all of its powerful assistance to the empire of Annam in order to avert the dangers of war, but it is necessary that the mandarins also bring us, from their side, the most dedicated assistance.”
After the visit, the king was taken to his carriage by the Résident supérieur. Military honours were rendered by troops of the garrison of Hue.

Thành Thái took up residence in Cap-Saint-Jacques after he was deposed

“L’empereur Thanh-Thai” (Emperor Thanh-Thai), in Les Annales coloniales: organe de la France coloniale modern, 31 October 1907
Thanh Thai, the former king of Annam, arrived this morning in Cap-Saint-Jacques on the steamship “Cachar.” He was accompanied by five women, 10 children, six nurses, a doctor and 20 servants. Disembarking at Cap-Saint-Jacques, he was received by the administrator of the province and an aide of the Governor General. The former king has settled provisionally in the villa of Governor General. The landing and reception did not give rise to any incident.

De Java au Japon par l’Indochine, la Chine et la Corée by A Maufroid, 1913

Do the Annamites glorify their future by building new tombs in memory of the sovereigns who have held the throne since our conquest? No, probably because in reality, since Tu-Duc, there have been no more all-powerful and respected Annamite emperors.
Can the Annamite recognise as their leaders puppets chosen by the French to govern in their name? Hiep-Hoa, and after him Dong Khanh, were humiliated by the invaders. Thanh-Thai in recent years was dismissed as a mere clerk. Without doubt, the excesses of Thanh-Thai brought a ferocious sadism. He cut the breasts of his women, climbed into the branches of trees and hunted them with the shots of his rifle, like birds.
But ultimately, it was above all his lack of docility towards the Resident Superior which motivated his exile in Saigon.
There, Thanh-Thai continues to live out his fantasies in a disorderly way. However, he seems to have become quite harmless. His last joke was to simulate a deep love for the daughter of the official responsible for monitoring him. Whenever that official presented himself to ensure the state of his charge, Thanh-Thai overwhelmed him with huge bouquets, destined for the lady of his thoughts.
Today, is the little Duy-Tan a true emperor to the Annamites? Certainly not; they know very well that this youngster of thirteen is, like his predecessors, a mere plaything in the hands of foreigners from the West.
His palace, by a curious irony, as is trapped in the citadel built in the eighteenth century by the Frenchman Ollivier for the great Emperor Gia Long. It looks a bit like the tombs scattered around the countryside of Hue. It is an immense dead city, surrounded by walls and ditches near the beautiful river with its transparent water.

Governor General Paul Doumer (1897-1902)

An excerpt from Indo-Chine française (souvenirs) by former Governor General Paul Doumer, 1930 edition
On the right bank of the Perfume River, where the king and his retinue disembark, waited a convoy accompanied by the huge elephants of the palace. One of them was coupled to a chariot of colossal dimensions, utterly out of proportion with the beast which dragged it. That chariot in which the king sat was painted with red lacquer and decorated with gold ornaments trimmed with yellow silk.
That was, I think, the last time, in 1897, that Thanh-Thai agreed to go to the Nam-Giao Esplanade in this manner. He later adopted, despite his mandarins’ protests that he should maintain the ancient traditions and rituals, a more simple and modern means of transport.
For Annamites whom European civilisation has not yet touched, the mass of elephants, the size and richness of the chariot well symbolised the royal power and majesty. It was bigger, in fact, that our small steel cannon up there on the ramparts, which could if necessary have swept aside all those processing along the long road with their elephants and altars. But that French cannon was not their enemy; it was their protector, which maintained the internal and external security of the kingdom, respected the lives, customs, beliefs and religious practices of the Annamite people, and was respected by all.
Good little cannon of France, stay on your high wall, silent, at rest, but always vigilant, always ready; the future of this country depends on it!

The Nam Giao Esplanade

The royal sacrifice to Heaven and Earth always takes place at night. The king, who in this ceremony assumes the office of high priest, prepared himself by fasting and meditating in a specially-built pagoda, located not far from the Nam-Giao Esplanade. He went directly there after leaving the palace. In the afternoon, he attended as a spectator the preparations, or more precisely the rehearsal of the massive and complicated ceremony to be staged that evening.
There, he gave me an appointment and, while his courtiers practiced the movements, dances and songs they would perform a few hours later, I had with Thanh-Thai, one on one, long conversations on over a hundred different subjects, which enabled me to obtain an idea of his character, his intelligence, his worth, his upbringing.
My judgment was subsequently confirmed during the five years I encountered him in his daily life, during which time, won over by the sympathy I showed him, he opened up to me and let me see the depths of his soul.
Thanh-Thai was not, to any degree, the mad, bloodthirsty man we talk about all too readily. He had, on the contrary, a keen intelligence, a clear reason, a great sense of self-possession. But his education as a young king, the absolute power closed to all eyes which he exercised in his royal residence, where the authority of the Queen Mothers and regents was felt only intermittently and only in the most serious cases, had developed in him defects that would have destroyed any other. He was deliberate, capricious, even whimsical.
Locked in his cold, dark palace, and, more than that, chained by the narrow rites which since time immemorial had regulated the doings of the kings of Annam and which could only be broken with poison, he was gripped by the desire for freedom that our presence helped to provoke. It was very difficult, indeed, to bend a young sovereign to the tyrannical rules from which he saw the French as being exempt, to persuade him to respect ancient practices, unpleasant to bear, when they were to us, as he knew well, a subject of mockery.

The Commander of the Royal Guard and his Escort

From there sprang the breaches that were imputed as crimes, the freedom of manners and language of which the court complained, bringing their grievances to the Résident supérieur, who sometimes had to intervene.
Added to this, at an age when most Annamites were rarely married, Thanh-Thai had a large harem of legitimate wives, concubines and servants, and this hardly helped his intellectual and moral balance. In the long hours of confinement and idleness, he indulged in brutalities, even appalling cruelties, which were too easy for us to explain, and which we exaggerated at pleasure. Readings made to him from French books, histories of the lives of our ancient kings, were not always edifying. They excited his imagination, pushing him to seek dangerous experiences.
It did not seem feasible to me that we should continue to keep this young king as tightly locked and bound by rules of another age as his predecessors had been. When everything around the royal citadel was being transformed, when a free life, the right to move, to work in a place of one’s choice, to acquire and to possess, would become the common lot of his subjects, should the King of Annam alone be cloistered, controlled, manipulated like a puppet?
The rites, some sacrosanct as they are, could surely benefit from some alterations, be softened and modernised. By using the great authority of the regents, one should reach a modus vivendi which is equally accommodating to both king and court.
For all that, the accusations against Thai-Thanh will probably never cease; but their cause would disappear, and that is essential.
While I was able to talk at length with the king during the daytime rehearsal, on the night of the festivities I had to be a discreet and silent witness to the great religious ceremony over which Thanh-Thai once more presided. Already, in the Spring of the years 1891 and 1894, he had made sacrifice to the spirits of Heaven and Earth, since in the period of trouble which followed the death of Tu-Duc in 1883, no other king had twice offered the triennial sacrifice. It was an index of the restoration of political stability in Annam, and I did not fail to point this out to my royal interlocutor that afternoon.

The Nam Giao Esplanade

I arrived around midnight at the Nam-Giao Esplanade, led by an interpreter of the palace. The silent crowd formed groups around the village altars they had brought. They could only see, of the ceremony, glimmers of smoke drifting skyward, beyond the dark area of pine wood. They only knew that in that mysterious compound, their king and his mandarins were trying their best to secure the most favourable outcome from Heaven and Earth, that is to say, giving them a reason to live and hope, that for which they prayed fervently. From this human mass, enveloped by the darkness of a moonless and starless night, arose not a cry, not a murmur. The presence of so many people created the most profound silence, heavier than if there were no-one here at all.
At a signal, the door of the enclosure opened to let us pass. We crossed the dark and empty wood where nothing sounded, nothing moved. Here and there, standing next to the trunk of a tree and merging with it, a soldier stood silent and immobile. He was not looking to see who we were; no-one who did not have the right to enter would ever dare set foot in this inviolable enclosure, no-one would ever dare commit the double crimes of lèse-majesté and lèse-divinité.
We arrived at last at the great square esplanade which represents the Earth. We climbed the stairs; the show was unexpected, unforgettable. The surrounding terrain was filled with vast altars, decorated, lit, on each of which a large buffalo, killed and skinned, spread its white flesh. A mandarin officiated at one altar with a few servants. Close by burned a large fire which, in a moment, would roast the entrails of the victims. These were the scenes of ancient Greece which we had before our eyes, as we discovered the cult of ancestor worship of the Annamites and Chinese.

