Saving the Saigon Tax Trade Centre’s Mosaic Staircase – “A Priceless Work of Art”

The mosaic staircase by Dona Đỗ Ngọc http://donadongoc.blogspot.com/

This article was published previously in Saigoneer.

Six months after the Hồ Chí Minh City People’s Committee’s promise that both internal and architectural and design features of the old Saigon Tax Trade Centre would be preserved and incorporated into the new tower block which will replace it, question marks still hang over the future of its great mosaic staircase.

The mosaic staircase by Dona Đỗ Ngọc http://donadongoc.blogspot.com/

The announcement last summer that the Saigon Tax Trade Centre would be demolished and replaced by a 43-storey tower block was greeted with dismay by conservationists, who responded with a high-profile campaign which attracted nearly 3,500 signatures to an online petition.

The city authorities listened to the voice of the people. On 21 January 2015, Mr Hứa Ngọc Thuận, Deputy Chairman of the Hồ Chí Minh City People’s Committee, announced in an interview with Thanh Niên newspaper that, in accordance with a recommendation from the City’s Directorate of Planning and Architecture, some interior and exterior design features of the Saigon Tax Trade Centre would be preserved and incorporated into the design of the new 43-storey commercial complex scheduled for construction on the former Tax Trade Centre site.

The interior features to be preserved included “the main lobby and atrium covering at least two storeys from the ground floor to the first floor; the original bronze handrails, balustrades and other decorative features; the mosaic staircase floor; and the cast bronze roosters and spheres mounted on the landings.”

The Grands Magasins Charner (GMC)

Meanwhile, the exterior features of the building to be preserved included “the old Saigon Tax Trade Centre signs, the canopies along the sidewalks, and some of the architectural lines of the original facade, particularly that on the corner of Lê Lợi and Nguyễn Huệ boulevards.”

In particular, it was suggested that the new façade should be designed “in the form of the original Grands Magasins Charner architecture of 1924, in order to accord with that of other valuable architectural and historical buildings in the same area, such as the People’s Committee headquarters building, the Opera House, Bến Thành Market … in order to conserve and retain memories of old Saigon and its valuable cultural history for future generations of Saigon’s urban residents.”

In addition to the above, it was envisaged that the design consultants might also suggest other features of the original structure for preservation, with a view to enhancing the historical, aesthetic and architectural value of the new building.

The mosaic staircase by Dona Đỗ Ngọc http://donadongoc.blogspot.com/

Mr Thuận explained that the work would be overseen by the Hồ Chí Minh City Department of Planning and Architecture in collaboration with the Department of Culture and Sports, the Department of Construction, the Development Research Institute, the Hồ Chí Minh City Architects’ Association and the building’s owner SATRA, “working with design consultants to research and incorporate solutions for conservation into the plan for the construction of the new property where the Tax Trade Centre is located.”

While recreating elements of the old Grands Magasins Charner façade should pose few problems for the design team, it’s understood that, in order to be incorporated into the new building, the entire mosaic staircase may first need to be removed, stored and then reinstated. If this is the case, it would be a highly specialised job demanding overseas conservation expertise.

In her article The Saigon Tax Trade Centre Mosaic Staircase: a Forgotten Moroccan Masterpiece, Đài Quan Sát Di Sản Saigon – Saigon Heritage Observatory member Ms Trần Thị Vĩnh Tường has shown that the Saigon Tax Trade Centre’s mosaic staircase is in fact a unique and priceless work of Moroccan zellij الزليج‎ which demands very careful treatment.

The mosaic staircase by Dona Đỗ Ngọc http://donadongoc.blogspot.com/

“It would have been unthinkable for this mosaic staircase simply to be demolished along with the rest of the building,” says Ms Vĩnh Tường. “The people of Saigon trust the People’s Committee to carry through with its promise to ensure that this great art work is preserved for future generations to appreciate, and the delicate and complex work of preservation can only be achieved with assistance from overseas conservation experts.”

Nearly a year after the demise of the Saigon Tax Trade Centre was announced, it seems the fate of this great work is still in the balance.

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.

The Saigon Tax Trade Centre Mosaic Staircase – A Forgotten Moroccan Masterpiece

The mosaic staircase, photo by Alexandre Garel

This article by Ms Trần Thị Vĩnh Tường was published previously in Saigoneer.

When the Hồ Chí Minh City authorities announced in 2014 that the Saigon Tax Trade Centre was to be demolished and replaced with a 43-storey tower block, many voices were raised in opposition to the demise of yet another piece of old Saigon heritage. But it quickly emerged that this was not just any piece of old Saigon heritage – the 1924-built French department store housed one of the world’s great pieces of mosaic art.

