Despite its dominant appearance in the contemporary urban fabric of HCM City, the shophouse is threatened by many forces. Joep Janssen speaks with residents about the strength of the old shophouse and the increasing factors that are threatening this hallmark of HCM City’s townscape.
It is five o’clock in the morning in the Chinese Cholon district, when the first residents wake up. After the residents complete their strenuous morning workouts and eat a bowl of pho, the shops open. At the Kim Bien Market, women are already busy selling their goods. A little further down the road at Thien Hau Pagoda on Nguyen Trai one of the Buddhists tells that the building is dedicated to the Chinese God of the Sea, who protects fishermen and merchants sailing over the sea.
Throughout the early days of Cholon—today HCM City’s Chinatown—this help would have been very necessary. In the middle of the 18th century, many people from Fujian Province in China undertook a sea voyage to Southern Vietnam. Near Saigon they built the twin city Cholon. River networks formed this trade center on the embankments of the Chinese Arroyo, a tributary of the Saigon River. By combining markets, places of worship and shophouses, Cholon’s developers created a vibrant economy. Not for nothing the Vietnamese call it “the big market.”
Cholon can be seen as the cradle of the shophouses in HCM City. In these narrow and very deep row houses, trading activities take place on the ground floor and residential accommodations are located on the upper floor. This typology is not only indigenous to the old Cholon district. It has become a standard feature of HCM City’s identity that is interwoven with the social environment in the city. For this reason, the shophouse is a repository of stories, reflecting the inhabitants’ way of life. To better understand the role of the shophouse within the city, one needs to examine the origin. Although this is unclear, there are strong indications that the shophouse typology traces back to the Netherlands.
East meets West
In many ways, HCM City looks like Amsterdam in the Netherlands—at least when screwing up narrowing your eyes to look at the buildings. The combination of living and working is similar to the concept of the Dutch canal house. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, this multifunctional building was invented as part of Amsterdam’s ambitious city extension. The houses were very narrow and deep due to high land prices along the waterways. Thus, the row house was the perfect solution to maximize the amount of houses that could reap the financial benefit of being situated on the water.
At the same time that Dutch cities were experiencing economic growth, the United Dutch East India Company was gaining strengthen as well. This international trading company built colonial settlements overseas, using urban and architectural knowledge gained in the Netherlands. The spatial organization of the Dutch city was also exported to Batavia, now Jakarta, the main Dutch trading port in Southeast Asia. Within this new city the canal house became the most important architectural typology.
Batavia was a unique place in Southeast Asia, in which the urban cultures of both the Dutch and the Chinese came together. You could say that the Dutch ruled the city and the Chinese dominated the businesses, but both populations helped to build Batavia from scratch. Just like in Amsterdam, the houses along the waterways within Chinese port cities were focused on trade, and the Chinese house concept was similar to that of the merchant houses in Amsterdam. The typology of narrow and deep row houses proved to be a good solution for population growth and was implemented to solve both housing problems and commercial needs. During the 17th century these similarities between China and the Netherlands continued to strengthen in Batavia.
This coincidental meeting between both populations resulted in a mixture of the Dutch canal house and Chinese lifestyle. With trade flourishing in Southeast Asian cities at the time, it’s possible that the shophouse concept spread further. In this process, the Chinese rather than the Dutch may have exported the knowledge and skills from Batavia to Vietnam. First in Hanoi, later in HCM City, the Chinese built the narrow, deep row houses. Many of the Chinese in Cholon are descendants of these first immigrants. To this day, Chinese characters on shop fronts show many of these families still live here. Their lives are determined by the combination of shops and residences.
n over her cheek, then.
The area around Phu Dinh Street is a peaceful neighborhood with excellent examples of the old shophouse style. Out of one of the houses sounds traditional Chinese music. Halfway down the street is a house at number seven that appeared in the French movie L’Amant, an adaptation of Margueritte Duras’ The Lover. However, the owner says that almost none of the interior had been recorded: “The beautiful interior in that movie is made in France. Only the façade of my house is part of the movie.”
He points out that in a few houses down the road some old details are visible. The old symmetrical facade is still in good shape—remarkable because the original façade on almost every house in the old block has been replaced by a sliding steel door that spans the full width. The windows are open on both sides of the green wooden door. Like all other houses nearby, it is full of flour sacks. The inhabitants say that the house is about 80 years old. In the past, many family members lived in the house. There are only four left. “Long ago,” says the owner, “expensive goods were hidden between the ceiling and roof.
Further on in the Hai Thuong Lan Ong Street, Vo Van Thai—a distinguished 75-year old owner—sits back in his chair. He shows an old photo of his house. “Around 1890 the house is designed by the French and build by the Vietnamese and it contains materials from different countries, like France, China and Vietnam. In the old days the ground floor was used as a Chinese medicine shop”. Nowadays the ground floor is an empty place. It shows the harsh reality of economic transformation that touches the shophouse. Despite this uncertainty, he describes the house as a long-time souvenir that will never be sold, because the house is related to the continuity of the family history.
The traditional shophouse of two stories high has evolved over time into the multi-storey buildings we see today, in which the courtyard has been minimized because of commercial needs. This makes people less connected to daily street life, but the neo-shophouse in HCM City guarantees a lively architecture. These houses also contain a wide range of heights, façade widths, materials and colours. Much attention is paid to the facades and the balconies contained therein, which show engrained ways of life, ideals and signs of family wealth. For example, many houses have a prayer room on top of the house to worship the ancestors. In addition, the neo-shophouses integrate all different kind of architectural styles. This eclecticism results in a motley collection of neo-Gothic, Baroque and Classical allusions.
In the Long Nhu Hoc street is an old building divided in several houses. Entering one of these houses an antique sculpture next to the altar draws the attention. “This ancient lion,” the owner says “is about 150 years old and the main family inheritance.” After this historical note she points at a Chinese sign outside on the façade and just above street level. “It is an ode to the first people living in the neighborhood and the community who made this building.” It becomes clear that the old building was a temple. The temple has been transformed and has been divided into several, separated shophouses. These beautiful, hidden historical signs are still visible in the street and define Cholon’s genius loci. The owner explains why the interior and exterior still have the historical atmosphere: “The house has never been repaired, because the grandmother doesn’t allow the family to change history.”
Lack of protection in the face of the city’s economic growth and modernization has led to a rapid deterioration of the old shophouses and loss of a significant part of HCM City’s built heritage. Residents demolish the old buildings because neo-shophouses are more profitable. Besides, funds, planning and regulation to maintain and preserve traditional shophouses and old residential areas is lacking. But recently, HCM City’s Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism completed an inventory of historical and cultural relics in the city. This is a good first step to achieve a balance between new and old urban fabrics that is economically attractive and mindful of the need to preserve the city’s historical atmosphere for future generations.
Over the years, the compact shop house proved to have a strong urban character, with qualities such as high density and flexible use. This building type has served as warehouse, workshop, house, shop, hotel and office. Therefore the future plans for the city should take into account the unique historical and cultural sites and shop houses in Cholon. With potential as a tourist attraction, every new urban plan should be integrated in existing structures to maintain the historic atmosphere within the city. Then HCM City is able to position itself as Shophouse City, in which heritage finds its spot on the spatial agenda.