THE EVOLUTION OFTHE SHOPHOUSE
Comparing Dutch Canal Houses to Shophouses in Cholon
TH E SU N CO M E S U P. I am walking through the streets of Cholon as the first people awake. After they have done their morning workout and have eaten a bowl of pho, the shops open.
Here in the old neighborhood you still find traditional ‘shophouses,’ deep buildings with shops on the street and living accommodation above them. The facades look a bit like Dutch canal houses—and at the same time they don’t, with all the Chinese characters and ornaments decorating nearly every shop window.
The neighborhood quickly comes to life. There is a street for motorbike parts, but also one for tools, and another one for rice. In the middle of the shopping area is the Ba Thien Hau Pagoda, built in 1760 by the Cantonese community. A Buddhist monk dressed in orange robes steps outside. He has a friendly face, “Nice to meet you, sir. Where are you from?” When I say I am from the Netherlands, he smiles and says he supported Holland in the World Cup. Then, more seriously: “Our temple is dedicated to the Chinese God of the Sea,” he explains. “He protects fishermen and merchants at sea.”
In the early years of Cholon, this help was more than welcome. The Chinese founded the city in 1872, by a tributary of the Saigon River. Because of overpopulation and conflicts, many people from southeast China made the long sea-voyage to Vietnam. The city they built—in effect the Chinese counterpart of Saigon—consisted of an efficient street pattern with terraced houses, connected to the water. It was basically the first form of urbanization in the area now known as Ho Chi Minh City. Later the French expanded the network of canals in the city. In combination with markets, temples and shophouses, it created a vibrant city. The Vietnamese name of “Cholon” fittingly means “big market.” The city was annexed by Saigon in 1931.
The commercial city captured the imagination of many European visitors. “Cholon shines bright and festively, like a sun from another planet,” young French author Fournier wrote about Cholon in 1929. During her evening stroll, she smelled the scent of fish sauce and saw nothing but shop windows with “Chinese signs with hidden meanings and rituals that have been written from top to bottom.” And she added that in those shops, “They make and sell anything. In the evening, it looks beautiful: many people are working in peace and quiet.” Cholon is the birthplace of the ‘shophouse’ in Ho Chi Minh City. A typical shophouse is a terraced house, flanked by other houses on both sides. The Vietnamese call them
“nha po,” which literally means “house on the commercial street.” The shophouse is closely connected to life on the street.
When I was driving through the city, I noticed how much they dominated—they determine the look of the city. On the other side of the black river, there were old and new shophouses in bright colors next to each other. That was at the edge of Cholon. Of course, I had seen them in town before, but then they were part of the busy street life. The river created a distance that I apparently needed to understand the meaning of shophouses. As I was squinting my eyes while looking across the river, I imagined I was in Amsterdam for a moment.
I am invited to have a look in one of the shophouses by the river. I follow the owner through a hall, past the front room and a small storage room to the dining room and kitchen. Stairs lead to the bedrooms on the first floor. The owner tells me he used to keep the families’ valuables in the attic. He shows me the courtyard, where a girl is doing the dishes. Behind there is a crumbling building with a shower and a toilet.
I carry on walking through the center of Cholon. Roll up doors allow the full width of the shop to be opened. When the roll up doors are closed at night, the street looks desolate. It is tricky to walk past the houses in a straight line: the pavement is cluttered with motorcycles and plastic chairs, and some electricity cables are hanging so low above the ground that people trip over them. It makes me walk slowly, allowing me to have a good look inside. What does the shop look like, what do they sell and what are the people doing? Usually the shopkeeper is hidden behind a newspaper somewhere among his goods. When a customer wants to buy something, they negotiate first. The price is brought down, and the shopkeeper takes a seat in a leather office chair behind an oak desk and writes the invoice.
Then he sits back down between his displayed goods, making himself comfortable.
I stumble upon an old building opposite a new block of offices. It