By the early 20th century, France had three North African Islamic protectorates, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. Over 70,000 Muslims from these countries gave their lives to protect France during World War I (1914-1918), and in 1922, the French government began construction of the Grande Mosquée de Paris in order to honour this sacrifice. One of the largest Islamic temples in France, it was built in mauresque style and inaugurated on 15 July 1926 in the presence of French President Gaston Doumergue. The mosque was sponsored until 1957 by the Moroccan royal family.

The mosaic staircase by Dona Đỗ Ngọc http://donadongoc.blogspot.com/

From the 1920s, art from the Maghreb was also used by the French for decorative purposes in a variety of civic buildings, both in France and in its overseas colonies. One of the most important examples is the great staircase of the Grands Magasins Charner (GMC), now the Saigon Tax Trade Centre.

The Société des Grands Magasins Coloniale purchased the land on the corner of boulevards Charner and Bonard in Saigon in 1921, and in the following year they began construction of the GMC store, which was similar in design to the company’s existing Grands Magasins Réunis department store in Hà Nội. According to an article of 14 June 1925 in Les Potins de Paris, the GMC was built over a period of two and a half years, from 1922 to 1924. In this way, almost exactly 90 years passed between its inauguration day on 26 November 1924 and its closing day on 25 September 2014.

Taking pride of place in the GMC lobby was the grand mosaic staircase, complete with decorative bronze railings. Though long regarded as an artwork of great beauty, the origins of this staircase were quickly forgotten, and only when the fate of the Saigon Tax Trade Centre was announced was its importance reassessed.

The mosaic staircase by Dona Đỗ Ngọc http://donadongoc.blogspot.com/

Last September, following the permanent closure of the Saigon Tax Trade Centre, a young Saigon architecture student sneaked into the deserted building to say goodbye to it. Like others, he touched the stairway, took a few last photos, tried to memorise the mosaic patterns… It seemed that over the next few days it would all be gone. Nothing but emptiness, like a shell on the seashore. Then on the floor he noticed a loose mosaic piece which had worked its way loose during the moving of loudspeakers at the closing ceremony. He picked it up and pocketed it as a last memory of “Tax.” He noted: “This mosaic piece is irregular-shaped, measuring around 16mm by 17mm, and of nearly 5mm thickness, stamped with the letter ‘H.’”

When this young architect sent me the picture of the loose mosaic piece along with a shot of the whole mosaic on the stairway, I immediately recognised that they were of Moroccan origin. This made me so curious that I began to research their history. Then on 10 November 2014, I met with 35-year-old Faissel Farhi, owner of Zellij Gallery in West Hollywood, California. A native of Morocco, Faissel had been born and raised in the capital of Fes and moved to the USA at the age of 18 to study.

Seeing the brown terracotta, Faissel realised at once that this mosaic piece had been made with clay from his hometown of Fes. The unevenness of the size and glazed colours of the piece suggested that it was handmade.

Saigon, 25 September 2014, Private collection, Vĩnh Tường

To my delight, Faissel confirmed my suspicion that the great staircase of the Grands Magasins Charner-Saigon Tax Trade Centre was nothing less than a prime example of the ancient Moroccan mosaic art of zellij الزليج‎, a speciality of his hometown of Fes, created using tiny enamel-covered chips known as tessera (plural tesserae).

The city of Fes was founded by the Idrisid dynasty in 789 and continued to be the capital of Morocco until 1925 under the French protectorate. Always a multicultural city with a population made up of Arabs, Berbers and other ethnicities, it has been called the “Athens of Africa,” mostly on account of its vibrant artistic and architectural heritage.

One of its best-known forms of artistic expression is the mosaic art of zellij, which dates back at least 1,200 years and is synonymous with exquisite craftsmanship. Originally created exclusively for royalty or high ranking officials, zellig has always been regarded as symbol of noble qualities, sophistication, wealth and high social status.

Since ancient times, zellig has been created by Maalem or Masters – the title Maalem was awarded only to artists whose age and experience qualified them to wear white aristocratic robes. Faissel’s father and grandfather were both recognised as Maalem for their work decorating a variety of Islamic temples and palaces belonging to local aristocracy. The artist would conceive the design of the mosaic entirely in his head. The only way to make sketches was to draw in the sand or earth.

Faissel Farhi and Vĩnh Tường, Beverly Hills, California, 10 November 2014

Traditionally, during the construction of a building, the Maalem would move in and be treated like a family member. He would talk to each member of the household and then seek to encapsulate their feelings and personalities in the designs and contours of the zellig mosaics. If he was still single, a Maalem would sometimes marry the landlord’s daughter. Therefore, Maalem had a strong role to play in the community.

Zellig typically takes the form of a series of patterns which utilise both polygonal shapes and cursive scripts. Such spatial decorations avoid depictions of living things, and as such are consistent with the teachings of Islam.

The earliest zellig were generally of a single colour, but in the 14th century, blue, green and yellow tesserae were introduced under the Merinid dynasty and by the 17th century red tesserae had also become popular.

