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Cholon was an independent port-town with its own separate Municipality under French rule from 1879 until the early 1930s. Once the French amalgamated Cholon with Saigon, it has only survived as the colloquial name for districts 5 and 6 in Vietnam’s largest metropolitan area, now renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
In a bid to retrieve Cholon’s lost history this study profiles its evolution as a separate port town, and how the French colonial government in Saigon and the local Municipal Government administered it. After detailing Cholon’s relevant pre-colonial antecedents, this task is pursued by using the triangle of interactions between three actors — the state, the local population and the trans-local population. This triangular framework provides the basis for analysing the town’s transformation at four points in time: 1880, 1896, 1913, and 1930.
This cross-sectional analysis reveals constant negotiations between non-state actors and state actors in Cholon’s local affairs. The central state saw Cholon as economically important, but too ‘foreign’ to be fully absorbed into the colonial enterprise. This perception kept the central state from imposing its total dominance over municipal affairs.
The study argues that a weak central governance allowed Cholon’s non-state actors the autonomy and obscurity to build the town in a way that often bypassed Cochin China’s Colonial Council in Saigon. Cholon experienced accelerated growth when the Municipal Government recognised and enabled the enduring pattern of opaque community leadership by non-state actors to function in the urban area. These actors comprised a mixture of trans-local and local groups and networks.
Cholon’s society sustained an enduring tradition of strong self-governance, connections to wider non-local networks, and entrepreneurialism that drove the economy of the French colonial state. Moreover, its history provides a vivid account of lived experiences in a port-town, whose waterborne way-of-life was pressured to change by the imperative of land-focused colonial urbanisation.