01.06.2021, 09:46

Precious photos of Saigon more than 150 years ago

In the development history of Saigon city during the French colonial period, Emile Gsell was one of the first people to leave a unique artistic legacy including many photos born more than 150 years ago.

The canal in Saigon, later filled up to become Charner Avenue, now Nguyen Hue Street. PHOTO: EMILE GSELL

He was also the first to commercialize photography in a city that had just become a French colony. Thanks to him, today, we can see the image of Saigon with the scenery and people who lived many generations ago.

Saigon in the early years of colonization

Emile Gsell was born on December 30, 1838 in Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines (Haut-Rhin, France). Around the early 1860s, he enlisted and participated in military activities in Cochinchina. Gsell’s passion for photography caught the attention of a French officer, Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Doudart de Lagree, who led the Mekong expedition in 1866.

During the expedition that started in June 1866, Gsell was requisitioned by de Lagree to take pictures of the abandoned Angkor temples and this set of photos contributed to bringing Gsell’s name to the public at that time. In October 1866, Gsell returned to Saigon, opened a photography studio and a photo shop, displaying photographs of the Angkor temples and the Khmer civilization. After the series of photos of Angkor, Emile Gsell made many photos of Saigon and its surroundings, with the landscape and life of Saigon people in the first years of becoming a French colony.


One of Emile Gsell’s earliest photographs of the tomb of Bishop Ba Da Loc, customary to call Father Ca’s Mausoleum (1866).

In the first half of 1873, Gsell returned to Angkor, accompanied the explorer Louis Delaporte throughout Cambodia, and the photos he took on this occasion were awarded a medal in the international tournament held in Vienna (Austria) in 1873. In April 1875, Gsell joined a business trip led by Brossard de Corbigny, stopping at Hue, but he was not allowed to take pictures of the citadel and the people he met there.

At the end of 1875, he went to Hanoi and followed a small boat up the Red River, took many photos of this land, displayed in Saigon and sold since 1876 by Auguste Nicolier, a seller of chemicals and photographic equipment in Saigon. However, this trip cost the life of Emile Gsell, miasma on a journey in the North caused him to contract malaria and died on October 16, 1879.

After 1879, photographer Otto Wegener continued Gsell’s commercial work, using his photographs in the early 1880s and then transferring the rights to Vidal (also known as Salin-Vidal), who sold Gsell’s photographs under the names Vidal and Salin-Vidal until his death in 1883.


Precious photos of Saigon more than 150 years ago
Translator Petrus Truong Vinh Ky
Unique portraits of historical figures
In addition to photos of scenes and activities, Emile Gsell has left many unique works about the people of Saigon in particular and the South in general, including the first photos of some characters. famous in contemporary society such as: Translator Petrus Truong Vinh Ky, Governor-General Do Huu Phuong (when he was still in the Palace rank), Warlord Huynh Cong Tan (and his family), Governor Ton Tho Tuong, Deputy Ambassador Nguyen Van Tuong (when he entered Saigon to sign the Treaty of Giap Tuat in 1874)…

Two brothers, Phan Ton and Phan Liem, were arrested in Hanoi and brought to Saigon in 1873
However, the most unique one is probably Gsell’s photo of two brothers, Phan Ton and Phan Liem, the son of  
Phan Thanh Gian in 1873. According to Dai Nam Thuc Luc, in the 10th lunar month of 1873, the French attacked the Ha citadel. Noi, the man who controlled the defense, Kham Mang, Nguyen Tri Phuong, was seriously injured and died, and his son, Nguyen Lam’s son, died in battle. 
Captured the citadel, the French colonialists sent to Saigon many high-ranking mandarins arrested in the city such as Kham Phan Dinh Binh, Father Chief Vu Duong, Admiral Dang Sieu, and Soldier Nguyen Dang Nghiem. 
However, the book Dai Nam Thuc Luc did not mention that Phan Thanh Gian’s two sons were also arrested and brought to Saigon on this occasion, perhaps because the two men did not hold any important positions in Hanoi.
When it was reported that Mr. Phan Ton and Phan Liem were present in Saigon, Emile Gsell was allowed to come in contact and take pictures of the two men. 
After the 1874 Giap Tuat peace treaty was signed, recognizing French sovereignty over the entire Southern Continent, France returned the captured Vietnamese officials to the Hue court. 
Two brothers, Phan Ton and Phan Liem, continued to be appointed as mandarins by the court. 
Particularly, Phan Liem (also known as Phan Thuc Thanh) – according to a memoir of the Minister of Honor, Huynh Con of Duy Tan Dynasty, recounted in the journal Revue Indochinoise in 1915, in the 1890s he was also a teacher. study of King Thanh Thai.
Up to now, the first photos taken by Emile Gsell of people and activities of Saigon in the 1860s and 1870s have become a valuable legacy for 
Vietnamese people 
who love history and want to look back on their images and photos. his father’s life more than 150 years ago.

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