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 Emperor Khai-Dinh” by François Tessan, 1922

Emperor Khải Định (ruled 1916-1925) presides over a state ceremony (Agence Meurisse press photo)

François Tessan’s article “The Emperor Khai-Dinh,” published in the 1922 volume Dans l’Asie qui s’éveille: essais indochinois (In an Awakening Asia: Indochinese essays), offers a uniquely French colonial view of the penultimate Nguyễn emperor.

It’s in Hue, capital of the “Empire of the Pacified South”, that we have the opportunity to see, in all his Asian splendour, the almighty sovereign on whose countenance at one time no-one could look, except on pain of death. There is surely no city in the whole of Indochina which has retained a more distinct character and a more meditative physiognomy.

“The Perfume River – view from the famous beauty spot named “Bellevue” (modern Vọng Cảnh Hill)

There emerges from Hue a perfume of supreme philosophy. The emperor Thieu-Tri, in his famous poems, eulogised his 20 main beauty spots, expressing with delicacy the visible and invisible charms of these predestined places.

Over time, Hue has remained a city jealous of its beauty, of its traditions, of its originality, where the “Duc-hoang-de,” the Absolute Master, symbol of divine and humane virtues, reigns according to the principles of the dynasty of the Nguyen.

Not far from the Perfume River, whose waters wander lazily between the rows of flame trees and Japanese lilac which decorate its banks, in the palaces, courtyards and gardens which together form a vast fortress, lives the “Son of Heaven” who is responsible for all Annam. He is doubly hidden from prying eyes, because, apart from the path of the Perfume River, Hue is surrounded on three sides by the Annamite mountain range. Furthermore, this Perfume River does not communicate directly with the sea. At its mouth, a barrier prohibits navigation and the lagoons in which the city is hidden pose no less significant obstacles.

Boats on the Perfume River

When one talks about the “capital,” one should not interpret this word in the strictly Western sense, that is to say, by imagining a city which is imposed on a region by virtue of its geographical position, and which permits easy communication in all directions, facilitating the movement of trade. Hue is above all a place of magnificent retreat, by virtue of the majesty of its surrounding landscape, the scale of its great Citadel, the abundance of its monuments and the peace of its royal tombs, in short, its very mystery. It is a spiritual and political capital that its founders chose for reasons of magical order.

Indeed, they found that here in Hue were concentrated all supernatural influences. Was it not in this place that the energy of the Long-Mach (dragon veins) was discovered, all those centuries ago? To the dynasty of the Nguyen goes the honour of having restored the national tradition, to have infused new life into Annam, having restored strength to that Dragon.

R P Cadière wrote a very nice article on the intervention of spirits in favour of Hue, which pointed out that all of its mountains, woods, rivers are populated by spirits: “Everywhere,” said the missionary scholar, “legends consecrate the stranglehold of the spirits over the capital, and at the same time their beneficent influence, their constant intervention.

The Citadel in Huế

These benevolent actions by supernatural beings are both the cause and the effect of sentiments which animate the people of Hue towards their heavenly protectors. From the top to the bottom of the social ladder, from the Emperor who makes sacrifices to Heaven at the Nam-Giao esplanade to the humble peasant who makes offerings on festival days, from the profound silence of great palaces to the most squalid hut or the most miserable of boats, days already established by custom or required by the spirits are celebrated. Hearts freeze in awe and respect as incense is smoked, garlands suspended, special dishes offered, rice wine and tea poured, and bodies prostrated.”

Thus are the piety and religion of man reciprocated by the goodness of the gods! Hue is therefore the ideal retreat, where the sovereign is in the best place to contemplate his duties and to cultivate the science of government. Surrounded by conducive terrestrial and celestial influences, he must fulfil his mission so that he becomes the enlightened guide of his people’s souls, “the father and the mother of his subjects.” It’s precisely because Hue offers so many harmonious conditions for the direction of the people of Annam that the Emperor Thieu-Tri proclaimed the superiority of his “marvellous capital” over all other cities.

A colonial-era photo of the An Cựu Bridge over the An Cựu River (Canal) in Huế

Taking a walk along the Phu-Cam Canal, around 1km south of the Forbidden City, one will find on the left bank, just before reaching the An-Cuu Bridge, a large native-style portico. Behind this screen of curious aesthetic there is a garden whose exoticism is skillfully disciplined, and, behind the garden, a villa whose mixture of western coquetry and Annamite art cannot fail to surprise the visitor. Before him is the city residence of the present Emperor, His Majesty Khai-Dinh. This is where, very often, the monarch comes to rest from his governmental worries. He likes to retire to this house, not only to escape the strict etiquette of palace and its administrative fatigues, but because the past draws him to this nest of greenery. Part of his youth was spent here. But at that time the house was more modest, comprising only a single-storey building and a small temple for the worship of the ancestors. There were not many servants. The life that he led then was simple and frugal. At that time, when bowing before the tablets of his ancestors, the young Prince Phung-Hoa, now His Majesty Khai-Dinh, doubtless hardly dared think of the day when his name would be transcribed in the Book of Gold and displayed in all the temples of the ancient kings and in the Nam-Giao – the Temple of Heaven.

Emperor Đồng Khánh (ruled 1885-1889)

Following what adventures did the young prince take power? This is the most recent history of Annam that I will recount as briefly as possible.

The Emperor Dong-Khanh, who had ascended the throne in 1885 in succession to his brother Ham Nghi, unfortunately ruled only three and a half years. He was a great friend of France and we based our best hopes on his collaboration, but he was taken at the age of just 30. He left two daughters and a son named Buu-Dao, who later took the title Prince Phung-Hoa (“One who transforms into a phoenix”), but was then just three years old and deemed too young to reign. In place of Phung-Hoa – who later became Khai Dinh – the two governments, Annamite and French, chose a prince from another branch of the royal family, Buu-Lan, who took the name of Thanh-Thai (“Absolute happiness and success in everything”).

The two widows of Dong-Khanh – his first and second queens (the latter being the mother Phung Hoa) – retired with their son to the tomb of the late emperor in the Hue countryside. While leading a materially poor and very discreet existence, they did nonetheless give the young prince a strong traditional education and equipped him with the essential notions of writing, reading and morality. They associated these teachings with their cult, following the recommendations of Confucius: “Respect that which the ancestors have respected; cherish what they have loved; serve the dead as if they were alive; honour those buried in their tombs as if they were still present. Is this not the height of filial piety?” They inspired his sense of personal dignity, just as the Book of Verse says: ”Be careful of yourself in your own house. Thus the sage attracts respect, even when he does not appear in public.”

Prince Nguyễn Phúc Bửu Đảo, granted the title Phụng Hóa Công 奉化公 in 1906, eventually succeeded to the throne as the Emperor Khải Định (Huong-Ky Photographie d’art, Hanoï)

When he had reached his 18th year, Phung-Hoa came to live in the small villa at Phu-Cam, about which we were talking earlier. By then he had already acquired a good knowledge of the Chinese classics, and he continued to study them. He was no less interested in the study of ritual questions and of the history of his country. Those who approached him could only praise the dignity of his life and recognise the nobility of his feelings. “Ong-Hoang Ca” (Mr Crown Prince) – as he was called by the natives – showed perfect courtesy towards all. His physical distinction, his soft voice, his agreeable physiognomy, attracted the sympathy of all the people around him. He did not forget that other precept of Confucius: “He who loves his fellow man is truly a man.” And this humane attitude contrasted strongly with the arrogance of certain other members of the royal family. The philosopher noted the sympathetic influence of he who sought the good of those around him: “He shines like the sun and moon. His consistency is comparable to that of the four seasons. His influence recalls that of the spirits. If he anticipates Heaven, Heaven will not oppose him. If he follows Heaven, he will conform to the seasons. And if Heaven does not resist him, still less will men and the spirits resist him!”

The Emperor Thanh-Thai was, in fact, very hostile to this young prince, who, however, did not take umbrage. Thanh-Thai spared him no bullying. Thus, access to the Palace was forbidden to Phung-Hoa during major religious holidays. He was denied all honours. A derisory pension was allocated to him. But Phung-Hoa wisely bided his time, accepting all these miseries. In his villa at An-Cuu, which he decorated himself with exquisite taste, he occupied his time with painting and music.

Emperor Thành Thái (ruled 1889-1907)

An artist in every sense of the word, and one of refined sensibility and remarkable manual dexterity, he oversaw everything in his little domain. He excelled at designing his garden, pruning shrubs in the Chinese and Japanese fashion, and cultivating fruit trees. He also knew how to train horses for racing or for pulling carriages. In this way, apart from reading the canonical books and other literary works, he was not embarrassed to fully occupy his leisure time. Perhaps he neglected a little the knowledge of French. But if he didn’t speak our language correctly at that time, at least he was already able to hear and usefully follow a conversation.

