Monograph of Saigon Parish, 1917

La première messe célébrée à Saigon (Cochinchine) – The first mass celebrated in Saigon – 1861

This unpublished document, housed in the library of the Archdiocese of Saigon, describes the early years of Saigon Parish.

1. Historic memories of the city of Saigon

The origins of the city of Saigon are rather uncertain. It appears that, before the time of Gia-Long, it was a simple Cambodian village. In 1680, however, it was for a certain time the residence of the second king of Cambodia.

In 1789, Gia-Long, after taking Saigon from the Tay-Son, commissioned the construction of the first Citadel, which was enclosed by the rue Testard [Võ Văn Tần] in the north, rue Mac-Mahon [Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa] in the west, boulevard de la Citadelle [Đinh Tiên Hoàng] in the east and rue d’Espagne [Lê Thánh Tôn] in the south. The centre, where the mast of the pavilion stood, was approximately at the site of the present Cathedral.

The city of Saigon was occupied by Gia Long for 22 years.

Marshal Lê Văn Duyệt

After his return from France, Monsignor Pigneau de Behaine, Bishop of Adran, lived in Saigon, in a house which Gia-Long had built for him at the outer corner of the Citadel, close to the site of the former maintenance shop in the nursery of the Botanic Garden, now the barracks of the indigenous militia. He accompanied Prince Canh to the siege of Qui-Nhon, where he died on 9 September 1799, at the age of 58 years. His remains were brought back to Saigon on the 16 September, and on the 16 December his funeral was solemnly held at the Tomb of Adran.

From 1811-1831, Gia-Long having established his residence in Hue, Viceroy Le-Van-Duyet peacefully ruled Lower Cochinchina until the year of his death. He was feared by Minh-Mang, who dared not undertake anything against him. The importance of his services and the authority he had managed to acquire made him almost invincible. Here is a fact which shows his good disposition. Once, when attending a cock fight in 1828, he was told of the first edict of persecution launched by Minh-Mang against the Catholic religion and the Europeans in general. “Why are we persecuting the co-religionists of the Bishop of Adran and those Frenchmen whose rice we still grind between our teeth?” He exclaimed. “No, as long as I live, we will not permit that. Let the king do what he pleases after my death.” His tomb, desecrated first by Minh-Mang, then repaired and maintained by the French administration, is located opposite the Inspection de Gia- Dinh.

After the death of Viceroy Le-Van-Duyet, Saigon fell into the hands of Nguyen-Van-Khoi, who revolted against the king. Minh-Mang retook Saigon in 1834. The sons of Khoi, the rebellious mandarins, and a French missionary, the Blessed Father Marchand, detained in the midst of the siege, were caged and taken to Hue for death. Minh-Mang then destroyed the Citadel raised by Gia-Long, and replaced it by a work of lesser extent, which was taken by the French in 1859. On the same site today stands the new Marine Infantry Barracks.

2. Beginnings of Saigon Parish after the occupation of the city by the French

The martyrdom of Saint Paul Lê Văn Lộc (1830-1859), unknown artist

On 11 February 1859, Admiral Rigault de Genouilly forced his way into Cap Saint-Jacques, and sailed up the Saigon River to seize the city. At that time in the prison of Saigon was a young Annamite priest named Paul Loc. The king’s judges, hearing of the arrival of the French, unexpectedly led him out to be executed. He was decapitated near the gates of the Citadel, at the corner of rue Paul Blanchy (formerly rue Nationale) and rue Chasseloup-Laubat. He was canonised by Pope Pius X on 2 May 1909.

At the time of the arrival of the French, a price had been placed on the head of the Vicar Apostolic, Monsignor Dominique Lefèbvre. However, he was able to escape, and on 15 February 1859, he boarded a French ship, where he was received with due regard for his dignity and person.

Finally, on 18 February 1859, Saigon belonged to France.

After the capture of Saigon, many Christians, fleeing persecution, came from everywhere to take refuge under the French cannon. This explains the presence today of so many Christians in the neighbourhood of Saigon. However, at that time, the parish of Saigon as a separate Christian community did not yet exist; Monsignor Lefèbvre spent much of his time founding it. In order to establish Christianity more firmly in the centre of his diocese, and to make it radiate outwards into other neighborhoods, he began by establishing major institutions and furnishing himself with devoted auxiliaries.


