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[Photos] The Last Days of Saigon’s Pigeon Coop

The first time I pay a visit to the Pasteur pigeon coop, Le Van Au assures me the place is probably not going anywhere.

He emerges one afternoon from a considerable collection of furniture tucked away at the back of the property, where the middle-aged man and his staff restore antique wooden pieces. To the right of his workshop, an empty lot is taking shape along the Le Loi block between Pasteur and Nguyen Hue, what with the Tax Center gone and a row of neighboring shophouses cleared to make way for the forthcoming 40-story skyscraper. Still, Au doesn't seem too worried about the land clearance going on around him. 

In front of us, unlike the fast-disappearing shophouses facing the street, the past is alive and well in tidy rows of pigeonholes lined up along the wall. A few are now obstructed, thanks to a large tree that moved in once the birds disappeared. These days, the Pasteur pigeon coop sits vacant, but Au says photographers, passersby and curious tourists turn up at all hours of the day, scoping out the pigeonholes as well as the grassy patch of land between this old structure and the Hindu temple that caps the end of Ton That Thiep Street.

Closer to the ground, in a thick, black scrawl, reads: “Pigeon’s Case since 1920”. Though it’s highly unlikely the graffiti has been there since the 1920s, Au says the coops have existed since the late 1910s or early 1920s.

According to the furniture collector, Pasteur's pigeon coop never served any commercial purpose. Instead, people used to turn up to feed the birds, until much later, when the coop fell out of use and the birds gradually disappeared, though he's not sure to where. It's also hard to say when, exactly, the pigeons moved out, too, but in the 20 years Au's lived here, the pigeonholes have never been occupied.

The second time I arrive at the corner of Pasteur and Le Loi, however, things are different. A man in a hard hat is draping red, white and blue tarpaulin over the pigeon coop from high above. The building on the other side is in the middle of being dismantled, and everyone has had to shift a few feet to the right in order to avoid the demolition. As we sit in his office, an open-air pavilion packed with vintage furniture, Au leans back in his chair and takes on a more philosophical view.

“Everything has a fate. People have a fate; objects also have a fate,” he tells Saigoneer in Vietnamese. “Nothing lasts forever.”

We chat a little longer amid the sounds of traffic and construction vehicles, reviewing the details of the pigeon coop's history. Every so often, he looks over his shoulder at the reddish brown structure. It was built by the Hindus, Au explains, motioning to the temple next door. In the old days, when Saigon’s Indian community was a thriving business force in the city, the land where Au’s shop now sits belonged to the Sri Thendayuttaphani Temple next door, along with the pigeon coop. Beneath its hundreds of pigeonholes stood a Hindu shrine featuring a sacred cow, where local devotees would come to worship, he claims. 

Around the corner, inside that same Hindu temple, its caretaker confirms the pigeon coop was built by the Hindu community but offers little else in the way of history.

With no one else on hand to decipher the mystery of the pigeon coops, Au prefers to stick to the present day. People were still turning up to take photos through last week, capturing the old structure and its towering resident tree. The spot – smack dab in the middle of town and across the street from the flashy new Saigon Center – made for a nice juxtaposition of the city’s past and present, he explains. Our conversation turns, briefly, to the ups and downs of Saigon’s ever-increasing modernization. Again, Au waxes philosophical.

“I can’t confirm whether [the change] is good or bad,” he tells me. “That’s the circle of life, of society. Maybe it’s good, maybe it’s bad. It depends on the viewpoint of the person. For me, you can’t resist [the change], you can only remember. And good or bad, that depends on the opinion of the individual.”


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