Words and photos by Todd Michael
I first saw Cholon in the French film The Lover as the romantic backdrop for the young Jane March and her Chinese lover. It took me several visits to Saigon, however, until I broached the invisible barrier between District 1 and District 5.
These days, you could be forgiven for not noticing Cholon. You will not see many stone lions or ornate tile-roofed gates here, it lacks the exoticness and pomp of other Chinatowns, such as in San Francisco, London, or Singapore.
Once Upon A Time in the East
Through the 1700s and 1800s, Chinese originally from Fukien, Guangzhou, and Canton in the warring Middle Kingdom concentrated around Saigon, and by the 1950s the Welsh author Norman Lewis wrote, “To the south, the once separated China-town of Cholon has swollen so enormously as to become its grotesque Siamese twin.”
Then came the glamorized heyday of opium dens, gambling dens, and Binh Xuyen gangsters: an underworld during the downfall of the French chronicled by Graham Greene. Cholon was also the scene of intense street fighting during the 1968 Tet Offensive.
After the war, many ethnic Chinese left Cholon and the rest of Vietnam in the late 1970s. Today, the Hoa, or ethnic Chinese, are the sixth largest group in Vietnam, with around 900,000 or over one percent of the population. Local celebrities include model-actress Tang Thanh Ha and singer Lam Truong.
“The Chinese are very hard working, and they make good businessmen,” a Saigon professor explained to me. “The Chinese are very good at keeping their traditions, and they speak Chinese at home. Not like the Vietnamese abroad, where the first generation speaks Vietnamese, the second speaks some, but the third has forgotten how to speak Vietnamese.”
A visit to Cholon may be disappointing to some visitors, but it has its gems, particularly two traditional temples. The cheerful cherry-red gate of the Quan Am Pagoda announces the shrine to Gwanyin, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy. Enormous coils of incense hanging from the ceiling festoon the pagoda on Lao Tu Street with murals of Lao Tzu, the Jade Emperor, and the Journey to the West tale.
The imposing Thien Hau Temple along Nguyen Trai Street is dedicated to the Goddess of the Sea (Tian Hou), as many coastal Chinese sailed south to the new world. As English author Maria Coffey once noted, “Thien Hau sat on an altar that was dripping with gilt and heaped with offerings of coconuts, pineapples and irises. She was a portly creature, with a round gold-plated face, and most unsuitably dressed for any seagoing activities.”
Binh Tay Market is a stone’s throw away on Thap Muoi Street in District 6. Perhaps the heart of Cholon, the market is a more Chinese version of Ben Thanh Market in District 1, with Chinese dragons arching across the roof. Chaotic and crowded inside, the indoor market spans the gamut, from gingeng to Hello Kitty handbags, while smaller sidestreets reveal Chinese dentists’ offices and Hong Kong dim sum restaurants.
Interesting for the future of the Chinatown, however, is a bilingual Chinese-Vietnamese school I found not far from the market, where hundreds of pupils in school uniforms with Chinese logos congregated along busy Hai Thuong Lan Ong Street next to a small but popular pagoda.
“We take classes in Chinese, but we have Vietnamese classes also,” explained Bao, a 15-year old boy waiting with his friends in front of Tran Boi Co School, once Ecole de Foukien under the French administration. Adults outside can be heard speaking Cantonese with each other, but the younger Hoa often speak to each other in Vietnamese; nobody seems to wear the traditional dress, the cheongsam, anymore.
As an ethnic Chinese artist explained to me before my visit, “We’re both Vietnamese and Chinese! Outside we’re Vietnamese, but at home with our families, we’re Chinese, too.” Perhaps it is this ability to blend into both sides that has made ethnic Chinese successful in Vietnam.
As I waited at the Cholon bus station for Bus 1 to ferry me back to familiar District 1, I was reminded of Confucius’ saying, “Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” This Chinatown, though not as conspicuous as some, has its own unique aspects that are worthy of a closer look.
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