Date with the Wrecking Ball – The Catinat-Cine Mosaics

The main mosaic panel, located in the corridor alongside the former Catinat-Ciné building

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

Over the past 12 months, a great deal of attention has been paid to the fate of the 1924 Moroccan mosaic staircase in the lobby of the Tax Trade Centre. Yet that great work of art is not the only mosaic in Saigon which is currently under threat of destruction.

The 151 rue Catinat entrance to the Catinat-Ciné (now the Art Arcade at 151 Đồng Khởi), pictured in the late colonial period

The redevelopment of 151 Đồng Khởi, announced last year, will involve the demolition of a tiny former film theatre building, situated in an alleyway between Đồng Khởi and Nguyễn Huễ boulevard and still decorated with some of the most intriguing mosaics of the late colonial era.

Believed to date back to the mid 1930s, the Catinat-Ciné became popular in the late colonial and early VNCH periods for its cheap ticket prices and “non-stop cinema” – in reality, 1pm-to-midnight screenings of second-run films which had already done the rounds of the major cinemas.

According to one local historian, by the 1960s the Catinat-Ciné had become a “tea room” music venue, known initially as Au Chalet and later as Đêm Màu Hồng, where the group Phượng Hoàng performed in the days before singer Elvis Phương joined its ranks and transformed it into one of Saigon’s leading pop groups.

Since 1975, the old Catinat-Ciné building has been used as an office space, but the original building survives, and with it the unique mosaic panels which decorate it.

An early 1950s view of the 151 rue Catinat entrance to the Catinat-Ciné (now the Art Arcade at 151 Đồng Khởi)

These include small mosaics on either side of the front entrance, plus a large mosaic panel in the corridor alongside the building which will be familiar to regular patrons of l’Usine restaurant upstairs. Despite some minor damage, most of the mosaic tiles remain in place. Sadly, the name of the artisan who created the murals is not known.

There can be no doubt that these unique works of art will face the wrecking ball unless a conservation campaign is launched to remove, restore and reinstate them in whatever new building is constructed on this site.

The smaller mural panels, located either side of the front doors of the former Catinat-Ciné building

The exterior of the former Catinat-Ciné building

Decorative coving and light fittings in the 151 Đồng Khởi entrance to the former Catinat-Ciné, now the Art Arcade

Decorative work on the walls of the 151 Đồng Khởi entrance to the former Catinat-Ciné, now the Art Arcade

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.

Pierre Coupeaud and the Great Cyclo Trial of February 1936

Cyclos outside the Halles centrales (Bến Thanh Market) in the late 1940s

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

Banned from an ever-increasing number of city streets, the cyclo is rapidly becoming an endangered species. But spare a moment to appreciate this much-maligned form of transport, invented by Phnom-Penh-based French industrialist Pierre Coupeaud and launched here exactly 80 years ago this month by means of a high-profile demonstration run from Phnom Penh to Saigon.

By the early 1930s, the use of human-powered rickshaws in many parts of Asia was increasingly viewed with concern on humanitarian grounds. In 1933, trials were held in Paris to test a number of pedal-powered alternatives. The French Public Works Ministry recruited two former Tour de France champions, Speicher and Le Grèves, to test a variety of different “tri-porteurs” (three-wheel pedal-driven passenger-carrying vehicles) along the wide paths of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.

The human-powered “pousse-pousse” rickshaw

Two years later, a Phnom Penh-based industrialist named Pierre Coupeaud designed his own lightweight “vélo-pousse.”

A keen athlete from the Charente region of France, Coupeaud had moved to Indochina in the late 1920s, and by 1933 he managed one of Cambodia’s leading bicycle companies, Établissements Pierre Coupeaud et Cie at 147-151 rue Galliéni, Phnom Penh.

Coupeaud arranged for his “vélo-pousse” to be built in Paris and then brought it back to Phnom Penh where, in 1935, after securing a public service licence from the city government, he manufactured a small fleet of the vehicles for use on the streets of the Cambodian capital.

Flushed with this initial success, Coupeaud then tried to sell the idea of cyclo travel to the Saigon authorities, but they were not interested. Eventually, he devised a plan to prove publicly how good his new invention was.

