A Nineteenth Century Travelogue of HCMC: Clara A. Whitney in 1880 Saigon

With European colonialism exterting itself in Asia by the 1860s, Ho Chi Minh City, then known as Saigon and Cholon respectively, had fallen under French control. As Gwendolyn Wright and others since have noted, city building served as a central aspect of French colonialism. French leaders believed beautiful, grand cities embodied the nation’s strength, sophistication and imperial reach particularly during an historical moment in which Germany threatened the Francophone empire.[1] It helped that new urban design standards established by law in mid-nineteenth century Paris would be enacted at the same time as France expanded its presence across the globe.

Depending on the admiral installed to lead French efforts in Saigon, the city’s urban development proceeded along at rates related to leadership’s enthusiasm for such projects and the finances required to implement them. For example, one of HCMC’s early governors, Louis Adolphe Bonard, pursued the city’s urban development aggressively until a shortage of funds undercut his efforts. His successor Admiral La Grandiere “commissioned the construction of several institutional buildings and parks, as well as 15,350 km of streets,” writes historian A. M. Kim. “Obsessively controlling, he also issued an avalanche of decrees and regulations that left little to improvisation.”[2]

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Complete Map of Vietnam, between 1885 and 1890, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress

Governors like La Grandiere and Bonard imagined the future Saigon as a bustling, heavily populated metropolis. The former sought to design a city of 500,000, the latter of four million. Needless to say, in the late nineteenth century the cities that would become HCMC a century later consisted of far fewer citizens than these dreams envisioned. In 1873, French officials counted over 150,000 residents in Saigon-Cholon: 82, 681 Cambodians, 49,595 Chinese, 16,638 Malays, 1,391 Malavard, and over 7,500 Europeans, though only 1,114 of those were considered permanent inhabitants.[3]

Even in the nineteenth century, visitors remarked on the diversity of the city. Clara A. Whitney, the daughter of William C. Whitney, had resided in Japan since 1875; her father established a business college there at the behest of the Japanese government. In 1880, as she and her family traveled back to America they stopped in numerous cities along the way, including Hong Kong, Singapore, Ceylon, Cairo, Naples, Rome, Florence, Geneva, Paris, and of course, Saigon. Only nineteen at the time, Whitney’s 1880s journals, housed at the Library of Congress, provide insight into Ho Chi Minh City’s early years under French colonialism. Saigon proved only a brief stop on her tour of Southeast Asia, but Whitney provides useful, if also Eurocentric observations on the city as it embarked on its Haussmanian redevelopment.

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Above: Sketching of William C. Whitney, based on 1874 original produced in 1961, Clara A. Whitney Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Below: Clara A. Whitney’s 1880 journal, Clara A. Whitney Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Upon their initial approach to the city, Whitney noted Saigon’s “low marshy shores – completely overgrown with a thick vividly green foliage” and searched for monkeys and alligators along the shore as her steamer moved toward the harbor. Heat greeted Whitney and her fellow passengers: “We arrived in the Saigon harbor and cast anchor beside the wharf in the boiling mid day son of this the hottest place in the world! It is the [Vietnamese Winter] but everybody goes around either in white or very scantily clothed.”[4]

 

According to Whitney, “this curious desert town as French colony” arose out of the jungle. The “smooth and glassy banks” of the Mekong River surrounded them as the river wound in and out upon their approach to the city, and where she saw the “white spires and red roofs of what appeared to be a great city lying like a magical [metropole] on this waste of green foliage and placid waters.”

To her mind, Saigon’s most impressive building was its Agency of the Messageries Maritime, the second home to the French Shipping Company created in 1851. The agency was housed in “a great white building with a flaming red roof over which metallic dragons climbed up towards the Unicorn and Crown of the French coat of arms.”[5] Whitney believed they had anchored and put into port on an island just across the river from Saigon, but in reality she and the others had docked at Thu Thiem, a peninsula, or more precisely, an oxbow across from the city.

Well before France’s arrival, Thu Thiem contained a market (1751) and judging from the writings of U.S Navy Lieutenant John White who visited the city in October of 1819, functioned as a site of bustling, energetic commerce. Boats ferrying fruits, teas, “timber, bamboos, and new canoes, from various parts of the country” remained in constant motion around the city.[6] Whitney reported similar activity sixty years later and, like White, noted the centrality of boats in the lives of Saigon residents. “Towards the evening we went on shore in a queer little boat whose bow resembled a gondola,” wrote Whitney, whose “arched cover protects a raised platform on which the passengers are expected to sit. Like the Chinese sampans these boats seem homes for families too to judge from the pillows and cooking utensils … around the walls.”[7]

Both White and Whitney, due to their own western conceptions of urbanity, obscured or failed to grasp the use of space in a river town like Ho Chi Minh City. White “denigrated life on shore as impermanent, inundated, eroding, muddy, lacking order, and unfixed,” historian Erik Harms notes. Rather what White should have noted was the means by which inhabitants best utilized space in order to create a “linear form of urbanism set against a backdrop of less developed land, which was reserved for agriculture, fishing, and gathering activities.”[8] Arriving six decades later and with French urbanism on going, Whitney drew fewer conclusions about wasted space or impermanence perhaps due to the city’s development or her own time abroad in Japan.