The technique of creating zellij is very similar to that used in making pottery. The earth used to make the clay base is specific to the region of Fez, and no other type of earth seems to work effectively. It is first mixed with water, then kneaded by hand for a long time before being shaped into tiles 10cm on each side, and approximately 12mm thick. These tiles are then dried in the sun before being enameled and baked in a special oven, fired usually by olive pits. Tiles enameled with different colours are placed in the oven at different levels, so that each is baked at the correct temperature (white on the bottom, green on the top).

Photo: Faissel Farhi private collection

After the tiles are removed from the oven and sorted, they are cut into tesserae. This is done either in a dedicated workshop or directly at the construction site. Apprentices trace the shapes of the tesserae directly on the tile using a template, which is usually an existing zellij tessera. They are careful to mark as many pieces as possible onto each tile.

Then the tile is passed to the cutter, who sits cross-legged in front of a simple workbench, which is often merely a pile of stones with a piece of iron or a harder stone projecting out from it to support the tile being cut. The tool used to cut the tile looks like large wide hammer, carefully sharpened at each end. Its weight and size contrast greatly with the small and delicate pieces being cut.

After the zellij tesserae have been cut and their edges filed, they are placed in baskets, sorted by shape and colour. A craftsman can cut up to 400 tesserae per day.

According to Faissel, one of the characteristic features of zellig is the geometric symmetry of many of the patterns achieved by Moroccan artists, despite not having pencils and compasses. If the symmetry is not so strict, this means that the mosaic reflects the influence of Persia, where curves feature strongly in traditional carpet designs. The mosaic in the Tax incorporates many sweeping curved motifs; could its design perhaps have been influenced by Persia?

Photo: www.zellijgallery.com/

Faissel conjectures that only one Maalem came out to Saigon to build the GMC staircase, because at that time few Fes artisans would have been prepared to leave their family and country to work overseas. During that period too, Moroccan French speakers were still few in number. We don’t know what the letter “H” stamped underneath the GMC tesserae stands for, but perhaps it refers to the name of the Saigon construction company which worked with the Maalem.

Faissel believes that in the areas of the GMC mosaic staircase which incorporate complex designs, the Maalem used the “indirect method,” which involves laying the tiles face down onto a thin cloth, taking extra care to ensure that the pieces are in the proper order, before the cement is added. This is an area which demands great skill, because once the cement has dried, it is too late to correct any mistakes. After the cement has set, the entire section of mosaic is removed, turned upright and placed in its final position. For the rest of the stairway where there was no design, the “direct method” of building up the mosaic by hand-positioning individual tesserae would have been used.

Photo: www.zellijgallery.com/

So, exactly why did the French choose a piece of Moroccan art as a centre piece for the Grands Magasins Charner? We know that mosaic art is one of the oldest and most beautiful art forms known to human civilisation, with a foundation in many early cultures, including those of Ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome and Byzantine. What better symbol could they choose to represent the growth and development of Saigon than an art form which represents a synthesis of human civilisation.

Furthermore, the particular design of the mosaic staircase, with its predominant blue colour, shells and fish motifs, seems to bring to mind the great maritime history of Saigon, making the whole staircase an “invitation to the sea.” It’s thus entirely appropriate that in 1925 the French authorities installed a siren on the roof of Grands Magasins Charner to announce when the courier ship from France had docked with its mail and passengers!

According to Faissel, the great value of the Grands Magasins Charner-Saigon Tax Trade Centre mosaic staircase is its uniqueness, since Maalem never created the same pattern twice. He is very touched that Việt Nam has preserved a work of art made from the clay pieces of his homeland for 90 years, and he aims to ensure that the story of this important artwork is known in his homeland and takes its rightful place in the history of the Islamic art of Fes. Faissel Farhi has also offered to manufacture and supply the missing tesserae to SATRA, if needed.

The mosaic staircase by Dona Đỗ Ngọc http://donadongoc.blogspot.com/

Early this year, in the wake of a high-profile public campaign which attracted 3,486 signatures to an online petition, the Hồ Chí Minh City People’s Committee promised to preserve elements of the Saigon Tax Trade Centre in the new building which will replace it, most notably the great mosaic staircase.

From correspondence between myself and SATRA in February 2015, it is understood that the mosaic staircase may need to be removed, stored and then reinstated in the new building. If that is the case, it would be a highly specialised job for which the expertise required is not currently available in Việt Nam.

The conservation group Đài Quan Sát Di Sản Saigon – Saigon Heritage Observatory, of which I am a member, stands ready to assist the building’s owner SATRA in identifying suitable overseas conservation assistance, in order to ensure that the GMC mosaic staircase, that great masterpiece of Moroccan mosaic art, is preserved for future generations to appreciate.

Written by Trần Thị Vĩnh Tường
California, 10 July 2015

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.

