“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.

“Emperor Bao-Daï returns to Annam,” Le Petit Parisien, 3 August 1932

Emperor Bảo Đại (1925-1945) pictured during his voyage home in 1932 (Mondiale Photo-Presse)

The young emperor Bao-Daï of Annam will soon return to his country, which he aims to modernise.

He began by attending classes at a Parisian lycée, then he continued to receive lessons at home while, along with other young men of his age, he was initiated into the beauties of constitutional law and political economy at the School of Political Science.

Crown Prince Nguyễn Phúc Vĩnh Thụy (later Bảo Đại) attending Khải Định’s 40th birthday celebrations in 1924 (BAVH, 1925, 2)

Yet instead of arming himself with an imperial and arrogant demeanour, this young student made himself perfectly at ease with his comrades, joking with them and permitting some to become, perhaps, a little too familiar, by cavalierly slapping the young sovereign on the shoulder, in sharp contrast with Marshal Lyautey’s respectful bows at Vincennes.

H. M. Bao-Daï lives in a luxurious residence built especially for him in the avenue de Lamballe. This is where I met him. He lives there with his tutor, the worthy M. Charles, former Resident in Annam, to whom the late emperor himself entrusted the education of the little prince.

He’s a strong young man, sportsmanlike, with a direct manner. He speaks without an accent, in very pure French. He has been conquered by the most modern ideas.

It’s no surprise, therefore, to learn that this young man has taken ardently to the joys of riding. He loves horses and is considered by the military school an excellent rider.

Tennis is also a sport he is keen on. He handles the ball skillfully, and his elegance and flexibility are renowned on the courts, where he plays with his friends, and with young women and young girls carefully handpicked by Mme. Charles.

Intellectual and artistic recreations are not neglected. The emperor is not a very fervent reader of books, but he loves shows, and especially musical performances. It’s quite curious that this young Oriental delights above all in musical concerts, particularly the classics. He never tires of Bach or Beethoven, for example.

Although very musical, he is not, however, a skilled musician. He plays a little piano, but does not claim to virtuosity.

In short, despite the courses he was obliged to follow, he has had a happy time during the 10 years he has spent in Paris. So we may understand the regrets that the little king does not hide when leaving France.

Emperor Bảo Đại during his enthronement on 8 January 1926 (BAVH, 1931, 1)

“I so love your country,” he has said, “to which I owe my intellectual formation. And how could I forget the kindness of all my friends?”

We know that H. M. Bao-Daï would have liked to prolong his one-year stay in Paris. But sovereigns have duties to which they are bound even more rigorously than the common man.

Everything in Annam is now ready for the emperor’s return, and he cannot shirk his obligations. In his homeland, big things are expected from the return of the monarch. Most serious spirits have high hopes for this young emperor, whose mind has received a western education and is open to modern ideas.

“However,” explains M. Charles, “No-one among his subjects could reproach him for having broken with the traditions of his race. I have been very careful not to tear him from his roots. I wanted him constantly to remain connected to his country. He’s had with him an old Annamite teacher, a scholar of the old school, who has taught him Annamite and instructed him in the difficult knowledge of Chinese characters, the ‘Latin’ of the Annamites.”

Thus, the young emperor is completely ready to reign. It’s not with a light heart that he embarks for Annam, because he knows that his days of recklessness, car rides with classmates, cavalcades, and ardent mornings at concerts are now at an end, but he leaves France with full awareness of the serious responsibilities which will weigh upon his shoulders.

They will indeed be heavy, but H. M. Bao Daï is still young. He longs to do good for his country and, as it is so very closely tied to France, there is hope that he will lead Annam in a sincere spirit of Franco-Annamite collaboration.

Bảo Đại’s cousin Prince Nguyễn Phúc Vĩnh Cẩn was sent with him to France to be educated in 1922 under the tutelage former Resident Superior and Honorary Governor General of the Colonies Jean Charles (Fonds Sogny-Marien)

He will find a friend and valuable guide in the person of the Resident-Superior in Annam, M. Yves Châtel, who, in agreement with the Governor General, has been conducting a discreet and enthusiastic publicity campaign simultaneously across the country, in favour of the young sovereign.

Itinerant singing troupes have been travelling everywhere, stopping on the banks of rivers, on the corners of crowded streets, in remote villages in the middle of rice fields. Accompanied by the high toned monochord, and in their nasal voices, they have eulogised the young king and the benefits he is expected to bring to the whole country. Justice will be simplified, the mandarins will no longer prevaricate, education programmes will be redesigned.

The youthful radiance of the emperor will add a little joy to the splendid palaces where he will now spend the rest of his days. The Imperial Palace, a succession of luxurious buildings buried in gardens and parks where rock gardens alternate with flowering lotus ponds, shelters behind a triple ring of walls in the middle of the famous Citadel of Hue, surrounded by moats and canals full of still water.

There exists in the last park a modern looking building which contrasts strongly with all the other palaces with fretted roofs. This building, built specifically to plans by the Emperor Khai-Dinh, late father of the current ruler, is called Kien-Trung Palace. It’s here that H. M. Bao-Daï, when he has had his fill of ceremonies and rites, will come to relax and steep himself in a European setting.

Recently he has commissioned from two decorators a suite of ultramodern furniture for the two rooms destined for his personal use. He intends to install a radio set and to there to receive his closest friends, including his cousin Prince Vinh, who was raised with him in Paris. He will also entertain there the many young Annamites with whom he studied, as well as high-ranking officials such as the Minister of Finance, H. E. Tai-Van-Toan, who came to visit him in France and whose lively and curious mind has also assimilated the most modern innovations. This youngest of mandarins subscribes to our greatest literary magazines; he is very interested in the contemporary intellectual movement and he will certainly be a most faithful and agreeable companion to his young sovereign.

Soon after his return, Bảo Đại embarked upon a tour of all the provinces his realm. He’s seen here visiting a royal tomb in Chiêm Son (Quảng Nam) in 1933 (Fonds Sogny-Marien)

The young emperor, who lived among us for 10 years and became used to the pleasures of Parisian life, will certainly need to escape the heavy yoke of ancestral influences and come to relax at times in an atmosphere which will remind him of the banks of the Seine. Dressed in a well-cut dinner jacket, he will drink a glass of champagne while listening to the latest fashionable songs on his gramophone. But that will not stop him, moments later, from putting on his heavy gold silk robe and receiving in his great audience hall the high and mighty mandarins, who respectfully bow before the “Son of Heaven, Father and Mother of his subjects.”

It will surely be the great merit of H. M. Bao Dai’s reign to reconcile harmoniously modern ideas with respect for the past.

The tasks with which he is encumbered will be difficult, but on the shoulders of this young athlete, the responsibilities of state will be executed with ease.

A 1930 view of the facade of the Kiến Trung Pavilion, rebuilt in east-west fusion style by Khải Định in 1921-1923 and destroyed in early 1947 (Fonds Morin-Edmond)

Another 1930 view of the facade of the lost Kiến Trung Pavilion (Fonds Morin-Edmond)

A 1930 view of a side entrance to the lost Kiến Trung Pavilion (Fonds Morin-Edmond)

The antichamber of the lost Kiến Trung Pavilion in 1928 (Fonds Sallet)

The billard room of the lost Kiến Trung Pavilion in 1928 (Fonds Sallet)

The salon of the lost Kiến Trung Pavilion in 1928 (Fonds Sallet)

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

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

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

“The Illness and Death of King Dong-Khanh – Proclamation and Coronation of King Thanh-Thai – Organisation of the Council of Regency,” Le Temps, 26 March 1889


From our special correspondent in Tourane

It is not yet possible to measure in an accurate way the political consequences which may be forthcoming for the kingdom of Annam, as well as for our protectorate, following the sudden death of King Dong-Khanh. This death, which occurred like a bolt of lightning at the very hour that this king had raised our finest hopes for his reign, could and will probably prompt a thousand guesses. Yet before recent events are transformed by legend, it’s good to establish, according to certain testimonies, how things actually happened.

Emperor Đồng Khánh (1885-1888)

For seven or eight days, the young ruler had complained of headaches, and at the same time had given clear signs of irritability of mood. He ate little and slept badly, and his sleep was punctuated by nightmares and also, it is said, by hallucinations, which greatly concerned the court.

Then the fever took him. He was unable to attend the sacrificial ceremony in memory of Ming-Mang, then he ceased all royal audiences and could not leave his residence. Local doctors vainly exhausted him with their complicated therapeutic techniques. Irritated, he dismissed them harshly, punishing them by having them locked up and declaring that he was prepared to accept the advice of a French doctor. The Resident Superior, who had just returned home from a trip to Tonkin to be informed in Tourane, by news reports, of the progress of the illness, had called Dr. Cotte, Senior Medical Officer of the Navy, and went with him at night to the palace. The patient’s bed had been placed in one of its remotest and most mysterious rooms. Only after following, by torchlight for nearly half an hour, a series of long meandering wooden corridors and galleries, were the two visitors, accompanied by the royal interpreter, finally able to reach the patient. Only a few maids and eunuchs were watching over him in that gloomy bedroom, with its high walls of dark wood, where many candles were barely enough to give even a little light. The king was lying on a very low wooden bed, encrusted with mother of pearl. His head rested on a long hard pillow made from bamboo filaments, like those seen on all Annamite beds.