The first of the major institutions set up by Monsignor Lefèbvre in date and importance was the Seminary. Initially established in the swampy and tiger-infested area of Thi-Nghe, in the vicinity of the Annamite soldiers’ post, the Seminary was transferred to Xom-Chieu in 1860. But a few months later, the Mission obtained a large plot of land on the Boulevard Luro, and Monsignor Lefèbvre definitively installed the Seminary there, entrusting it to the care of M. Theodore Wibaux.

The Seminary in 1866

The latter constructed a large building which lasted for about 13 years. After that, it was necessary to rebuild the Seminary almost entirely. The new buildings, which still exist today, were thanks mainly to the intelligence and devotion of Messrs Julien Thiriet, second superior of the Seminary since 1877, Félix Humbert and Charles Boutier. In 1887, Monseigneur Colombert solemnly inaugurated the most important building, which occupies the central position. Thereafter, the two wings were added, both designed by Father Humbert, one destined for the students of the grand seminaire, and the other for the students of the petit seminaire.

At present, the total number of seminarists is 129, a figure made up of 26 in the grand seminaire and 103 in the petit seminaire.

Sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres

Having assured the recruitment of the clergy by founding the seminary, Monseignor Lefèbvre provided for other needs by calling on the Sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres, who arrived at Saigon in 1860. They were first charged with gathering the orphans created every day by the persecution, and the numerous pagan children abandoned by their parents, who wandered the streets of the city in rags, begging for food. This was the first nucleus of the work of the Sainte-Enfance (Holy Childhood) orphanage in Saigon.

The first building constructed for the Sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres

This work began very modestly in a large and rather unsuitable hut, located near the primitive first bishop’s palace, near the site of the old market. Two years later, Admiral-Governor Bonard gave to the Reverend Mother Benjamin, Mother Superior of the Sisters, another vast site on the Boulevard Luro, occupying the space between the Arsenal and the Seminary.

The establishment of the Sisters of Saint-Paul today consists of: (i) a Novitiate for the training of indigenous Sisters; (ii) a boarding school for European and mixed race girls; (iii) another boarding school for Annamite girls belonging to the rich families of the Colony; (iv) an orphanage for abandoned children; and (v) a refuge for poor Annamite girls who had been seduced and desired to rehabilitate themselves in their own eyes and in the eyes of others.

Indigenous Hospital

Monseignor Lefèbvre also created, for the benefit of sick and destitute indigenous people, a hospital, whose administration he entrusted to the Sisters of Saint-Paul. This hospital, located initially near the first bishop’s palace, was relocated in September 1864 to the north bank of the arroyo Chinois in Cho-Quan, by mutual agreement between the Mission and the government. Since 1909, the Sisters have been relieved of their duties at this hospital, but they do not cease to give their care to a very large number of patients in their own hospital in Thi-Nghe, which was built for this purpose 300 meters from the church in the parish of the same name. They thus continue the work begun by Monsignor Lefèbvre.


The Carmelite Convent

It is not enough to work for the salvation of souls. In the supernatural order, human efforts may end in no result if God does not support and nurture works with his grace. It was in order to secure perpetual prayer and to draw the blessings of Heaven upon his work and that of his auxiliaries, that Monsignor Levèbvre invited the Carmelite Order of Saint Therèse to Saigon. The first four Carmelites arrived in Saigon on 9 October 1861. They were welcomed by the Sisters of Saint-Paul, and settled soon after near the Seminary, on elevated ground on the other side of boulevard Luro. Their pious community has always prospered, and for a long time it has had around 40 Sisters, including 4 Europeans and 36 Annamites.

While Monsignor Lefèbvre worked to make Saigon a Christian town, the Admirals continued the conquest. On 1 November 1859, Admiral Rigault de Genouilly was replaced by Admiral Page. The expedition was continued in 1860 by Rear-Admiral Charner, and in 1861 by Rear-Admiral Bonard. On 5 June 1862, when the Treaty of Peace between Emperor Tu-Duc and France was signed in Saigon, the religious question was regulated in accordance with the principles of Admiral Bonard by Article 2: “The subjects of the two nations of France and Spain may practice their Christian beliefs in the kingdom of Annam; and the subjects of this kingdom, without distinction, who would desire to embrace and follow the Christian religion, may do so freely without constraint. But those who do not desire to become Christians will not be forced to do so.”