The Inauguration of the Grands Magasins Charner in 1924

A late 1920s shot of the Grands Magasins Charner

The Saigon Tax Trade Centre, shortly to be demolished and rebuilt as a 43-storey tower block, originated as a luxury French colonial department store named the Grands Magasins Charner. Its inauguration on 26 November 1924 was attended by a reporter from the Écho annamite newspaper – here’s an English translation of the article which was published the following day.

Yesterday evening at sunset, a huge crowd gathered outside the elegant Grands Magasins Charner, which gleamed with illuminations, its imposing architecture enthroned in this select quarter of Saigon like part of a “city of lights” rising from the ground under the effect of a magic wand waved by that French wizard, the Société coloniale des Grands Magasins.

The grand opening

The curious – people of every age, of every race and of every condition – assembled in several rows beneath a huge marquee which had been installed in front of the store’s gleaming windows, in which the most diverse articles – the pride of French industry – had been artistically displayed.

Since the attention of the store’s management’s was focused the press, we had the great honour of being part of the “vintage reserve,” so we went inside to see for ourselves!

Several gentlemen dressed in impeccable tuxedos received visitors at the door with the refined politeness of the perfect trader. Nearby, installed behind a glass screen, a robotic black man, dressed in red with gold braid on his sleeves, flashed everyone a huge smile which showed two rows of milky white teeth, a strange contrast to his beautiful ebony face. Yet he didn’t say one word! Instead, with a tiny rattan cane, he attracted attention by striking tirelessly on the shop window in front of him. He blinked, tilted and lifted his head, indicating with his hand the beautiful departments of the Grands Magasins Charner, in short, gesticulating so much so that we fully understand his expressive mimicry. “Come in, come in, ladies and gentlemen!” his silent gestures seemed to say, “You’ll find everything here! There’s something for everyone!”

The public was “truly spoiled for choice” at the Grands Magasins Charner

And there is indeed everything in the Grands Magasins Charner, and what is even more admirable, it comes at very reasonable prices. The public is truly spoiled for choice. The jewelry department, for example, feels like one of those dream lands described in the Arabian Nights…. then, almost without transition, you are transported into the less futile domain of knowledge and thought – it’s the book department!

Elsewhere, gourmets will lick their lips in delight as they contemplate bottles of champagne of the most renowned brands, and wines of the best vintages, proudly wearing their labels and stacked in rows like soldiers on review, alongside cans of biscuits and conserves piled in pyramids which seem to look down on them, just like the famous pyramids of Egypt gazed upon Bonaparte’s grenadiers.

I am truly lost for words of description, firstly because I don’t know what to say, and secondly because there are too many things to describe, which would exceed the framework of a modest newspaper article.

The toy department, however, deserves special mention. Mothers and their offspring will be very happy at the coming of Christmas and New Year! There are toys in profusion at the Grands Magasins Charner.

French 1920s guignol puppets

Dolls which close their eyes when they are laid on their backs or say “mama, papa;” animals which play cymbals when you pinch their bellies; guignol puppets; real-looking stuffed bears and dogs which get up on their hind legs when you squeeze their attached rubber bulbs; model railways; clockwork cars with rubber wheels, etc etc. I noted in particular a miniature power plant, powered by a tiny dynamo!

In silence, I passed through departments of homeware, sports, hunting supplies, travel, perfumes, hardware, bedding and many other things. It’s not that they were less interesting, but there is so much to say that if I started describing them I would never finish!

At the rear of the store’s second floor is a luxurious salon de thé. However “tearoom” is hardly an appropriate description, as I see that it also serves good champagne, biscuits, cakes and tasty sandwiches.

That evening, a large and select audience gathered in the salon de thé, in the presence of M Eutrope, representing the Governor (currently in Hanoi) and many other personalities from the world of Cochinchina. The guests sat around small tables, sipping champagne and nibbling on savoury pastries.

A large and select audience gathered in the salon de thé

The ladies present were clearly out to impress, with their elegant dresses and good humour. We all chattered and laughed together in joyous animation – but it was not ladies who chattered most, as one might like to believe! However, there was silence when M Ribupe, representative of the Société des Grands Magasins, delivered the following speech, which was followed by resounding applause:

“M Governor, ladies and gentlemen, dear friends. On behalf of the Société Coloniale des Grands Magasins – a subsidiary of the Union Commerciale Indochinoise et Africaine of which I have the honour to be the delegate – I thank you most sincerely for the eagerness with which you have responded to our invitation. The sheer number of notables of the city, male and female, whom I see gathered here, proves that, even before opening our doors to the public, we already enjoy the sympathy of the majority of the population. I assure you that this, ladies and gentlemen, is infinitely valuable to me, because it fills me with hope for the future of our young company.

Are you being served?

