SEAARC Symposium Abstract 4: “Tagore as a Celebrity Tourist?: Urban Planning, Tourism, and Architecture in Colonial Saigon”

by Assoc. Prof. H. Hazel Hahn, Seattle University

In 1929 the Bengali poet and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore visited Saigon for three days, where he was enthusiastically welcomed. I place this little-known visit onto intertwined developments in urban planning and tourism in the Saigon-Cholon region. Much of Tagore’s time in the region was to be filled with visits of numerous carefully selected sites such as the botanical garden, museums, schools, temples, and administrative buildings. In looking closer at Tagore’s itinerary as well as the impact of Tagore’s visit, we can glimpse not only how the public experienced the city, but also the competing perspectives and wishes of various components of the society. Seeking to understand why the Vietnamese were so enthusiastic about Tagore’s visit helps understand the stakes at hand. The Vietnamese were foremost interested in Tagore’s ideas. In contrast, the French officials sought to impress Tagore with the beauty of Saigon and manifestations of the civilizing mission and thereby tried to turn Tagore into a tourist and cultural diplomat of sorts. This essay explores the tensions and divisions within the society regarding both Tagore’s ideas and the state of French Indochina that the various components wanted Tagore to see and comprehend. In the process, this essay examines diverse examples of architectural and religious syncretism, and also argues that both urban planning and tourism were fraught, contested topics.


Hazel Hahn spent her childhood in Seoul, Korea and immigrated to New York with her family in 1979. At Wellesley College she majored in history and spent her Junior year at Oxford University. She received a Ph.D in History at U.C. Berkeley. She is the 2010-12 Pigott-McCone Endowed Chair for promotion of faculty scholarship. She is the author of Scenes of Parisian Modernity: Culture and Consumption in the Nineteenth Century (2009) and has also published on French and British imperialism and visions of the exotic, travel in Southeast Asia in the nineteenth century, and architectural heritage in Southeast Asia from the colonial period to today. Her book project “Cultures of Travel: Envisioning the World, 1820-1930” treats topics such as Jules Verne’s novels about Asia; Arsène Lupin, a famous fictional French thief-detective; the Prince of Wales’ travel to India and Ceylon in 1875-76 (published in Postcolonial Studies); catastrophic visions of travel in the popular press; telegraphic code books; ethnographic exhibitions; and the phenomenon of travel around the world. She also works on urban planning and urban history in French Indochina. She is also co-editing “Architecturalized Asia,” which approaches “Asia” as a piece of architecture, as a discursive structure and cultural construct, whose spatial and ideological formation can be examined through the lenses of cartography, built environments, and visual narratives.

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