Maison Centrale de Saigon // General Sciences Library

Trying to read in the library but looking out the window at the reminder that this is no ordinary library experience.

A few parts from a recent text: Sophie Fuggle & John Hutnyk (2022) “Saigon’s penalscape: interpreting colonial prisons.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 23:3, 443-458, DOI: 10.1080/14649373.2022.2108208

At the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, there is a photo of the old French colonial prison, the Maison Centrale de Saigon, once located on the street known as Rue La Grandière, now Lý Tự Trọng. This prison was notorious for its brutal treatment of those who resisted the colonial occupation, with several early communists executed in its courtyard, among whom one is now honoured with a commemorative statue, standing defiantly in that same courtyard. The former prison site today houses the General Sciences Library, a building in a 1970s style that is quaintly and quietly modernist, yet still imposingly functional, as a library should be. Having Lý’s statue stand in front of the library acknowledges the French colonial past of Ho Chi Minh City even as its architectural heritage and urban infrastructure is renovated, replaced, or rebuilt (Kim 2015; Harms 2011, 2016; Doling 2019) This is part of the story of the infamous extensive prison system that operated as part of France’s hundred-year occupation that, across the city, is told in complex and variegated ways via purpose-built memorial museums.


Maison Centrale was the departure point for many of those exiled to Côn Đảo. The journalist Jean-Claude Demariaux writing for La Dépêche d’Indochine in 1939,10 describes how he arranged to visit a prison guard for an “aperitif” in order to ensure a decent view of the prison courtyard on the morning of a transfer to the islands. Memoirs such as that of Bảo Lương (real name: Nguyễn Trung Nguyệt), related by marriage to Tôn Đức Thắng, tell of waiting to see what their fate would be, securing cigarette butts from the French prisoners held far more comfortably upstairs (Tai 2010, 150) and otherwise enduring torture and unsanitary conditions. The French admitted overcrowding in the prison as early as 1905 (Doling 2015b), though it was still in operation during WWII and not demolished until 1968.


While the War Remnants Museum and Museum of Southern Vietnamese Women both lay emphasis on the extensive network of colonial prisons, the few sites that remain within the city are largely unknown and unexplored by international tourists and domestic visitors alike. The former French Police Station on Rue Catinat, renamed Đồng Khởi, now houses the offices of the Department of Culture, Information, Sport and Tourism. Formerly this building was the sinister Police headquarters in which Vietnamese revolutionaries were subject to interrogation and torture. It was used in the same way by the Japanese during WWII and then again by the French on their inglorious return and the RVN Government, as Interior Ministry, until 1975. The French called the headquarters their Direction de la Police et de la Sûreté and it was known in Vietnamese as the Bót Catinat (Doling 2014b).


Across from the “hideous pink cathedral” of Notre Dame, as mentioned in Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American, it is where Inspector Vigot had his office and past which the narrator takes daily walks, heading “back by the dreary wall of the Vietnamese Sûreté that seemed to smell of urine and injustice” (Greene 2002 [1955], 42). Apparently, the dungeons have been flooded, but they were significant enough to warrant a commemorative plaque and feature in the memoir of Nguyễn Thị Bình, known as Madame Binh, the National Liberation Front delegate to Paris and head of the Provisional Revolutionary Government. Madame Binh tells of being beaten and interrogated within the headquarters. Followed by several years in Chí Hòa, she was released only after the defeat of the French at Điện Biên Phủ (Nguyen 2015, 100–104). Her younger brother Nguyễn Đông Hà survived seven years in Côn Đảo’s tiger cages.


[B]uilt in 1968, opened 1971 and only after 1975 inherited and maintained by the unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam (Doling 2015b). Nevertheless, the library does become a part of the story of resistance that shapes the penalscape in Ho Chi Minh City. A small plaque acknowledges the site of the former Maison Centrale de Saigon, pointing to the guillotine and brutal French colonial rule since its inauguration in 1865-66, and the long history of resistance within the prison, exemplified by young fighters and tragic martyrdom. We started this paper at Lý Tự Trọng Street renamed to remember the Vietnamese revolutionary who was held in the prison before being executed by the French at the age of 17. The prison was demolished in 1968 but had been slated for closure since the opening of Chí Hòa in 1953.

More here: Sophie Fuggle & John Hutnyk (2022) “Saigon’s penalscape: interpreting colonial prisons.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 23:3, 443-458, DOI: 10.1080/14649373.2022.2108208


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