This treaty put an end to open persecution; but the arbitrary advances and vexations against the Christians continued almost as in the past, especially in Annam. Meanwhile, the Christians in Saigon and neighbouring provinces, being closer to the French, lived in greater tranquility.

Admiral Pierre-Paul de La Grandière by Mascré-Souville, Musée du quai Branly

Admiral de la Grandière, who replaced Rear-Admiral Bonard in May 1863, understood that the assimilation of the natives in Cochin-China could only be achieved through Christianity, and that the Christian element, the fidelity of which could not be questioned, was entitled to be treated with more consideration. His solicitude for the religious interests of the colony was manifested by the measures he took to protect the good Sisters and by the example of his irreproachable conduct.

3. Definitive foundation of the parish of Saigon and its development to the present day

Until the year 1863, the Missionaries residing at the Seminary or in the neighbouring Christian communities served the city’s religious and administrative communities with the Holy Sacraments. The time had come to found a separate parish, which would include the agglomeration of these various communities and all the Christians, French and Annamite, living in the city. This is what Monseignor Lefèbvre did, by appointing M Oscar d’Amplemann de Noioberne as parish priest of Saigon, and by fixing the parish limits, which have remained almost the same since its date of foundation.

Scope and limits of Saigon parish

The parish of Saigon is bounded to the north-west by the rue Richaud, which separates it from the parish of Tan-Dinh; to the north by the arroyo de l’Avalanche, which separates it from the parish of Thi-Nghe; to the east by the Saigon River, which separates it from the parish of Thu-Thiem; to the south by the arroyo Chinois, which separates it from the parish of Khanh-Hoi; and to the south-west by the rues MacMahon, Filippini, Taberd, de la Pepiniere, Chasseloup-Laubat and Lareyniere (up to rue Richaud), which separate it from the parish of Cho-Dui.

Since the construction of the new City Market in 1914 and the new Railway Station in 1915, the populous centre of the Annamite city has been moved, and the Christians who live on the streets below the station are now obliged to make a long detour in order to reach Cho-Dui Church.

Saigon, 1920

It thus follows that, whatever one may do and say, almost all Christians from that area now find it easier to come to the Cathedral for worship and for reception of the Sacraments. It would therefore be desirable that, for the greater good of souls, the limits of the parish of Saigon near Cho-Dui should be moved back as far as the rue Bourdais. In this way, the parish of Saigon would encompass the Market, which would fall under her by force of circumstances, and would be separated in a straight line running south from the parish of Cho-Dui along rue Lareyniere and rue Bourdais, cutting through the middle of the Jardin de la Ville.

By 1863, Monseignor Lefèbvre had successfully completed all his undertakings; He had gathered under the parish the various new elements (communities, French, Annamites) in the city of Saigon. In the following year, 1864, the Apostolic Vicar, feeling his strength to be diminishing, asked the Holy See to be released from his office. He ceded the government of the Mission to Monsignor Miche, the first Apostolic Vicar of Cambodia since 1852. When the new bishop arrived in Saigon, Admiral de la Grandière gave him a triumphal reception, which produced the strongest impression on the Annamite population.

A few months later, on June 1865, another religious event came to rejoice and comfort the Christians of the city and its environs in their faith. For the first time, the Fête-Dieu was publicly celebrated in Saigon; and the God of the Eucharist was carried in triumph through the same streets and public squares where Christian blood had once flowed. An immense population, hastening from afar, came to contemplate this extraordinary spectacle. The communities of all the neighbouring parishes, preceded by their banners, together with the orphans of the Sainte-Enfance, the Christian Brothers, the Sisters and the Schools formed a cortege of Jesus the Saviour, which thus took official possession of the capital and of the whole colony.

La première messe célébrée à Saigon (Cochinchine) – The first mass celebrated in Saigon – 1861

Twenty missionaries preceded the canopy, under which the Apostolic Vicar elevated the sacramental Host. It was escorted respectfully by a large number of soldiers and officers, the Admiral Governor at their head. When they arrived on the quayside opposite the ships, the Holy Sacrament was deposited on a magnificent altar made by the sailors themselves, and then the blessing descended upon this immense multitude, while a salvo of 21 cannon shots announced in the distance the triumph of Christ, the splendours of his religion, and the faith of his worshippers.