An article published in Le Journal magazine of 11 April 1936 describes what happened:

The most curious race ever to be organised

Two Indochinese cyclists recently travelled from Phnom Penh to Saigon on a “vélo-pousse,” the cyclist and passenger swopping places to complete the journey in shifts.

Coupeaud’s “crew” poses for photographs after the successful February 1936 demonstration run from Phnom Penh to Saigon

We thought we had exhausted every possible formula for the cycle race, but we were wrong! A French sportsman, who is also a businessman, has just invented, quite by accident, a new style of performance cycling competition. Once a cyclist and soccer player in France, this young man, Pierre Coupeaud, emigrated to the Far East and settled in Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia, where he now sells bicycles and sporting goods.

Cambodia is home to a human-powered rickshaw known as the “pousse pousse.” Many of us will be familiar with this vehicle, which is used throughout the Far East. It comprises a large wicker chair mounted on lightweight wheels, which the Chinese and Indochinese pull by means of stretcher poles, taking the traveller at full speed through the cluttered cities of the Far East.

We have been trying for several years to find a more humane replacement for the “pousse pousse” by replacing arm and leg power with pedal power. Just a few years ago, while I was organising the first “tri-porteur” trials in Paris, I received a visit from a Russian colonel who owned several significant rickshaw concessions in China and was keen to demonstrate a new passenger-carrying “tri-porteur,” but he was unable to produce the intended machine.

Our friend Pierre Coupeaud had more perseverance. Coming to Paris last year, he left with a passenger “tri-porteur” which he had manufactured here. Unfortunately, setbacks awaited him in Indochina, where the Saigon administration, considering the invention to be revolutionary, refused him permission to put his “cyclo-pousse” into circulation. In vain, our friend argued that pedalling with a passenger in the front appeared less degrading to the driver and was certainly more humane than expecting him to run along the road pulling a rickshaw. However, knowing the strength of Eastern traditions, colonial officials would not yield.

Undaunted, M. Coupeaud trained up two local cyclists to demonstrate his machine. They were in fact two excellent riders who had participated in many cycling competitions, and by using them, Coupeaud determined to show the authorities what his new vehicle was capable of. He therefore organised a trial run from Phnom Penh to Saigon via Souairieng – a total of 240 km – to demonstrate the performance qualities of his “cyclo-pousse.”

A cyclo driver in Saigon in the late 1930s

The event was scheduled for Saturday 9 February 1936, departing from the Chamber of Commerce in Phnom Penh. The “cyclo-pousse” was followed by a car carrying officials equipped with chronometers.

Coupeaud’s “crew” left at 4pm that afternoon and travelled all night, arriving in Saigon the following morning at 9.30am, having covered the entire distance in just 17 hours 20 minutes. Excluding a 50 minute ferry trip, an average speed of around 15 kilometers per hour was achieved.

The two cyclists took turns to pedal the vehicle, swopping places from time to time to permit some rest. They were both fed and watered regularly en route, so that they were able to arrive perfectly fresh in Saigon the next morning.

Will we introduce such races to France? Could we in future see Speicher-Archambaud and Guerra-Olmo “cyclo-pousse” race teams competing in the Tour de France?

L. A.

Following this successful and very high profile demonstration run from Phnom Penh to Saigon, the Mayor of Saigon authorised the commissioning of the first 20 cyclos for public use. By 1939, the Cochinchina capital had 200 cyclos, and this versatile vehicle had also been introduced to the streets of Hà Nội. By 1940, the Indochina “pousse-pousse” or human-powered rickshaw was no more.

A Saigon cyclo

A cyclo driver waits for passengers outside the Saigon Municipal Theatre in the late 1950s

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.

1915 Book Review: La Pagode de Dakao by A. E. Lelièvre and Ch. A. Clouqueur

 A review of La Pagode de Dakao by A. E. Lelièvre and Ch. A. Clouqueur, C. Ardin, Saïgon, 1914, 25pp., published in Le Journal des savants, Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres (France), 1915

The Société des Études Indochinoises of Saïgon has, for a colonial society, rather a long history. Its creation dates back to 1883, when it took the place of the Comité agricole et industriel de la Cochinchine (Cochinchina Agricultural and Industrial Committee). Apart from its Bulletin, it has also issued a series of monographs about the various provinces which make up our colony, as well as a number of separate printed publications, some of which, like l’Astronomie Cambodgienne (Cambodian Astronomy) by F. G. Faraut, have considerable scientific value.