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Clara Whitney in her 20’s, Clara A. Whitney Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

HCMC’s cavalcade of ethnicities was not lost on the young female traveler. Whitney commented on the diversity of Saigon citing Chinese boatmen, French soldiers, Hindu carriage drivers, and Arab merchants all around her: “in the market place, one met a queer mix of nationalities. It was a positive pleasure to see all these different people and costumes.”[9] Unsurprisingly, Whitney falls into the usual Orientalist tropes form the era, using the word “queer” repeatedly and it remains unclear how much she was able to distinguish between Saigon’s Chinese residents and those of other Asian ethnicities, most notably the Vietnamese.

Whatever Whitney’s own prejudices, she paid close attention to the sartorial choices of residents. She noted the black trousers and long robes buttoned up to the neck but slit on both sides to the hip of boatwomen. The boatsmen resembled Chinese rowers, dressed in “wide white trousers, a little short white jacket and a broad brimmed straw hat.” For twenty cents an hour, Hindu men in picturesque dress transported Whitney and her fellow travellers along in cabs pulled by “energetic well fed little ponies.”

Similarly, she records the numerous turbans worn by local guards, the silver and gold hair combs in women’s hair, the amber, silver, and coral jewelry that adorned merchant women in the market. “The women were dressed much very much like the boat women but some wore amber and coral necklaces and bracelets and all wore little beads of amber in their ears fastened on the under side,” she explained. “Some were immense tortoise shelled combs pinned with silver.”[10]

In moments, Clara even seems to indicate the slightest measure of sexuality. She finds the Hindu cab drivers to be “the finest men in physique . . . Tall and muscular, dark skinned and eagle eyed their darkness set off by their bright costume.” Their racial characteristics do not escape her or their perceived relationship to Europeans. “They are cousins, not to be ashamed of. It seems strange nevertheless that these queer people are nearly related to us [more] than the Japanese are in fact our Caucasian cousins.”[11]

Whitney marveled at the local fauna and flora at the Governor’s gardens, where the caged tigers impressed her—but not nearly as much as her awe for the city’s verdant vegetation. “I never in my life saw such magnificent shrubbery. The palms and bananas grew in a state of luxuriousness. One leaf alone of a banana tree was five feet long and two wide. The palms were gigantic,” she noted. “Deep crimson” flowers grew all around.[12]

What of Saigon’s urban development in 1880s? “The streets are wide and clean – paved with square blocks of stone and very smooth. The sidewalks are shaded with quivering mimosa trees,” she recorded. Hotels abounded and churches, cathedrals, and temples were not uncommon.

Admittedly, Saigon’s low lying, swampy location presented difficulties—a point Whitney returns to on more than one occasion—but by the mid 1880s, five boulevards, nearly 40 streets, and three quays had been constructed, amounting to over 23 miles. “The pavements are everywhere well shaded with thick foliaged trees of all kinds and the drains well looked after by the municipality,” noted on observer in 1885. “Lamps line them at regular intervals.”[13] Whitney seems to have encountered the city as it built up this sort of infrastructure.

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Clara A. Whitney with husband and children in Tokyo circa 1900, Clara A. Whitney Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Whitney soon left the city for Singapore, but six year later married the son of a prominent Japanese Naval officer, Kaji Umetarō with whom she had six children. She eventually returned to the United States in 1900 and settled in Pennsylvania, where she subsisted off income supplied by her husband (who remained in Japan) and the money she earned by writing about Japan.

[1] Gwendolyn Wright, The Politics of Design in French Colonial Urbanism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

[2] Annette Mae Kim, Sidewalk City: Remapping Public Space in Ho Chi Minh City (University of Chicago Press, 2015), 38.

[3] Annette Mae Kim, Sidewalk City: Remapping Public Space in Ho Chi Minh City (University of Chicago Press, 2015), 38-39.

[4] Clara A. Whitney, Journal 1880, February 9, 1880, Clara A. Whitney Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[5] Whitney, Journal 1880, February 9, 1880, Clara A. Whitney Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[6] Erik Harms, Luxury and Rubble: Civility and Dispossession in the New Saigon, University of California Press, 2016), 128.

[7] Whitney, Journal 1880, February 9, 1880, Clara A. Whitney Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[8] Harms, Luxury and Rubble: Civility and Dispossession in the New Saigon, 129.

[9] Clara A. Whitney, Journal 1880, February 9, 1880, Clara A. Whitney Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[10] Clara A. Whitney, Journal 1880, February 9, 1880, Clara A. Whitney Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[11] Clara A. Whitney, Journal 1880, February 9, 1880, Clara A. Whitney Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[12] Clara A. Whitney, Journal 1880, February 9, 1880, Clara A. Whitney Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[13] Annette Mae Kim, Sidewalk City: Remapping Public Space in Ho Chi Minh City (University of Chicago Press, 2015), 39.

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