Phung-Hoa never made any allusion to the throne of Annam. While remembering that he was the son of an emperor and – despite the material difficulties of his existence – maintaining impeccable elegance, he never ever thought of planning for the future. Like any prudent Annamite, he awaited with patience the course of his destiny.

Thus in 1907, the Emperor Thanh-Thai, worn out and half-mad, abdicated in favour of his son Duy-Tan (“Friend of Reforms”), who was just seven years old. If Phung-Hoa felt some bitterness about that choice, he carefully concealed it and he never abandoned his customary discretion. He did nothing to force events. Those were the events which, in a few years’ time, would pull him from the darkness.

Former Emperor Duy Tân (ruled 1907-1916) in his later years

In 1916, a vague conspiracy was formed in Hue and the feeble Duy-Tan was ready to believe the conspirators. Did he sincerely believe that he could escape the French protectorate by making war, or did he dare to turn his back after having become embroiled in the plot?

Whatever the case, on that evening of 3 May 1916, the young emperor left his palace to lead the insurgents. He was soon joined by our agents, members of the Security Service, who were fully aware of his actions. After an escapade which lasted three days, Duy-Tan was taken back to the capital. On 8 May, Governor-General Ernest Roume arrived from Hanoi. During a meeting he presided over, assisted by Monsieur Charles, Resident-Superior in Annam and attended by members of the Grand Privy Council, it was decided to dethrone Duy-Tan, who was then placed under arrest in the Citadel. It was then decided unanimously – all members belonging to the Thanh-Thai branch of the royal family having been excluded – to call on Prince Phung-Hoa. On 10 May, at the Résidence supérieure, Monsieur Roume had his first interview with the future emperor, who arrived alone, in a pousse-pousse. The prince was so moved that he found it hard to express his thanks to both governments for thinking of him, a person who had never intrigued for power. Head high, he would soon cross the threshold of the palace of his ancestors which he had left 27 years earlier. Phung-Hoa took the regnal name of Khai-Dinh – which means “Era of progress.”

Emperor Khải Định on the throne

On 18 May 1916, a day regarded as favourable by royal astrologers, Khai-Dinh was enthroned amidst official pomp in accordance with ancient rites, and his name was inscribed in the Golden Book, which was opened only at the beginning and end of each reign.

The industriousness of Emperor Khai-Dinh was not long in coming. First, relations with France were cordially restored and a range of planned reforms agreed with the protectorate government. Monsieur Albert Sarraut, and then Monsieur Maurice Long, found in him an enlightened mind ready to work honestly to improve the institutions of empire. Recently, for example, an Indigenous Consultative Chamber for Annam was established.

This young ruler is imbued with a different idea of his function than his predecessors. He claims to draw on the principles that guided the great Nguyen monarchs. The title of “Emperor of the Pacified South” is no empty title. Heavy are the honours and the duties attached to it. It would be incorrect to judge the role of an Asian emperor by comparing it with the role of a Western emperor. Back home, we speak gladly of the despotism of distant monarchs, who often appear to many as autocrats with no limits to their fancy. In reality, if this absolutism is in appearance tempered by no written rule, it is, nevertheless, limited by the duties inspired by Confucian doctrine and the rights of community and family. All Annamite society is steeped in the utilitarian morality which arises from the sacred texts and teachings of the philosophers. The Emperor has custody of this morality, and no upper class may come between him and his subjects. The “Duc Hoang de,” supreme judge, incarnation of the law, speaks and acts on behalf of his nation.

Portrait of the Emperor Khải Định

His intermediaries, the mandarins, divided into nine classes, are not a hereditary caste. They are recruited by examination. Even the poorest children of the rice field, if they are distinguished by their intellectual merits, can become one of the “Four Pillars of the Empire,” that is to say, one of the Four Ministers. It’s from the people that emerge the agents of the all-powerful master. By obtaining university degrees, and through the public demonstration of high moral qualities, they may arrive at the top of the administrative hierarchy. But their descendants have no birth right to special offices of the state, neither do they retain any privileges. They are simply entitled to honours which decrease from generation to generation. And if, after a while, the little sons of those who once occupied the highest offices have not acquired a high personal knowledge and passed the royal examinations satisfactorily, they will fall, lost amongst common mortals.

As for the Emperor himself, if he fails in his mission, if he does not observe the rites, or shows himself unworthy of the honours conferred upon him, he can be excommunicated by the people. Denounced by his subjects, who would consider him as having failed the Mandate of Heaven, he would be driven from the palace. This has happened. Bloody revolts have broken out in history. Thus do dynasties collapse.

Portrait of the Emperor Khải Định

By the same token, when the emperor governs with prudence, any attack against him is repressed with ferocity. His life and prestige are backed by implacable laws. Not only the man guilty of an attack against the sovereign, but also his family, can be destroyed after appropriate punishment for the misdemeanour.

In the palaces of Hue, etiquette remains extremely severe. The regulations for royal escorts, royal guards and interior police allow no harm whatsoever to the imperial dignity. In the capital itself, we feel awe hovering over everything.

The Emperor Khai-Dinh has neglected nothing to enhance the lustre of this protocol and to revive past traditions which combine with contemporary ideas to create an elegant modernism. His artistic tastes have also been imposed liberally since his accession. Hardly was he installed as emperor than the private apartments of the palace, the Palace of the Queen Mothers, outbuildings and courtyards, gardens and temples whose maintenance had previously left much to be desired, were rehabilitated. We have witnessed a complete transformation and a rebirth of the Annamite aesthetic. The tomb of Dong-Khanh was a particular object of devotional attention for Khai-Dinh, who has never failed in the precepts of Confucianism. The monarch has also chosen, with the help of his astrologers and geomancers, the locations of his own grave and of the tombs of the Queen Mothers – which in Annam is a high mark of solicitude and love. His generosity has been no less apparent with regard to Thanh-Thai and the princes and princesses of that family, which, however did not cease to create setbacks for him. The Emperor Khai-Dinh did not want to remember the offences committed against him when he was Prince Phung-Hoa.

Empress Từ Cung with her son Nguyễn Phúc Vĩnh Thụy (the future Emperor Bảo Đại)

A single son -the prince Vinh-Thuy – has been born to the sovereign of Annam. This prince, aged nine, accompanied his father to France in May 1922. He has since remained in Paris for his education and upbringing. Monsieur Charles, former Resident-Superior in Hue, has been made responsible for introducing him to Western culture. No more complete proof of the attachment of His Majesty Khai-Dinh to France may be provided to us than his desire to see his child deeply connected with us through spiritual and cultural ties.

The very fact that the emperor himself left his kingdom to pay a visit to the protecting nation appears no less significant. It is unique in history. On that occasion, His Majesty Khai-Dinh spoke in the language of his country’s scholars about the benefits of France’s involvement in the Far East.

“Yours,” he declared, “is a great living intellect, active and creative. We, on the other hand, are a meditative and calm intellect which revels in the pious contemplation of dead things. Still, you have come, by way of the mind and the heart, to respect our past and make it serve the glorious edification of your future. Thanks to your supreme and subtle intelligence, as far as the Annamites are concerned, you have denied nothing, despised nothing. That is why I have come across the oceans to learn from you, from your clear genius, the great conciliatory lesson that will unite forever the fate of my people to the destinies of sovereign France.”

What comment can one add to such a tribute?

The French Résidence-Supérieure in Huế

Emperor Khải Định at his desk (Huong-Ky Photographie d’art, Hanoï)

Emperor Khải Định at his desk (Huong-Ky Photographie d’art, Hanoï)

Emperor Khải Định at his desk (Huong-Ky Photographie d’art, Hanoï)

The Đồng Khánh Mausoleum was remodelled by Emperor Khải Định


The An Định Palace, built in neo-classical colonial French style on the site of the former Phủ Phụng Hóa in 1917 and renovated and enlarged between 1917 and 1919


Emperor Khải Định visited Paris in 1922

The funeral of Emperor Khải Định

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 Bombing of Saigon,” 5-6 May 1944

American B-29 Superfortresses dropping incendiary bombs over Asia in 1945 (U.S. Air Force photo)

From L’Écho annamite, organe de défense des intérêts franco-annamites, 11 May 1944

Saigon, 6 May 1944. – The city of Saigon was bombed on the night of 5-6 May 1944 by successive waves of Allied aircraft. Populous residential districts were hit, leaving at least 200 dead and 356 wounded, with many women and children victims still not accounted for. All of the victims were Indochinese, with the exception of a European who was injured. Two enemy planes were damaged by the D. C. A. (Press)

The Écho annamite bows with emotion before the coffins of victims of this raid and begs the cruelly bereaved families to find here an expression of its sincerest condolences.

After the bombing

Saigon, 6 May – M Hoeffel, Governor of Cochinchina, accompanied by M Parisot, Prefect of the Région de Saigon-Cholon, went immediately after the bombing to the affected areas, and also visited those in hospitals.