The booklet by Messrs Lelièvre et Clouqueur is dedicated to a monument of quite recent origin; Indeed, the Ngoc-Hoang Temple, better known in Saïgon as the pagode de Dakao, dates only from 1900, when the foundations were laid under the direction of Luu Minh, on the site of the former Mieu (temple) of Dakao, of which we can still see a wall, next to the stump of a large sacred tree of the banyan species “Cây da” or “Cây dung.” A legend, the first part of which seems rather contrived, reports that “the Chinese Luu Minh, sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering his brother, devoted his entire fortune to the genie benefactors who had delivered justice by helping him to escape, and built the current pagoda next to the remains of a sacred tree, which, when it was hit by lightning, saved many people who had sheltered under its foliage.”

The new temple, opened in 1906, is one of the most beautiful monuments in Cochinchina, and the modest objective of the study by Lelièvre and Clouqueur is to draw attention to this building, the architecture of which does not present any particular curiosity, and to excite the interest of visitors.

The authors provide us with a detailed description of the interior of the monument, which seems very richly decorated, but does not seem to me to be of special character, as it is a Taoist temple devoted to the Supreme Being, Chang Ti (Thuong De); there are many similar temples in China.

The publication of this booklet appears to me to have been a pretext for reproducing, in black and white and colour, the drawings by one of the authors, Mr. Clouqueur, which are very interesting to see because they have been reproduced with perfect fidelity by a local printing company.

Henri Cordier

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 Old Annamite Citadels of Cochinchina” by Ung Hoe, 1926

Plan of the City of Saigon, fortified in 1790 by Colonel Victor Olivier, reduced from the Great Plan drawn in 1795 by the order of the King of Cochinchina by M. Brun, Engineer in his service

As the foundations for the Catinat Building were being laid in January 1926, large sections of bastion wall from the first Gia Định Citadel of 1790 were uncovered. On 8 February 1926, the Écho annamite newspaper published this fascinating article by Vietnamese scholar Ung-Hue on the history of Vauban military architecture in Cochinchina.

Since the discovery of the remains of the citadel built in Saigon according to the Vauban system by French officers in the service of Gia-Long, there has been much interest in the fortifications of this nature which were built in Cochinchina.

345_001Undoubtedly, the Bulletin des Amis du Vieux Hué, edited by R. P. Cadière, has made a valuable contribution to the history of our country. But so far it has not published any study on the Annamite armies or on the military arts of Annam. However, as Napoléon III once said, “The history of peoples is largely the history of its armies.”

While waiting for the Association des Amis du Vieux Hué, or perhaps even the Société des Etudes indochinoises de Saigon, to take responsibility for undertaking this work as part of their ongoing studies of Indochinese archaeology, history and philology, I think it may be interesting to gather together some information on the ancient “Vauban” citadels which were built in Cochinchina by French officers in the service of Gia-Long, or by their Annamite imitators.

Let’s recall first of all that King Louis XIV’s military engineer Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707) perfected the methods of fortification developed by his predecessors; and that, better than any of them, he knew how to adapt his citadels to the terrain in which they were built. Also, although one speaks generally of three Vauban “systems,” most textbooks admit that the illustrious engineer never strengthened two fortresses in the same manner, and that it was his successors who invented this threefold classification simply to facilitate its teaching.

Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, Seigneur de Vauban and later Marquis de Vauban (1633-1707)

Vauban also made improvements in the methods of attacking a citadel, developing his famous “parallel trench” system to ensure the decisive superiority of attackers over defenders. It was in order to make a citadel able to resist the maximum onslaught that he constantly studied methods of attack and then modified the fortifications accordingly. It was he who pioneered using the topography of the land when locating a fortress, and who carefully positioned the outer and inner walls, projecting bastions and lines of half-moon batteries, hiding his citadels behind massive fortifications and making them practically invulnerable.