It proves to me above all that I was right, when, nearly three years ago, I laid the foundations for the construction of the large facility we are opening today, and which we’ll declare open in a moment. The creation of a department store like the one we have provided for the city of Saigon had become a social necessity, because this kind of trading facility responds to the modern needs of a great city. I believe that it will impose itself so quickly and profoundly into the life of the local community that, within just a few months time, it will be as if the Grands Magasins Charner has existed forever, and that we could not have failed to build this great palace of French commerce.

Nonetheless, ladies and gentlemen, I admit that I will feel a double sense of regret when you tour our establishment. The first will be that we must present a building whose construction is not completely finished, and the second, more serious to me, is that we are not yet able to present departments with a well-mixed assortment of merchandise, which, by their variety, will give satisfaction to even the most difficult customers. Please excuse us, and especially, please do not hold this against us, because in the months ahead we will do everything possible to get closer to perfection in our commercial choices and in the varieties and assortments of goods we offer.

Various refreshments were offered in the salon de thé

I know, moreover, that you will understood, even before I bring this point to your attention, that a work of importance like the Grands Magasins Charner requires considerable effort, and that it has taken a very long time to sort out all the workings of our great machine in all of its thousand details.

The management of a department store, and a priori its construction, are already extremely complex things back in France, so you can easily imagine the difficulties we had to overcome here in the colony, in order to reach the point we are at now. To do so, we had to ask a crushing amount of work from all of our employees, much greater even than that which would have been given in France, and I am very pleased to acknowledge, before you all, M Gosselin and his staff for what they have accomplished. I would also like to mention all of the contractors who have participated in this great work: Messieurs Lamorte et Cie, Messieurs Lautier et Boursier, the good directors of the Société des Eaux et Électricité, the Entreprise Denkwitz, etc.

Ladies and gentlemen, I repeat that our work is still imperfect, but I want to assure you that in the future we will apply ourselves with all our strength to its meticulous polishing, and I’m confident that, little by little, we can present to you a model store which will be talked about throughout the Far East, and will become one of the great sights of Saigon which passing strangers will come to visit, a true “museum of wonders.”

The Grands Magasins Réunis in Hanoï, pictured in 1906

Our past is indeed a guarantor of our future, and the growing success of our department store in Hanoi, which most of you know well, allows me to be sure that we will also achieve perfect success here in Saigon. So we will succeed, gentlemen, of that you can be certain, and this for several reasons.

Firstly, because we have in the magnificent building which spreads before your eyes an unparalleled installation, and we know how to get the best from it – it is a perfect fit for the colony, the last improvement to the practical and rational exploitation of the department store concept. And secondly, because on the technical side, for the all-important areas of general purchasing and supply, our company is affiliated to one of the finest department store businesses in France. I refer, of course, to the Société Française des Nouvelles Galeries, whose reputation is second to none in terms of commercial resources, and I am happy to take the opportunity offered to me today, while inaugurating our new store, to recognise the president and board of directors of this important company, which has just recently increased its capital to 105 million francs, for the enlightened competition I have always found amongst its members.

Ad

A late 1920s newspaper advertisement for the Grands Magasins Charner

Ladies and gentlemen, we will succeed above all because we are first and foremost conscientious and honest traders, and we want to give our customers both maximum guarantees and maximum facilities. “Loyalty is our strength” is the motto we have adopted, and we will endeavour to justify this to both our customers and our shareholders. We have built here an important nucleus which will certainly develop gradually as our company acquires additional capital to continue its programme of creating new branches, not only in the main centres of our colony, but also in other major cities of the Far East, where French commercial influence will continue to grow and be ever more assertive.

Finally, ladies and gentlemen, I want to inform you today, while inaugurating our Grands Magasins Charner, that the industry of the department store is now extremely successful worldwide, and that nowhere has it ever brought financial ruin. Furthermore, far from the department store killing off small businesses as it is often accused of doing, it has instead been found repeatedly that speciality shops can not only function but also thrive in the vicinity of department stores. Competition is, indeed, the soul of commerce, says the wisdom of nations, and never has that popular adage had brighter justification than in the relationship which has been formed in France, mainly in Paris, between the trade of the department store and that of the speciality store.

The Galeries Lafayette in Paris

As a demonstration of this assertion, I will cite the striking example of an area of Paris which is known universally: the one which extends behind the Opéra on boulevard Haussmann, from the buildings of the Galeries Lafayette to those of the Grands Magasins du Printemps, a boulevard along which, 20 years ago, that is to say when the department store industry first took root there, there was not one shop.

What a change since that tỉme! If you glance at the same boulevard today, you will see a world of small shops, all piled one on top of the other, paying rents worth their weight in gold. Because living very largely in the wake of the two largest trading houses in the capital, all these speciality shops can take advantage of the tremendous movement of buyers attracted into the neighbourhood, who crowd into this veritable human anthill during store opening hours.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, there is no doubt that the same causes produce the same effects, and here too, we have the legitimate ambition of transforming the boulevard Charner – which the old colonial settlers regarded as sad and deprived – into an extraordinarily vibrant and bustling hive, around which we will be happy to see open many businesses of all kinds, which will benefit from the huge trading movement we are creating in this corner of Saigon.