Admiral Jean Decoux, Governor-General of French Indochina from July 1940 to 9 March 1945

This morning he went to the bedside of the wounded and expressed his gratitude to the staff of the Grall and Lalung-Bonnaire Hospitals, the Clinique St-Paul, and the Choquan Hospital, for the outstanding dedication with which they have devoted themselves to their tasks.

The Governor of Cochinchina congratulated the Prefect of the Région de Saigon-Cholon for the excellent organization and functioning of the Civil Defence Services, whose staff had carried out most efficiently the mission entrusted to them.

Admiral Decoux attends the funeral of the victims

The Vice Admiral of the Fleet, Jean Decoux, Governor General of Indochina, informed us of the tragic events that have cast a pall over Saigon as and when they unfolded, and insisted on going immediately to visit the unfortunate victims, so that he could bring them the comfort of his presence.

In the late afternoon he presided over a moving ceremony held at the Annamite Cemetery of Chi-Hoa, in the presence of the Governor of Cochinchina, the President of the Chairman of the Joint Commission of the Colonial Council, the General Commander of the Cochinchina and Cambodia Division, the Vice Admiral Commander of the Navy in Indochina, Monsignor Cissaigne, Vicar Apostolic of Saigon, the First President of the Court of Appeal, and the Attorney General at the Court of Appeal, as well as the Administrator of the Région Saigon Cholon, the President of the Légion des Combattants, and numerous other civil and military dignitaries.

Bomb damage

The Japanese Mission, Army and Navy were represented by their General Chief of Staff, their General Commander in Chief, their Lieutenant Colonel Head of the Liaison Section of the Japanese Army, their Frigate Captain Chief of the Liaison Section of the Japanese Navy and a representative of the Consul General, Head of the Japanese Mission in Saigon.

After the Buddhist ceremony, the Governor General bowed before the coffins of the 213 victims, while buglers of the local civil guard sounded the honors to the deceased.

…. and visits the disaster areas

On the morning of Sunday 7 May, the Vice Admiral of the Fleet, Jean Decoux. Governor General of Indochina, went in the company of M Hoeffel, Governor of Cochinchina, M Parisot, Prefect of the Région Saigon-Cholon, and M Aurilles, Director of the Cabinet, to visit the neighbourhoods affected by the 5-6 May bombing and the hospitals where the survivors are being treated.

Leaving his palace on boulevard Norodom at 8.30am, the Admiral toured the residential streets affected by bombs, stopping in particular at the Municipal Theatre, the interior of which was devastated by a projectile.

At the Grall Hospital, the Admiral talked to M Denis, a young man of 17 who had sustained an injury while at his passive defense post.

At the Choquan and Lalung-Bonnaire Hospitals, the Governor General of Indochina and the Governor of Cochinchina visited wards which still house, in very large numbers, those injured as a result of the despicable aggression of 5-6 May.

Saigon Municipal Theatre was also hit

The Admiral stopped at the bedsides of many of the wounded, listening to the stories of those most seriously affected and paying particular attention to the fate of some young children, innocent victims of this abhorrent attack on our city of Saigon.

After visiting the injured, the Admiral was taken to meet the Médicin general, Dr Giotron, the Director of Health in Cochinchina, who presented to him the medical staff who had worked tirelessly, making the many necessary interventions and giving all their attention to the wounded from the start of the alert until late the next morning.

He expressed his warm compliments to all of the medical and nursing staff and doctors, notably: Drs Deleg, Roque and Dauplin at the Grall Hospital; Colonel Dr Testes and Dr Harmant at the Choquan Hospital; and Drs Fabry, Tran Quang-D, Do Van Hoanh and Raglot at the Lalung-Bonnaire Hospital.

The Admiral also stopped briefly at the Clinique St-Paul, where he thanked its Chief Doctor, Dr Roton, and the medical and hospital personnel of this private clinic, for the very important role that they have played in the provision of emergency care to the victims.

During his visit, the Admiral was also presented to the personnel of the Police, and complimented several officials of that body, whose attitude and dedication during the bombing and during the tedious hours that followed, are worthy of the greatest praise.

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.

Saigon and its Surroundings in Early 1866

Saigon in 1863 (MAP)

Tainted throughout with the usual colonial racist arrogance, Artillery Lieutenant P C Richard’s account of Saigon just a few years after the French conquest, “Saigon et ses Environs au Commencement de 1866,” written for the Revue maritime et colonial of September-December 1866, nonetheless contains some interesting observations about the city during that period.


Since our victorious arms completed the conquest of a part of Lower Cochinchina, many in France have been occupied with this corner of Asia, a region hitherto virtually ignored. However, although many documents have already been published about this country, our new colonial capital of Saigon is little known and has not yet been described in a comprehensive manner. We do not pretend to fill this gap here, but will nevertheless say a few words about this city and then on its surrounding areas.

The Messageries impériales headquarters

The capital of French Cochinchina is located on one of the arms of the Donaï, called the Saigon river, and located at the north-north-east extremity of a vast alluvial country, an immense delta barely raised above sea level, and crossed by numerous mouths of the Donaï, the Soirap and the Cambodia rivers. Here one finds many arroyos (waterways) which, projecting in all directions, form many routes favoured by the tide, which is felt far inland in territories which it waters twice daily.

This city is located entirely on the right bank of the river and the left bank of the arroyo Chinois [Bến Nghé creek], 100km from the sea. It is protected downstream by a fortress known as the Fort du Sud, and defended in the north, next to the plain, by a citadel built by French engineers.

This place is very well situated for defence. It is enclosed in a quadrilateral which has for its sides the Saigon river to the east, the arroyo Chinois to the south, the arroyo de l’Avalanche [Thị Nghè creek] to the north, and a canal that links the latter two arroyos to the west. It is quite safe from attack. It could perhaps be attacked by water, but it is connected with the sea via a long river of 25 leagues. This river is sinuous and very easily defended by fortresses, which, appropriately placed and armed with our formidable engines of destruction, would deter all enemy fleets.

Ships on the Saigon River in 1868

Located between India on the one hand, and China and Japan on the other, this city has a military and strategic importance which is undeniable. Foreigners know that well, and today, not without jealousy, they call it “the French Singapore.”

Moored in front of the city is a fleet of warships, grouped around the Duperré, a ship with two decks which flies the flag of the Vice-Admiral Governor and Commander in Chief of our troops. Further down, between Saigon and the Fort du Sud, one may find the commercial port, where elegant European vessels lie at anchor alongside massive Annamite or Cambodian boats and Chinese junks, all richly coloured and decorated with fantastic dragons, which give the port a very picturesque appearance.

Nothing is more curious to observe than the junks of the great Annamite mandarins, who come from time to time to salute our Governor, and who, in such circumstances, deploy all the oriental pomp of which they are capable. We love to see their shiny spearheads, their tridents and their peacock feathers, all hallmarks of the royal official. We love to see those who we fought so recently coming quietly and humbly now to bow beneath our tricolour. A doleful-sounding drum may be heard from time to time during these processions, giving each a certain imposing and almost majestic je ne sais quoi.

“Saigon – Literati come to salute the Governor”

Here we see a real floating city; the quays are lined and the harbour is constantly filled with junks and sampans; the latter are made from tree trunks carved and shaped by the Annamites, just like the canoes built by the Gauls out of the trunks of huge oak trees from their beautiful forests. These sampans have a singular form; in the middle there is a cabin covered in palm leaves, where may be found all the utensils of the Annamite kitchen – because the boatman is born, lives, suffers and dies on his boat. Each end of the boat is raised and it is there that one finds the rowers, usually women, who stand, facing forward.

Some of the larger boats, junks, for example, are equipped with sails made with coarse mats, which are manufactured either from coconut leaves or from rushes. Such junks are filled with many families, who often have no other place of habitation.

In neighbourhoods inhabited by Annamite people, generally located far from the centre of the city, there is usually a large population. Until they reach the age of 12 or 14, children of both sexes live an unfettered life, wallowing in mud or rolling in the dust.

The “Asiatic quarter” of Saigon in 1875 (engraving)

Those who took part in the conquest of Saigon will certainly no longer recognise the poor Annamite town of yesteryear. Where there were once wretched huts set amid stinking marshes, there are now pretty houses bordered by beautiful boulevards. All that’s lacking now is the cool shade of beautiful trees which we will enjoy one day in the future when those already planted have grown sufficiently to intercept the sunlight. The ugly wooden huts that once lined the right and left banks of the arroyo Chinois, before which one could not pass without being inconvenienced by the nausea-inducing smell of nuoc-mam (a sort of brine made with rotten fish which is used to spice Annamite dishes), have now disappeared to make way for the pretty quai Napoleon [now Tôn Đức Thắng], which is around 50m wide, is divided into sandy paths and flowerbeds, and is bordered by lawns planted with trees. The perfectly aligned shop houses of our principal traders are located along one side of this pleasant boulevard, which is also adorned with a column raised by Saigon traders in memory of one of the first French administrators.