This imposing religious manifestation, which had the advantage of recalling to our compatriots the memories of their absent homeland, and of giving to the natives, both pagans and Christians, a high idea of Catholicism and of France, was repeated every year down to 1881. At that time, for reasons of neutrality and freedom of conscience, our troops were no longer authorised to take part officially in such ceremonies, so the episcopal authority thought it necessary to suppress this procession, which could no longer be carried out with the same grandeur and solemnity. But the government never banned it. To this day, the parishes around Saigon, Tan-Dinh, Cho-Quan, etc, continue this old tradition every year in their own communities. The Christians always display great zeal in adorning the streets, and flock in crowds to accompany the Most Holy Sacrament, which is carried through their villages.

By all that we have just said, it is easy to see that Admiral de la Grandière really had at heart the development of Catholicism in the colony. He proved this by bringing the Brothers of the Christian Schools to Saigon. Six of them arrived on 6 January 1866, the Mission having given them the Collège d’Adran, which had been founded two years earlier by M. Puginier. They immediately set to work, devoting themselves to the education of youth until the end of 1882, when they were obliged to retire.

“La première résidence des Gouverneurs à Saigon” – the Salle de spectacles or events hall of the first governor’s palace, from the 1931 book Iconographie historique de l’Indochine française (1931) by Paul Boudet and André Masson

The work they had begun was seconded at first, then continued by the Collège Taberd; But in the meantime, several changes had taken place in the Christian community of Saigon. Monseigneur Miche died in 1873, and was replaced by Monseignor Colombert. On my side, M. Oscar de Noioberne, the first parish priest of Saigon, left office, and ceded his post to M. Henri de Kerlan. It was Henri de Kerlan who, in 1874, at the same time as the Cathedral was transferred from the lower town into the salle de fêtes of the old Palace of the Government, founded the École Taberd in its old outbuildings.

At this time, the present location of the Institution Taberd housed the temporary Cathedral, the Presbytery and the School.

Directed initially by the Missionaries, the École Taberd was, in 1889, entrusted to the Brothers of the Christian Schools, who had been invited here by Monseignor Colombert. Tody this College teaches more than 800 pupils, both Christian and pagan, European, mixed race, Annamite, Indian and Chinese. It is located at the corner of rue Paul Blanchy and rue Taberd. Its buildings, large and well furnished, were built largely by Monsignor Mossard, now Apostolic Vicar, and completed by the Christian Brothers. They are the property of the Mission.

M Henri de Kerlan died in 1877, and was replaced by Henri Le Mée, who remained priest of Saigon parish until 1897. In the year of his installation he had the joy of seeing the construction of the new Cathedral, and next to it a beautiful Presbytery, which is still in use today.


Inauguration of the (first) cathedral constructed in Saigon by the French government in 1863 (after a sketch by Naval Lieutenant Dumont)

First among all the religious edifices of the colony is, of right, the Cathedral of Saigon. Yet it was not always so. At the beginning, Monseignor Lefèbvre converted an abandoned pagoda into a church. Then in 1863, Admiral Bonard had a more suitable church built in the lower town, on the site now occupied by the Justice of Peace. But, after 10 years, this edifice, built almost entirely of wood, was devoured by white ants. In 1874, it was necessary to set up a temporary church in the salle des fêtes of the former Governor’s Palace, on the site where the Collège Taberd now stands. Clearly this provisional measure could not be permitted to continue indefinitely. Admiral Dupré (1874-1877) had the merit of understanding that France, now firmly established in Saigon, had to assert its faith and consecrate its conquest in this distant country, by elevating to God a definitive temple, more worthy of His Supreme Majesty.

On 7 October, 1877, Monsignor Colombert, in the presence of the Governor and all the authorities of Saigon, blessed the first stone of this sacred edifice, which was to be constructed in an excellent position at the top of the rue Catinat, the highest point in the city. The work was carried out so rapidly that the blessing of the church could be achieved after just two and a half years, on 11 April 1880. It was dedicated to the Immaculate Conception and to St Francis Xavier.