The king was wrapped in a large blanket made from yellow silk. He was already very weak, and when his two visitors were announced, he could barely lift his head. Muttering in a low voice, he thanked them for their visit and asked that they should heal him quickly so that he could as soon as possible attend to “affairs of state.” The doctor examined him with great care, and, without hesitation, said that the external symptoms suggested a pernicious fever. He did not hide from the Resident Superior the seriousness of the situation, above all if the hiccups, which had already been convulsing the patient’s body for many hours, continued to worsen, and the quinine did not work a miracle.

Dr. Cotte made up various potions, carefully prescribing the exact dosage, and left the palace after giving precise instructions to those who looked after the patient, etiquette and rites strictly forbidding a European from remaining overnight in the royal bedchamber. That night was relatively calm, but the patient was unable to keep down the potions that were administered to him.

The former Cần Chánh Palace (destroyed in 1947)

Towards morning, when the French doctor returned, His Majesty asked how long it would be before he could get up, and whether he might be allowed to consume something other than the remedies. The good doctor naturally objected to the idea of the king leaving his sickbed, because his weakness was extreme, but said that he could take, if it were possible, a little sweetened milk. Soon, however, the hiccups resumed with renewed intensity. Towards evening on 28 January, the Resident Superior was warned that the king’s condition had worsened severely, and that the presence of the doctor was once again required urgently.

The Resident Superior, accompanied by his Chief of Staff, M. Boulloche, and a Navy physician named Dr. Barrat, immediately made his way to the palace. As they neared the first guard post, an interpreter ran towards them and exclaimed: “The king is dead.” Dong-Khanh had indeed passed away peacefully, without agony or external appearance of suffering. It was 10 minutes past eight in the evening.

The Resident Superior naturally judged the utility of confirming the death himself, so he was introduced once again into the king’s bedchamber. There an old priestess was reciting prayers, and fled at his approach. The high yellow drapes on the bed had been closed, so a kneeling eunuch pulled them aside. The king’s face was covered by a red silk scarf. The doctor felt his pulse and confirmed that he was dead. After bowing respectfully, the two visitors withdrew immediately.

All around, and in the adjacent guardrooms, mandarins and princes gathered, speaking in low voices, their eyes wet with tears. Yet in the royal courts of the Far East, pain, even when it is sincere, is always expressed cautiously. Regrets for a late Majesty are seen as an insult to the new Majesty who will soon be enthroned. Hardly had the eyelids of the young king been closed to the light, than it was already fashionable to discover in him terrible flaws, to recall his vices, his excesses, his brutality. In this country, as in any other, meanness, just like honour, has its propriety, and men of quality are not lacking in it.

The young Emperor Thành Thái (1889-1907) with siblings, from Quelques notes sur l’Annam, 1895

The question of the succession to the throne occupied everyone’s thoughts. This catastrophe, which had occurred so fast, took everyone by surprise and confounded all calculations. Dong-Khanh had two sons, but they were aged just four and three years, leaving the frightening prospect of a long Regency with the door left wide open to all eventualities. In any case, the Queen Mother, who in accordance with ancient rites had been consulted about the succession, had discounted the offspring of Dong Khanh from the outset.

It was anticipated that the Resident Superior, M. Rheinart, who, thanks to his long experience, knew this country perfectly, would manoeuvre with dexterity in the midst of these unknown dynastic complications.

Yet time was pressing. The throne must not be left vacant. No doubt, power was exercised in the interim by the Co-Mat, but that power was without prestige, directionless and unable to resist unforeseen adventures. In addition, never had the death of a king taken place at a more inappropriate political time. This was the eve of Tet, that most important political-religious event of the year, when superstitions ran free, when happy or unhappy omens were seen to presage future events. Already, the popular spirit, quick to judgment and influenced by ancient legends, was inclined to see in the timing of this death a solemn manifestation of the wrath of heaven against the French and all those who owed their power to us.

The Annamite people, accustomed to the long reigns of Ming-Mang, Tu-Duc and many other former kings, could not without irony notice how fragile and short were the royalties we pretended to create with our own hands, how quickly and finally the stigma of foreign investiture had killed these men. Superstition in these countries may be either the most powerful ally or the most terrible enemy. On this Tet festival, an annual celebration for which people’s expectations were always raised, everything brought discontent. An edict of the Queen Mother forbade any celebration. Thirty Chinese who had attempted, despite the prohibition, to explode some firecrackers in a suburb of Hué, were arrested, imprisoned and placed in the cangue by the Phu-Dien (prefect of police).

Among a people so fond of gaiety and laughter, everything suddenly went silent. Without doubt they had planned come out, at the time of Tet, wearing their fine new clothes, silk dresses, turbans with a thousand clever folds, but then suddenly their world became slow and without noise.

A court mandarin

Not a cry was heard, and even those who have regularly accused the Annamites of dark designs could see how quickly a people deeply ingrained with the monarchical education could became docile and ready to bow with propriety under the affliction of official mourning.

The Resident Superior, after many talks and numerous eliminations, eventually selected a son of Duc-Duc, that king who had reigned just a few days and whom the court had left to die of hunger after France had protested his elevation to the throne and declared his enthronement void on the grounds that it had been conducted without consultation. The child in question was 10 years old. The choice that we made of him also had the advantage of restoring the direct lineage of the Nguyen. Since the death of his father, he had lived in captivity with his mother and a brother, in an isolated dwelling within the walls of the Citadel. The choice proposed by the representative of France was confirmed quickly by the Council of the Court and the Co-Mat.

Envoys presented themselves at his residence and, addressing his mother, asked her to fetch her eldest son. “Here he is,” she said. “What do you want with him?” “It is he,” they answered, “who will become king of Annam.” Then she burst into tears and refused to permit them to take her child, begging that they spare him such a frightening prospect. Yet heaven had spoken and must be obeyed, so the child was taken the same evening to the palace and placed, until the time of his coronation, in an apartment not far from the royal audience hall. “Where am I, where am I being taken?” he asked the royal interpreter. “Highness, you are in the library of the kings, a library which will soon be yours.” “Good,” replied the prince, “then please give me the Analects by Confucius.” This request had much meaning, for in fact this 10-year-old child is already a scholar, fashioned by an excellent teacher. He can read and write Chinese characters and even knows the French alphabet.

He is relatively tall for his age and well built. However, his demeanour is less attractive and less aristocratic than that of Dong-Khanh, with a flatter nose, a darker complexion and a rougher skin. He has an intelligent and attentive look, but none of the rather feminine softness which accompanied the smile of the late sovereign.

When the choice of the court had been made, and on the directions of the protectorate had been officially approved by the French government, the Resident Superior, accompanied by M. Boulloche, his Chief of Staff, and M. Baille, Resident in Hué, returned to the palace to inform the future king of the decision and to present him with their compliments. By a bizarre coincidence, this was the first day of Tet. They found the child standing in a palace hung with blue drapes, surrounded by servants and mandarins.

Resident Superior Pierre Rheinart (BAVH, 12, 1943)

When the Resident Superior had been announced, the young king came out to meet him in the small courtyard in front of the palace. He was dressed in a long blue robe with stiff pleats, and wore on his head a black turban. A eunuch protected his face from the rays of the sun with a large parasol. He shook hands with the Resident Superior and his two companions, and gestured solemnly to them to sit around a table on which tea had been served. The interview was short, we understand, and limited to simple compliments. The young future sovereign then led his visitors out of the palace, sheltered as before under his parasol and walking with an already slow and regal gait.

Before paying this visit, the Resident Superior and the officials he brought with him had gone to pay their final respects to the body of Dong-Khanh. That same morning, immediately after the king’s body had been enbalmed, it had been placed in an open coffin on a funeral bier covered in precious fabrics. The body was dressed in ceremonial robes adorned with much jewelry, including diamonds and a large golden pendant inlaid with emerald dragons, which he had worn around his neck just before he died. On his head was a large ceremonial helmet, from the top of which brilliant pearls and sapphires hung on long gold threads.

The coffin itself, made from teak, was large but quite simple. Dong-Khanh, feeling full of life and hardly expecting to die so early, had not thought to have a special one made in advance, in observance of the customs and ordinary precautions of his predecessors and even of many of the rich people of this country. The coffin rested on a makeshift catafalque, draped with yellow silk and supported by two simple trestles.

The late king was laid in the royal audience hall, on the exact spot where he had once sat on his red and yellow velvet-covered throne, receiving visitors and graciously offering them tea. The courtyard in front of this hall, paved with slabs of green stone, was lined with parasols, each guarded by a eunuch. Inside the hall, lit by countless candles, were several large Buddha shrines loaded with offerings and flowers, plus objects used in the daily life of the late king which since his death had become sacred. Fragrant joss sticks smouldered slowly on the altars, filling the air with their fragrance.

