Revising the Past

October, 2008

by Stacey G. Yap


At the top of the steps lies the tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh, viewed by many Vietnamese as nothing more than a pawn of the French. Photo courtesy of Stacey Yap.

Almost every year my family and I take turns choosing summer vacation destinations to explore while visiting relatives in Asia. This year it was my turn. Because Asia’s rapid economic development has changed or, in some cases, totally wiped out the places I used to visit (like Malaysia’s Rantau Abang beach, where I once watched large numbers of leatherback turtles coming ashore to lay eggs before sunrise), I try to visit cultural and natural sites before economic development alters them.

While some people refer to Patricia Schultz’s book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die when deciding on their next vacation spot, I look to UNESCO’s (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage List as my travel guide. The list comprises more than 800 sites of cultural or natural significance in 145 countries around the world. This year, I chose to visit two of Vietnam’s UNESCO world heritage sites: the old imperial capital Hué, which was inscribed on the list in 1993, and the ancient town of Hoi An, a well-preserved traditional Asian trading port, inscribed in 1999

As a heritage scholar, I am interested in seeing how the past is preserved and in finding examples of how people and communities work to preserve the heritage of their hometowns, countries, and cultures. I tend to look at historical sites with a critical eye, and ask the kind of questions that stump even the best-trained tour guides. While touring Hué and Hoi An, I was reminded that heritage preservation greatly depends on who is doing the preserving, and what they believe is worth remembering.

I knew that Hué was heavily damaged by what the Vietnamese refer to as the American War (known in America as the Vietnam War), but my research could not prepare me for what I saw on our tour: barren grassy squares and desolate ruins where elaborate palaces and other buildings once stood. Of the 1,200 monuments built under the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945), only 300 now remain.


Remnants of the “American War” still mark Hué, as evidenced by this doorway which leads to a 25-acre city within Hué known as the Forbidden Purple City (Tu Cam Thanh). Photo courtesy of Stacey Yap.

“We are rebuilding the Imperial City …” Tranh, our tour guide, noted. “Rebuilding?” I thought. The famous quote by French archaeologist Adolphe-Napoléon Didron came to my mind, “It is better to preserve than to restore and better to restore than to reconstruct.” For most preservationists, rebuilding is not preservation. I wondered how much modern material would be used to reconstruct the buildings of Hué, and how well it would blend with the original material. Will the bullet holes on the wall eventually be covered up? Those bullet holes tell an important story of the recent past that should be remembered and learned from, not covered up. In addition, not only buildings and monuments were destroyed in the war, but numerous photographs of the palace interiors and documents from the Imperial Era were also lost. Without them as a guide, reconstructing the past is a daunting task.

Our tour also took us to the Mieu (the Temple of Generations), which honors 10 of the 13 Nguyen emperors. While there, I noticed that not all of the emperors whose portraits were displayed on the high altar tables had plaques to commemorate them. When I asked Tranh about this, he explained that those emperors were not considered important. With my curiosity piqued, I did some research of my own on the emperors. According to A History of South-East Asia, written by the late Southeast Asian historian D.G.E. Hall, the emperors who were commemorated with plaques, including Emperor Minh Mang (r. 1820–1841), had made enormous contributions to Vietnam’s culture and nationalism. They were also vehemently opposed to French colonization. Conversely, the “unimportant” emperors, including the reviled Emperor Dong Khanh (r. 1885–1889), were believed to be pawns of the French.


The walled entrance into the Queen Mother’s Residence, also known as the Residence of Everlasting Longevity. Photo courtesy of Stacey Yap.

In talking with Tranh, and in perusing the tour brochures and literature so widely available, it became clear to me that Hué’s French colonial past has yet to be acknowledged or preserved by the people who live and work there.

I found the same to be true in Hoi An, where Chinese culture and religious practices endure, despite the fact that Chinese colonization ended in 1428. The Chinese influence has been incorporated in the reconstruction of Vietnamese culture. House tours given by Vietnamese families who have lived in the same house for generations proudly acknowledge the influence of Chinese and even Japanese architecture. And while the city has a number of buildings constructed in the French architectural style, they were either closed to the public, or not included on our tour itinerary.

While I came to Vietnam to see the cities and buildings that were inscribed into the UNESCO’s World Heritage Listing, and to see how the past is being preserved, I came away with much to consider. For instance, what is heritage? Whose past is preserved? Who chooses what will be preserved and what will be ignored? These questions will be foremost in my mind as I travel to other destinations, both in the U.S. and beyond. What is preserved today may well change in the future; this makes me want to return to Vietnam to see what has changed, what has remained, and maybe try to discover why.

Stacey Yap is a professor of anthropology and sociology in the Department of Social Sciences.

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