The Cathedral of Saigon is a Romanesque style building which measures 93 metres from the front porch to the extremity of the apse; The width of the transept is 35 metres, and the towers rise 36.6 meters from the ground and house six bells, together weighing 25.85 tonnes. Two spires of 21 metres, completed in 1895, take the height of the Cathedral to 57 metres total. The interior of the building is adorned with sobriety and good taste. At the top of the triforium, a series of stained glass windows depict a procession of the Saints of the Old and New Testaments, who pay homage to the Immaculate Virgin, patroness of the Cathedral, whose image is located in the apse of the church.

The (second) Saigon Cathedral pictured soon after its inauguration in 1880

The high altar, made from precious marble, is adorned with three magnificent bas-reliefs, and supported by six angels carrying the Instruments of the Passion. On either side is a monumental Way of the Cross, each Station serving as an altar in one of the lateral chapels which stretch along both sides from the transept to the front doors, paved with rich mosaic and decorated with 20 large and artistically crafted chandeliers. Radiating out from the sanctuary are the chapels of the Blessed Virgin, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Saint Joseph, Saint Paul and Saint Francois Xavier, also decorated with stained glass images which relate to the themes of each altar.

It is under the vaults of this temple that, on great ceremonial days, crowds of Frenchmen, Annamites, Chinese and Indians gather and the liturgy unfurls in all of its inimitable majesty.

Since the month of October 1913, a thousand electric lamps, installed by M Soullard in the chandeliers and around the columns, have added a new shine to the beauty of these ceremonies. It is above all in the Pontifical Masses and on the day of the First Communion of the Children that our beautiful Cathedral is adorned with all its finery and shines in all its light. In particular, we will remember for a long time the extraordinary pomp, the rich ornamentation, and the magnificent songs on 17 October 1909, when 5,000 people crowded into the Cathedral to honour St Jeanne d’Arc, beatified just a few months before by Pope Pius X.

Beside these extraordinary solemnities, the preparation of which require more time and more work, the occupations of the parish priest of Saigon are the same as everywhere else; “his time, as regards the administration of his parish, is divided between administering the sacraments, visting the sick, giving instruction to children, and serving religious communities.” Such was, in summary, the view of M Le Mée, the third parish priest of Saigon.

The Pigneau de Béhaine statue in front of the Saigon Cathedral in the early 20th century

M Le Mée was succeeded in 1898 by the current Apostolic Vicar of Cochin-China, Lucien Mossard, who established in the parish the Work of the Tabernacles, the purpose of which was to furnish the poor Christians of the Mission with the necessary ornaments for Divine Worship. The ladies who were part of it contributed their money and their labour to the making of these ornaments. The work, which counts some 60 members, prospered as long as it was directed by Mesdames Teillard d’Eyry and Beer; However, it then suffered the fate of many parochial works of its kind which have been attempted in countries like ours. These sorts of works have no chance of sustaining themselves for a long time, for the simple reason that most families of officers and employees come here only to spend two or three years at most, They are soon replaced by others who do not make a longer stay, and their work soon disappears along with the elements of which it was formed.

Monseigneur Mossard, who was to leave the parish to take charge of the government of the Mission, begged M Moulins, a missionary for many years in Mytho, to come and replace him in the parish of Saigon. M Moulins occupied this latter post only from April 1899 to January 1900, when illness forced him to go to Hong Kong, where he died. He was succeeded by M. Charles Boutier, who remained until March 1906. In 1902, in front of the Cathedral, in the middle of the garden which adorns the square, was erected the statue of Monseigneur Pigneau de Béhaine, Bishop of Adran. This statue, the work of sculptor Lormier, depicts the great Bishop extending his arm to his pupil prince Canh, and holding in the other hand the edict of the French government which helped restore that young prince’s father to his throne. Monsignor Mossard, surrounded by a numerous clergy, gave the benediction to the monument with great solemnity.

Governor General Doumer, Lieutenant Governor Lamothe, Admirals Pottier and Bayle and all the civil and military authorities, as well as the great notables of Cochin-China, attended this imposing religious and patriotic ceremony. Numerous delegations from the Annamese parishes in the neighbourhood of Saigon, who had come with their banners, could be seen massed around the lawn, in the middle of which stood the statue of the Bishop of Adran.

Inauguration of the Pigneau de Béhaine statue in front of the Saigon Cathedral in 1902

In this way were the Church, France and Annam gathered together to honour worthily the hero of the day, Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine, Bishop of Adran. His memory will be perpetuated by this high monument in his honour, which will remind future generations of the great influence he has exercised over the future of this country, and the services he has rendered to Annam, France, and the Church.

