Sunday, October 23 2016


Modern nation faces a colonial dilemma

Update: July, 26/2015 - 21:53
Built to last: Built between 1877 and 1879 by the French, the Notre Dame Cathedral in HCM City will undergo its first renovation, which is expected to be completed within six months. — VNS File Photo

A local government's decision to tear down a 100-year-old French-colonial school in Can Tho has met with such public outrage that authorities are reconsidering their proposal and awaiting advice from architectural experts. Bo Xuan Hiep reports.

Last weekend, Nguyen Ngoc Thanh, 34, of Can Tho, rushed to take his wife and four-year-old son to visit Chau Van Liem High School in the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta city of Can Tho, a 100-year-old school built during the French colonial period.

It was his first visit to the school since he graduated in 1999. The school, he had heard, was scheduled to be demolished and rebuilt in a similar architectural style.

"I was having lunch when I heard the news on TV," Thanh said. "I stopped immediately and rushed to the school to get more information."

Can Tho authorities said the building had badly deteriorated and was unsafe for students and staff.

Like Thanh, many Can Tho residents opposed the planned demolition, preferring that the school be renovated.

Preservation challenge: The 130-year-old French colonial building that houses the HCM City People's Court will be renovated for the first time. Restoration is expected to take two years. — VNS Photos Bo Xuan Hiep

Residents, in fact, were so vocal in their opposition that the authorities backtracked and said it would collect more opinions from experts before making a final decision.

The school's uncertain fate is not unlike many other French-colonial buildings in the country, some of which have been renovated over the years and others that have fallen into disrepair. In other cases, many have been replaced with more modern structures as the pace of urbanisation continues unabated and land and property values soar.

One of the oldest schools in the south, Chau Van Liem High School, named in 1975 after a famous revolutionary and graduate of the school, was first known as the Ecole Provinciale de Can-Tho in the 1880s.

In 1917, it was rebuilt as a two-storey high school, the College de Can-Tho. Then, in 1945, its name changed again to Phan Thanh Gian High School.

Praised for its original French architecture, the school has produced a number of talented Vietnamese musicians, writers and revolutionaries.

Le Hung Dung, chairman of Can Tho City People's Committee, said French experts who examined the building in 1987 warned that it was beginning to deteriorate.

He said that over the last decade the city's Department of Education and Training had received a number of warnings from experts about numerous cracks in the walls, rotting wooden stairs and doors, and damaged pillars.

Last year, the French Embassy in Viet Nam asked two French experts to examine the school. They later recommended that the school be rebuilt instead of renovated, Dung said.

Several areas of the school have been closed, but it is still operating at full capacity, according to Tran Thi Lua, the school's principal. The school has 45 classes with a total of 1,700 students and teachers.

Still standing: Parts of the 100-year-old Chau Van Liem School are still in good condition.

In addition to collecting ideas from the public, the city has also invited experts from state agencies to examine the school's structure.

"We've received many ideas from the public," Dung said. "Some said it should be renovated. But I think it should remain faithful to the old architecture, which would help the school preserve its old style and at the same time ensure the safety of teachers and students."

Le Van Tam, vice chairman of the city's People's Committee, told Viet Nam News by telephone early this week, that the committee had asked the Construction Department to act as a counselor for the committee.

"But we don't have a conclusion yet," he said.

Public reaction

Many residents in Can Tho and neighbouring areas, including local experts, believe the school can be renovated.

"The foundation is still strong and the pillars are in good condition. It would be difficult to rebuild the school with the same architectural style," said Nguyen Ngoc Thanh, who works as a construction engineer in the Mekong Delta.

Nguyen Thien Phan, 41, who graduated from the school in 1992, also opposes demolition, calling it a last resort.

"We should consult experts, particularly French experts, because it was built by the French. If demolition occurs, we should preserve some parts of the school to maintain the architectural style," he said.

Luong Tran Boi Ngan, a 12th grader at the school, said she felt sad about the possibility of demolition.

"I've studied here for three years. I like the school's tiles that make the classroom much cooler during the hot summer weather," Ngan said.