The Thái Hòa Palace

After entering this hall, the visitors remained for just a few seconds, bowing in front of the remains of the prince who had so greatly loved France, and then walking out again silently.

The mandarins and the courtiers stood at the sides of the hall, just a few metres away from the coffin. At that moment, with the sun setting beyond the horizon and the silhouettes of the great Citadel gates highlighted against the clear background of a Far East twilight, the distant sound of the drums of the palace guards announced the first watch. Thus ended a momentous day of melancholic grandeur.

The former king will be buried in the same magnificent tomb he was constructing for his father, on the banks of the river and where, in recent times, he had rested so often to view one of the most beautiful mountain landscapes. The actual burial will take place on 20 February. Starting on 16 February, the court will wear the costume of official mourning, which, as we know, is white.

The royal astrologers having, after careful consideration, declared 1 February as a most auspicious day, the enthronement was promptly fixed for that date.

On the previous day, according to rites, the young prince had made his lais to his royal ancestors in the Can-Chanh Palace and received the royal regalia. He should also have received the jade family seal known as the Ngoc-Bi, but this had been taken out of the palace by Ham Nghi during his flight and lost in the mountains of Quang-Binh.

The prince was presented with the ivory plaque of the “royal order,” which served as his laisser-passer to access the Gold Book in the Can-Chanh Palace. This Gold Book, which is opened only at the start or finish of each reign, is presented to every future sovereign. The character written in it denoting his rank of succession will be his own name. That of the new king is Chiêu, meaning “light of wisdom.”

A mandarin dispensing justice

The mandarins attached to the Noï-Cat (Cabinet of the King) then select a number of literary expressions formed from two characters with the most favourable meanings in the eyes of Heaven. The list of such characters is then offered to the new king, who chooses from it his regnal name. That name is then transcribed in the Gold Book and displayed in all the temples of the ancient kings and in the Nam Giao (Temple of Heaven). The new King of Annam will be called Thanh-Thai, which means “absolute happiness and success in all things.”

The coronation ceremony was held with great pomp and ceremony. Against custom, French troops had penetrated through the gate and were lined up alongside the terrace leading to the Thai-Hoa Palace. Since the new king was about to receive the investiture of France, it was appropriate that our troops came, as had happened during the coronation of Dong-Khanh, to give character and meaning to the ceremony through their presence in the interior palace.

With the Commander of the Brigade, the Head of Cabinet, M. Boulloche and the Resident, M. Baille by his side, the Resident Superior advanced into the royal audience hall. All the officers who were not under arms stood in a group some distance away.

Soon, the cries of the Thi-vié heralded the approach of the sovereign. He entered slowly through a rear door behind the throne. This time, he was dressed in a royal robe decorated in gold brocade and laden with precious stones, the weight of which, although he was supported by the chief eunuch, weighed singularly on his child’s frame. He greeted the Resident Superior and his three companions, and then, not without some difficulty, ascended the steps to the throne. French batteries fired a 21-gun salute, bugles sounded in the fields and troops presented arms. The Resident Superior stepped forward, and, on behalf of the Government of the French Republic, recognised him and saluted him as King of Annam.

The emperor is carried in procession from the Đại Cung Môn to the Thái Hòa Palace

His Majesty Thanh-Thai responded in a few words, expressing his gratitude and his deep attachment to France. He read a speech which was inscribed in Chinese characters on the ivory plaque which he held in front of him, and his small but unwavering and assured voice was very well heard throughout the large colonnaded hall. As he spoke, the Thi-vié waved long fans all around him. At the foot of the throne, the perfumed smoke of an immense joss stick floated slowly towards him. The royal tablets which would be presented to him were placed on a table, locked in a gold box. After the exchange of official compliments, the Resident Superior saluted the king and moved to the right side of the room. The Annamite ceremony began.

Princes in their grand costumes, spread out around the sides of the room, now stepped forward and, standing around 15m in front of the throne, did their lais. Most were old, bent and broken by age. Five times they prostrated themselves on their knees, face against the ground, their white beards sweeping the stone slabs of the audience room. Then, royal government ministers moved forward and executed the same genuflections with similar majesty.

The great exterior courtyard was by this time filled with the busy ranks of the mandarins. On the right were massed the mandarins of higher rank, on the left those of lower rank. Groups were formed according to order of precedence, from the highest to the lowest officials of the court, and everyone was dressed in grand ceremonial costume. At a signal given by the Minister of Rites, the long lines of mandarins turned simultaneously to face the audience hall, where the child-idol sat on his throne in hieratic immobility, his feet perched on two great gold dragons.

Then there arose in the distance a bizarre and prolonged type of guttural chant, which seemed to end almost as an echo of itself. This was the signal for the huge assembled crowd of mandarins slowly to prostrate themselves, lowering their faces against earth so that they just touched the paving stones. Long robes in a thousand colours bent and collapsed, flooding the ground with their folds. The chanting continued. When it ceased, this sea of people, motionless and calm for a moment, stirred once more and rose to their feet.

Mandarins on the terrace of the Thái Hòa Palace

Then it began again. This was repeated five times, with that strange and disturbing song accompanying the lais. Each one lasts less than four minutes, and it was clear that this tough exercise was quite hard work for more than a few old mandarins. Sweating profusely in the burning sun, the courtiers continued to bend down, stand up and bend down again in silent adoration, commanded by the sacred rhythm.

I can’t think of any larger and more imposing spectacle, nor of any better staged piece of theatre to help us understand the monarchical principle in the East, and to what extent it dominates the lives of the people.

During the interval between the lais, the Minister of the Interior, Bui-Di, advanced alone towards the throne. Kneeling, he offered the new king the tribute of members of the royal family and subjects of the kingdom of Annam.

The speech ended like this: “Today, His Majesty Dong-Khanh went to join the hosts in Heaven. Already his chariot and his retinue have reached the homeland in the clouds, and we would seek in vain to keep him here. But the throne can stay empty no longer. Our late king leaves only children of young age, who are unable to sustain the great edifice of the kingdom. We are sure, sire, that we honour the noble soul of His Majesty Tu-Duc in making you the successor of Dong Khanh. We have the consent of Her Majesty the Queen Mother and of France to place you on this noble and majestic throne. We swear to be solemnly faithful and to give you our absolute dedication, proclaiming you as our master and working together to consolidate this great edifice raised by the Nguyen.” This speech was written on a register of gold so that it could be preserved in the archives of the kingdom.

Other minor officials attached to the various offices of the palace were also admitted to present their lais, and then, after the ceremony had finished, the young king was placed on a special throne of yellow velvet and carried out of the hall by six Thi-vié, who finally installed him in his apartment inside the palace.

The Queen Mother leaves her palace

We recall that on the following day, when he was presented with a report on which he had to place a little red sign as a mark of his approval, the young king hesitated for some time before taking the brush and asking what it was. It was explained to him that this was a measure prepared by the Council of the Royal Family and the Co-Mat, which required nothing more than his sanction. He asked: “So, I will also be responsible for it?” Then, seizing the brush, he signed his name in red.

Those who surround him closely know well that, barely a month before his elevation to the throne, still guarded within his prison walls, this boy collected wood each day for the fire on which his mother cooked her meagre cuisine. They describe him as an energetic, very intelligent child, who displays maturity and even perhaps a precocious mistrust. When he was first brought to the palace to await his coronation, he was served with tea. Silently, he looked at the teacup without picking it up. A mandarin, understanding the hidden meaning of his hesitation, took the first sip. Only then did the boy himself take the cup and drink the tea. Since poison and other attacks have decimated his family, it is hardly surprising that the poor child continues to be stricken with suspicion of all those around him.

A Regency Council was organised immediately under the supervision of the Resident Superior. It consists firstly of Prince Haï-Duc, President of the Council of the Royal Family and one of the sons of Ming Mang; secondly of Nguyen-Tran-Hiep, former Kinh-Luoc of Tonkin and lately Minister of the Interior, a big man, very intelligent and well educated, who has been made Commandeur de la Légion d’honneur by France; and thirdly of Truong-Dang-Quang, son of the highest dignitary of the empire under Tu-Duc and currently Phu-Dien in Hué.

The young king’s tutor will be Nguyen-Thuat, former Minister of the Interior, and currently Tong-Doc of Thanh-Hoa, one of the most open-minded and gifted men in the kingdom and, moreover, one of the friendliest to France, being one of the closest in spirit to the French by virtue of his character and natural gifts. The new charge with which he has been invested has a first-rate importance.

The royal interpreter Cilong, who was educated at the Lycée d’Alger and has received a Bachelier ès sciences from one of our universties, will continue to guide the sovereign in the study of the French language. The Court and the Co-Mat appear very satisfied with the composition of the Council of Regency, and it is certain that, given the nature of the men within our political influence, they cannot but consolidate and make progress.

