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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pétrus Trương Vĩnh Ký (1837-1898)

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

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

Pierre Sauvaire de Barthélémy (1870-1940)

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

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

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

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

Pétrus Ký teaching his students

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

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

Pétrus Ký’s house in Chợ Quán

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A royal screen in the Citadel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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