On the other side of the arroyo Chinois, the beautiful buildings of the Messageries Impériales form a nice area which at present, unfortunately, may only be accessed from the city by boat.

The former Grand Canal in Saigon

Canals criss-cross the city and facilitate the movement of merchant traders. Large boats enter them and carry their loads directly to the storefronts and markets.

Wide boulevards, roads and bridges, hitherto unknown in Cochinchina, allow horse-drawn carriages easily to reach places where previously one could not even circulate on foot without sinking deep into the mud.

It’s truly a pleasure to see the horse-drawn carriages of our colons pass quickly between heavy old freight carts of primitive construction, each of their solid wheels cut from one piece of a tree trunk. Those gaudy vehicles, with bells and whistles attached to the ends of their shafts, are hauled by a special breed of buffalo from Cambodia known as “runner buffalo,” which can trot and even gallop. The resulting cacophony is capable of offending the eardrums of the less delicate.

We may still encounter in Saigon some remains of ancient Buddhist monuments, among others a very pretty little pagoda located right in the middle of the city, which will soon to be an object of curiosity dear to archaeologists, because Annamite monuments disappear very quickly to make way for private houses.

Let’s now visit Saigon’s public buildings and facilities.

Saigon’s first purpose-built cathedral, the Église Sainte-Marie-Immaculée (Church of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception).

Our Cathedral is of a modest size which hardly does justice to its grand title. But it has the distinct honour of being the first Christian church built on this land, which for so long was vested with the coarsest and most stultifying paganism. The Cathedral was once surrounded only by small huts inhabited by miserable individuals who had taken refuge here under the sign of the cross, but today it is already dwarfed by the buildings that surround it. The need for a larger church now arises, because many Annamite Catholics are only able to attend its services by standing outside.

The Hôtel du gouvernement (Governor’s Palace) is also very modest. A replacement, more worthy of its function and of the capital of our new settlement, is being planned.

The Imprimerie imperial (Imperial Printing Office), located near the Governor’s Palace, offers nothing remarkable.

The Hôtel de la Direction de l’intérieur (Internal Affairs Office) is newly completed and occupied; it is a grand and well-ventilated building.

The first Governor’s Palace

Another government building which certainly will not lack residents has also just been completed. I refer, of course, to our new Maison centrale (City Prison), where prisoners are certainly better housed, and better fed and cared for than some of their free countrymen. We have neglected nothing to soften their captivity; and many of the inmates here may well enjoy a comfort they cannot experience at home.

The Direction de l’artillerie (Artillery Directorate) of the Navy and the Colonies, soon to be completed, deserves special mention.

The site it occupies was once a vast muddy swamp, crossed by several rivers. We had to fill this to create a large area of solid ground on which buildings could be constructed. Thanks to our powerful impulse and intelligent management, the marshes and streams vanished, piles were dug, and large workshops were built, all of which now function perfectly.

Soon these workshops will be equipped with that most powerful agent of modern industry – the steam engine. Thus will be achieved the laudable goal ardently pursued by senior officers who have successively commanded this institution, to equip our young colony with an Artillery Directorate worthy of the great role France can be expected to play in Far East.

The personnel of the Director of the Arsenal in 1875

A canal, each end of which communicates with the Saigon river, runs through this facility and facilitates the transport of equipment and ammunition for the French fleets of China, Japan and Cochinchina.

The Artillery has a spacious, well ventilated barracks building, thus far the only one in Saigon, because one can hardly give the name “barracks” to the poor huts of the Camp des Lettrés (Camp of the Literati, Trường Thi), which currently house our marine infantry.

Officer housing, especially the villa of the Director of Artillery which is very well located on a plateau, is deemed more spacious and better ventilated. It is thus more suitable to climatic requirements and therefore, at present, the safest housing in Saigon.

The Direction des constructions navales (Naval Construction Directorate) must be placed first among the institutions of our new colony. It occupies a large compound which is 1km in length with an average width of 250m, located at the junction of the Saigon river and the arroyo de l’Avalanche; it is separated from the Artillery Directorate by a rectangle of about 300m long and about 150m wide which will house our future naval stores.

Saigon port in the 1860s

This establishment is already functioning. A canal facilitates water-borne transport of large amounts of wood from the forests of Tay-Ninh, the Central Highlands and Cambodia, into facilities where they can be put to use.

A small dry dock, 72m in length and 24m wide, can repair and clean small gunboats and other ships with a draft of less than 4m. However, surveys we have made in the land of the Directorate indicate that there is plenty of space in which to build a much larger dry dock. While we wait for that dock to be built, we have just installed and launched a floating dock, which will save us from having to send our great ships for repair in Hong Kong, Singapore, or Bombay. Our great frigate Persévérante was placed in this floating dock on 8 August last.

Saigon, becoming the tète de ligne of the Messageries Impériales, is bound to grow in importance.

Thus will be fulfilled the wish expressed by M Guizot, who, when he was foreign minister, exclaimed, “We must not, in case of damage, send our ships for repair in the Portuguese colony of Macau, in the English port of Hong Kong, or in the arsenal of Cavite on the Spanish island of Luzon.”

A corner of the Botanical and Zoological Gardens

The Zoological and Botanical Garden is close to the Naval Construction Directorate, from which it is separated by a boulevard. Here one’s eyes may rest pleasantly on the trees which have recently been planted. Beside the native species of recognised utility, one may find here other no less useful varieties from Réunion, Singapore, Batavia, etc. The breadfruit tree is the subject of a special predilection by the director of this institution, and promises to endow the colony with a fruit superior to the native jackfruit.

A swamp covered with water lily, lotus and other aquatic plants is inhabited by wading birds such as cranes pelicans, egrets and ibis.

After the field of waders comes the park of the ruminants and the aviaries which contain many of Cochinchina’s most beautiful birds; in the latter, we have already collected peacocks, pheasants, green pigeons and doves.

A palace has been built here for the colony’s different species of quadrupeds. There is a long line of cages for wild animals which already contain a civet, a porcupine, a wild boar, a wild cat and a young tiger of the most beautiful species.

A crocodile enclosure in the Botanical and Zoological Gardens

A crocodile is enclosed in a small fenced park, through which a stream flows.

A large garden area, planted with beautiful trees, bushes and flowerbeds, is intersected by well shaded pathways, offering visitors a pleasant walk alongside the arroyo de l’Avalanche.

North of the garden are located the general stores, where large supplies of rice are kept. The rice is brought by ship from all parts of Cochinchina. It was in one of its huge buildings in February 1866 that our colony hosted its first agricultural and industrial exhibition, the results of which were impressive.

We are pleasantly surprised when we enter the lovely Parc de l’Espérance (“Hope Park”), with its abundant fruit trees and amenities. Once the home of mandarins travelling in the service of the emperor of Annam, this park was given to the Artillery of the Navy, which established here its ammunition and gunpowder stores and ateliers. This would be an excellent place to build a barracks. The scene here is very animated, with sampans and river boats gliding along the nearby arroyo de l’Avalanche, and birds twittering on flowering or fruit-laden evergreens.

Now let’s visit the city’s religious institutions.

One of Saigon’s earliest schools

The Collège des Missions (College of the Missions) is built almost in the Greek style, with oriental ornamentation.

While visiting this place, where we may already find many Annamite students being taught by the Fathers, let’s pay a tribute of praise to our missionaries, those intrepid pioneers of civilisation who, listening only to their zeal, left their country, their friends and family to traverse immense seas and arid deserts, to reach countries devoted to idolatry. There they raised the holy cross, that symbol of faith so comforting to the poor and unfortunate, teaching them that Christ was born poor, lived poor and died persecuted. Thanks to the work of these courageous apostles, who fought so hard for all nations to break their idols and submit to the Gospel, we have responded to the cries of our martyrs by conquering Lower Cochinchina and opening the doors to the Far East.

Mingling without fear with the native people, our missionaries acquired considerable influence over them. They learned the Annamite language and translated into that language passages of Holy Scripture, hymns, psalms and prayers, all of which are now repeated in chorus by converts in a manner which is strange and monotonous to hear. Thanks to the zeal of our missionaries, superstition and belief in evil spirits is gradually giving way to the civilising dogma of Christianity.

A pousse-pousse station

Next door to the College of Missions is the École française de l’évêque d’Adran (Bishop of Adran School), a very useful institution founded on 21 September 1861 by the fertile mind of the first Admiral who landed in Saigon. This officer quickly recognised that, in order to assimilate the local people, it was necessary to disseminate French education, language and customs among them. He also realised that it would be a mortal blow to the influence of the old literary mandarins if, using our Latin characters, the children of local people could learn within months the science which scholars had devoted all their life to acquire. The Admiral Governor saw in this school a nursery for the dedicated public servants of the future, who knew the laws, manners and customs of the country, and had been called to render great service to our colony.