The publication of plans and drawings of the Vauban citadels constructed in Cochinchina have, from a historical and military point of view, an importance of the first order. There no doubt exist many documents of this nature in the Directorate of Artillery and the Saigon Cadastre (Land Registry) Service. For example, I reported in a previous article on the plan of the Saigon citadel built by Olivier and Lebrun, which came from the collection of M. Bouchot.

That plan, which is now kept at the Cadastre, is a copy in reduction of a drawing found by M. Pont, former head of that service. It is a work in which the name of the draftsman has unfortunately been omitted. A second copy was presented by M. Pont to the Société des Etudes indochinoises when he was president of that society; it is probably this copy which was reproduced by George Dürrwell in his book Ma chère Cochinchine, trente années d’impressions et de souvenirs, février 1881-1910 with the following caption: “Map of the City of Saigon, fortified in 1790 by Colonel Victor Olivier, reduced from the Great Plan drawn in 1795 by the order of the King of Cochinchina by M. Brun, Engineer in his service.”

112_001Apart from this plan, there also exist drawings of five other Annamite citadels or fortified works built in Vauban style. These are the fortresses of Bien-Hoa, Ben-Ca, Phuoc-Tan, Long-Thanh and Tan-Uyen. They were executed to 1:2000 scale in 1854 by Marine Infantry Lieutenant Cullard and signed by Corporal Maquard.

No monument “à la Vauban” was built in Can-Tho. After the occupation of Bien-Hoa, Gia-Dinh, Dinh-Tuong (the former name of the province of My-Tho) and Vinh-Long by French troops, a mandarin of An-Giang (Chau-Doc) was ordered by the Court of Hue to build two store-fortresses (bao) in order to keep the precious objects of the provinces safely and also to store food for contingencies. Thus, two bao were erected, one in the village of Long-Thanh (Sadec), under the name of Bao-Tien (forward store), and the other at village of Dinh-Hoa (Can-Tho) under the name of Bao-Hau (Rear store). These works were square-shaped buildings built from masonry, but today only barely-recognisable ruins remain. They served for some time as a refuge for troops and Annamite irregulars who resisted the French army.

792_001At Chau-Doc, in the village of Long-Son, canton of An-Thành, one may find the remains of an ancient citadel built in 1838. It had not yet been completed when a Cambodian revolt forced the officers of Minh-Mang to abandon it and flee to the capital of Chau-Doc, where they built a large redoubt, now destroyed. That citadel, defended to the north by the Rach Cai-Vung, was surrounded on its other sides by ditches 20m wide and 2.50m deep. Within what is left of the ancient walls, we may still see three platforms without any special character.

Located some distance from the village of Vinh-Lac, on the edge of the Ha-Tien Canal, we may also note the shapeless remains of an old earthen fort which was built in around 1820 to monitor the digging of the canal.

In Ha Tien itself, there are also traces of a citadel which was built, it seems, by Mac-Cuu; but the few sections of wall which remain are in such a state of decay that it is impossible to work out the shapes or indeed dimensions this citadel could have had.

The citadel of My-Tho (formerly Dinh-Tuong), like that of Saigon, was built in the reign of Gia-Long by Olivier and Lebrun. A plan was drawn up in 1873 by M. Pont, when he carried out a cadastral survey of that province.

521_001At Sadec, there exists the foundation of the old earthen fortress in the village of Long-Hung, at the mouth of the Rach Nuoc Xoay. The Nguyen-Trao-Thiet-Luc reports that Nguyen-Anh (later Gia Long) took refuge there during his war with the Tay-Son.

Two fortresses existed in Tay Ninh, that of Quang-Hoa in the village of Cam-Giang, and that of Bau-Don in the village of Phuoc-Thanh. The latter was located exactly at what is now km 63 on Route Coloniale No 1. Nothing now remains of either fortress, apart from some light remains which are now completely covered by high grass and forest.

The citadel of Vinh-Long was demolished in 1877.

The book Dai-Nam-Nhut-Thong-Chi or “General Description of the Great Annam,” written in Chinese characters, includes a plan of all the citadels built in the reign of Gia-Long by Olivier de Puymanel, who is better known under the names of “Ong Tin” or Colonel Olivier.

