This article was published previously in Saigoneer.
One of the oldest streets in Saigon, Tôn Thất Thiệp street was known in the early French colonial period firstly as rue No 9 and then from 1863 as rue de l’Église, after Saigon’s ill-fated first Roman Catholic Cathedral, which was built at its junction with boulevard Charner (Nguyễn Huệ).
Constructed from timber, that first Cathedral had to be demolished in the early 1870s due to termite infestation. As plans got underway to build a replacement brick cathedral on the present site, the future Tôn Thất Thiệp street was rechristened rue Ohier, after Rear Admiral Marie Gustave Hector Ohier, who served as Governor of Cochinchine from 1868 to 1869.
During the 1880s, large numbers of Tamils from the French Indian Settlements of Pondicherry (Puducherry), Karikal and Yanaon began arriving in Saigon, and the rue d’Ohier was gradually transformed into one of the city’s largest communities of “Malabars” or “Chettyars,” many of whom made a living as moneylenders and financiers.
By 1890, the rue d’Ohier was known popularly as the “rue des Malabars,” and government directories from that year onward consistently reveal the entire street to be lined with Tamil businesses, mostly banks and moneylending services.
The current Sri Thendayutthapani Temple at 66 Tôn Thất Thiệp dates from the 1920s, but is believed to have been built on the site of an earlier Hindu temple founded in the late 19th century by the earliest Tamil settlers. The Temple Club, housed in an old colonial residence at 29-31 Tôn Thất Thiệp, is said once to have been the temple’s guest house.
After the departure of the French, Saigon’s Tamil businesses continued to make an important contribution to the economic life of the city and the former “rue des Malabars,” renamed Tôn Thất Thiệp street in 1955, continued to be the heart of a vibrant Indian community.
Most of the Tamil community left Saigon before 1975, and the majority of the old colonial shophouse buildings in which they once did business have also been demolished in recent decades.
However, those interested in the history of Tamil settlement in Saigon may still pay a worthwhile visit to the Sri Thendayutthapani Temple, which houses the lavishly-decorated festival chariot once used every year by the Tamil community of the “rue des Malabars” to carry their Hindu deity in procession around the streets of Saigon during the Hindu festival of Thaipusam.
Meanwhile, just round the corner in an alley next to 122 Pasteur, is a rather more unusual vestige of Saigon’s former Indian community – the loft where they once kept their pigeons!
Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014) and also conducts Saigon and Chợ Lớn Heritage Tours.
A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.
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