Already, students who can read fluently their own language printed in Latin characters will soon be able to write it too. Many can now read French, and a few are beginning to understand and speak it. Thanks to the care of our government, schools have been established in various locations, and students, showing great intelligence and ability, have made significant progress.

At the riverside

It must be said that the beginnings of this institution were rather painful. The population, newly conquered and unaccustomed to care from their own rulers, did not, even could not, understand an idea so generous as this. Also, the first calls made to parents to send their children to this school were suspected of being a method of military recruitment; traditional village chiefs raised children for service as we raise a tax, and parents of recruitees received a certain sum as compensation, so that far from paying for the instruction of their children, they were instead used to paying for them to remain uninstructed.

But things have changed since that time, and shortly after the creation of this institution, increasing pressure for places meant that the school had to be enlarged. The families of notables now strongly solicit the admission of their children as a favour and honour and now, despite the efforts of the administration, the school is not large enough to meet demand.

Carmelite nuns

In front of the College of Missions is a house of dark appearance with only one opening, topped by a small stone cross which is already blackened by time. This house contains the Carmelites, who came in Cochinchina to devote themselves to the contemplative life and to pray, suffer and die here. Despite the austerity of their regime, we find amongst the Carmelite Order several indigenous postulants who aspire to the happiness of becoming the mystical brides of Christ. Already some have been deemed worthy enough to don the humble clothes of penance, and have traded the joy of almost unlimited freedom enjoyed by Annamite women for absolute seclusion.

Let’s leave those cloisters and have the pleasure of visiting the beautiful convent of Saint-Enfance and its delicious small chapel, topped by an elegant spire which dominates the entire countryside and announces to travellers the capital of oriental France. A cross crowns this edifice, and the French flag flying next door appears to protect this sacred sign of our civilisation.

The architecture of the convent recalls that of Italy, blended with the caprices of Annamite ornamentation. The chapel, in Gothic style, is bedecked with paintings of questionable taste, which will surely soon be devastated by the weather and the rain.

The Sainte-Enfance in the 1870s

All this is the work of an Annamite priest from Tonkin, an improvised architect without any training in that field, who designed and executed the plan of this beautiful establishment, in his own words, for the greater glory of God. “Faith moves mountains!”

Let’s say a few words about this institution.

The institution of Sainte Enfance, the most useful, the most moral and the most charitable that we have in Cochinchina, was founded in 1861 by the virtuous and courageous Sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres and under the high patronage of Her Majesty the Empress of the French, the consoler of so many afflicted, the mother of so many abandoned; This refuge is open not only to orphans, but also to all unfortunate children, regardless of the religion of their parents.

The nuns receive small poor abandoned creatures found by police, soldiers and sailors on their rounds or during their excursions, as well as those brought by infirm fathers, widows deprived of resources, or grandparents unable to feed their young orphaned grandchildren. Here we may find many poor little creatures, abandoned but without doubt well advised, who came to knock at the door of the asylum.

Reverend Mother Superior Benjamin (1821-1883), founder of the Sainte Enfance in Saigon

Orphans who survived the war, children of victims of Bien-Hoa, Baria and Go-Cong, have found here the arms of charity open to receive them and have not been neglected. Thanks to the care of the resident nuns, all these children are now clean and tidy, learning to count, read and write in French. The girls are trained in needlework and initiated in household care, order and cleanliness, while the boys work in the garden and make and mend their own garments. These children also used their leisure time in the manufacture of cigars made with tobacco from Cochinchina.

Later, when these kids grow up, they will be capable of earning an honest living. The girls will be free either to leave or to remain in the convent, because the Sainte-Enfance now also has indigenous novices, postulants and even sisters.

Apart from the children abandoned or brought here by their parents, the ladies of Saint-Paul de Chartres also run a pensionnat or boarding school, which receives students who pay for their maintenance, care and instruction. This school currently draws on the local budget to the tune of 24,000 francs, which is divided into 100 scholarships and increases or decreases according to the number of students.

The pensionnat is also open to children of Europeans (girls) and offers, for a relatively low price, an elementary education, religious and moral education and loving care.

A clinic run by the sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres

We must still visit an establishment which casts over our thoughts a dark veil of sadness; This is the Thi-Nghe Clinic, truly an asylum of suffering and pain! Here, as everywhere, we find the sweetness, self denial, boundless beneficence and sublime charity of the nuns of Saint-Paul de Chartres, who are always on hand at the bedside, encourage patients with soft words and calming their despair with their touching care!

What heart would not be moved at the sight of these sublime women, who dedicate their lives to the relief of human suffering! They are truly admirable and holy women, real angels of charity, whose delicate hands mend physical injuries, while their soft voices, echoes of a heart overflowing, and their chaste glances, often veiled in tears, heal spiritual wounds.

The outlying districts of Saigon

Now let’s leave Saigon and take a promenade outside the city.

Travelling along the left (north) bank of the arroyo Chinois, we follow a long populated and very lively quayside, which is lined with huts on each side. Those located on the side of the arroyo are literally in the water, which penetrates them at high tide. These huts make up the 12 villages of Cau-ong-lanh (Cau being the Annamite word for bridge), Cau-mui, Cau-khom, Cau-kho, Cau-ba-tim, Chu-Sao, Cau-ba-do, Cau-moï, Cho-quan, Binh-yen, Khanh-hoï and Vinh-hoï; the latter two are on the right bank of the arroyo.

Gia Định countryside

All of these villages are inhabited by Annamites who fled during the conquest and returned later, titles in hand, to reclaim their properties. We hasten to add that the French administration upheld their claims and reinstated them in Saigon.

Ten of these villages are suburbs of Saigon, while the other two are suburbs of Cholon (Chinatown) as they connect the two cities. We will stop leisurely at one of these villages, Cho-quan, which occupies roughly the middle point between the two cities and resembles a large garden, with its huts shaded by tamarind, mango, areca, coconut, papaya, banana, grapefruit, orange, jackfruit, breadfruit and mahogany trees, flame trees and many other species. Around their trunks climb golden betel leaves and beautiful lianas with dangling berries which dance in the breeze above the heads of the numerous noisy and almost naked children of both sexes who play in the fresh gardens.

The huts, well kept, thinly scattered and surrounded by well-cultivated gardens, are connected to each other by pretty pathways lined with euphorbicaea and other flowering shrubs, which perfume the air and delight the eye.

A waterway in the environs of Saigon

The people of Cho-quan are Christians. They live a modest life of relative ease, making silks, cottons and small furniture inlaid with mother of pearl; but their main industry is the smelting of copper, bronze and even gold and silver, which they turn into jewelry.

This village has a church and a large hospital; the latter, long assigned to sick members of the Expeditionary Corps, has now been delivered to the service of indigenous patients, who may find there the sweet care of the sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres and the medical skill of the naval surgeons attached to the property.

Since we have left the banks of the arroyo for an excursion in the gardens of Cho-quan, we will continue along this road as far as the Mares (Ponds). There is a pagoda here, one of two on the site which we call the Pagode des Mares (Pagoda of the Ponds), because of the two small pools located in front of its enclosure. It is known by the natives as the Pagode de la fidélité éclatante (“Pagoda of brilliant loyalty”) and was originally a kind of Annamite Panthéon containing the ancestral tablets of great men.

Khánh Hội landscape

Among those were the ancestral tablets of a Frenchman, a Breton sailor named Manuel, named Men-oe by the Annamites. However, since our conquest of the country, the residents have erased the characters inscribed on those tablets, so we can no longer know the deeds and titles of this brave sailor, once a fleet commander of Gia-Long, whose cause he had embraced. All we know of our illustrious compatriot is that the prince he served rewarded him with many lavish titles and honours, and that he died gloriously in a naval battle by blowing himself up with his warship rather than surrendering to the Tay-Son. These rebels, as we know, were defeated at the beginning of the 19th century.

Before the conquest, old invalid monks were responsible for the maintenance of the pagoda, as well as the magnificent tombs of the great men which surrounded it. They were responsible for offering sacrifices to the spirits of these heroes, the guardian gods of Cochinchina.

Alas, due to the sad effect of the war, this pagoda is now used as a gunpowder store, and its outbuildings are used as a barracks. The surrounding land, where there are so many beautiful funeral monuments, has been transformed into a meadow where the artillery takes its fodder, but there are still many beautiful trees here, making it a very pleasant site.

On the road to Chợ Lớn

On the edges of the road from Saigon to Cholon which runs through the plain, we may see great and very rare fruit trees, whose magnificent pear-shaped fruits contain a sticky, clear edible substance which, when cooked, produces a kind of jam which tastes like honey, and of which the Annamites are very fond.

