25/11/2022 - 07:08

Gia Hoi Old Quarter: forgotten treasure Part 1: Bleeding heritage

TTH.VN - Just a stone’s throw from the Citadel, the Gia Hoi old quarter used to be one of the busiest areas of Hue ancient capital in early 19th century. This invaluable heritage is being ruined day by day with time while how to conserve and promote it is still a big question.

The Gia Hoi old quarter used to be one of the busiest areas of Hue ancient capital in early 19th century. Photo: Phan Thang

From the Gia Hoi bridge, looking toward the Chi Lang and Bach Dang streets, few people know that the area was once a busy and famous quarter of Ancient Capital. Today its old houses are quickly disappearing. Here and there we can see little old houses many of which are in ruin or degrading nestling beside new high buildings and modern-looking houses. 

Local people’s concern

We stopped by the old house at 144 Bach Dang St. when the Noru storm was about to come. Nguyen Choi, aged 74, the owner of the house, couldn’t hide his worries while showing us places which were damaged due to termites and wood-eaters. The house, which was even older than its owner, looked weak and brittle, supported by brick and cement walls. Its leaked roof was temporarily covered with waterproof corrugated iron sheets to protect the house from rain water.

The house was shelter for two generations. It was not very spacious and most of it was mainly for the altars. The small rooms at the back were where they actually lived. 

“Many people advised me to sell the house, using part of the money to build a new one, then giving the rest to children, and that keeping the old house was tiring. Someone asked me to buy the house at the price of 12 billion dong, but I really don’t want to,” confided Choi.

“Around twenty years ago, the authorities came to have a look at my house and did a survey. They offered fund to restore the house. But we failed to come to agreement on some articles about our rights and duty. My dream of restoring the house got stuck until now.”

“I just wish to have money to innovate the house. Probably the lower part is made with concrete, but the upper floor is this old wooden Ruong house. We can live and do business here, a cafe or a souvenir shop for example, so that we can earn money for our living and still keep the ancient house. Building a new modern house is easy, but once we lose the ancient house, we can never get it back,” said Choi. 

Though he looked determined, he was not sure the house would be kept for his younger generations because he was then over 70 years old. 

Left old houses in Gia Hoi beside new constructions. Photo: Nhat Nguyen

Well known as an old quarter of the city, but in reality there are very few old houses left. “Calling it ancient quarter or not is no difference”. We heard many people there say so when we came to survey. According to documents, the Bach Dang area used to be a busy ancient area. Besides private old houses there are many phu (prince’s Residences), de (princess’s Residences), ancestral houses, communal houses, pagodas which are very Hueish in architecture. 

“Now people pull down their old houses whenever possible and build new ones. Old houses look beautiful, but living in them is hard,” sighed Le Thi Lien, the owner of the house at 72 Bach Dang St. This 70-year-old woman was born and had grown up right in the house. Her family bought the house in 1937.

With time the house was ruined and seriously degrading. Due to financial problems, they could not renovate it on a large scale, or replace it with a new one. That was why the house had come intact till then. According to Lien, in the past this area consisted many beautiful and ancient houses. But during the past tens of years till now, many people pulled down their old houses and built new ones which are more convenient for their living. “Some people sold their houses to new owners; some houses were passed down to younger generations with new viewpoints, and they rebuilt their houses in modern styles. As for my house, we can’t afford building a new one. We just repaired it, but it was not easy to find masons who knew how to repair ancient houses; those who could have passed away,” sadly said Lien.

About one kilometer from Lien’s house was Quy’s Ruong house at 169 Chi Lang St. The three-compartment Ruong house was more than 70km2 in area, a small part of which was for business. According to Quy, aged 60, the house had been passed down to his father, then to him. It was said that it had taken them more than ten years and so much money to build the house with builders staying with the owner.

According to Quy, the Chi Lang area used to boast many beautiful old houses, especially there were some two-story houses. Within the past ten years now, many houses were divided or sold. New owners then destroyed their houses to build new ones for their business. Some owners dismantled their ancient houses to build new modern ones. In that way, many ancient houses in this area are disappearing in the fullness of time.

40% of the ancient houses have disappeared 

As recorded in historical documents, the Gia Hoi old quarter came into being in Lord Nguyen’s times (17th century.) In the 19th century, it was a big commercial quarter of the imperial capital under the Nguyen dynasty.

The Gia Hoi old quarter boasts diverse typical heritage comprising ancient houses, phu, de, temples and pagodas, society’s premises besides the intangible heritage consisting of traditional festivals and hand-made products such as traditional facial powder, glass pictures, flying kites, lanterns, etc.

According to a survey by Thua Thien Hue Studies and Development Institute carried out in September 2021, there were 83 tangible heritages, three of which have been recognized as National Monuments: The Lai Thuong Temple, Kim Hoan Ancestral Temple and Thanh Binh Ancestral Temple.

In addition, Dieu De Pagoda, Chieu Ung Temple, Gia Hung Vuong Residence, Thoai Thai Vuong Residence, Tuy An Quan cong Residence, Princess Ngoc Son Residence, An Quan Communal House, Thanh Mau (Holy Mother) Temple, and Phuc Kien and Trieu Chau Society’s Premises are listed in 205 typical historical cultural constructions of the province.

As for ancient houses, according to a survey carried out in 2002 by the Central Architecture Company belonging to the Department of Construction, at that time, there were about 68 ancient houses in the Gia Hoi-Chi Lang old quarter. Thirty-one houses were on Bach Dang St., eight on Chi Lang St. and the rest scattered in streets in the Gia Hoi ward.

A waste of resources

Under the pressure of urbanization and because of the lack of proper orientation in conservation and development, with time, the Gia Hoi - Dinh Market old quarter has been deformed. This unique architectural and historical space is at risk. Cultural and tourist resources are being wasted regretfully.

Nguyen Xuan Hoa, the researcher and former Director of the provincial Culture and Information Department

According to Hue City Urban Bureau, compared with 2002, 40% of the ancient houses in the Gia Hoi quarter have disappeared. During the past 20 years, tens of houses which were hundreds of years old have varnished for good.

According to Dang Minh Nam, Vice Head of Thua Thien Hue Studies and Development Institute, among the 83 ancient constructions in the Gia Hoi old quarter surveyed in 2021, 8 over 22 Residences have been renovated with modern materials, 3 out of 4 private houses are degrading, 5 pagodas need repairing , 4 ancient communal houses are degrading.

Even constructions which have been recognized as National Monuments such as Kim Hoan Ancestral Temple and Thanh Binh Ancestral Temple are degrading. Of the 22 ancient Ruong houses left in the Gia Hoi old quarter, two are seriously ruined and 5 are degrading.

In a recent field trip to collect materials for this writing, we were dumbfounded at the ruin of the Ruong house of Ung Huy, a mandarin’s son, (in 64th Alley on Bach Dang St.) built in 1920 with just the guarding screen and the beautifully-decorated gate with sophisticated patterns left, while other Residences built in 1846, 1852 and 1853 such as An Phuc, Hoai Duc and An Xuyen,… have been replaced by completely new ones. 

Unable to fight against the severities of storms, floods and their old ages as well as the demands of living, ancient houses in the Gia Hoi old quarter are disappearing day by day in their owners’ helplessness and the regret of local people and those who love the heritage.

By KIM OANH

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