Too little too late for Chinatown

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Critics say a plan to preserve Ho Chi Minh City's old Chinatown will make life difficult for local residents while failing to boost tourism


A street in Ho Chi Minh City's Cho Lon ("˜Big Market') neighborhood, also known as Chinatown. A plan to preserve the area's old quarter for tourism purposes has attracted concerns over its feasibility and impacts on local residents.

Huynh Hai is afraid that a plan to preserve Ho Chi Minh City's Cho Lon ("Big Market") neighborhood, also known as Chinatown, will be just as ineffective as a "food street" project launched a decade ago.

The Chinese-Vietnamese secretary of the city's Hakka Clan House lives in an alley off District 5's Pham Don Street that was turned into an official "food street" for tourism purposes in December 2003, only to close several months later.

"I don't know how they could turn such a narrow street [7 meters wide] into a food street. They even built a roof, which made it even stuffier," he told Vietweek.

"Now I am afraid that the new project would do little more than disturb residents' lives if it is carried out without careful considerations."

According to the new project, the preservation involves an area of 68 hectares that is home to 440,000 residents in parts of districts 5 and 6, surrounded by sections of the streets Tan Da, Nguyen Trai, Phu Dong Thien Vuong, Hong Bang, Luong Nhu Hoc, Nguyen Trai, Phu Huu, Thap Muoi, Le Tan Ke, Phan Van Khoe, Pham Dinh Ho, Bai Say and Vo Van Kiet (the East-West Highway).

If it is approved, all residents in the area will have to commit not to add to or rebuild their homes without following certain designs that comply with strict stipulation for the "old quarter" laid out by the project planners.

No advertisements will be allowed near old houses and temples certain streets will be pedestrian only and more public spaces and greenery will be added to the area.

Nguyen Anh Tuan, deputy director of the Architecture Research Center at the city's Department of Zoning and Architecture, said the department submitted the project plans to the city administration for approval this week.

"We found that a tourist stays in Cho Lon for two hours on an average and does not spend much money because there are not many public places and hotels," he said of the neighborhood that encompasses parts of districts 5 and 6.

He said the ethnic Hoa (Chinese) people migrated to Cho Lon in the 17th century and the area is home to invaluable heritages, including old buildings, temples, pagodas, markets and festivals.

But a study on preserving and promoting cultural-historical heritages in HCMC between 2006-2020 conducted by the city Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism found the city has only one well-preserved "actual old street" Hai Thuong Lan Ong in the heart of Chinatown, District 5.

Other old streets no longer have the continuous rows of old Chinese shop houses that feature prominently in old photographs of the area due to urbanization without preservation. Those photos are now records of a time and place that has gone from memory to history and inspires a kind of sentimental nostalgia in history buffs and cultural enthusiasts.

Worried residents

Tuan said the project will benefit local residents in the service sector as more tourists will be attracted to the area, together with an increase in land value and better infrastructure and security.

He said the plan's drafters had consulted the transport department on plans to build an underground parking lot under Hai Thuong Lan Ong Street, turning Nguyen An and Phu Dinh into pedestrian streets and reorganizing traffic in the vicinity.

However, he said they did not consider family living spaces as most homes in the area house several generations in cramped quarters.

"The social structure will change," he said. "There will be more young people who get married and do not want to live with their parents and grandparents and the pressure for living space here will reduce."

However, local residents are concerned the project will bring more hardship than benefits.

Huynh Minh Liem, the owner of an old house on District 5's Trieu Quang Phuc Street, said he supports the preservation of old structures but expects more concrete preferential policies for affected people who go along with the project rather than vague promises of better business.

"I was told to preserve my old house and not to build a new one [even before the project was approved], and we have to live in a small and inconvenient rooms.

"My next door neighbor decided to sell his house, but a buyer just ran away after learning that it was an old house that cannot be rebuilt," he said.

Ngo Minh, another resident on Trieu Quang Phuc Street, said the government should help residents repair their houses and restore old features rather than just ordering them to keep everything the same.

Effectiveness question

Many experts said Cho Lon has already not retained enough of its historic features to attract tourists.

Nguyen Thanh Long, a member of the Nghia Nhuan Temple management, said the government should focus on certain streets instead of the whole area designated by the preservation project.

"Old houses have been split up by modern houses and apartments. It would be difficult for owners of modern houses to add more stories or rebuild their houses."

Pointing at an apartment project that has broken ground next to his temple, Long said another apartment was already built next to the famous Minh Huong Temple on Tran Hung Dao Street.

"The project should focus on current situations, like improving the traditional medicine street or opening food streets," he said.

Peter Murray, a British expat who has been in Vietnam for 18 years, said that any plans to preserve old buildings in HCMC will be "too little too late" because some "fantastic" buildings have already been destroyed.

Brian Anderson, a long term expat photographer in HCMC, said tourists often find it difficult to walk around Cho Lon because of the chaos in the streets.

"So any traffic calming measures and "˜people spaces' would be welcome to tourists," he said, adding that it was unclear how tourists would be made aware of these and how they would participate in the project.

"It is normally the case in Vietnam that the relevant tourist authorities do not consult with foreigners or foreign tourist companies to try to gain an understanding of what foreign tourists want"¦ One just needs to look at the very low percentage of repeat tourism in Vietnam to see that something is not right," he said.

However, Anderson said HCMC is becoming "just another Asian city full of out-of-scale featureless glass boxes that no one cares about."

"There is very little for tourists do in Saigon so period architecture was a draw. I am in favor of preservation but why were so many wonderful structures allowed to be torn down?"

"Better late than never, I suppose, but it really shows shortsightedness by the relevant authorities to have allowed things to have gone so far," he added.

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