Reminiscing Saigon under French colonial rule

(ĐTTCO) - The National Assembly is keen on building a new urban administrative model for Hanoi, Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City, for the purpose of improved management. 

Catinat street in old Sài Gòn.

Catinat street in old Sài Gòn.

With these cities in Vietnam being rapidly weighed under the increasing pressure of urbanization due to population growth, rise in incomes, and better infrastructure, this move will prove most crucial for future expansion and growth of the three biggest cities in Vietnam.

New model of administration 

The past history of Saigon, during the French colonial rule, records a modern municipal administrative system that was far more advanced and modern than most other countries in the region at that time. Soon after conquering Saigon in 1859, the French began planning the construction of the entire city in a modern European style. They introduced a new model of administration that was totally different from what other previous feudal administrations had brought to Vietnam.

The French first focused on the planning and development of the core downtown area of Saigon, and based their layout on the kind of infrastructure seen in a big French city. Basic standards were laid out for construction works and all architectural structures. Streets and houses were properly and systematically named and numbered and in due course of time this planned method of functioning began to rub off on all the local residents. People were asked to pay income and trade tax, and all local residents were supposed to keep their doors open, instead of shutting them.

The city of Saigon was still small in the late 18th century, covering an area of 7.5 sq. kms with a population of only 30,000 people, yet the French laid the foundation for a well-planned western style urban city. Under a Decree dated 4 April 1867, the first urban administration government body was established. A town committee was founded, comprising of an administrative head and twelve members, all of who were appointed by the French governor in the South. The selection of these members was based on their being above the age of 25 years, irrespective of nationality, provided they were also residing in Saigon for at least six months. Their term in office was for two years, and all the committee members were assigned roles similar to those of a town council in France.

Such a town committee was to function for a two-year period, before reshuffling in new members. On 8 July 1869, the French governor in the South issued a decree to change this committee into a town council, which would have the Mayor of Saigon as its head with thirteen members, seven of whom would be elected and six would be appointed by the Governor. Their term would be for two years, and during this period if there was a vacancy among the elected members, the council would vote to fill in that vacancy. This was the first time that the city of Saigon had a formal administrative council in charge of all urban tasks and the running of the city.

On 8 January 1877, a final plan for the Saigon City administration was signed by Order of the French President. This allowed Saigon to share the same status as some of the big cities in France at that time, with its own legal and financial authority. That was the first decentralized local administration which went on to govern Saigon for the next 50 years. From 1930 on, this French style of urban governance was widely adopted with Saigon being divided into districts and sub-districts for easier administration. Soon a very urban residential lifestyle came into existence, and over time traditional households in the Saigon-Cho Lon area began to adapt to this system, and gradually lost their autonomy.

Public as equal partner

On 27 April 1931, the French issued an order to merge the two areas of Saigon and Cho Lon, along with some outskirt areas, into one administrative unit and called it Saigon-Cho Lon City. However, this order did not allow merger of the two councils of Saigon City and Cho Lon City, and they continued to operate independently as before, until another order was passed to assign four councils on 14 December 1931. Two of these councils in Saigon and in Cho Lon were of city level, while the other two councils were of local level.

The two city level councils had the most administrative powers and jurisdiction over the police, construction development, public transportation and sanitation, while the local level councils handled issues such as births, deaths, marriages, health care, social work and education. Each council had its own independent budget.

Years later, another order dated 19 December 1941 dissolved the councils of Saigon City and Cho Lon City and merged them into one council named the Saigon-Cho Lon City Council. This put an end to decentralized local administration and brought in a centralized form of governance, which lasted until August 1945. On 26 September 1947, a new decree was issued with several amendments, and accordingly, the head of Saigon-Cho Lon City was to be called the Mayor of Saigon-Cho Lon. The chief officer in charge of all city affairs was to be called General Secretary, and two other representatives of Saigon and Cho Lon would be known as Deputy Mayor of Saigon and Deputy Mayor of Cho Lon.

Another decision was signed on 27 December 1952 to divide the city of Saigon-Cho Lon into seven districts, which would all be under the control of the Mayor of the city. Each district would then have a council comprising of five members elected by vote for a three-year term. The members would then appoint a chairperson and a vice chairperson. The district council members would be representatives of local residents, and the council members would be representatives of the city administration. The first direct election was organized on 25 January 1953 in the city of Saigon-Cho Lon and 35 members were elected. Together they made up an administrative council, which included seven French members appointed by the Ministry of Home Affairs, while one member represented the Chinese ethnic groups.

Asso. Prof. Dr. Nguyen Minh Hoa

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