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Quach Dam: The Man Who Shaped Modern Cho Lon, Part 2

This is Part 2 of our series on Quách Đàm. To read Part 1, click here.

By the 1920s, the old Bình Tây Market and much of the surrounding land belonged to Quách Đàm, so he proposed to the colonial authorities the demolition of the existing building and the construction, “on an area of not less than 9.000 square metres,” of a new and much larger Bình Tây Market, to serve as the new central market of Chợ Lớn.

The Colonial Council gave its approval and in 1925 Quách Đàm donated the land to the city and also contributed 58,000 Francs towards the construction costs of the new market. 

The new Bình Tây Market was Quách Đàm’s crowning achievement and garnered much praise and admiration in both local and colonial circles. Over the next two years, Quách Đàm, already a naturalised French citizen, received a succession of awards, including the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, the Chevalier de l'Étoilè Noire and the Chevalier de l'Ordre royal du Cambodge, as well as the Order of the Precious Brilliant Golden Grain (Order of Chia-Ho) from the Republic of China.

Bình Tây Market pictured in the 1950s.

Construction of the new Bình Tây Market began in February 1926 and was completed in September 1928. Built in reinforced concrete using western techniques, it was noteworthy for its bold Chinese architectural features. However, Quách Đàm never saw the finished building. He died on 14 May 1927, aged 65.

The Echo Annamite newspaper carried a long article describing Quách Đàm’s funeral on Sunday 29 May 1927. Special trams and trains were laid on to convey the great and the good to Chợ Lớn to join the funeral procession from 45 boulevard Gaudot to the family plot at Phú Thọ cemetery.

A Chinese funeral procession in Chợ Lớn.

Those in attendance included: the Mayors of Chợ Lớn and Saigon and their senior staff; the heads of the Chinese congregations and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce; and the Directors of (amongst others) the Banque de l’Indochine, Banque Franco-Chinoise, Distilleries de Binh-Tay, Société Commerciale française d'Indochine, Maison Courtinat, Maison Denis-Frères, Usines de la Compagnie des Eaux et Electricité, the Services du Port, the Hôpital Drouhet, the Lycée Franco-Chinois and the Ecoles de filles de Cholon.

Two large huts had been built on the boulevard immediately outside the Thông Hiệp headquarters – one to accommodate the guests and the other to house the coffin and more than 1,500 commemorative banners and wreaths which had been sent from all parts of Cochinchina, Tonkin, Cambodia and even China.

A camera crew from Indochine Films was on hand as the procession set off, led by family mourners, to the accompaniment of Chopin’s Funeral March performed by “several Annamite and Chinese orchestras.” Behind the hearse, family members held aloft a dais which displayed all of Quách Đàm’s honours on a large gold and blue silk cushion. They were followed by a guard of honour comprising riflemen from the Compagnie de Cholon du 1er Tirailleurs.

In order that as many people as possible could offer their respects, the procession did a complete circuit of the city, starting with eastern Chợ Lớn – rue Lareynière [Lương Nhữ Học], rue des Marins [Trần Hưng Đạo B], rue Jaccaréo [Tản Đà], quai Mytho [Võ Văn Kiệt] and back to boulevard Gaudot [Hải Thượng Lãn Ông] – and then returning to quai Mytho and heading along the Arroyo Chinois [Bến Nghé creek] into the west of the city. There it turned up rue de Paris [Phùng Hưng] and made its way north along rue Boulevard Tong-Doc-Phuong [Châu Văn Liêm] and rue Thuan-Kieu [Thuận Kiều] towards the cemetery at Phú Thọ. “As they processed,” added the Echo Annamite reporter reverently, “the banners shimmered and the usually noisy city descended into respectful silence.”

Fourteen months later, the Annales coloniales reported that on 28 September 1928 the new market was inaugurated in the presence of the Governor of Cochinchina, amidst a host of festivities which included a cavalcade and a fireworks display.

After Quách Đàm’s death, his eldest son Quách Khôi took over as director of the Thông Hiêp company, but in May 1929 tragedy struck when Quách Khôi himself died suddenly and Chợ Lớn was treated to another grand public funeral.

Later that year, with the authorisation of ChợLớnMunicipality, Quách Đàm’s family commissioned an elaborate marble fountain in the central courtyard of the Bình Tây Market, surrounded by bronze lions and dragons and topped with a bronze statue of Quách Đàm by celebrated French sculptor Dueuing.

The Dueuing statue of Quách Đàm is now kept in the rear courtyard of the Hồ Chí Minh City Fine Arts Museum.

Inaugurated on 14 March 1930, it depicts the man French newspapers dubbed the “king of commerce,” holding in his left hand the act by which he had donated to the city of Chợ Lớn the land on which the market was built. In his right hand is a scroll which lists the philanthropic works for which he was known - Écoles, marchés, oeuvres, assistance (“Schools, markets, works, assistance”). The opening ceremony for the fountain “was presided over by M. Eutrope representing the Governor of Cochinchina (absent from Saigon), M Renault, resident-mayor of Cholon and a large audience of European, Annamite and Chinese personalities.” A friend of the family delivered “a remarkable speech recalling the beautiful life of the deceased.”

After 1975, the Dueuing statue was removed from its plinth and placed in store. However, in 1992 it was returned to public view in the rear courtyard of the Hồ Chí Minh City Fine Arts Museum, where it can still be seen to this day.

In recent years, a bust of Quách Đàm has been installed in front of the statueless plinth. Behind it, the Chinese inscription of 1930 reads: “Mr Guō Yǎn was from Longkeng, Chao'an, Chaozhou, Guangdong province and came to Việt Nam when he was young to build a family while working in the rice business; he became very wealthy and generous, and as a good and righteous person, he resolved to build a new market for Dī Àn [Tai Ngon]. Through great effort, he finally realised this and the government awarded him with this bronze statue to remember him. Guō Yǎn was born in 1863 and died in 1927.” (translation by Damian Harper)

Following the death of Quách Khôi, his younger brother Quách Tiên took over the reins of power at Thông Hiệp, but according to historian Vương Hồng Sển, his willingness to act as guarantor for the debts of insolvent traders during the years of economic crisis eventually also dragged Thông Hiệp into debt.

After 1933, the Thông Hiệp company name disappears from the records, though in 1937 and 1939, Quách Tiên reappears as proprietor of the “Plantation Quach-Dam,” a rubber plantation in Biên Hoà province – with its registered office still at 45 boulevard Gaudot in Chợ Lớn.

Number 45 Hải Thượng Lãn Ông (the former 45 quai Gaudot) in Chợ Lớn was once Quách Đàm's Thông Hiệp company headquarters.

Tim Doling is the author of the forthcoming book of walking tours entitled Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014) and also conducts 4-hour Heritage Tours of Historic Saigon and Cholon. For more information about Saigon history and Tim's tours visit his website, www.historicvietnam.com.

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