Grand Old Ladies

A duty to preserve the beauty of the past for future generations

You don’t have to look very hard to find evidence of the part France played in Vietnam’s history. Many of the key buildings of state were erected by the French. But, it wasn’t until a recent visit to Phnom Penh that I became aware that there is some concern about the possible loss of the architectural heritage left by the French in Southeast Asia. I read in The Phnom Penh Post that there are two points of view when it comes to the older buildings there. One side values the history, culture and architectural beauty, the other values the real estate and the possible financial gain from redevelopment of the large city center sites occupied by these ‘grand old ladies’ of architecture.

Notre Dame drawing

Of course, Saigon simply wouldn’t have the same charm without the old Post Office, the Opera House, and the old L’Hotel de Ville that is now home to the People’s Committee. Apart from the glory of their elegance that is evocative of another age, each one of these buildings has a fascinating story to tell.

But there is a less conspicuous legacy of little merchants’ shophouses that give the streets of Saigon their unique character. The oldest of these modest buildings are now 150-years-old. Some have been loved and maintained but many are suffering the ravages of time and crumbling or disappearing behind giant hoardings and modern concrete ’embellishments’ and extensions. The three story shophouses adjacent to Ben Thanh Market are an example of this kind of treatment. If the advertizing companies, sign makers and property owners are allowed to continue
defacing, disguising and disfiguring Saigon’s architectural heritage, these buildings will be lost and the character of this iconic area will be changed forever.

saigon_hotel_de_ville

As humans, we collect the memories and souvenirs of all the people and events that have influenced or changed our lives. It is the nature of people to want to hold on to some aspects of the past – it can give us a sense of belonging and it confirms our identities. For this reason, many people are unsettled by too much loss and change. Our favorite cities are just like people, they are a collection of souvenirs that represent all the different cultures, religions, political regimes, nationalities and trends. They all leave their traces behind as they pass through. These traces remind us who we are.

Many cities in the West have suffered at the hands of careless town planners who erased neighborhoods and demolished old buildings to make way for modern, concrete shopping malls and car parks. The wounds left behind have still not healed. People can feel demoralized and lose their sense of place. Sometimes “we just don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone”.

001001l

But cities that have cherished their unique tapestry of architectural styles through the ages are warm, vibrant, welcoming and interesting to all. Those who have filled their towns with concrete are regretting the loss of history now. In Europe, properties like the old merchant houses that line the broad avenues of Saigon, are being renovated and turned into homes by young professionals. Maybe it will be a while before the young Vietnamese develop a taste for this style of living. In the meantime, it is everyone’s duty to preserve this cultural and architectural heritage so it can be enjoyed by the next generation.

Bio: A professional artist and author of A Week in Hoi An, Bridget March specializes in urban landscapes and aims to reveal the hidden treasures of city life and small town cultures through her illustrations. Bridget holds drawing classes for beginners and improvers in Saigon. For more of Bridget’s work including her new book, see BrushWithAsia.blogspot.com

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