A later image of Emperor Thành Thái (1889-1907)

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

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

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

The “Affair of the Tombs,” 1912-1913

The Khiêm Mausoleum of Emperor Tự Đức (1848-1883), where the illegal excavations were carried out in December 1912

In late 1912, an illegal treasure hunt in the Tự Đức tomb compound in Huế reduced the 13-year-old Emperor Duy Tân to tears, ended the career of the Resident Superior of Annam Georges Mahé, and was cited by Vietnamese nationalist Phan Châu Trinh as one of the immediate causes of the Hà Nội bombing of 26 April 1913. Here is a selection of newspaper reports on the events surrounding the so-called “affair of the tombs.”

Straits Times, 17 May 1913: Hanoi bomb outrage – two French commandants killed, Europeans and natives injured

L’Avenir du Tonkin prints an extensive report of the bomb outrage in Hanoi mentioned in our telegraphic columns recently.

A bomb exploded on the terrace of the Hanoi Hotel on the evening of 26 April, killing two French superior officers and injuring a number of Europoeans and Annamites. The date mentioned was a Saturday, on which evening the hotel was more than usually crowded. About 300 people had assembled and were seated, some on the terrace, some in the restaurant room. The scene of pleasure and animation was rudely distubed just after half past seven by a loud report on the terrace and clouds of smoke ascended. This was followed by cries of pain.

Commandant Chapuis, one of the two French officers killed in the bombing of 26 April 1913

When the smoke cleared, it was seen that a number of people had fallen to the ground. Blood seemed everywhere on the floor, and windows were shattered. At once the cry was raised that a bomb had been thrown, and it was discovered that the miscreant responsible for the dastardly outrage was an Annamite. It had fallen right in the entrance to the hotel, mortally wounding Commandant Montgrand of the Son-Tay, and Commandant Chapuis, old comrades who had met to renew old acquaintance. They were seated at a round table in the entrance. Several people seated at the next table received terrible injuries and were removed to hospital. Others in different parts of the building were more or less injured, one man’s hat being riddled.

Despite the late hour, the news of the outrage spread rapidly, and soon all the officials, including the Governor General and the Police, were on the scene. Soldiers were posted in the cafés, and precautions were taken to prevent a recurrence of the outrage. Commandant Montgrand died after terrible suffering at 10 o’clock the same evening, and Commandant Chapuis expired at 1.30am. The police made 65 arrests. The funeral of the victims took place on Tuesday. It was attended by the Governor General and military officials.

Bulletin de l’Institut colonial de Nancy, May 1913

INDO-CHINA – De-Tham, our old enemy, died on 11 February 1913. His death can only serve the cause of peace.

On the other hand, the 26 April 1913 bombing in Hanoi was a revolutionary act which could not be considered a simple incident. It has drawn our attention to the wisdom of monitoring in China those nests of conspiracy which are likely to organise unrest in Tonkin. Punishments have been handed out to 85 defendants: seven were sentenced to death, 14 imprisoned and 60 sentenced to forced labour or prison. This shows well enough the extent of the criminal process, but from the French point of view, there will be much to fear if the indigenous people harbour feelings of union with these conspirators who have learned to handle bombs.

It comes soon after “affair of the tombs of Hue,” which certainly caused injury to the traditionalist sentiments of the Annamites. It was an administrative error to carry out excavations in an imperial tomb which, in the eyes of the native people, had thus suffered desecration.

Le Journal, 1 May 1913: The bombing of Hanoi

Georges Mahé, Resident Superior of Annam, who lost his job for carrying out the illegal excavations

Monsieur Georges Mahé, the Resident Superior in Annam, has been recalled; he will be given compulsory retirement.

The Governor General of Indochina has not yet addressed new information to the Minister of Colonies about the bombing of Hanoi; we think that Monsieur Sarraut has not wished to send details on the progress of the investigation by cable, preferring to ship them by post and thus to exclude any possibility of indiscretion. Be that as it may, the report of Monsieur Sarraut on this case is eagerly awaited; we hope to receive it via the first Trans-Siberian mail.

On the subject of Monsieur Sarraut, the rumour was spread that the Governor General had also been recalled, but it is not so. Since his departure, the Governor General, who went to the Far East with the firm intention of carrying out long-term work, has never taken any leave, and right now, when his presence in the colony is most needed, he would never consider taking the ship home. As for the government, it has no reason to recall the Governor General, who has its confidence. However, just a few days before the attack in Hanoi was known, the Minister of Colonies recalled from office Monsieur Georges Mahé, Resident Superior in Annam.

Having been told confidentially by an indigenous person that treasure was hidden in the area around the tomb of Emperor Tu-Duc, Monsieur Mahé asked the Governor General for permission to proceed with excavations inside the sacred enclosure, but Monsieur Sarraut forbade him from doing so. Ignoring this prohibition, Monsieur Mahé obtained from ministers of Annam a resolution authorising an excavation, and proceeded with the violation of the tomb of Tu Duc. The indigenous population was outraged, and Monsieur Sarraut, sharing their indignation, ordered the cessation of excavation and reported the incident to the Minister of Colonies. It was for this reason that Monsieur Mahé was recalled. We understand that he will be given compulsory retirement as soon as the matter has been heard by the minister, his personal responsibility for the affair being, we are assured, absolute.

The violation of the tomb of Emperor Tu Duc gave an extremely disastrous impression in Annam. The young Emperor Duy Tan, who is 13 years old, visited the tomb of Tu Duc, and there, bursting into tears, he reproached his ministers, who were present, for the sacrilegious desecration of which they were guilty. His reaction was, we are told from Hue, very moving.

All of these events occurred before the bombing of Hanoi; however, we are assured by cable from Saigon that there is no correlation between these incidents and the attack.

Georges Mahé, Resident Superior of Annam is received in Thanh Hóa province by its Resident Pierre Pasquier and provincial governor Tôn Thất Nhiệm in 1912 (BAVH 3, 1941)

It is difficult to pronounce on the case before circumstantial details are available; but we believe that the spirit of the indigenous group which manufactured and launched the bombs was determined by various causes, including Chinese revolutionary agitation involved in anti-dynastic activity against Duy-Tan and renewal of the alcohol monopoly. Perhaps the affair of the tombs also added to the excitement of the agitators.

Whatever the case, Indochinese officials currently in France – and they are of the highest grade – regard the bombing in Hanoi as a very serious symptom. According to the latest news from Hanoi, the funerals of Commandants Chapuis and Montgrand have been celebrated in this city with solemnity. Monsieur Albert Sarraut addressed an emotional farewell to the two officers who died in battle; The French and the indigenous population remained calm.

Fernand Hauser

Les Annales coloniales: organe de la “France coloniale modern,” 6 May 1913: Cochinchina

Although we are still unable to speak with absolute certainty, there is now more and more reason to believe that those who carried out the armed attack of 26 April 1913 (our readers will already know the detail: a bomb in Hanoi killed two French officers) have a close relationship with Chinese revolutionaries. The Cochinchina community believes that this is the natural consequence of our cowardice towards the indigenous people.

The Governor General suspects further that one of those who has funded the revolutionaries in our colony is the brother of Sun-Yat-Sen, but thus far he has sent no evidence about it to the Department.

Preparations for attacks had been made for several months already in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Macau. The main Annamite involved would be the son of Te-Kieu, a big landowner and former gang leader in Tonkin.

Vietnamese nationalist Phan Châu Trinh (1872–1926)

A meeting took place in Saigon on 30 April to protest against the policy of abandonment followed towards the indigenous people, which, by encouraging protest, is dangerous by virtue of the audacity and ambition it gives to the Annamites. Yet, while this meeting was going on, another voice was heard here in Paris.

The mandarin-scholar Phan-Chau-Trinh (who was sentenced to death in 1907, then pardoned and sent to Poulo Condor, where he spent three years before his release on the intervention of our collaborator Maurice Viollette, before being given permission to enter France), has confided to our friend Fernand Hauser, in the Journal.

In particular, he told him: “The alcohol monopoly has been renewed, although it was solemnly promised that it would not be; our patriots still languish in Poulo Condor prison, although they were promised grace; the education we demand is always denied us; the contempt of which we complain is always thrown at us; and to all these faults are added new ones: Now they have even violated the sacred tomb of Emperor Tu-Duc in search of money!

In that there are both truths and falsehoods. Phan-Chau-Trinh-mocks the public when he says: “There is talk now of establishing a regime of terror in Annam. That’s easily said. But when you’ve arrested 500,000 persons and cut off their heads, what then? You will only inflame passions.”

But it becomes truly grotesque when the mandarin clearly shows us what sin we have committed by increasingly admitting our Annamite protégés to various administrative positions, saying: “Do you not think that it is in the interest of France to get along with the Annamites? On the day when it gives the people of Annam their autonomy, France, by instructing us, by preparing us for freedom and by giving us that freedom peacefully, would retain our sympathies, and we would remain close friends and allies.”

