The most intriguing architecture in Cho Lon is found in Ba Thien Hau Pagoda, where hundreds of sculptures smile down at worshippers.
When in Ho Chi Minh City, it would be a missed opportunity not to explore the ancient architecture of Cho Lon. Amidst streets jammed with vehicles, in a metropolis where shops, restaurants, offices, and houses are tightly packed together, lie ancient temples, pagodas, and assembly halls that make you feel as if you’ve traveled back in time. Walk through a door of these temples and pagodas, , you will immediately sense a calming atmosphere of tranquility and nostalgia. Each assembly hall in Cho Lon boasts unique architecture. The most intriguing of all is Ba Thien Hau Pagoda, also known as the Tue Thanh Assembly Hall, where hundreds of ceramic sculptures are preserved on top of the surrounding walls.
Pottery experts call these sculptures “smiling sculptures”, because each one depicts a different character, all with cheerful, happy faces. More than a century has elapsed since their production, yet the glaze on these pottery sculptures looks as fresh as when they were newly made.
Built in 1760, the Tue Thanh Assembly Hall features classical architecture, its walls forming neat square rooms. Worship chambers are arranged in the front and back with a courtyard – “the well of heaven” – in the middle. By day, this open space is full of southern sunlight, which shines upon the sculptures of Buddhas, Divine Beings, Taoists, rich men, mandarins, and craftsmen, all wearing outfits typical of the ancient feudal society. Each sculpture is only 20-60cm tall yet ingeniously crafted. Details on their outfits and items in their hair, hands and feet appear sophisticated. They provide a thorough depiction of the spiritual world and the social structure of ancient people. Curiously, the smiles on these sculptures make everyone feel happy and peaceful.
These “smiling sculptures” are distinctive products of Cay Mai ceramics workshops in Cho Lon, which were very active in the late 19th century. They are part of a line of ceramics products made with colored glaze, usually featuring elaborate relief details, created by Chinese-Vietnamese artisans in Cho Lon, typical of Saigon’s ceramics craft many years ago. When mounted on the walls of the assembly hall, these sculptures form a colorful picture. At first glance, they may seem unsuited to the calm atmosphere of a place of worship, but the more you gaze at them, the more you feel these artworks are in fact heightening the divinity of this space, since they are extremely lively and emotional. Made by artisans based on their view of the imaginary world and reality, these miniature sculptures provide future generations with a good grasp of ancient society. From these creations, social scientists can see the distribution of occupations and classes, while filmmakers may learn how ancient people dressed. Funnily enough, sculptures depicting Westerners were made in larger sizes than their Asian counterparts, and wearing top hats and tuxedos. This accurately reflects society in the 18th and 19th centuries, when European merchants, missionaries, and even soldiers were regularly seen in China, Japan, and Vietnam.
It is also worth noting that a number of sculptures were based on characters in popular stories at the time, particularly “the Investiture of the Gods”. These characters were known for hundreds or thousands of years in the East. While the stories tell of both good and evil gods, the long-ago potters decorated the assembly house with sculptures with smiling faces, as if they are there to protect everyone. Through these sculptures, ancient people bestowed good wishes upon future generations, and conveyed their desires for a life in which sorrows would dissolve, leaving only joy in the world. This desire is common to all human beings, no matter when they are living.