Colonial backdrop: Two students take photos of each other at the Chau Van Liem School.

Ngan's mother, who had accompanied her to school, said she liked the large trees in the schoolyard where students play sports.

Dr Hoang Dao Kinh, an architect from Ha Noi who specialises in restoration of heritage structures, also prefers that the school be renovated, saying the country has few school buildings like it.

Many schools, including the Sorbonne University in France, University of Cambridge in England and Harvard University in the US, have retained and preserved their old buildings, he said.

Other colonial schools in Viet Nam that have similar architectural styles include Chu Van An High School (formerly the Buoi School) in Ha Noi, Quoc Hoc-Hue High School for the Gifted in the former royal capital of Hue, and Le Hong Phong High School for the Gifted (formerly the Petrus Ky school) in HCM City.

"Many colonial-era buildings in Ha Noi and HCM and other cities are deteriorating like the school in Can Tho. The best solution is renovation, not demolition," Kinh said.

Several other Vietnamese experts also support renovation.

Truong Cong My, chairman of the Can Tho Architects Association, said the floor and tiles, which are in bad shape, could easily be renovated.

"The cost for renovation would be just half of the cost of demolition and reconstruction," he said.

However, Le Ky Quang, a member of the school's executive board composed of students' parents, said the school should be completely rebuilt to ensure safety for teachers and students.

But the French architectural style and the trees planted many years ago should be retained, he said.

Vo Thi Hong Anh, deputy chairwoman of Can Tho City People's Committee, said the city would invite French experts to examine the school and give advice on what to do.

Funding for the school, Anh said, had already been arranged for either renovation or new construction.

Building preservation

Like Can Tho, other cities in the country have had to make tough decisions on whether to tear down colonial structures.

In HCM City, for example, in recent years, many buildings with distinctive architecture have been demolished to make way for new buildings, particularly in downtown areas considered to be prime real estate.

However, some notable structures still stand, such as the Notre Dame Cathedral in downtown HCM City. Built between 1877 and 1879, it will undergo its first-ever renovation, which is expected to take at least six months.

The roof tiles, bell towers, pillars, mirrors and other parts will be upgraded, and the external parts cleaned. Bricks in poor condition will be replaced.

Poetic justice: A statue of Chau Van Liem (1902-1930), the former student and revolutionary, who died while leading a demonstration against French colonists. The school was named after him in 1975.

All materials for renovation will be imported from France, just as they were when the structure was first built, according to Father Vuong Si Tuan of Notre Dame Cathedral.

Today, the church still serves as a site for practising Catholics and remains a popular attraction for both local residents and tourists.

Another colonial building in HCM City that will get a facelift this year is the 130-year-old People's Court on Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street in District 1.

The building, recognised as a national heritage site in 2012, is scheduled to be renovated for the first time, according to Thai Van Tuan, a spokesperson for the court.

The project, estimated to cost VND320 billion (US$14.67 million), will take two years to finish. During that time, the court will continue to operate.

Though these buildings have been spared the wrecking ball, another old building in HCM City, at a prominent corner spot downtown, is awaiting partial demolition.

To make way for the metro subway construction and a new building near the site, the city last year initially decided to demolish the 134-year-old Sai Gon Tax Trade Centre, formerly the Grands Magasins Charner.

However, several foreign diplomats, including the Vietnamese Honorary Consul General to Finland in HCM City, and a conservation group offered several solutions to HCM City authorities to save parts of the building.

After considering the options, the city in December agreed to preserve the main lobby with its tiled floor, the wrought-iron staircase, and some exterior design features, including the canopy extending over the sidewalk. These will be incorporated into the new building.

As in HCM City, officials in Can Tho are faced with a decision that has elicited mixed emotions from local residents about a much-beloved structure.

Thanh, the 34-year-old who hurried to his old high school in Can Tho with his wife and son after hearing the news about demolition, said he cherished his memories of the school and his time there.

On the day of his visit, he and his son took dozens of photos, fearing they would no longer have a chance to see it again. — VNS

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