Chinatown - Cho Lon, Ho Chi Minh City
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Chinatown - Cho Lon, Ho Chi Minh City
Built in 1824 by fishermen from Hainan island of China, the temple was set up as a place of cultural exchange for Chinese and Vietnamese communities. In the temple, besides various wooden carvings made by Chinese craftsmen, there are six ancient lacquer paintings depicting the story of Luc Van Tien, a 19th-century Vietnamese epic poem penned by the blind scholar Nguyen Dinh Chieu.
It’s considered one of the most recognizable and influential epic poems in Vietnamese history, second perhaps only to Nguyen Du’s The Tale of Kieu. The poem praises the power of true love, applauds bravery and extols justice (it could be compared to Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe).
On the way to the national examinations, student Luc Van Tien meets a group of wicked robbers pillaging a palanquin in which a beautiful girl called Kieu Nguyet Nga is traveling. The heroic Tien dispatches the robbers and owing him her life, the girl swears to be faithful only to him. But then Nga’s parents demand she marries another man, who is extremely rich.
Nga refuses and rather than betray her promise to Tien she jumps into a river along with a portrait of Luc Van Tien she painted. At the time, Luc Van Tien is sightless and faces troubles of his own but both Tien and Nga survive and are eventually reunited (Tien even recovers his eyesight!) and live happily ever after.
Created with perfect traditional techniques these paintings at Quynh Phu clubhouse are small but most vivid. “The set of lacquer paintings was offered [to the clubhouse] in 1953 by an international restaurant in old Saigon. Many Chinese people love the story of Luc Van Tien because it signifies the dutiful and loyal moralities of man. So we hung the story here to advise our young generations,” says Tran Van Kiem, from the clubhouse’s managing board.
After leaving Quynh Phu I drive for about five minutes to Minh Huong Gia Thanh Temple at 380 Tran Hung Dao street. A large temple with no yard, it is dedicated to four saints, Tran Thuong Xuyen, Nguyen Huu Canh, Trinh Hoai Duc and Ngo Nhan Tinh, who were all generals and mandarins that reclaimed and developed the land of Saigon-Gia Dinh (now known as the area of Ho Chi Minh City and Dong Nai province) in the past. The temple was built in 1789 by 81 ancestors of the Chinese Ming dynasty.
Over 3,000 Chinese people who pledged loyalty to the Ming dynasty in China, fled when the Qing dynasty came to power. The refugees came to Vietnam by boat after 1679 and settled in an area known as Gia Thanh, around Tran Hung Dao street today. When I arrive the main gate of the temple is almost closed so I go inside through a small gate by a café (several households have encroached on this ancient site in modern times).
The word ‘Minh Huong’ in Chinese means the village of Ming people or ‘Bright village’. The temple is vivid evidence that this is the oldest village in Chinatown. Besides a wide range of ancient objects and sacred items, the temple still keeps over 3,000 invaluable pages of documentation in Chinese and ancient Vietnamese scripts about the lifestyle, culture and trading activities of people in the past.
Continuing down the street, I find a few old shops selling red ribbons, dragon and lion heads as well as costumes and masks for traditional Chinese opera. These shops easily stand out from the neighbouring shops selling jeans, western style dresses and electrical appliances. “We still live off our traditional job – making costumes for traditional dances and performances though it’s rather hard to earn money now,” says Thien, the owner of Phuc Thuan shop. “Our family has been doing this for four generations and I don’t want to stop!”
Stepping off the main street, ducking down smaller roads and narrow alleys, I come to Nguyen Trai street, which runs parallel with Tran Hung Dao. I find Thien Hau Pagoda, one of the most popular tourist destinations around. The pagoda is well-known for its wonderful examples of Chinese architecture.
Cantonese Vietnamese residents built the temple dedicated to the protector-goddess of seafarers – Mazu (in Mandarin Chinese or Ma-tsu) who is also known in Cantonese as Thien Hau (Tianhou in Mandarin Chinese, literally ‘Queen of Heaven’) in 1760.
Mazu is a popular goddess among the Chinese living on the southeastern shore of China. She is worshiped along the Fujian and Guangdong coastline and the island of Hainan in China and also in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
The Mazu statue with a darkened face sits solemnly in the middle of the temple. She is dressed like a Chinese empress with an imperial robe with a dragon motif and seated on a throne in a formal position while holding an official placard. Local worshippers come in and out in great numbers. All of them have a decent and dignified carriage. Their faces are serious and respectful when moving towards the altar laden with food offerings and fresh flowers. However, I am most impressed with the large incense-coils which hang over my head and create a swirling fog of incense.
After wandering around so many temples my stomach starts to rumble. Thankfully there is exquisite Chinese food everywhere in Cho Lon so I head off to enjoy a large bowl of noodles and a basket of fried wonton at Hung Ky restaurant on Tran Hung Dao street, which is the perfect end to my trip through Cho Lon.
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