End of the road

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Vietnam's largest Chinatown fast loosing its moorings

 
Residents at Shui Hoa Ly alley on Nguyen Trai Street in Ho Chi Minh City's District 5 still keep their Chinese-style gate. However, the gate's original sign with Chinese character is hidden behind a sign written in Vietnamese and numbered as Alley 714.

The Ho Chi Minh City administration recently announced a plan to preserve Cho Lon, Vietnam's largest Chinatown, but residents are distinctly underwhelmed by the prospect.

There are those who say such a project would turn it into a town focused largely on attracting tourists, as in several neighboring countries.

Then there are those who say it's too late, referring to the alleys where first Chinese immigrants used to live, now comprising districts 5 and 6.

"My alley actually has nothing left to preserve. The only thing left is its sign, and I am hoping it won't be lost as well," Trinh Thuy Phung of Trieu Thuong alley, told Tuoi Tre in a recent report.

Alleys in Vietnam are numbered and linked to the streets they lie along.

But Chinese nationals in Cho Lon, especially those more than 50 years old, only have memories of the old names, which are almost the only thing left to remind them of the culture and history their ancestors had brought along.

Cho Lon, which means "big market" in Vietnamese, was set up in 1689, when the first residents from Chinese southern coast maintained several of their cultural traits and traditions, according to a Saigon Tiep Thi report.

The town's alleys each has its own name, ending with either "ly," "hang" or "phuong," which are residential units in rural China, said Dr Phan An of the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences, a specialist in the southern region. "Ly" is a bigger unit than "hang," and "hang" bigger than "phuong."

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They were built short, having only one entrance with a big gate, and their names were engraved in Chinese characters on a concrete sign at the entrance.

Only a couple gates remain at Tung Que Phuong and Thai Ho Hang on Tran Hung Dao Street, or Dich An Ly on Nguyen Trai Street. Most alley signs have been lost or replaced by other kinds of signs, except those on To Chau Ly and Thai Ho Hang on Tran Hung Dao Street that were restored recently.

Hao Sy Phuong's sign on Tran Hung Dao Street had been removed and replaced with a signboard of a company. Later when the company moved, a resident followed his late mother's wish and set up a sign for the alley, but it was made of plastic.

It might not have much of its original architectural features left, but the area has significant social and historical stories to tell.

An old woman running a small beverages shop at the alley entrance said: "The alley was the home of people who worked for a man named Hao Sy, and "phuong" in Chinese means a group of people who work for another person."

Nha Thai Hang, an alley whose name means mung bean sprouts, commemorates Huynh Canh Nam, a sprouts salesman in the alley who donated a lot of money to the Xinhai Revolution that overthrew China's last imperial dynasty, the Qing, and established the Republic of China. The revolution occurred in 1911, the year of Xinhai which is a combination of the zodiac animal of pig (hai) and the stem "Xin" according to Chinese calendar.

Nam accommodated the revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen, also China's first president, several times during the revolution at his house in Cho Lon.

In May 2011, a Chinese filmmaking crew visited the alley to make a documentary on the 100th anniversary of the revolution, but the house and the nearby ones had been pulled down for an apartment building in 1963, Tuoi Tre reported.

The two-meter wide alley has no original Chinese houses left.

Similar changes have happened to Vinh Vien Ho Dong or Quan Ngoc Phuong alleys on Nguyen Trai Street, where Chinese houses have been replaced by skyscrapers. "Ho dong" means an alley of people from northern China.

Hanging on

There are fewer than ten alleys where most residents are of Chinese origin. The Chinese have either gone abroad, including back to China, or simply moved and sold their houses to Vietnamese people.

Trieu Thuong alley on Cao Van Lau Street is among the few that retain links to its origins.

The 15 families here still keep the trading traditions of their ancestors, who came from Chiu Chow, an area in the south of Guangdong, hence the alley's name - "Trieu" coming from "Chiu" and "Thuong" meaning "trade." Most of the families own booths at Binh Tay, a wholesale market and the town's central sales center, and their children still speak the original language.

Tue Hoa alley on Nguyen Trai Street still has six old single-floor Chinese houses, each with a wooden door between two windows, and a wooden attic. People in the alley still speak the Guangdong dialect.

Nu, a local, said many families in the alley have members dating back three to four generations, with elders who are more than 80 years old.

They would gather at their front doors to chat after an early dinner, which is a long tradition of Chinese people in the town, she said.

Phung Su, 84, said she has spent nearly 80 years of her life in the alley. She still wears the cheongsam, a body-hugging one-piece traditional Chinese dress for women.

Several people are restoring the town through their writings and photographs.

Luu Vi An, 73, a Chinese national born in the Mekong Delta and now vice chairman of Ho Chi Minh City Chinese Literature Association, published a book in 2007 called "Cho Lon now and then" which was reprinted in 2011. The book has both Chinese and Vietnamese editions.

An said he started writing after seeing many houses and storehouses hundreds of years old on Tran Van Kieu Street being pulled down to build the Dong Tay (East West) Highway, a major infrastructure project of the city.

The book collects pieces he first wrote as a contributor for the Chinese edition of the Sai Gon Giai Phong newspaper about the roads, bridges and ports of the town that used to serve as a commercial center of the city, a wholesale market for agricultural produce from Mekong Delta and so on.

An said he hopes more people would continue his work. "Or later generations of Chinese people in Vietnam will be totally blind about the place their fathers lived, or they themselves are living in."

Dao Nhien, a former reporter for the newspaper's Chinese edition, is also spending most of her time taking photos of the town's roads and alleys.

"With this pace of urbanization, I'm afraid all alleys in Cho Lon and their sign boards will soon disappear. We'd better have photo records of them now," Nhien told Tuoi Tre.

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