Oh come on! Was it for such a comedy that Annamite land was watered everywhere with the best French blood? Our dead would rise from their Asian mass graves in protest on the day when France would act this way. For there is no doubt that, after many years of political carelessness, according ever-increasing autonomy to the indigenous people, they would now waste no time expelling our compatriots from the land they conquered at the price of their lives.

Members of the Council of the Government pictured at the Imperial palace in Huế, including Governor General Albert Sarrault and Resident Superior of Annam Georges Mahé (BAVH 3, 1941)

Where Phan-Chau-Trinh was mistaken – because we refuse to believe that he abused the good faith of Monsieur Fernand Hauser – is when he talked about the contempt for the French which has been nurtured amongst the indigenous people. During the rule of Monsieur Sarrault? Nobody would believe it for a moment, not least our settlers! What would they say?

Le Temps, whose communiqué is official, said that the Indochinese police had been informed for several months of preparations by revolutionaries based in China, and before 26 April they had succeeded in preventing any attacks.

Phan-Chau-Trinh infers that the attack of 26 April is a direct consequence of the famous “affair of the tombs.” Read more:

“What do you think the population thinks of that? Ah! When I learned about the sacrilege committed in Hue, I shuddered! I thought something bad might happen, in fact I warned a friend of the terrible consequences of this desecration, which had occurred after so many previous harmful acts! I know that the government was informed of the letter in which I raised my concerns. And just 22 days after I wrote, that bomb exploded in Hanoi!”

Phan Chau-Trinh probably believes that in France there are only people ignorant of all that which has been contrived for years by indigenous communities to try to make us swallow such nonsense. That we should submit to the demands of the Annamites for privileges which prejudice our own, that’s something we will never permit, indeed only a fool or a madman would agree to such a thing. It would be the death of all colonisation!

A word in conclusion. Phan-Chau-Trinh also told Mr. Fernand Hauser: “This oppressive regime [it’s the so human and so benevolent regime of Albert Sarraut which Phan-Chau-Trinh judges thus!] is the wood accumulated in the hearth, and only a small spark could start a fire! Beware! I love France. I hope with all my heart that it retains its reputation for justice and that it will wish to weigh the public interest and specific interests regarding our country; enabling it to see that it has everything to gain by giving us the necessary reforms.

Vietnamese nationalist Phan Châu Trinh (1872–1926)

The French administration will say, perhaps, that nothing is urgent, that the situation is not serious. I am of the opposite opinion, and it’s because I love France deeply that I tell you this. To those we love, we owe the truth.”

These sentences undoubtedly contain a threat, the truth of which the mandarin has incompletely articulated. If Phan-Chau-Trinh knows something and believes he can advance the facts, if he loves France, his duty is clear. If he loves his country, even in his own interests, his duty is to dispel the misunderstandings of these ambiguous words. And perhaps the duty of the authorities would be to question him further on this.

The bombing of Hanoi has deeply moved, as we have said, the Saigon population. We have already reported on a meeting held recently in Saigon, which was attended by over 600 of our compatriots. The chairman of the meeting, Monsieur Foray, sent us the following telegram:

“Saigon, 3 May – The French people of Cochinchina, gathered in a large meeting under the chairmanship of Monsieur Foray, are rightly concerned at the recent series of crimes, including that in Hanoi, and believe that the situation has been aggravated primarily due to the policy advocated by some parliamentarians, who are unaware of the real relationships existing between the various elements inhabiting our colony. It is they who have spread their false humanitarianism and sought unhealthy popularity by exciting the dregs of the indigenous population against alleged colonial excesses, even at the expense of the vast majority of honest and loyal Annamites. The said French people, convinced that this situation poses the most imminent danger to the interests acquired by our compatriots at the price of innumerable sacrifices consented by themselves in men and money since our establishment in Indochina, protest strongly against the continuation of this harmful policy. They demand the full reinstatement of indigenous justice, in order to remedy a situation which has become unbearable, and to prevent the inevitable recurrence of attacks similar to those already perpetrated, and to this end they are ready if needed to support their legitimate demands by all means within their power.”

It should be recalled that out of Saigon’s 70,000 inhabitants, there are 7,000 Europeans, including over 6,500 French (civilian population), and 2,000 French in the rest of Cochinchina. This telegram reflects clearly the opinion of the majority of French people in the colony.

Chợ Lớn in the early 20th century

We should add that Monsieur Foray, a lawyer in Saigon, is a candidate for a parliamentary seat.

Recently, on 27 or March 28, a band of 500 Annamites, enlisted by the enemies of our domination, marched out of the interior, in particular from Mytho, Tanan and the banks of the Vaïco, to disturb the peace in Cholon. A total of 80 arrests were made. These individuals were dressed in clothes made almost all from white cloth. The security police raided the home of a rickshaw company manager named Tu-Mang on quai Testard, Cholon, seizing 16 combat swords. They are continuing their search for other weapons. Searches were also made at the premises of an indigenous hôtelier, but they found only the works of Pascal, Rousseau, Descartes and Lamennais. The conspirators, who were mainly engaged in crimes against persons, said they left their family homes at the instigation of certain leaders to come in great number to Cholon and Saigon. There they were to have been given weapons and all necessary instructions. One of the leaders was a certain Truong, of Tang-Tru, in the province of Cholon. Numerous patrols are now criss-crossing Saigon and Cholon, their officers are armed with revolvers. Many of the European population have also bought Brownings and even Mausers and Lebels – the city’s armourers are doing a great trade at the moment. The Administrator of the province of Cholon posted a large sign warning the Asian population against the actions of some individuals and demonstrating the absurdities contained in the seditious placards. His call for peace has, it appears, produced favourable results among all the Asian population.

Le Matin: derniers télégrammes de la nuit, 19 May 1913: The case of the tombs of Annam – the first punishment

In response to the question put to him by Monsieur Doisy, Socialist deputy from the Ardennes, who wished to know whether responsibility was being sought regarding the desecration of the imperial tombs of Hue and what sanctions had been or would be taken, the Minister of the Colonies made this statement, which was published yesterday in the Journal officiel: “The responsibilities have been thoroughly investigated and the necessary measures taken.”

The Khiêm Mausoleum of Emperor Tự Đức (1848-1883), where the illegal excavations were carried out in December 1912

The first punishment was given to Monsieur Georges Mahé, Resident-Superior of Annam, who has been placed in retirement. Monsieur Mahé, who is 53 years old and has completed many years of service, will soon return to France. There will be other punishments. Those will most likely be handed out after Governor General Sarraut has, by a thorough enquiry, established the responsibility of each person. Moreover, only after much thought will decisions will be made, with all the necessary sang-froid.

Le Petit Parisien: journal quotidien du soir, 21 May 1913: Profanation of the tombs of Hue

Marseille, 20 May – Monsieur Georges Mahé, Resident Superior of France in Annam, arrived in Marseille this morning on the ship Ernest-Simons of the Messageries maritimes Far East courriers. Asked on arrival about the excavations that were made last December in the imperial tombs of Hue, Monsieur Mahé refused to provide any information, saying that he had nothing to say as he had not yet met with the Minister of Colonies.

As yet, the news of the forced retirement of this official, published a few days ago, has no official status. It is only after the Minister of Colonies has spoken to Monsieur Mahé that he will make a formal announcement.

Let me say first that the desecration of the imperial tombs of Hue has no connection with the bombing of Hanoi on 26 April, a work planned long ago by Annamite revolutionaries based in China.

According to reports, the Resident Superior in Annam was the victim of intrigues which he would not be happy to acknowledge. Several ministers, part of the Regency Council of the young Emperor of Annam, suggested to Monsieur Mahé that secret treasure was hidden in a royal tomb in Hue. The Regency Council is divided into two rival clans, each of which deploy a prodigious arsenal of tricks and machinations. In the circumstances, one of these clans would eagerly have seized any opportunity to lead our protectorate into trouble.

The Khiêm Mausoleum of Emperor Tự Đức (1848-1883), where the illegal excavations were carried out in December 1912

The Annamite population has conserved a religious respect for the person of its sovereign. In addition, it observes to a very high degree the worship of ancestors. The excavations at the royal tomb in Hue were seen as a desecration, because according to the Annamite custom, the body is never buried in the actual tomb assigned to it. The imperial tombs are spacious gardens with lawns, walkways and woodlands, and it is in any part of a tomb enclosure, with no external distinguishing mark, that a body may be buried. In this way, taking a pick axe or shovel to any area inside the enclosure, according to indigenous beliefs, risks violating the royal corpse.

This is why the excavations, although they were quickly stopped, produced a feeling of discontent which was quickly exploited by xenophobes. Monsieur Mahé, who had thought to enrich the reserve funds of the colony without damage to anyone, was thus heavily deceived. These, we believe, are the facts with which he has been charged, and for which he must now find justification.

