1897 – Rare Photographs of Early Temporary Saigon Theatre – Ho Chi Minh City

Early Saigon Photographs
Signed and Dedicated by Colonial Notables

Rare Temporary Saigon Theatre
French Administrators
Ho Chi Minh City

French Cochinchina: Saigon [Ho Chi Minh City] and environs, circa 1897-1913. Nine (9) photographs taken in and around colonial Saigon, featuring a rare interior view of a former and all-but-forgotten Saigon Theatre, where on the evening of 21 October 1913 an event was attended by the elite class, including special guests Albert-Pierre Sarraut who was then Governor-General of French Indochina and A. G. A. Ernest Outrey who was at the time Résident supérieur of the French Protectorate of Cambodia, these men having front row center seats. Gelatin silver print photographs, with the exception of one cyanotype. The lot comprises six (6) photographs measuring approximately 20,5 x 16 cm on taupe cardstock mounts measuring approximately 30 x 25 cm and bearing a gilt stamp of Union Photo in Pnompenh [Phnom Penh], Cambodia; two (2) photographs measuring approximately 29,5 x 24,5 cm on ivory cardstock mounts measuring approximately 39,5 x 29,5 cm; and one (1) photograph measuring approximately 37 x 28,5 cm on ivory cardstock mounts measuring approximately 39,5 x 32 cm. Three photographs with manuscript signed dedications by French notables in Saigon. Some age-toning to mounts, moisture induced loss to margin of one photograph, otherwise the lot in Very Good Condition, photographs retaining a crisp image.

Rare scenes of French Cochin-China is captured in lovely and large photographs, featuring an interior and exterior view of an abandoned temple, ancient ruins possibly at Siem Reap, portraits of two local civilians, colonial administrators attending a musical soirée in Saigon, and a close-up photograph of the exquisite and romantic French colonial sculpture perched above the arched entrance of the Municipal Theatre of Saigon – the latter signed by the sculptor himself!

The lot includes two rare photographs taken on 24 October 1913, inside a quaint colonial theatre, quite likely being the “second” Théâtre de Saïgon constructed in 1882, a piece of the city’s architectural history which is little-known today. The photographs show French administrators and other upper-class civilians seated as spectators, both signed with a dedication inscription to verso by the president of the Philharmonic Society of Saigon.

Western theatre in Saigon began in 1863 when colonialists brought a troupe in to perform for the French legion at the palace villa of the first Governor-Admiral of Cochin-China Louis-Adolphe Bonard, at the present-day corner of Dong Khoi and Nguyen Du Streets. Performances by visiting French troupes were held regularly. In the “salle de spectacles” or events hall, of the palace, which was a series of wooden buildings. Saigon’s second theatre, and the first building purpose-built for live performances, was constructed in 1872 on the site of today’s Caravelle Hotel. Being built from wood, in 1881 it was destroyed by fire in the palace.

The following year, in 1882, the theatre was rebuilt with more durable materials. Describing this second theatre in 1887, Le Figaro newspaper commented: “it is simple and the architecture is very primitive – but it is impossible to burn down!” In August 1893, La Revue hebdomadaire described it as “so pretty, our Saïgon theatre, with its boxes decorated with hanging plants and its wide verandahs filled with flowers!…” In the same year, administrators decided that Saigon needed a larger and more impressive theatre building. In 1895, a design competition was organised. In 1898, the construction of Saigon’s third theatre (second official theatre) commenced on the site of the old one, and it was completed by 1 January 1900. Circa 1913, when the present photograph was taken, George Dürrwell wrote nostalgically about the former theatre built in 1882, remembering it as “so small and so simply decorated, yet so cosy and intimate, surrounded by lawns and shaded by large trees.”

The two photographs which are signed and inscribed are the same image, mounted in the same style, were taken on the evening of a performance. Each dedicated to a French colonial administrator, both of whom are seen front and center in the photograph, seated together with their spouses. They are Albert-Pierre Sarraut (1872-1962) who was Governor-General of French Indochina, and Antoine G. A. Ernest Outrey (1863-1941)

Both with dedication inscription and signature of the president of the “Société philharmonique de Saïgon,” the inscriptions read as follows:

“A monsieur le Gouverneur Général de l’Indo-Chine, Albert Sarraut, mes respectueux souvenirs de la soiréee du 21 Octobre 1913. […] le 24 Octobre 1913,
Le Président de la Philharmonique
, [signed in the original]

“A monsieur le Résident supérieur E. Outrey Respectueux et affectueux souvenirs de la soiréee du 21 Octobre 1913.
Le Président de la Philharmonique
, [signed in the original]

Albert-Pierre Sarraut (1872-1962) was a French Radical politician, twice Prime Minister during the Third Republic. He was Governor-General of French Indochina, from 1912 to 1914, and again from 1917 to 1919. He is best remembered for introducing more elements of democracy into the colonial system, notably by giving more power to indigenous elites. He reformed the administration, developed the educational system, and provided more opportunities to the Indochinese to integrate into public service. He would replace Henry Simon on 18 January 1920 as Minister of the Colonies.

Antoine Georges Amédée Ernest Outrey (1863-1941) was a colonial administrator and French politician whose 25-year career was entirely served in Indochina. He was Résident supérieur in Laos in 1911, and then in Cambodia, then a French protectorate, from 26 July 1911 to 26 March 1914. He supported the development of hydraulic works to increase agriculture, as well as a road network. He promoted education and organized an award-winning competition to write a moral textbook, . which, drawing from over 300 manuscripts written by monks, is still widely distributed in schools today. He established a school for girls, initially for daughters of the Indochinese upper class. In Phnom Penh, Outrey presided over local associations, being named in 1912 the honorary co-president with the King of Cambodia of the Native Birth Protection Society in Cambodia; and in 1914 the honorary co-president alongside the king, of the Society of mutual teaching. His further initiatives included newspapers in the native language, tourism at Angkor Wat, the preservations of old manuscripts found in pagodas. His career ended when after he circumvented the General Government of Indochina and was involved in elaborate construction at the king’s palace without the administration’s prior consent. He was subsequently reduced to deputy of Cochin China from 1914 to 1936.

Most stunning and exceedingly scarce is a photograph, circa 1897-1899, of a man standing at the top of Saigon’s oldest theater, beside the charming sculpture which adorns the high arch entrance. He may very well be the sculptor himself! Providing an uncommonly close-up view, this photograph features a signed manuscript dedication by E. Dolivet – the sculptor who made the theatre’s crowning statue, to the building’s architect Félix Ollivier.

The Municipal Theatre of Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon Municipal Opera House, was built from 1897 to 1 January 1900. In its first iteration, it seated 1,800 and featured detailed inscriptions, décor and furnishings imported from France. It owes its specific characteristics to the work of architect Félix Ollivier, while construction was under supervision of architects Ernest Guichard and Eugène Ferret. It is one of Saigon’s oldest buildings and one of the city’s best examples of classical French architecture.

Félix Louis Ollivier (1863-1947) was admitted in 1883 to the School of Architecture of Paris. He worked at the studio of Julien Guadet and was also a student of Albert Thomas, obtaining his diploma of architecture in 1891. He took part in numerous public architectural competitions: Orléans museum, Cesson church (Seine-et-Marne), Mayor of Amiens. In 1894, he won the contract for the construction of the Saigon Theater. Subsequently, in 1897, he was named architect of the city of Paris, holding this position until 1927.

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