Near what used to be the Canal Bonard in Ho Chi Minh City’s Cholon area, the family home of a long-gone shipping magnate sits, surrounded by houses with tin roofs and modern structures, rivaling the mansion’s three storeys with their blocky presence. Through the concrete which covers damaged sections of original tile, the original craft is still evident. Contours of elegant wrought iron billow out from concrete walls, which hide the courtyard-wide fence they’d been cast to support. Chicken cages lay scattered.
The patriarch of the nine-member family residing there was named Tiet Tuc. He was part of the Chaozhou Chinese community, whose immigration the French encouraged from the 1860s, the most successful of Cholon’s final wave of settlers. Quach Dam, the builder of Cholon’s magnificent Binh Tay Market, was also from Chaozhou.
80 or 90 years ago, according to Tuc’s granddaughter Mrs. Dinh, her grandfather’s import-export company Thuan Long sent an ill-fated shipment of beans to Hong Kong. When the ship sank, he looked to his insurance company for compensation. The owner of the insurance company was the original inhabitant of the house Tuc’s family still calls home.
It was here that Tuc set about building his legacy. In 62-year-old Dinh’s early years, it was still the only home on its canal-circumscribed block. As what would become Ho Chi Minh City developed and became more prosperous, Tuc contributed to that development — commissioning the building of An Binh Hospital and Nghe An High School. To staff them, he invited doctors and teachers from Chaozhou to work there and train local professionals in Chaozhou-style methods.
The house passed to Tuc’s fourth son, Tiet Que, who also took control of his father’s business — renaming it Soon Long, minus accents, in an effort to Anglicise it. His wife, Dinh’s mother, still lives in the house, although all of his children except for Dinh have moved overseas.
Still possessing many of its original design elements, the house has two residential floors with identical floor plans — three bedrooms and a kitchen on each, one for each of the original owner’s wives. The ground floor was the workers’ quarters, which the authorities took over from 1975 to 1986, forcing the family into the upper levels. To this day, the house is split into two residential addresses.
The 800sqm structure is made of stone, in a style that has held up well over time. Stepping inside, you feel a tangible chill in the air. Although many of the structural elements have fallen into disrepair — to the point that the company in discussions to purchase it intends to tear it down — they still communicate the aura of the house, an aura that has taken inspiration from every part of the last century of its existence. — Ed Weinberg