Incense burning inside the Ba Thien Hau Pagoda located in Saigon’s Cholon area.
Erected by Chinese from Guangzhou in southern China, and first opened around 1760, the Ba Thien Hau Temple – actually the official name of the site is Ba Thien Hau Pagoda (Chùa Bà Thiên Hậu) – is located in Saigon’s Cholon area. It is a place of worship for Mazu, who is recognized by some Chinese as the Goddess of the Sea.
Chinatown in Saigon is called Chợ Lớn in Vietnamese, which translated means literally “big market” and becomes simply Cholon in English. I visited Cholon for the first time recently with my friend Mark, mostly in search of good Chinese food and to get a feel for the area. I am not sure what I was expecting, but visually Cholon does not look much different than other neighborhoods in Saigon. Bi-lingual Vietnamese-Chinese signage was the most noticeable tipoff that the area has a lot of Vietnamese Chinese living there. Unlike parts of Bangkok or Panang in Malaysia, I heard no Chinese being spoken when walking around. Cholon may have a lot of ethnically Chinese people, but today they are a part of Vietnamese society. They are not recent arrivals; their ancestors came to Saigon decades or hundreds of years ago.
The several Chinese association or meeting halls (會館) that dot Cholon were distinctly Chinese, both in terms of ambience and architecturally (though the dragons on the roof are definitely Vietnamese style). The one pictured here is the Ha Chuong Meeting Hall (Hội quán Hà Chương in Vietnamese and 霞漳會館 in Chinese). Meeting halls similar to this one set up by Chinese traders and immigrants were established in numerous cities in Southeast Asia. The Ha Chuong hall was founded early in the 1800s by people from Fujian province located along the southeastern coast of Chinese. The founders may have been Hakka people (客家) from Fujian, though I am not sure. In any case, the hall served as a place for people from Fujian to meet, conduct business, and worship. In fact, I sometimes see these halls are referred to as “pagodas” or “temples” in English, though the use of words like these seems a bit misleading to me. People go to places like Ha Chuong hall to burn incense and pray, and this may be the principal reason people come to such places today, but that definitely was not the only function of these halls when they were established. It was unclear what, if any, religious affiliation the Ha Chuong hall has. It was certainly not Buddhist, more likely Taoist or Confucian or a mix of the two.