20The citadel of Saigon,  the ruins of which were discovered in January 1926, was destroyed following the revolt of Le-Van-Khoi, adopted son of Le-Van-Duyet, who had served as Viceroy of Cochinchina under Gia-Long and Minh-Mang.

J. Silvestre published the story of this revolt in the Annales de l’Ecole libre des Sciences politiques. Without adding anything to what we might call the “famous lines of history” surrounding the Great Eunuch, our former Director of Civil and Political Affairs gave us a more complete and finished picture of the story. His article contains many details for which we may look in vain in biographies of Le-Van-Duyet, and these details are of the kind which help us form a better idea of the character of both the men involved and the era in which they lived. J. Silvestre has borrowed mostly from the writings of contemporaries of Le-Van-Duyet. The judicious use he makes of these documents gives his story the advantage of dramatic colour, transporting the reader back to the early 19th century to experience the events he recounts. The passage dedicated to Le-Van-Khoi is particularly remarkable in this respect.

We know that after the death of Le-Van-Duyet in August 1832, Emperor Minh Mang ordered the governor of Saigon to pronounce, by posthumous judgment, on the conduct of Le-Van Duyet. From the beginning of this strange process, the entire family of the late Viceroy were arrested and incarcerated, on the pretext of questioning. Among them was Khoi, a Tonkinese of Muong ethnic descent. Involved in a rebellion and taken prisoner by the troops of Le-Van-Duyet after having put up a very brave fight, he had been saved from punishment by the Viceroy, who recognised his courage and uprightness. From that time onwards, Khoi attached himself to the fortunes of his benefactor, whom he followed in Saigon, eventually being promoted in 1832 to the grade of Lieutenant Colonel.

22Minh-Mang’s posthumous investigation into Le-Van-Duyet continued for some time. On the occasion of the Viceroy’s death anniversary, Khoi asked permission to go to his private home to celebrate the ritual ceremonies there. The chief justice agreed, placing him under the escort of several soldiers.

At this time, it was customary for people recruited for military service to be transferred from their own province to another, or for those condemned to exile outside their province to be conscripted into armies elsewhere. So it was that the soldiers charged to monitor Khoi were his countrymen who had been recruited from Tonkin, and they proved more than ready to support him. Khoi took the opportunity of the Viceroy’s death anniversary to gather his friends and other people loyal to the memory of Le-Van-Duyet and armed them. On the next night, they surprised and killed the main mandarins of Saigon.

With all of the Tonkinese soldiers rallying around their leader, many other people in Cochinchina embraced Le-Van-Khoi’s cause. From that moment, Khoi found himself master of Cochinchina. He set up a government, of which he became the leader with the title of Generalissimo. But the court of Hue quickly assembled an army to quell the insurgency; at the same time, it bought with money the betrayal of some rebel leaders, and suddenly Khoi found himself besieged in the Saigon citadel, awaiting the help he had requested from Bangkok.

At the end of 1833, the royal army began the siege of Saigon. The city was defended by about 2,000 soldiers. Early in 1834, the Siamese arrived and easily captured Ha-Tien and Chau-Doc. But they then disbanded and proceeded to plunder the country. Shamefully beaten by the Annamites, they hastened back across the border with their booty.

French capture Saigon in 1859 iThe siege of Saigon lasted until 1835. In the seventh month, the royal army made a supreme effort, For three days and three nights, Minh-Mang’s artillery bombarded the citadel. Then at 4am on the 10th, the firing suddenly stopped and a massive assault was launched from all sides.

Despite the desperate resistance of the besieged, the citadel was taken and its defenders were either killed or captured.

Order was restored in Cochinchina, permitting the case against Le-Van-Duyet to resume. His tomb was razed, and over the ruins was erected a pillar surrounded by chains, together with this contemptuous inscription: “Here lies the eunuch who resisted the law.”

The citadel of Saigon was destroyed and replaced by another one of smaller dimensions. It was that smaller citadel which was taken in 1858 by Admiral Rigault de Genouilly.

Ung Hue

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.