Le XIXe siècle: journal quotidien politique et littéraire, 22 May 1913: The affair of the tombs of Annam

Marseille, 20 May – This morning at 8am, the Messageries Maritimes steamship Ernest-Simons arrived from the Far East. On board was Monsieur Mahé, Resident-Superior of Annam, who had been called home by the Minister of Colonies to provide explanations on the violation of the imperial tombs of Hue, an act which was committed last December.

Interviewed after coming ashore, Monsieur Mahé refused formally to answer any questions, saying that he had a duty to provide explanations to the Minister first. Monsieur Mahé left for Paris in the evening.

Le Temps, 11 July 1913: Indochine: A short speech by the King of Annam (from our special correspondent)

Hanoi, 12 June – According to agency telegrams, the Governor General has installed Monsieur Jean-François Charles as Resident Superior in Annam, in succession to Monsieur Mahé, whose departure was prompted by the famous “affair of the tombs.”

The Emperor Duy Tân as a child

The memory of this unfortunate incident is completely erased today, and the action taken with regard to Monsieur Mahé seems to have produced a favourable response in the Annamite community. An outstanding and entirely unexpected event has also shown the excellent disposition of the court of Annam. His Majesty Duy-Tan usually responds to speeches by the Governor General merely by reading a short statement in the Annamite language, which is then translated directly by an interpreter. This time, however, to everyone’s surprise, the king spoke in French and delivered the following speech, which he had prepared himself, without the knowledge of the Governor General:

“I would like, Governor General, to express my gratitude and to tell you what a precious comfort you have been for everyone here in the wake of the sad events which plunged Tonkin and all Indochina into mourning. Annam feels today as never before the need for the support and protection of France, and you came, responding to the secret call of my heart, like the silent desire of the Annamite people, to bring through your presence the certainty of that protection, the assurance of the interest that a great nation carries to her adoptive child.

On behalf of my people and myself, I also address to you, Governor General, the expression of our gratitude for the appointment of Monsieur Charles to the post of Resident Superior in Annam. We have known him for a long time and I am happy to say here that he has our confidence.

I drink to the health of the President of the French Republic, to your health, Governor General, and to the health of the Resident Superior.”

For those who know Annam, this royal initiative is a small revolution. I understand, moreover, that the king has spent much time with the Governor General and has testified to his satisfaction at the liberal policies being followed by France in Indochina.

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

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

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

Inauguration of the Pigneau de Béhaine statue, 10 March 1902

Édouard Lormier’s statue of Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine and Crown Prince Cảnh pictured during the colonial era

This 1902 article from the Annales des Missions étrangères de Paris describes the inauguration of Édouard Lormier’s statue of Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine, Bishop of Adran and Apostolic Vicar of Cochinchina on 10 March 1902. The statue was removed during the August Revolution of 1945 and replaced in February 1959 by the present Virgin Mary statue by Italian sculptor Giuseppe Ciocchetti.

The statue of Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine, Bishop of Adran, Apostolic Vicar of Cochinchina in the 18th century, was recently inaugurated on the most beautiful square in Saigon, capital of our colony of Cochinchina.

Before recounting the festivities which took place on this occasion, let’s briefly summarise the career of the missionary bishop.

Pigneau de Béhaine, painted by Maupérin during his 1787 trip to Paris with Crown Prince Cảnh, on display at the Paris Foreign Missions Society

Monsignor Pierre-Joseph-Georges Pigneau de Béhaine was born on 3 November 1741 in Origny, in the département of Aisne. His studies were begun at the Collège de Laon, continued at the Séminaire de la Sainte-Famille in Paris, and completed at the Séminaire des Missions-Étrangères.

He left for the Far East in 1765. At first, he became a teacher at the Collège général, which was then based in Hon-Dat, in the Gulf of Cambodia. However, when the Siamese invaded this part of the Annamite kingdom, Monsignor Pigneau was thrown into prison, where he remained for several months. After his release, he went to Pondicherry with what remained of the college faculty, and settled in Virampatnam. In 1771, he received the papal bull nominating him as bishop of Adran. He was consecrated in Madras in 1774, and in 1776 he returned to Cochinchina, a land which was then experiencing the horrors of civil war.

The legitimate sovereign, Nguyen-Anh, better known under the name of Gia-Long, had been driven from the capital of Hue by the Tay-Son rebels. Hoping that our country would find great benefit from settling in Cochinchina, Monsignor Pigneau offered Nguyen-Anh the aid of France, which he accepted. He then came to Paris with the eldest son of the deposed king, Prince Canh, who was then aged five or six years. Thanks to his skill, a treaty was concluded between France and Cochinchina and signed on 28 November 1787, offering us many commercial benefits.

Unfortunately, the government of Louis XVI did not keep the promises it had made, and did not send to the king of Cochinchina the troops it had undertaken to provide. However, Monsignor Pigneau was not discouraged, and, with courage and perseverance, brought to Saigon two ships loaded with around 100 French officers and soldiers, as well as munitions.

Feeble as it appeared, this aid, consisting of elite men, was sufficient to ensure the victory of Nguyen-Anh and to permit him to regain the throne of his ancestors.

Seven-year-old Crown Prince Nguyễn Phúc Cảnh, painted by Maupérin during the prince’s 1787 trip to Paris with Pigneau, on display at the Paris Foreign Missions Society

The political role of Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine in particular has struck the minds of the historians and colonisers of our epoque; but his religious role was no less important. Of that we can be convinced by reading the biography which one of our colleagues, M. Louvet, dedicated to the great and holy bishop, under this title: “Missionary and Patriot, Monsignor d’Adran.”

Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine died on 21 October 1799. His protégé, Gia Long, organised a splendid funeral for the man he called, out of respect, “Master.” He also delivered a great eulogy at his tomb, a translation of which we provide below, and raised a monument to him which time and persecutions have since respected.

It was in memory of this missionary bishop that, on 10 March 1902, our colony of Cochinchina inaugurated a bronze statue.

The idea of the installing a statue of Monsignor Pigneau first came to Bishop Colombert (died 31 December 1894). Sadly, his successor Monsignor Dépierre (died 17 October 1898), who followed him so quickly to the grave, did not have the joy of seeing the realisation of the vow made by his late predecessor. However, it was on his initiative that, on 28 April 1897, a meeting composed of all senior officials of the colony and presided over by M. Doumer, Governor General of Indochina, was organised to deliberate on the opportunity and convenience of raising a monument in memory of the Bishop of Adran.

This project having been adopted unanimously, the inauguration of the monument was fixed for 16 December 1899, the 100th anniversary of the great royal funeral which Gia Long (the name taken after his coronation by Nguyen-Anh) organised for the late Bishop of Adran.

A special Statue Committee was set up, and at its first meeting, an action group was formed, made up of the most honourable personalities of Saigon, and a public subscription launched to raise the necessary funds. Within very little time, fundraising was carried out throughout of all French Indochina, passing through the Court of Hue and all provinces of Annam, and eventually raising the figure of 50,000 francs, including 3,000 francs granted by the French Minister of Fine Arts, on the request of M. Le Myre de Vilers, deputy from Cochinchina.

Another view of Édouard Lormier’s statue of Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine and Crown Prince Cảnh pictured during the colonial era

The Saigon Municipal Council, uniting behind the movement of sympathy which flocked to the cause of our patriotic missionary bishop, authorised, by means of a resolution dated 8 January 1898, the installation of his statue in the Cathedral square.

The statue itself was commissioned from the well known sculptor, M. Édouard Lormier, and its casting was entrusted to the Maison Barbedienne, a foundry famous for this kind of work.

M. Blanchet, Director of the Compagnie des Messageries fluviales de Cochinchine and President of the Chamber of Commerce of Saigon, being in France at that time, was specially appointed by the Statue Committee, of which he was then Vice President, to confer and agree with the artist and the foundry, so that the statue might be in Saigon by 16 December 1899, the day fixed for the ceremony of its installation. However, unexpected obstacles led to delays, so that sadly the statue could not be installed at the appointed time.

It is only fair to pay a very special tribute here to the zeal of M. Blanchet, and to recognise that it was only through his goodwill, his remarkable activity and his unfailing perseverance that everything was finally ready for 10 March 1902.

On that day, in front of a large crowd which came to applaud the work realised by Monsignor d’Adran, the inauguration of the statue took place at 7am.

The statue depicts the bishop standing, larger than life (2.9m), with his right hand outstretched and holding the Treaty of Versailles (28 November 1787), which his diplomacy had secured from Louis XVI, and which assured Gia Long, Emperor of Annam, the alliance and the aid of France.

His left hand, lowered, falls gently on that of Prince Canh, his royal pupil, who, standing at his side, seems be presented by Monsignor Pigneau to the people. The plinth, made of beautiful red granite from Scotland, measures 3m in height. One detail is not without interest: M. Lormier himself made the voyage from France to Cochinchina to oversee all of the preparations, and was thus able to witness the triumph of his work.

The inauguration of Édouard Lormier’s statue of Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine and Crown Prince Cảnh on 10 March 1902

The Public Works Directorate made all the necessary preparations with exquisite taste. The stands allocated for guests and VIPs, along with those for the military band and the choir of the cathedral, were decorated with beautiful palm leaves, in the midst of which floated the colours of France.