No important event worthy of notice has taken place since that time, apart from the great feast in honour of Jeanne d’Arc, which I mentioned at the end of the notice I gave on the Cathedral.

In March 1906, Mr. Boutier returned to France for health reasons. Eugène Soullard has succeeded him to this day in the administration of the parish.

The Christian population of the parish of Saigon has hardly changed over the last 10 years. It now amounts to about 5,530 souls, including 4,000 Europeans, 800 Indians, 700 Annamites and some 30 Chinese. It has, however, decreased considerably with regard to the Europeans since the mobilisation in 1914. The pagan population is approximately 45,000.

Eugene Soullard, Parish Priest,
Presbytery of Saigon, 13 November 1917

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.

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“The Hôtel du Gouvernment in Saigon: Capital of our Cochinchina territories,” from Le Magasin pittoresque, ed. M. Edouard Charton, 1872

Hermitte’s Palace of the Government (1873)

Parisian architect Achille-Antoine Hermitte (1840-1870) was responsible for the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Guangzhou (1866) and the first Hong Kong Town Hall (1869) before he designed his best-known work, the Palace of the Government (later Norodom Palace) in Saigon.

A spiritual correspondent of the Tour du Monde once said: “Cochinchina is to China what Belgium is to France,” and with these words we could well enough grasp what we might expect to meet in our new colony, which is neighbour to a state with no less than 35 million inhabitants of different nationalities. It will be easy to understand the importance of our new possessions when we say that the total area of the French provinces in Cochinchina is 22,380 square kilometres, out of which the province of Saigon accounts for 1,500 square meters.

The city of Saigon, fallen to the power of Admiral Rigault de Genouilly on 17 February 1859, is built 55 kilometres from the sea. It is located at 104° 21′ 43″ longitude east and 10° 46′ 40″ latitude north. A few years ago, it was not less than seven kilometres in length by five kilometres wide. The largest part of the population was made up of 20,000 Asians.

Here is what was written in 1866 about the capital of our new colony:

“Saigon previously formed an agglomeration of more than 40 villages, representing a population of at least 50,000 souls. At the start of our expedition of conquest, all of these villages, with the exception of one – Cho-Quan – were destroyed by the enemy, who wanted to leave us only ruins. Since that time, 11 other villages have been formed around us and under our protection. These 12 villages have 830 registered inhabitants, who represent a total of approximately 8,000 souls. ¹

As for the European city, which contains the citadel, the governor’s residence, the offices of the administration, the barracks, the military hospital, the church, the arsenal, etc, it is enclosed between the river to the east, the arroyo ² Chinois to the south, the arroyo de l’Avalanche to the north, and the territories conceded to Annamite villages to the south-west. On 1 January 1865, its population included 557 Europeans, 600 Malabars and 12,000 Chinese, not counting the troops of the garrison and the crews of the ships and boats in the harbour.

Early colonial Saigon

The plan of Saigon, drawn up on 10 May 1862, has been executed in large part. We have laid out and paved numerous wide streets amounting to 30 kilometres in length, opened or deepened canals, built bridges and quays, filled swamps, built a church, a hospital, and stone houses; and constructed a 53 metre long by 4 metre deep dry dock; Finally, we have also installed a floating dock which will receive ships of the highest tonnage.”

These lines were written at the most five years ago, and one only has to consult the excellent Annuaire de la Cochinchine ³, just published in Saigon under the administration of the excellent Rear-Admiral Dupré, to get an exact idea of the progressive improvements which have succeeded one after another since that time. Notable buildings of more than one kind have been constructed in the European city, and, what’s more, essential institutions have been founded there, including hospitals, asylums, and schools where young natives are eagerly received. It will give a fair idea of what the latter institutions may produce in future when it is known that 19 schools are now in full operation, teaching no fewer than 790 students.

This number is eloquent, no doubt, but many others could easily be listed here which would attest to the solid hopes of our colony. In order to offer some, even without commentary, to the reader’s meditations, we will recall that from 1 January 1870 to 1 January 1871, 551 ships entered the port of Saigon, while 554 left.

