Old quarter SOS

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Without prompt and decisive action, the old quarter of Ho Chi Minh City's historic "Chinatown" may be paved into obscurity.

 

In a report issued early this month, the HCMC Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism described the quarter surrounding the intersection of Hai Thuong Lan Ong and Trieu Quang Phuc streets as the only remaining "old quarter" in the city.

 

The quarter plays home to just 16 buildings of European and Chinese architecture dating from late 19th and early 20th century.

It may not last long. 

 

Nguyen Thi Thuy, 38, said she has lived 23 years in the quarter.  She said foreign visitors used to come sight-see and take photographs; now, they leave after a few minutes, shaking their heads.

 

Thuy's house has been divided into small rooms for renting out at VND700,000 (US$36.74) a month.  

Local people said that, as much as they are proud of the old architecture, they are often forced to adress the demands of families crowded into decaying homes.

 

Moreover, to earn a living, they have to have had to modify the historic buildtings in order to open businesses and rent out rooms.

 

A building complex known as the "oriental drugs supermarket" hocks herbal and traditional medicines in shops that stretch from 45 to 59 on Hai Thuong Lan Ong street. Opposite the market sits the three-story Bac-A bank. 

 

The new building was built on the site of a once beautiful old house, according to locals. The home gradually fell apart under its previous owner, who rented it out to tenent after tenent, the locals recalled. 

  

A man who gave his name only as Ba said he's lived in the neighborhood for 20 years. Ba guesses that the old quarter has lost its charm due to improper restoration.

 

In 2000, he said, a statute of ba gua (eight trigrams) on top of the oriental drugs supermarket was replaced with a lion.  The workers painted the building different colors and even replaced the roof's clay fish scale tiles with tole.

 

"[After such changes], who would call it an old building?" Ba asked.

 

One annonymous local said that the quarter needs help across the board. "To preserve the old quarter, we need support in planning, making repairs and also the development of tourism," the resident said. 

 

"[We need help] expanding the quarter's cultural activities so residents can earn incomes like those in old quarters elsewhere in the world."

 

When?

 

Tran Huy Cuong, deputy chief of the urban management board in Ward 10 under District 5's People's Committee, said the board is considering a proposal to cease licensing private repairs and new construction. The board is also considering restorations, he said.

 

However, the most important thing is assessing the quarter's conditions, according to Cuong.

 

The quarter has yet to be recognized as a cultural heritage site.  No assessments on the condition and value of the area are yet  available, Dao Van Chuong, vice director of the cultural department's Center for HCMC Relics Conservation, said.

 

Without such a designation, the quarter remains at very high risk of being destroyed, Le Van Thanh, a researcher from the Institute of Development Studies, warned.

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