The pagoda is surrounded by tall trees with straight and slender trunks. In a normal breeze, their branches emit sighs like plaintive whispers which recall the noise of small waves as they come ashore on a smooth beach; but if the wind blows more strongly, the same branches emit lugubrious groans, similar to the distant sounds of an angry sea smashing its waves against the rocks. In recent years, hearing such noises, superstitious and frightened Annamites living in the neighbourhood have redoubled their offerings and sacrifices, believing the noises to be angry threats from spirits that we have driven from the pagoda.

All these spirits have their own legends, some quite frightening, which old men recount at night, lying on the mat, surrounded by their children and grandchildren who listen, trembling.

Tombs on the plain between Saigon and Chợ Lớn

One of the dependencies of the pagoda and nearly half of its enclosure have been devoted to the establishment of a stud farm, whose management has been entrusted to a cavalry officer thoroughly acquainted with equestrian science.

To the north of the Mares is the wide Plaine des Tombeaux (Plain of Tombs), which contains countless funeral monuments, some very beautiful. Those of the Chinese are generally shaped like a horseshoe; while those of the Annamites are shaped like slender pyramids or pretty small pagodas in miniature. Some more modest graves take the rough shape of a recumbent saddled horse. All of the small structures in this “city of the dead” are built from brick or clay and then covered with a thick layer of brown-coloured plaster which is made by infusing with water the viscous sap from a tree known to the natives as cay hiuoc. This plaster is easy to mould, and when dried it becomes as hard as brick and may easily be mistaken for stone. This substance is also used widely to coat the floors of local houses.

Besides these monuments, we sometimes chance upon corpses only partially covered with a little soil, or the edges of a coffin sticking up out of the ground. Perhaps the relatives fled during wartime before the burial had been completed.

The Plain of Tombs

This immense cemetery is very famous and it is deemed an honour to be buried here. The Plain of Tombs not only receives the dead of the immediate area, but also those of neighbouring provinces who, before dying, chose this as their last resting place. Many Annamites are convinced of the benefits of being buried here and there are even some who wish to die here too, in the place where they will later be buried.

Among the tombs roam flocks of vultures, unclean animals which nature seems to have created to rid the soil of rotting corpses and filth, and which perfectly fulfill the lofty mission of public hygiene and sanitation that was assigned to them.

This plain is traversed by two fairly busy roads; one part of it is now used as a parade ground by our Saigon garrison troops.

The plateau between Saigon, the arroyo de l’Avalanche and the Plain of Tombs is occupied by several villages. These include Yong-Guiton, at the intersection of boulevard Chasseloup-Laubat and the route de Tong-kéou; Phu-hoa, Han-hoa and Hiep-hoa, grouped near the Third Avalanche Bridge which connects them with the large village of Phu-Nhuan; Banian, located a few hundred metres from the citadel close to Saigon; and finally Tourane, a village established by Christians who, during the evacuation of the port of Tourane, followed the French to Saigon and were given land on which they built the village to which they gave the name of their place of origin.

Riziculture near Saigon

The latter unfortunates have not ceased to be dedicated and helpful; they are energetic, clever, and provide many workers for the civic establishments of the city.

The other villages mentioned are inhabited largely by poor indigents from the interior, who, due to war, were forced to take refuge around us.

Near the village of Tourane is the French cemetery, another “Plain of Tombs,” where already too many of our brothers in arms are buried!

The plain north of Saigon is delightful. It is full of large trees which thankfully escaped the axes of our soldiers and now make possible a very nice promenade, especially in the early months of the year when flamboyants like erythrena charm our view with their “domes of fire.” During that period, the area around the Pagode Barbé (Barbé Pagoda) is magnificent.

Located at a crossroads near the citadel, the Pagode Barbé was formerly the Khai-Tuong (Aurore des presages) Pagoda, built by order of Minh Mang, son and successor of Gia-Long, on the site of the hut in which he was born during the war with the Tay-Son. It was near this pagoda that Captain Barbé was murdered, hence its current name.

A sacred tree near Saigon

The greatest banian tree I have ever seen in Cochinchina is definitely that which stands next to the eponymous village of Banian, on the road leading to the village Binh-hoa which crosses the Second Avalanche Bridge. The base of this majestic tree is formed from several thick trunks welded together and surrounded by a network of roots comprising branches which fell vertically and became implanted in the ground. These trunks and roots now resemble elegant and slender columns and form cool and shady porticos into which one could easily retire to escape from the rays of the pitiless sun – if it were not for the numerous reptiles that have taken up residence there.

This beautiful tree is animated by flocks of green pigeons, which come to peck at berries, and which are shot ruthlessly by our hunters, who lie in wait under a neighbouring tamarind tree. Near this colossal representative of Cochinchina vegetation there are also a number of other banyan trees of different species, the leaves of which are eaten by the local people. These trees, now devoid of greenery, have a rather sad aspect.

Crossing the arroyo de l’Avalanche by the first bridge, we arrive in the village of Phu-My at the entrance to the Bien-Hoa road. Then, after heading along the left bank of the same arroyo, we emerge into a large, beautiful and fertile plain which is remarkably well cultivated – the plain of Go-Vap.

Gò Vấp

Nothing around Saigon is as lively as this corner of land; here we find workers who lie almost naked on the floor shelling peanuts, and, their costume aside, remind us of our farmers harvesting potatoes and other vegetables destined for the market. Here too, we may find growers of cotton and mulberry; Go-Vap silk is of very good quality and could become the source of a lucrative industry. Finally, we see everywhere men, women and even children bent under the weight of the foodstuffs that they are carry either to the market in Saigon or to that in the village of Go-Vap, one of the biggest markets in this rich country. One does not, however, visit the Go-Vap Market without a handkerchief under one’s nose, because of the smell of salted fish and nuoc mam which exudes from every stall.

Continuing our promenade, we encounter beautiful plantations of tobacco, objects of particular care on the part of the Annamites, who spend a large part of the day watering this plant. Each field has its own beam pump, similar to those encountered in our French villages of Champagne, Burgundy or Lorraine. These “nodding donkeys,” almost constantly in motion, give the plain great animation.

A herd of buffalo

Next to the plantation graze huge herds of buffalo whose broad heads are armed with long crescent-shaped horns. At the first sight of a European, these giants throw back their heads and snort angrily. They have been known to injur or even kill us with their horns. However, these animals are always very gentle with Annamites, and a child aged 12 to 15 years is sufficient to guard a herd.

At all points around the plain, one may hear the song of the grey blackbird, that friend of the farmer which follows him at a distance, feasting on the worms which he has just dug up. One may also hear the lark, that virtuoso of the air which seems to live almost entirely in the sky during the dry season, and whose song is of incomparable purity.

Pleasantly situated in the midst of a charming grove just a few kilometres from Saigon, we may find a very pretty temple which is a regular rendezvous for walkers. Built by order of Emperor Gia Long in honour of Monsignor Pigneau de Behaine, Bishop of Adran and Apostolic Vicar of Lower Cochinchina, this monument contains the mortal remains of this eminent man, who laid the first foundations of our domination over this country.

Pierre Joseph Georges Pigneau de Behaine (1741-1799)

The history of this prelate, whose evangelical virtues and apostolic zeal never diminished his patriotism, is not well known in France, so we cannot resist the desire to say a few words, pending the arrival of a more authorized biographer who can rescue such a beautiful life from oblivion.

Pierre Pigneau de Behaine was born in 1741 in a village near Laon. He arrived in Cochinchina in 1767 and was later named Bishop of Adran and Apostolic Vicar of Lower Cochinchina, a country whose destiny was to become French. The Bishop of Adran became the friend and close adviser of Gia-Long after the prince, driven out by the Tay-Son rebels, took refuge in the Gulf of Siam islands. He strongly advised his royal friend to seek the support of the court of Versailles, and offered to go to France himself to negotiate an offensive and defensive alliance between Louis XVI and Gia-Long. He left, in fact, accompanied by the Crown Prince, and signed on behalf of the Annamite monarch a treaty under which France was to send four frigates and 1,600 men to the assistance of the latter, who in turn would yield to France the island of Poulo-Condor and the port of Tourane, give the French complete freedom of traffic and permit them to found on the continent of Cochinchina all relevant institutions to facilitate their navigation and trade.

The Bishop of Adran then left France and travelled to India, where he awaited the promised assistance. But as we know, the ill-will of the comte de Conway, Governor of French territories in India, together with the events of 1789, prevented compliance with the treaty. The comte de Conway evaded Pigneau’s questions, and the prelate then learned from the court of Versailles the king’s decision that “the Cochinchina expedition would not take place.”

