Back Heritage » Hanoi » The Rich History Behind One of Hanoi's 2 Remaining Chinese Guild Halls

The Rich History Behind One of Hanoi's 2 Remaining Chinese Guild Halls

With the changing gears of history, at times even the oldest layers of a thousand-year-old town must evolve to house new meanings.

Once upon a time, Hanoi opened its arms to welcome settlers from distant lands to put down their roots, forming the earliest traces of an urban grid and iconic community landmarks. After many episodes in history, the very walls and roofs that once encapsulated the essence of the people living at the time were left behind, and the original meanings of the structures were gradually replaced.

That is the story behind the hundreds of years of existence of Hội quán Quảng Đông, one of two remaining Hoa Vietnamese guild halls in Hanoi. According to historical texts, since the end of the first millennium, there has been a steady flow of ancient Chinese migrants moving southwards to settle down in the Red River Delta. They came from all walks of life, from merchants, and craftsmen to refugees relocating away from political turbulence and heading to Vietnam to seek new opportunities.

In the 17th century, a major wave of migration once again headed down south during the Manchu conquest of China. As chronicled in Vũ Trung Tùy Bút, a collection of essays by Phạm Đình Hổ, a small number of Hoa immigrants were given permission to stay in Thăng Long by the Trịnh Lord. They congregated in Hà Khẩu Ward (today’s Hàng Buồm area). Hà Khẩu was based on a patch of land near the Nhị River (Red River today) and Tô Lịch River, making it a fertile land for trade and shipments. It quickly became a buzzing center of trade for Hoa people.

Among the population of Chinese immigrants, Cantonese from Guangdong Province made up the majority thanks to their ample resources. In the second Thăng Long year (1803), they picked the best location on the street to construct a guild hall, a civic space that serves as a community hub for the people. Many activities of the Guangdong people, from business negotiations to household rituals, were carried out there.

The building complex was designed following a traditional configuration. Four connected blocks formed the Chinese character kou (口). Inside stood altars for two deities: Guan Yu and Tianhou. The interior was embellished with intricate ceramic reliefs depicting scenes from historical and mythological tales. The roof featured glazed roof tiles arranged in a yin-yang pattern to encourage the flow of rainwater.

In the 20th century, Hội quán Quảng Đông bore witness to a number of significant moments in the history of Hanoi. It was no longer just a gathering place of the local community, but a historical venue amid the political exchange of Vietnam and China.

From 1903 to 1904, the guild hall was the accommodation of Sun Yat Sen, who played a key role in the founding of the Republic of China and was influential to the philosophical bearing of Hồ Chí Minh and Phan Bội Châu.

In preparation for the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, Sun resided at Hội quán Quảng Đông for a few years. During his stay, he formed a special bond with the local Chinese community as well as other anti-French organizations in Vietnam. A stele commemorating Sun Yat Sen is still present at the guild hall today.

In 1900–1940, Hanoi was under the French administration, so many of the compound’s original architectural features were removed while other new elements were constructed. These new additions, from materials to design, all showcased French influences. And so, in the middle of a Hoa guild hall, there is a western-style cathedral, Doric columns, and Greek-style olive branch motifs.

After the reunification, a series of disputes over maritime borders and the tightening of the Vietnam-Soviet relationship deepened the rift between Vietnam and China. Many assets and Hoa Kiều matters in Hanoi were gradually placed under the supervision of the state government, including schools, hospitals, and, of course, Hội quán Quảng Đông.

The Vietnam Hoa Kiều Association describes this period as being under the rule of “two governments and two parties.” The friction came to a head with the border war in 1978–1979. Sandwiched between two political powers, much of Hanoi’s Hoa community left their home, leaving a deserted Hàng Buồm Street; even those who stayed, according to historical anecdotes, “couldn’t laugh, stopped trading, and refrained from going outside…”

After 1975 (starting year unknown) until 2018, the hội quán compound was repurposed as a kindergarten. In 2018, the Tuổi Thơ Kindergarten was relocated to 88 Hàng Buồm, returning the site for preservation activities. Photo via Tri Thức & Cuộc Sống.

Without attention from the Hoa community and under the supervision of the kindergarten, the building’s historic architecture was gravely defiled by crude modifications. Local media once described some of these alterations: “The crimson and golden doors with intricate carvings, brought over from Guangdong, were covered in a layer of boorish Đại Bàng paint and [...] brilliantly embossed cement steles were drilled into to install light switches.”

After four decades being drowned out by children’s cacophony, the cultural and architectural values of Hội quán Quảng Đông are slowly being given voice again. In 2018, it was transformed into the 22 Hàng Buồm Culture and Arts Center. Part of the compound is used as an exhibition space. Others host the remaining artifacts to educate visitors about the glorious part of Hanoi’s Cantonese community.

Even with these restoration efforts, the building’s original structure can’t be resurrected, and the place can’t return to its initial use as an authentic guild hall for Hoa Vietnamese. But today, with a well-lit altar and lingering laughter of visitors filling the atmosphere, Hội quán Quảng Đông is once again open, for another purpose: a place where the history, culture, and arts of many communities intersect in a new era.

Related Articles

in Hanoi

[Photos] Hanoi's Chùa Một Cột Through the Years

Chùa Một Cột, or the One-Pillar Pagoda, is a distinguished structure of Hanoi.

in Hanoi

Once Home to Hanoi's Greatest Tailors, Làng Cựu Is Fading Into History

Làng Cựu, a village about 40 kilometers south of Hanoi, houses nearly 50 mansions that showcase the best of French and Sino-Vietnamese architecture from the turn of the century. It was built with the ...

in Hanoi

The Hustle and Bustle of Hanoi Streets in the 1950s

Chaotic streets and bustling markets, Hanoi in the 1950s was not much different than it is now.

in Hanoi

The Legends of Thăng Long Tứ Trấn, the 4 Guardian Temples Protecting Hanoi

In the edict to move Vietnam’s capital to Hanoi, Emperor Lý Thái Tổ described this land as the middle of heaven and earth, the center of the four directions. Such a place would bring peace and prosper...

in Hanoi

[Photos] Memories of 1973 Hanoi in 22 Film Photos

Taken by an unknown photographer working for the American Department of Defense, these crisp color images capture Hanoi’s 1973 street life on film. Have a look below.

in Hanoi

A Personal History of Hồ Tây: Romance, Colonial Rule and Subsidy-Era Fishing Heists

My father-in-law has spent decades visiting Hồ Tây (West Lake). His personal story both contrasts and reflects Vietnam's history as a whole and, as a result, offers a profound insight into the im...

Partner Content