The inauguration day arrived. This was one of those most beautiful days of the Far East, where the sunlight brought a special lustre, highlighting the various ornamentations of flowers and palms mingling with flags and banners.

Already by 6am, many delegations from neighbouring Annamite parishes of Saigon had arrived with their banners and taken their places around the lawn, in the middle of which stood the covered statue of the bishop of Adran. From that time onwards, the crowd increased steadily, and soon the great square of the Cathedral had an unusual animation.

A few minutes before 7am, the six bells of the beautiful church built by France sounded with great solemnity. The Church, France and Annam had come together to join in their respects and worthily honour the hero of the day, Monsignor d’Adran, who during his lifetime was able to unite the three loves to which he was dedicated: the love of the Church, of which he was the representative; the love of France, of which he was a son, and the love of Annam, of which he was a missionary and later a saviour.

At 7am precisely, the Governor General, M. Paul Doumer, arrived to preside over the ceremony. He was received by Monsignor Mossard, Monsignor Caspar (Apostolic Vicar of Northern Cochinchina based in Hue, who had come to Saigon for the occasion), M. Cuniac, Mayor, and M. Blanchet, latterly President of the Statue Committee. Then, followed by his staff and his Christian Annamite secretary, the Governor General took the seat reserved for him. At his side were Admirals Pottier and Bayle, Commanders of the French Fleet in the Far East and their staffs, military and civilian authorities of the colony, and many missionaries. The ceremony began.

Monsignor Lucien Mossard delivers his speech at the inauguration of Édouard Lormier’s statue of Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine and Crown Prince Cảnh on 10 March 1902

In an excellent speech, M. Blanchet, in the name of the Statue Committee, entrusted the monument to the city; it was accepted by the Mayor of Saigon, M. Cuniac.

After the veil which had previously covered the statue fell to the ground, M. Lormier’s work was blessed by Monsignor Mossard, clad in a cassock with capelet, waist sash and skull cap, while military music intoned a patriotic song. Thus did France salute one of its most illustrious sons.

Monsignor Mossard then addressed the meeting, arguing cogently that, in this world, it is Divine Providence which sends men out in pursuit of God’s glory.

A high Annamite dignitary, the Phu Nghiem (an Annamite title designating a great mandarin), wearing all the insignia of his rank, spoke on behalf of the Annamite people, adding his voice to that of the Bishop and the Lieutenant Governor, M. de Lamothe, in recognising the benefits brought to the country by Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine.

Finally, with the speeches at an end, a cantata composed specially for the occasion was sung by the Annamite children’s choir of the Cathedral. Their voices seemed to be voices of hope, celebrating in advance the glories and the beautiful promises for the future reserved for those Annamite people who, in greater numbers every day, have come to stand in the shadow of the Cross.

Speech by Monsignor Mossard, Apostolic Vicar of Western Cochinchina, delivered at the inauguration of the statue of Bishop Pigneau de Béhaine on 10 March 1902

Ladies and gentlemen,

Monsignor Lucien Mossard (1851-1920), Apostolic Vicar of Western Cochinchina

This monument, raised to the glory of the Bishop of Adran, and intended to perpetuate his memory in Cochinchina, illuminates with a new clarity a great truth which is all too often ignored: I refer to the intervention of Divine Providence in all things here on earth. The Pigneau de Béhaine statue, standing in the shadow of the Cathedral of Saigon, is one of the answers of Providence to three centuries of bloody persecution.

The famous “reasons of state,” so often invoked by governments of all epochs to justify their excesses, were not ignored by the emperors of Annam. Over time, ladies and gentlemen, this “reason of state,” so greatly advocated yet so little understood, and almost always misapplied when it was not an expression of morality and law, was eventually turned against those very people who had transformed it into a criminal abuse. In this way did the almighty hand of God bring the true point – the death on the Cross of Jesus Christ – into our human affairs.

And if we seek a human agent of this Divine Providence, do we not find one in the missionary bishop, to whom the Emperor Gia Long gave public testimony of civility, and whom the Prince Canh, standing next to him here, seems to present to the Annamite population as the most perfect model of a teacher and a wise, dedicated and loyal friend.

It has rightly been said that, in troubled periods of history, the challenge has been not so much doing one’s duty as knowing what that duty is. The Bishop of Adran was in Cochinchina when the revolt of the Tay-Son triumphed. Having dethroned the reigning Nguyen dynasty, the Tay-Son then threatened to extinguish its last scion, Prince Nguyen Anh, who, reduced to helplessness, found himself at the mercy of the conqueror, condemned to lead the hard life of a fugitive and outlaw. Our illustrious prelate, whose soul was kneaded with loyalty, courage and respect for established authority, espoused without hesitation his righteous, yet still unrecognised, cause.

Emperor Gia Long (1802-1820)

Not only did he save from death the heir of legitimate kings, he also helped Nguyen-Anh to recover his belief in the future of his cause, and strengthened the resolve and courage of his followers. Furthermore, he secured for his royal protégé the assistance of his homeland, our generous nation of France, which has always been willing to help others in times of misfortune. The wise approaches and prodigious activity of the Bishop, together with the valour of the French officers and soldiers he enlisted to his cause, soon changed the course of events.

The fugitive Nguyen-Anh was finally able to bring victory under his standard, and when, the uprising crushed, he ascended the throne of his forefathers, he could add a new jewel to his crown: Tonkin and Annam permanently removed from the hands of the defeated Tay Son. There we have it, ladies and gentlemen, a point of Annamite history which I hope no-one will ever contradict.

It was his selfless service rendered to their royal dynasty, his tireless dedication to the cause of their country, that so many of the Annamite literati, from Saigon to Hue, from Haiphong to Hanoi, wanted to recognise and reward. Indeed, they responded well to the call of committee for the installation of this statue. While understanding how grateful they were for the contributions made by this great bishop, we must thank them for having so spontaneously and sometimes so delicately expressed their feelings about his memory.

As for us, French outsiders who follow anxiously the progress of our national flag around the world, whose hearts leap with joy at the triumphs of France and bleed with anguish during its setbacks, we salute this man of broad and fruitful ideas who was determined that, in the Far East, the French name should be synonymous with progress, civilisation and true freedom.

We salute one whose whole life was dedicated to the service of God, Annam and France, and who died in pain, having accomplished – alas! – only a very small part of what he had intended to do for the good of all three. We welcome this statue. It will be like an open book, for future generations to read a glorious page of Gestes de Dieu par les Francs.

Jean-Baptiste Chaigneau, who served the Nguyễn dynasty

It will speak out loud, telling us that the strife and struggles of political parties, in short everything that today agitates the minds of our mother country, could not, in this colony, divide truly French hearts. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it will say that we all stood together here, to offer this bronze statue to an illustrious compatriot, the Bishop of Adran, a long famous name, now the most honoured, the most popular in Cochinchina.

Alongside the bishop of Adran, let’s also salute with emotion and gratitude all of our other brave compatriots who supported him with courage and dignity. Let’s salute Dayot, Magon, Vannier, Girard, Guillon, Chaigneau! Let’s salute Oliver, Lebrun, Barisy, Despiaux! Let’s salute the sailors and soldiers who followed them into danger, and to glory! To them, we say: Today your names may mostly remain unknown; but this statue will remind us of your heroic phalanx. Through it, you will live again in this land of Cochinchina, in the company of the missionary bishop who you loved, and with whom you now share, I hope, endless rest.

I thank the Governor General for the kindness with which he deigned to accommodate the proposed installation of the monument proposed by my venerable predecessor in order to celebrate, as befitting, the 100th anniversary of the death of the bishop of Adran.

I thank the members of the Saigon Municipal Council for unanimously taking the decision which conceded this town square, unquestionably the most appropriate in the circumstances, for the installation of the statue. For this act of patriotism, they are entitled to our gratitude and to the recognition of the Annamite people.

I also have the duty to say a warm thank you to the committee members, department heads, officials and colons who echoed and responded to the call for subscription funding which we sent out.

Emperor Thành Thái (1889-1907) contributed a 300 piastre subvention to meet the cost of the statue’s inauguration ceremony

Let me, in closing, express my admiration and offer the homage of my recognition for the well-known artist, M. Lormier. May the great bishop, whose virtues he has revived in this bronze statue, one day give him the rewards due to those whose civic virtues have been supernaturalised by Divine Faith, Hope and Charity.

Imperial Order

On the occasion of the inauguration of the statue of Bishop of Adran, the first Mandarin of the Emperor of Annam brought to Bishop Mossard an Imperial letter, together with the sum of 300 piastres destined for the celebration of a solemn service for Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine. Here is a translation of the letter:

The 26th day of the 1st month of the 14th year of Thanh Thai (5 March 1902).

Imperial Order issued by the Secret Council (Co-Mat) of the Government of the Empire of Annam.