The Tomb of Pierre Pigneau de Behaine in 1867

This broken promise from the French government saddened, even humbled, the prelate, but it did not discourage him. Along with some French officers and a number of volunteer sailors engaged in India, he presented himself in Saigon, climbing a commercial building and casting terror among the troops of the Tay-Son by spreading the rumour that the soldiers that he had brought with him were only the vanguard of a huge army sent by the King of France to exterminate the rebels. The troops of Gia-Long, trained by French officers who had arrived with the prelate, took the offensive, penetrated as far as Hue and restored the royal authority.

After several brilliant successes, the Tay-Son were completely destroyed (1802). But the illustrious bishop, who had contributed so much to the reinstatement of Gia-long on the throne of his ancestors, could not see the culmination of his work. He died in 1799, surrounded by esteem and general admiration. The emperor, accompanied by the royal family, had gone to visit him during his illness, and after his death Gia-Long wept as one weeps for a father, along with his queen, his sisters and his concubines (the title of concubine not being a dishonorable one in Cochinchina), and organised a great funeral at which both Christians and idolaters flocked around the body of the emperor’s good friend and wise counsellor, whom they all called their “good father.”

The screen in front of the Pigneau de Behaine tomb

The funeral rites were all carried out according to royal protocol, and the body of the bishop was, according to his last will, buried in a garden that he owned outside Saigon. It was in this same garden, and over the tomb of the prelate, that Gia-Long commissioned the construction of the current pagoda. Here one may still find tablets exalting Pigneau’s merits, his talents and the services he rendered to the country, recalling the friendship which bound him to the emperor, and listing his titles, including the highest dignity after royalty, the title of teacher to the Crown Prince and the epithet “accomplished.”

In this way, the Bishop of Adran, helped by his countrymen, laid the groundwork for a French administration in the kingdom of Annam, which so marvelled our compatriots that they later carried out the conquest of Lower Cochinchina, founding there all our municipal hierarchy, from the mayor and councillors to prefects.

It is especially during the dry season, when the sky is illuminated every night, that one should visit this delightful last resting place of an illustrious son of France, returning to Saigon on a beautiful starlit evening through the mysterious Plain of Tombs.

A quayside scene in Chợ Lớn

Cholon, often referred to as Chinatown, was originally to have been incorporated into the boundaries of Saigon. But we have since had to modify the plan of a city that was believed to contain 500,000 inhabitants, and reduce it to more modest proportions. The city of Cholon having thus been separated, it now has its own municipality and administration. It is connected with Saigon via the high road along boulevard Chasseloup-Laubat and the low road alongside the arroyo Chinois.

Anyone who has not visited Cholon for a few years will be pleasantly surprised to discover, instead of a muddy city with narrow, fetid streets, a new city with mostly wide streets and pretty quays which has nonetheless preserved its oriental character. Many of the houses which now line the streets and quaysides have white walls and red roofs, and some have several storeys. All are brilliantly decorated with various designs in vibrant colours, which blend perfectly with the profusion of Chinese lanterns and banners, garlands and corporation signs, each inscribed in gold characters. While the city’s appearance owes much to the initiative and intelligent direction of our Inspector of Chinese Affairs, we must also pay tribute to the enormous sacrifices made by the city’s intelligent Chinese merchants, people of spirit and practicality, some of them millionaires many times over, who are not afraid to spend their own money in the cause of civic pride.

Shop houses in Chợ Lớn in the 1870s

Many of these merchants spontaneously proposed demolishing their old buildings in order to build nice new shop houses, and offered money to embellish the streets and waterfront areas in ways that now charm visitors.

Nothing is more picturesque than the canal which runs through the Chinese city. It is constantly covered with boats, inhabited by whole families. Their boats are their only homes.

As noted above, despite its embellishments, Cholon retains its Chinese character, its eastern face, its local colour. It still contains a large number of pagodas, each with its idols, its hideous monsters and its many inscriptions, which I’m afraid that I can’t decipher. It’s curious to see the West, represented by our insouciant soldiers, laughing heartily in front of a big fat Buddha, who, sitting lazily, seems to symbolise the East. Almost all of Cholon’s pagodas are abandoned and have become homes to large colonies of bats, which are huge but perfectly harmless vampires, despite the ominous name they bear.

Among the monuments of Cholon, we must mention the Great Pagoda, a masterpiece of its kind, dedicated to the goddess of Kuang-chau Huay-quan, patron saint of sailors and travellers. It is filled with curious interior decorations, including a fresco ceiling, friezes and reliefs, gold inscriptions, paintings and a number of very original statues. The latter include a grotesque large gilt bronze Buddha, a gigantic goddess statue and many other smaller statuettes.

The Guangzhou Assembly Hall in Chợ Lớn

These should not be dismissed as mere festoons, rather we should consider them as objects which deserve to be studied, especially those on the outside, made from artistically-moulded clay, baked, painted and coloured, representing mountains, trees, flowers, butterflies, insects, birds, palaces, pagodas and bizarre characters in all poses, from those at rest to those in combat, either on foot or on horseback. There are also monsters dragons and other horrible and fantastic animals, such that even the liveliest European imagination could never dream of, and demons with hideous heads arranged in the most bizarre way. This curious specimen of Chinese architecture is worthy in every way of the attention of archaeologists and certainly deserves the honour of a special study by a competent researcher.

Seeing the many unfortunate beggars at the door of this monument, we regret very much the lack of a hospital. The Chinese who possess in the highest degree the spirit of association and civic pride, and who have been able to invent the pawnshops and the bank, have not yet been able to provide hospitals here. Perhaps this type of institution stems from an eminently Christian virtue of charity. We are currently involved in the construction of a hospital in Cholon.

The Chợ Lớn creek which ran through the centre of the town

One thing that we must not fail to mention among the relevant sights of the Chinese city are the famous Puits de l’éveque d’Adran (Bishop of Adran Pumps), a water well located in the middle of the arroyo whose excellent water is transported by boats throughout the southwest part of the province of Saigon, and sometimes even as far as My-Tho. This well takes the form of an island, a mound of earth covered with greenery, which is constantly surrounded by boats collecting water to quench the thirsts of those who inhabit the low and marshy plains.

Cholon has about 40,000 inhabitants, among whom there is not at present a single Catholic. Almost all are traders or workers; but it is the Chinese who hold the trading monopoly, not only in Saigon, but throughout all of Cochinchina. They aim to compete even with the Europeans, and it is for this purpose that several Chinese merchants have already ordered small steam ships from France.

These traders not only concern themselves with matters concerning their small town, but also take on board, with surprising ease and rare intelligence, our ideas and our civilisation. They are very attached to the destinies and interests of our young colony, which can count on their professionalism and dedication, since its future is also theirs.

Boats on the arroyo Chinois

The establishment of the Chinese colony here does not only date from our conquest of Cochinchina; it may be traced back to the late 17th century. At that time, some Chinese remained loyal to the Ming dynasty, and wanting to escape the domination of the Qing, were authorised by the King of Annam to go and settle in the province of Gia-Dinh (Saigon), then newly conquered from the Cambodians. They chose the island of Cu-Lao-Pho, near Bien-Hoa. This island quickly prospered in their hands, and soon the new colony was providing woven and dyed silk and cotton to the Annamites of this region, who at that time were unfamiliar with the arts of cultivating mulberry and cotton trees, weaving and dyeing.

The revolt of the Tay-Son came to disturb this prosperity, and the settlers were forced to withdraw to the territory of Saigon, where they founded the city of Cholon. Thereafter its commercial importance increased day by day under the direction of its skilful founders, who soon invited more of their countrymen to join them. Some of these settlers were periodically replaced by others, but large numbers lived in the city for a long time and intermarried with the Annamites, without thinking of returning to China. That is why Cholon has so many Chinese-Annamite mixed-race people, known as Minh Huong. However, if death surprised them away from their homeland, almost all would still have their mortal remains transported back to their ancestral land, in order not to be deprived of the proper worship made by the living to the dead.

The Chinese have imported to Cochinchina their morals and religion, so it is not absolutely necessary to go to China to study the inhabitants of the Middle Kingdom.

The Pagode des Clochetons, Chợ Lớn, in 1861

Near Cholon, one may also visit the Pagode des Clochetons and the small fort of Cay-Mai, two names cited in relation to the Battle of Ky-Hoa.

Fort Cay-Mai is named after a tree which gave flowers with a pleasant scent reminiscent of the smell of violet. Before we arrived in this country, it is said that young girls and young boys (especially students) would gather under its shade to make offerings to the Buddha, sing love songs and strew the ground with flower lotus and water lily.

We will stop here, because to say any more would necessitate describing all of our colony, the whole of our Asiatic France, which we must postpone until another time.

P C Richard, Artillery lieutenant of the navy and the colonies

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014) and also conducts Saigon and Chợ Lớn Heritage Tours.

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.