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

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