Here we ignore cabotage, a sector now more active than ever, and agricultural labour, the detail of which we spare the reader, saying only that for the year 1869 it produced for the administration receipts of 8,322,559 francs 19 cents, although there was a slight decrease in 1870, which only offered the figure of 8,053,689 francs 10 cents. An unofficial account suggests that the revenue from 1871 will reach 9,500,000 francs, but new information suggests that the final figure may be as much as 12 million francs. Rice exportation this year will amount to 350,000 tonnes and will employ more than 600 ships, including some very large ones. This export represents a sum of 90 million francs. One sees all that one can expect from so recent an acquisition.

Perhaps the reader is wondering why such emphasis on these figures in an article about a monument. In fact, they serve to help people understand the importance attached to certain buildings, especially those which aim to impress the Asian population with their imposing mass.

Hermitte’s Sacred Heart Cathedral in Guangzhou (1866)

It was on 23 February 1868, that Vice-Admiral de la Grandière, Governor and commander in chief of the colony, laid the first stone of the new palace. For the young architect, M. Hermitte, who had drawn up the plan, this was not his first attempt. Having arrived early in the country of Annam, and then settled in China, he began his work at Canton with the construction of the vast granite cathedral, the completion of which will require perhaps many years. Having lost as a result of war the buildings which he had acquired, the unhappy artist abandoned his labours there and took refuge in Cochinchina. It was here that his too short career would end; he died here in 1870. M. Codry succeeded him.

Preoccupied no doubt by memories of his native land, the architect of the Palace of the Government in Saigon did not show much originality in his original conception. It is curious, however, that at the moment when a dreadful fire deprived Paris of the edifice conceived by Philippe Delorme, a rather faithful image of the Tuileries took shape at the extremity of the Asiatic world.

The Palace of the Government of French Cochinchina stands at the corner of the route de Cholon and the boulevard de Saigon. It has not less than 80 metres of facade, and is placed in the middle of a rectangle which extends 450 metres on one of its sides and 300 metres on the other. Eight main roads extend outward from the road which encircles the palace and its park.

The Annuaire we have just mentioned says nothing about the new building; Nonetheless there is a sentence which sufficiently explains the extent of territory which will be governed from this vast edifice.

“Custom has preserved in French Cochinchina the division of the provinces as they existed under the Annamite regime; But this denomination no longer employs any special administration in each province. The administration now emanates entirely from Saigon.”

Hermitte’s Hong Kong Town Hall (1869)

Neither should it be forgotten that if the European population of our colony increased three years ago to 585 inhabitants, that of the Asians amounted to 1,183,913 individuals of both sexes, requiring extensive administrative provision.

The palace, with its large reception room and offices, had to be built to large proportions. We know from recent news that gardens are now being planted. The exact surface of the park is 13 hectares.

A large cistern, destined to supply the palace daily with 500 litres of water free of impurities, is being dug by the hour. The question now is whether to create a large lawn or a water feature in the space between the main entrance and the front steps. That space is not less than 200 metres in length.

¹ As an official source, see the Notices sur les colonies françaises (1866), p. 539. We shall also indicate, for the benefit of those who wish to have general notions of the empire of Annam, some works recently published, such as the following books: Tableau de la Cochinchine, written under the auspices of the Société d’ethnographie by Messrs E. Cortambert and L. de Rosny; L de Grammont’s Onze mois de sous-prefecture en basse Cochinchine, 1863; Les Ports de l’extrême Orient, 1869, by Dr. A. Benoit de la Grandière; Cochinchine Française by Charles Lemire, 1869; Dialogues Cochinchinois, published in 1871, with an indication of the weights and measures and divisions of time by M. Abel des Michels, professor at the college du France; and finally M. Barbié du Bocage’s Bibliographie Annamite of 1867.

² This Spanish and Portuguese word is used to describe a small waterway

³ Annuaire pour la Cochinchine française, Imprimerie nationale, Saigon, 1871. This precious work is aimed at Europeans, natives and Chinese. The divisions of time are marked according to the calculations adopted by the three races.

Hermitte’s Palace of the Government (1873)

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.

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Pétrus Trương Vĩnh Ký (1837-1898)

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

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

Pierre Sauvaire de Barthélémy (1870-1940)

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

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

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

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

Pétrus Ký teaching his students

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

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

Pétrus Ký’s house in Chợ Quán

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A royal screen in the Citadel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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.