Date With the Wrecking Ball – Ernst Thälmann Secondary School, 1931

The Ernst Thälmann Secondary School at 8 Trần Hưng Đạo

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

In the wake of last week’s announcement in Thanh Niên newspaper that Korean construction company Jimiro will build three 55-storey office buildings, a 30-storey five-star hotel and a 10-storey commercial centre in the “Golden Triangle” enclosed by Trần Hưng Đạo, Phạm Ngũ Lão and Nguyễn Thái Học streets, one of the city’s most historic schools has been earmarked for demolition.

The Ernst Thälmann Secondary School at 8 Trần Hưng Đạo was originally built in 1931 as a kindergarten for local girls, known as the École maternelle de Chodui. The design by early modernist architect Leo Craste has been praised in the blog Saigon Modernist for its optimisation of natural ventilation through the addition of wall louvres and the use of staircases as wind towers.

The École Maternelle de Chodui in the early 1930s

In the late colonial period, the École maternelle became a high school known as the École municipale Ton-Tho-Tuong, named after renowned Nguyễn dynasty scholar, Saigon-born Tôn Thọ Tường (孫壽詳; 1825-1877). During this period, the original entrance on Phạm Ngũ Lão street was bricked up and the former rear gate on Trần Hưng Đạo became the school’s main entrance.

It was in this capacity, in 1950, that the school became the site of the first anti-American demonstration in Việt Nam. Starting in the 1920s, Saigon had a long tradition of high schools being hotbeds of anti-colonial activity, and on 9 January 1950 police opened fire on a student protesters as they marched through the centre of the city, injuring 30 and killing 19-year-old Trần Văn Ơn, a student from the Lycée Pétrus Ký, now Lê Hồng Phong High School. Thereafter the authorities cracked down hard on any form of dissent.

The École municipale Ton-Tho-Tuong in the late colonial period

In March 1950, two destroyers from the US Seventh Fleet, USS Stickell and USS Richard B Anderson, docked at Thủ Thiêm in Sài Gòn, while aircraft from the carrier USS Boxer flew over the city. Foreseeing that this could be a prelude to American involvement in Việt Nam, communist activists under Nguyễn Hữu Thọ (later Acting President of Việt Nam) organised city-wide protests against US interference in March 1950. On 18 March, a grenade was thrown into the lobby of the Continental Hotel where a visiting American delegation was staying, and mortars were also fired at the two warships at Thủ Thiêm. Then at dawn on Sunday 19 March, rallies were held in various locations around the city. The main event was the rally held at the École municipale Ton-Tho-Tuong, which reportedly attracted over 250,000 people. Nguyễn Hữu Thọ addressed the crowd, and at around 9am on the third floor of the school, students hoisted a red flag. This event is commemorated by a plaque outside the main entrance of the school.

The Phan Văn Trị Girls’ Primary School (Trường Nữ Tiểu học Phan Văn Trị) in the early 1960s (photographer unknown)

In 1955, the school became the Phan Văn Trị Girls’ Primary School (Trường Nữ Tiểu học Phan Văn Trị), and from 1962 the Cô Giang Secondary School (Trường Trung học Cô Giang).

After Reunification, the school benefitted from educational links with East Germany, and in 1979 it was twinned with a school in Leipzig and named after Ernst Thälmann (1886-1944), who led the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) during the Weimar Republic years.

This is the third occasion over the past 10 years in which revolutionary monuments have been destroyed in favour of development – see The Curious Case of the Vanishing Revolutionary Monuments to learn about the fate of the room in which the Việt Nam Revolutionary Youth League’s Cochinchina Regional Committee was set up in June 1928 and the villa at 43 Lê Thị Hồng Gấm which once housed the offices of the revolutionary Dân Chúng newspaper.

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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) 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.

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