Another late 1920s shot of the Grands Magasins Charner

In this way, department stores are surely proof of life and progress, they are absolutely necessary to the national expansion of a great country like France, and we are very proud to have been the first to import this industry into Indochina.

Today marks an important milestone, a happy day which permits me, my dear friends, to propose a champagne toast to the success of our Grands Magasins Charner, and to the ever-growing prosperity of the Société Coloniale des Grands Magasins, as well as to our dear French Indochina.”

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.

Date with the Wrecking Ball – Former Maison du Combattant, 23 Le Duan, 1932

The Maison du Combattant at 23 boulevard Norodom (23 Lê Duẩn) in the early 1950s

This article was published previously in Saigoneer.

Yet another piece of old Saigon heritage faces the wrecking ball following the recent public auction and sale of the former Maison du Combattant “gold land” site at 23 Lê Duẩn.

The project to build a Maison du Combattant or War Veterans Centre was launched on 19 March 1931 by the Assemblée générale des Anciens Combattants. The land was conceded free of charge by the Governor of Cochinchina Jean Krautheimer with the approval of the Colonial Council, and construction was entrusted to the Société des Dragages, which commenced work on 22 January 1932.

Designed in art deco style, the Maison du Combattant at 23 boulevard Norodom (now 23 Lê Duẩn) was completed on 30 June 1932 and inaugurated on 14 July 1932 in the presence of the Governor of Cochinchina and the Commander General of the Cochinchine-Cambodia Division of the French armed forces.

Designed for “all victims of the Great War, without distinction of race, religion or society,” it incorporated a bar, a restaurant and meeting facilities. However, its most important facility was its auditorium, which became a popular venue for small-scale music and theatre presentations during the twilight years of French rule.

After the departure of the French in 1954, the building was sold and converted into a small theatre known as the Hý viện Thống nhất (Thống nhất Playhouse).

In the wake of Reunification in 1975 it was used for a variety of purposes until 1978, when it was taken over by the current tenant, the Kiến Thiết Lottery Company.

The old Maison du Combattant building is currently home to the Kiến Thiết Lottery Company

According to a recent article in Đàn Ông magazine, the public auction of 23 June 2015 gave the 23 Lê Duẩn site a starting price of 558 billion đồng, but Hà Nội-based real estate and luxury condominium developer Tân Hoàng Minh Trading-Service-Hotels Company (Công ty TNHH Thương mại-Dịch vụ-Khách sạn Tân Hoàng Minh) eventually saw off 12 other competitors by bidding a record amount of 1,430 billion đồng. The company plans to demolish the old Maison du Combattant building and construct in its place “commercial centres, offices and service buildings” which will be limited in height to a maximum of 100m.

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.

Date with the Wrecking Ball – Former College de Can-Tho, 1924

Châu Văn Liêm High School today (photo by Huỳnh Quốc Huy)

This article was published previously in Saigoneer.

Over the past week, Facebook has been awash with articles about the planned demolition of a much-loved Cần Thơ institution, the Châu Văn Liêm High School (Trường Trung Học Phổ Thông Châu Văn Liêm).

The Collège de Can-Tho in the 1930s

According to various reports, opposition from local people has been ignored and an offer of French restoration assistance rejected in favour of demolition and construction of a brand new school building, paid for out of lottery funding and reportedly entrusted to a contractor with a dubious track record.

One of the oldest schools in the south, the Châu Văn Liêm High School originated in the 1880s as a much smaller school known as the École provinciale de Can-Tho. By 1903 it had a French headmaster (Monsieur Solère), three Vietnamese teachers and 74 pupils. In 1916, additional buildings were added to accommodate scholarship students funded by the Société de protection de l’Enfance de Cochinchine.

Another 1930s shot of the Collège de Can-Tho

The current school building dates from 1923-1924, when it was reconstructed on a larger scale as a high school named the Collège de Can-Tho. Opened in September 1924, it was initially affiliated to the Collège de My-Tho (now Trường Trung Học Phổ Thông Nguyễn Đình Chiểu in Mỹ Tho). In 1925, the Collège de Can-Tho had just 96 pupils, but over the following years it expanded rapidly. By 1929, the year in which it became independent from the Collège de My-Tho, it had increased its enrolment to 208 pupils, taught by nine French and nine Vietnamese teachers. This growth was much to the delight of the Conseil de gouvernement, which commented in a report of that year: “It has tripled its enrolment in just four years, it’s now well underway and very worthy of the great capital of West Cochinchina, whose wealth increases every day.”

