Colorful assembly halls and communal houses, the legacy of traders of yore, inject an element of exoticism in modern Hội An.
Were it not for the flamboyance of Hội An’s Chinese assembly halls and communal houses, the subdued ochre tones of the hundreds of heritage buildings lining the narrow lanes of the Ancient Town would be lost in a sea of restraint.
Instead, this UNESCO World Heritage Site — a bustling 15th-to-19th-century port of trade known to merchants throughout Eurasia — was reborn in the 1990s as one of Vietnam’s most important tourist destinations. A concerted historic preservation effort has restored its legacy as a cosmopolitan theater on the banks of the Thu Bồn River, a mere shout away from the East (South China) Sea.
Of all its occasional visitors and longer-term residents, none made themselves so much at home as the Chinese. These seafarers came from different cities and shores of the great land to the north, including Fujian, Canton (Guangzhou), Hainan, Teochew (Chaozhou) and Hakka.
In Hội An, as devoted Taoists and Confucianists, they honored their gods, their saints and their ancestors in structures built between the 1650s and 1880s. Variously called assembly halls and communal houses (I’ve been unable to distinguish the difference), they also became places where the communities could gather on any special occasion.
Goddess of the sea
Perhaps the most photogenic of the buildings is the Fujian (Phước Kiển) Assembly Hall, built by traders from Fujian province. Originally constructed of wood in 1697, it was rebuilt in 1757 with brick and tile. That’s what you see today.
Apart from its colorful architectural appeal incorporating sculpture with potted plants, flowers and other garden features, the Fujian Hall is embraced by modern Vietnamese and Chinese alike as a place to pray to Thiên Hậu, goddess of the sea, to protect fishermen and other maritime travelers.
The main (Tam Quan) gate was restored in 1975 and carved with porcelain. Symbols include sun and moon motifs that represent the yin-yang harmony of the universe. Nearby, look for a statue of a mythological dragon carp, and on its reverse side, images of a sacred dragon, phoenix, turtle and unicorn.
Stone tables in the spacious front yard were once used to conduct trade business. At the conclusion of these meetings, merchants burned incense in rings to assure the success of their agreements. Today worshippers light the fragrant offerings for health, prosperity and family.
As you enter the ornate main hall, take note of murals on either side of the doorway, including one painting that shows Thiên Hậu responding to a call of distress from a ship tossing in stormy seas.
At the main altar, Chinese businessmen also pray for help in steering through the storms of commerce. Like Guan Yin (Quan Am), the heavenly mother, she is perceived to have the ability to control the rain and wind. Thiên Hậu is flanked by two other gods who assist in nautical rescues: Thiên Lý Nhãn, who can see for 1,000 miles, and Thuận Phong Nhĩ, who has a similar acoustic facility.
To the left of the main altar, other gods respond to entreaties for wealth and fortune. Beware the figure on the right: He punishes people who aren’t wise with their money, especially if they throw it away on immoral vices (like sex, alcohol and rock ’n’ roll, I imagine).
Nearby, look for a model of an 1875 trade ship in distress. It is painted with eyes on either side of its prow to enable it to foresee perils at sea.
Dialects and deities
It was important for the Chinese traders of different geographic areas to have their own meeting places: Although they shared a common written language, they spoke in different dialects, often mutually unintelligible. But until they could raise funds for their own halls, they all supported the Chinese (Trung Hoa) All-Community Hall, built in 1741.
Like the Fujian building, the all-Chinese hall was dedicated to Thiên Hậu, demonstrating her importance. Confucius is also worshipped here, beside Chinese war heroes. In addition, the all-community hall formerly served as a school for Chinese students.
The community from the island province of Hainan, nearest to the coast of Vietnam, didn’t build its Hainan Assembly Hall until 1851. It did so to honor a shipload of 108 sailors and merchants who were killed en route to Hội An after being mistaken for pirates. When Vietnam’s emperor, Tự Đức, became aware of the crime, he funded the Hainanese community to build the hall as a memorial, its gilded carvings designed to lift the sailors’ spirits to the status of deities in the afterlife.
The hall is small but beautifully decorated. Red and gold are the prevailing hues throughout, from the brightly painted altar to the lanterns that extend to the veranda. Outside, a thatched roof covers pink and yellow walls; inside, hand-carved doors and wooden pillars contrast with the brilliant colors.
The Chaozhou (Triều Châu) Assembly Hall, built in 1848, is noted for its unique heavy-wood architecture, with a footprint mimicking Chinese characters. Intricate carved panels on its imposing gateway and on the walls, beams and altars of the front house portray fantastic mythological creatures, various plants and landscape features. The carvings continue into the main house, with myriad dragon patterns on its interconnecting pillars and doors whose images depict symbols of good luck and prosperity.
A dragon of a man
Quan Cong, a Chinese general of the Third Century A.D., has a lot of fans. Two structures are dedicated to him: the Cantonese (Quang Triều) Assembly Hall and the Quan Cong Temple. An icon of Han Dynasty China, he is said to have been brave and righteous, steadfast and talented, all honorable virtues to which even modern man might aspire.
Look for Quan’s red-faced image in the assembly hall, built in 1885. Then slip through the inconspicuous back door to a garden whose centerpiece may be the most unique sculpture in Hội An: a Medusa-like dragon, its multiple heads straining for release from a a tiny pool.
The assembly hall was long predated by the colorful Quan Cong Temple, which dates from 1653. Dragons are present here as well, from the main gate to the rooftops. The sanctuary’s main icon is a statue of General Quan dressed in a suit embellished with dragon images and accompanied by guardian servants and his two faithful battle horses.
Though not formally an assembly hall, the Minh Hương Communal House falls into the same category of structure. Its initial constuction is instructive of the early days of Chinese settlement in Hội An.
After China’s northern Qing dynasty deposed the southern Ming in 1636, and an attempt by Ming generals to regain power failed, many prominent Chinese were led to flee the new regime and seek asylum in Southeast Asia. These “Minh Hương” people, as they became known, were welcomed in Hội An by Vietnamese rulers who were then expanding into what had been the Cham empire.
Their craftsmanship helped to build Hội An into the thriving international seaport it become. This house, built with wood pillars and covered with traditional tiles, dates from the mid-1600s, although the current structure was raised in 1820.
Like the Minh Huong house, the Cẩm Phô Communal House had an early construction date but was extensively restored in 1817. Built in a U shape, it has one wing devoted to the god of Cẩm Phô village, near Guangzhou, and another where reverence is paid to ancestors.
It was here that I met the models whose photo is below and at the head of this blog. The style of dress, I’m told by the Hội An Office of Tourist Services, is “Hoianian.” But I can’t imagine they would have dressed this way at any but the most formal events of their historical time.