At the start of the establishment of our Empire, His Majesty the august Emperor and founder of our dynasty, The-To-Cao-Hoang-De (Gia Long), instructed His Lordship the Bishop of Adran, provided with the rank of Thai-Tu-Thai-Pho (Great Tutor to the Crown Prince) and the high noble title of Bi-Du Quan-Cong, to take his eldest son, the Crown Prince (Dong Cung) under his charge to France, in order to request assistance from that noble country in the form of warships and soldiers.

It was thus that His Majesty the Emperor Gia Long was able to reoccupy the capital of Phu-Xuan, and finally to secure the submission of all the countries making up the Empire of Annam.

His Lordship the noble Bishop and the Dong Cung in effect rendered important services to our dynasty. After the establishment of our Empire, We honoured the memories of all those who served in the cause of our dynasty, notably His Lordship the Bishop and the Dong Cung. Now, the Protectorate and the Mission, by mutual agreement, have installed in the province of Gia-Dinh a statue of the late Bishop and the Dong Cung, forever to bequeath their illustrious memories to posterity.

A frontal view of Édouard Lormier’s statue of Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine and Crown Prince Cảnh

We are very pleased with the marks of sympathy given in this circumstance to these two illustrious personages.

We order our Imperial Treasury to send to the Mission of Saigon, via our Minister at the Mission, Nguyen Than, Kham-Mang-Dai-Than, Can-Chanh-Dien-Dai-Hoc-Si, Dien-Loc-Quan-Cong, the sum of 300 piastres for ritual or memorial services.

Let this be respected.

That is our message.

(Seal of the Co-Mat).

Speech by King Gia Long at the funeral of Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine on 16 December 1799:

“I had a sage, the confidant of my most secret thoughts, who, despite the distance of thousands of miles, came into my kingdom and never left me, even when fortune eluded me.

Why must it be now, at the moment when we are the most united, that this premature and untimely death comes to separate us forever? I talk of Pierre Pigneau, Bishop of Adran, and keeping always in mind the memory of his virtues, I want to give him a new token of my gratitude. I owe it to his rare merits. If in Europe he was known as a man of superior talent, here he was regarded as the most illustrious foreigner ever to appear at the court of Cochinchina.

In my youth, I had the pleasure of meeting this precious friend, whose character fitted so well with mine. When I took my first steps towards the throne of my ancestors, I had him at my side. For me he was a rich treasure, from whom I could draw all the advice I needed to direct me.

The text of Nguyễn Phúc Ánh’s eulogy at Pigneau’s funeral on 16 December 1799 

But all at once, a thousand misfortunes fell down upon the kingdom, and my feet became as shaky as those of Thieu-Khang dynasty of the Ha, so that we had to take a path that separated us as far as heaven from earth. But you, dear Master, you embraced our cause with a firm and faithful hand, following the example of four old Hao sages who reinstated the Crown Prince of the Emperor Han-Cao-Te to his rightful status! I confided to you our Crown Prince, when you accepted the mission to go and seek on my behalf the interest of the great monarch who reigned in your country. And you managed to get help for me.

They were already at the half way point when your projects encountered obstacles that prevented them from succeeding. Despite this, you wanted to return to my side, regarding my enemies as yours, to seek the opportunity and the means to combat them. In 1788, when my flag was once more raised over Saigon, I looked forward with impatience to some happy noise announcing your return from France. And in 1790, your boat came floating back onto the waters of Cochinchina. In the skilful and full way of gentleness with which you trained and led the Prince, my son, we saw that heaven had singularly gifted you with the skills of education and youth leadership.

My esteem and affection for you grew day by day. In difficult times, you provided us the means that only you could find. The wisdom of your advice and virtue that shone into the playfulness of your conversation brought us closer and closer, we were such friends and so familiar together that when business called me out of my palace, our horses walked side by side. We never had anything but the same heart.

Another colonial-era view of Édouard Lormier’s statue of Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine and Crown Prince Cảnh

Since the day when, by happy chance, we met, nothing could alter our friendship, our mutual dedication and boundless confidence that marked our relationship. I hoped that robust health would enable me to continue tasting the sweet fruits of such unity for a long time! But now the dust covers this beautiful tree! What bitter regrets!

To show everyone the great merits of this illustrious foreigner and spread abroad the fragrance of the virtues he always hid under his modesty, I deliver to him the title of Tutor of the Crown Prince, confer on him the dignity and title Quan Công and give him the name Trung Ý. Alas! When the body dies and the soul rises towards the sky, who could keep it chained here? I have finished this short elegy, but my regrets will never end. Oh, beautiful soul of the Master! Receive this homage!”

For Pétrus Ký’s detailed description of Pigneau’s funeral, see Pétrus Ký – Historical Memories of Saigon and its Environs, 1885, Part 1
For more information on Pigneau’s tomb, see Lăng Cha Cả – From Mausoleum…. To Roundabout!

Édouard Lormier’s 1902 statue of Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine and Crown Prince Cảnh pictured during the colonial era and Italian sculptor Giuseppe Ciocchetti’s 1959 Virgin Mary statue pictured today, from the Facebook group page “Saïgon Chợ Lớn Then & Now”

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

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

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

King Norodom of Cambodia visits Saigon, 1888


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

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

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

Saigon harbour in the 1880s

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

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

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

King Norodom of Cambodia

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Messageries-maritimes in the late 19th century

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

The arrival

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

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

King Norodom making his way to the Palace of the Government

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

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

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

A military parade in Saigon

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

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

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

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

King Norodom of Cambodia

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

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

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

At the Palace of the Government

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

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

The young princes

A horse and carriage in the Jardin botanique

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

The reception

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

The races, day 1

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

The Hippodrome in Saigon

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

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

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

Dinner at the Town Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

Governor General Ernest Constans

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

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

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

Theatre performance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

King Norodom of Cambodia

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

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

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

The Ball at the Palace of the Government

The Palace of the Government, illuminated at night

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

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

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

The great Buddha of the Palace of the Government

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

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

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

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

Another room of the Palace of the Government

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

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

The races, day 2

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

A horse race at the Hippodrome

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

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

Philharmonic and fencing

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

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

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

A fencing match

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

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

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

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

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

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

Torchlight procession

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

Royal promenade

The Palace of the Government decked out for a state visit

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

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

Harbour illuminations

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

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


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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

Paul Doumer, Governor General of Indochina 1897-1902

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

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

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

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

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

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

A CFI passenger carriage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A coastal section of the Transindochinois

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

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

Railway sabotage during the First Indochina War

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

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

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

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

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

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

The interior of a CFI observation car

The interior of a CFI buffet car

Passengers in a CFI first-class compartment

Part of a CFI first class car

Fourth class travel on CFI

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

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

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

Emperor Ham Nghi in Exile

Prince Nguyễn Phúc Ưng Lịch, the former Emperor Hàm Nghi

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

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

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

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

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

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

A drawing of the capture of Emperor Hàm Nghi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

French Algeria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

French Algeria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“An Annamite?”

“No, a Frenchwoman.”

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

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

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

“And how may I help you, monsieur?”

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

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

The prince smiled. “They told you that.”

The emperor in exile

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

“And you have come to Versailles to marry?”

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

Versailles, Petit Trianon

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

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

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

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

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

“So, you’re not a free man?”

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

“You will marry a Frenchwoman?”


“Of what religion?”


“So, you are baptised?”

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

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

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

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

“You left Annam while you were still young?”

“I had reached an age of reason.”

“And you miss your country?”

“One always misses one’s country.”

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

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

“And you hope?”

“I no longer hope for anything.”

“However, if one day….?”

A brilliant light shone in the eyes of the exile.

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

“And when you are married?”

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

The deposed ruler rose and stretched out his hand.

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

The bride of Ham-Nghi

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colonial Algiers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So much in so few words!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prince Nguyễn Phúc Ưng Lịch in his later years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The French seemed to take pleasure in stirring things up.

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

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

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

Prince Nguyễn Phúc Ưng Lịch in his later years

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

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

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

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

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

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

King Marie I of the Sedang

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

This article was published previously in Saigoneer

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

A Sedang warrior

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The flag of the Kingdom of Sedang

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

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

The “Ordre du Mérite Sedang”

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

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

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

One of the official stamps of the Kingdom of Sedang

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the House of the “Chinese King,” 1927

Prince Nguyễn Phúc Bửu Lân, the former Emperor Thành Thái

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

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

The race course in St-Denis, La Réunion

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

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

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

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

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

Then, after reflecting for a moment:

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

“Yes, that’s him, the “Chinese king.”

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

A street in St-Denis, La Réunion

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

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

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

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

“No, me not know where he go.”

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

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

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

La Réunion

“Here he comes, the Chinese King!”

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

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

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

“I know you are no longer king.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we parted good friends.

The Hôtel de ville in St-Denis, La Réunion

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

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

Marcel Wattebled

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

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

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

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

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

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

A view of St-Denis, La Réunion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

E. Dejean de la Batie

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

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

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