The Phan Thanh Giản High School in the early 1970s (photographer unknown)

The Collège de Can-Tho made the headlines on 4 April 1926, the day of great Vietnamese patriot Phan Châu Trinh’s funeral, when it became one of several schools in Cochinchina whose students wrote ABLF (“À Bas Les Français” – down with the French) on blackboards and participated in what subsequently became a nationwide school boycott. Furthermore, according to Hue-Tam Ho Tai’s Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution (Harvard University Press, 1992), “a group of students [from the Collège de Can-Tho] who were already in trouble for having complained that the sugar they were given came mixed with coal and their rice with dirt, were expelled for producing a clandestine paper that took its tone from Trần Huy Liệu’s Indochina Times (Đông Pháp Thời Báo).”

Châu Văn Liêm High School today (photo by Huỳnh Quốc Huy)

During the August Revolution of 1945, the Collège de Can-Tho was briefly renamed the Phan Thanh Giản High School, and in 1949 the State of Việt Nam government made this its official name. However, during the period 1958-1968 it was split into two separate schools, the Phan Thanh Giản High School (Trường nam Trung học Phan Thanh Giản) for boys and the Đoàn Thị Điểm High School (Trường nữ Trung học Đoàn Thị Điểm) for girls. In 1995, it was renamed Châu Văn Liêm High School, after one of its most famous former students.

In addition to revolutionaries Châu Văn Liêm (1902-1930) and Uông Văn Khiêm (1910-1991), former alumni of the school include musician Lưu Hữu Phước (1921-1989) and writer Sơn Nam (1926-2008).

General Phạm Xuân Ẩn (1927-2006)

However, perhaps its most famous former student was double agent Phạm Xuân Ẩn (1927-2006), who worked in Saigon for Reuters, Time magazine and the New York Herald Tribune during the Vietnam War while simultaneously spying for the DRV.

Though now in a very poor state of repair, the elegant old school buildings represent an important phase of colonial lycée architecture imbued with elements of early art deco design. As such, they certainly merit preservation for subsequent generations to appreciate, although at present their future looks decidedly bleak.

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.

Saigon’s Endangered Heritage Buildings – the Top 10, July 2015

This article was published previously in Saigoneer.

We’re now over half way through 2015, and what better time to update that depressing list of Saigon built heritage in imminent danger of destruction.

NUMBER 10. Comparative shots of the endangered shophouse architecture on the west side of the Bến Thành Market in late colonial times and today, from the Facebook group Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now

NUMBER 10. The shophouses around Bến Thành Market – The shophouse is a hybrid style of traditional architecture which derives from traditional Asian house architecture, yet displays strong European colonial influences. Saigon was once rich in this style of architecture, but in recent years, many have been demolished, and most of those now remaining in District 1 and District 5 are severely degraded. Partially hidden beneath huge advertising hoardings, the three-storey shophouse terraces on the west side of the Bến Thành Market are among the only surviving examples of their kind in District 1. However, they are already in a poor state of repair and the word on the street is that they will be redeveloped over the next few years as part of a wider revamp of the area surrounding the new Bến Thành Market metro station.

NUMBER 9. Comparative shots of the endangered shophouse architecture on Nguyễn Huệ boulevard showing the destruction which has taken place during the first few months of 2015, from the Facebook group Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now

NUMBER 9. The few surviving shophouses on Nguyễn Huệ – Until recently, one of the best surviving examples of two-storey shophouse terraces in District 1 was 85-113 Nguyễn Huệ, which conservationists had hoped might be refurbished as part of the project to pedestrianise that street. However, within the last two months, shophouses 89-99 have been demolished to make way for a new shopping centre and others are now expected to follow. See Shophouse architecture.

NUMBER 8. The Saigon Tax Trade Centre, pictured in early 2014

NUMBER 8. The Tax Trade Centre – Yes it’s that building again, the Saigon icon which we all thought had been partially saved. Back in January 2015, it was announced that the People’s Committee had agreed to preserve the main external features of the original 1924 Grand Magasins Charner building in the facade of the new 43-storey tower block, and most importantly, to make a feature of its priceless mosaic staircase in the lobby of the new building. However, it now appears that this huge staircase must first be dismantled, removed and then reinstalled, a job which can only be carried out by conservation experts. To date, it is reported that the building’s owner SATRA has made little progress identifying experts to carry out this complex and difficult work. See Saigon Tax Trade Centre.

NUMBER 7. The Railway administration building at 136 Hàm Nghi

NUMBER 7. 136 Hàm Nghi – Although the 100-year-old Saigon railway headquarters building at 136 Hàm Nghi has recently been refurbished and repainted, the site is still earmarked for redevelopment as offices and serviced apartments. This plan forms part of a co-operation agreement with Kinh Đô Land, as reported in the article “Thành lập Trung tâm ứng phó sự cố, thiên tai và cứu nạn Đường sắt,” published in Báo GTVT on 20 July 2012. See also Vietnam Railways Building.

NUMBER 6. The former SAMIPIC villa at 606 Trần Hưng Đạo

NUMBER 6. 606 Trần Hưng Đạo – Originally built in 1932 for a state-franchised charity lottery company known as the Société pour l’amélioration morale, intellectuelle et physique des indigènes de Cochinchine (SAMIPIC), this grand villa was later used as a headquarters by the American (MAAG, MACV) and Korean armed forces. According to reliable sources, there are plans to demolish it and replace it with a new office block. See 606 Trần Hưng Đạo.

NUMBER 5. The former Bót Catinat building at 164 Đồng Khởi

NUMBER 5. 164 Đồng Khởi – This art deco building stands on a piece of what is known as “gold land” (đất vàng) and has long been earmarked for demolition and redevelopment. Currently the headquarters of the Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, 164 Đồng Khởi became the Direction de la Police et de la Sûreté as early as 1917, although the current building dates from a reconstruction of 1933. Many leading revolutionary figures were incarcerated and tortured in this building, which is known locally as the “Bót Catinat.” It was also immortalised in Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American as the workplace of Inspector Vigot, the French detective responsible for investigating the death of American CIA agent Alden Pyle. See Bót Catinat.

NUMBER 4. The “Catinat Building” at 26 Lý Tự Trọng

NUMBER 4. 26 Lý Tự Trọng – Like the “Bót Catinat,” this much-loved art deco apartment block on the Đồng Khởi-Lý Tự Trông junction, known popularly as the “Catinat Building,” stands on a “gold land” site and is thus awaiting demolition, although so far none of the current tenants have been given any information about when this will happen. It was built in 1926-1927 for the Société urbaine foncière Indochinoise (SUFIC), and over the last nine decades it has been known mainly for its up-market apartments. However, it has also housed numerous companies and foreign missions, including, during the 1930s and early 1940s, the United States Consulate. It was here on 23 November 1941 that the first recorded attack on American citizens in Việt Nam took place – a car bombing perpetrated by “Japanese gendarmerie” – which caused extensive damage to the Catinat Building. Just two weeks later, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and all US diplomats were expelled from Indochina. See 26 Lý Tự Trọng.

NUMBER 3. 151 Đồng Khởi

NUMBER 3. 151 Đồng Khởi – Earlier this year, it was announced that 151 Đồng Khởi, another old building on lower Đồng Khởi street, was also earmarked for demolition. While comparatively little is known about its history, this building would appear to be an early 20th century reconstruction of the former Grand Hôtel de France (1870s). By the end of the colonial period, its upper floors were rented apartments, while its ground floor was occupied by shops. A unique feature of the building is its arcade, in which a small film theatre known as the Catinat-Cine was installed in the 1930s. The old cinema building with its unusual mosaic wall decorations has survived to this day and may still be seen by customers as they make their way up to the building’s principal tenant, l’Usine.

NUMBER 2. The former Secrétariat général du gouvernement de la Cochinchine building at 59-61 Lý Tự Trọng

NUMBER 2. 59-61 Lý Tự Trọng – Here’s another one which we hoped had been saved but are now not so sure about. Last year, perhaps responding to criticism of the destruction of the art deco apartment block 213 Đồng Khởi, the Hồ Chí Minh City People’s Committee staged a design competition for their new administration building behind the Town Hall, encouraging submissions which incorporated the façade of the old French government building at 59-61 Lý Tự Trọng in the design of the new complex. Six months after 11 shortlisted designs were placed on display for the public to vote on, the winner still hasn’t been announced. However, in an interview of 2 February 2015 with Saigon Online, Mr Nguyễn Thanh Toàn, Deputy Director of Planning and Architecture, unexpectedly disclosed that his department would give no first prize because “most of the submissions were of nearly equal quality,” and then jumped the gun by intimating that his department’s preference was for submission number 107. That submission envisages the preservation of 59-61 Lý Tự Trọng, but involves physically moving it around 500 metres, so that it is in line with the central axis of the People’s Committee building! See 59-61 Lý Tự Trọng.

NUMBER 1. Ba Son Shipyard (photograph by Alexandre Garel)

NUMBER 1. Ba Son Shipyard – It’s surely no surprise that this has gone straight to Number One – Ba Son Shipyard is Saigon’s oldest and most important maritime heritage site, recognised by the Ministry of Culture and Information in 1993 as a National Historic Monument (Decision 1034-QĐ/BT). Over the years, several tourism experts have suggested that it could profitably be transformed into a important leisure and heritage complex along the lines of New York’s South Street Seaport, but now it seems that it will be sold off to a South Korean investor for redevelopment into yet more office towers, apartments and shopping malls. See Ba Son Shipyard.

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.