More violently variegated than that of Cochinchina, less fine, so to speak, and of an art which seems at first sight more primitive, it is not less exact. Its form and details borrow perhaps more from China, but not from southern China, from Canton, as a neighbouring palace. The influence of the Celestial Empire must have come to Tonkin and Annam from Quang-Si, or even from Yun-Nam, and has mixed with an architecture in which one might also find something of Siam, the proximity of Laos helping.
Wood still plays the main role, as most of these regions lack building stone and the marble from certain points on the coast or in the mountains is difficult to transport and is only used for some religious or royal buildings. Hard frames, bricks, plaster and stucco, adobe, mats, bamboo, glazed tiles, clay which, when fresh, is scaled with shards of porcelain of a thousand colours: such are the materials used by the Tonkinese architects.
We say: Tonkinese for Annamites, and vice versa. The visitor must remember that, with the exception of Cambodia and Laos, French Indo-China is inhabited (we are not talking about its Malay and Chinese colonies, nor its savage Muongs, Mois, Chams, etc.) by a single race: the Annamite race, which has its varieties, according to the climates and political divisions, but which is endowed with a single language. A Tonkinese and a Cochinchinese are Annamites, just as an inhabitant of Annam proper, as well as a Marseillais and a Normand are French.
The palace we are visiting has the shape of one of the innumerable pagodas we have seen in Annam and Tonkin. Its decoration as well as its framework is the work of native artists that Paris saw working there for several months.
Small like all their compatriots (and like most Indo-Chinese and people of Chinese, Malay and Indian descent), these industrious workers, like monkeys, feminine in their appearance with their wide trousers, their thick buns, their hairless faces - ugly in fact, their teeth blackened and gnawed by betel - were, long before the opening of the Exhibition, the great attraction of the Esplanade des Invalides. Their way of working was no less astonishing to the Europeans, workers by profession: English, American, French, Swiss, Spanish, Belgian, etc. than to the onlookers in Paris. The foot sometimes used as much as the hand, the tenuousness of the tools, the simplicity of the processes, the patience of the operators, their courage at work in a cold for which they were not prepared, all these things which would merit study, attracted attention.
More than anything, however, one will notice their bizarre and somewhat shocking way of crouching. A hundred times, in our walks through the camps, we had to explain to the curious this essentially Annamite attitude, this posture of a man at rest who seems to be going about his miserable natural needs, the lower back resting almost on the heels, sometimes with only the tip of the feet resting on the ground and carrying the whole weight of the body. When we first saw the copy of the Angkor Wat pagoda, we thought we had been transported to that strange and captivating Far East which, as a correspondent for the Figaro and the New York Herald, we travelled for two years, from Japan to Singapore, and where we did the Tonkin campaigns.
We will excuse this personality whose sole purpose is to underline our admiration for the Colonial Exhibition. It enchants artists, and that is fine; but it was good to say that, for globetrotters as well as for colonists, it is quite sufficiently accurate.
Here, in fact, as in the Cochinchine Palace, nothing has been left to the whim of Western architects and decorators. Everything is Far Eastern, copied from nature or moulded, and it is the natives who, after having decorated the interiors, the roofs and the façades, have put in place the items sent from their homeland.
The Palace of Annam and Tonkin is built on a square square, with a central courtyard, partly occupied by a rich baldachin housing a magnificent genie. This statue is a cast of the great Bouddah of Hanoi (Tonkin), one of the most colossal works ever produced by Indo-Chinese founders. This great Bouddah, the goal of our walks in Hanoi in 1884 and 1885, locked up there in a sort of dark cellar, at the bottom of a pagoda, and which we were only able to admire by the light of our matches, is indeed Indo-Chinese. It is said to date from the 17th century and to represent, not a genie, but a Chinese general who was then in command in Tonkin. Some people have concluded that it was the work of celestial artists and not of Annamites, who never knew how to cast large pieces, like the Siamese and Japanese, until the day when the deciphering of the inscriptions made it possible to honour the Tonkinese founders. Similarly, it is quite certain that the "Great Bouddah" does not represent Bouddah, nor one of the millions of gods in the Buddhist pantheon, but that this statue is a masterpiece in terms of the perfection of its casting and the striking expression that lifts the heaviness of its conventional art.
This reproduction, as we said, occupies the central courtyard. Then there are two exhibition halls, 21.5 metres long and 8 metres wide, arranged on the two façades and connected by two galleries running along the central courtyard, where the busts of the senior Annamese officials, members of the Hué Commune, that is to say, insofar as one can assimilate things in Asia to those in Europe, members of the Council of Ministers, are exhibited.
The main entrance to the Quan-Yen pagoda (Tonkin) served as a model for the door of this building on the central avenue leading to the Hôtel des Invalides.
As for the side and rear doors, they are imitated from the most beautiful specimens of Tonkinese architecture.
The trusses are supported by wooden columns linked by richly carved crossbeams and crosspieces, and the ceilings are made of mats painted by native artists. The outer facades are decorated with paintings, pieces of white and blue earthenware, and sculpture motifs moulded in Hué on the palaces of Tien-tri, Tu-duc, Gia-long and on the tombs of Minh-Mauh by the care of Mr. Vildieu, architect of the civil buildings of Cochinchina.
On the side facades, two magnificent terraces in the axis of the doors are decorated with openwork screens and porcelain vases containing rare shrubs. These terraces, very common in pagodas and in Tonkinese houses, produce a very harmonious effect with their open balustrades.
The carpentry, joinery, etc., were executed in Saigon by native workers and the paintings, as we have said, by twenty Annamite artists sent to Paris.
Now let us enter, and judge neither Tonkin nor Annam by the poverty - very relative - of their exhibition. We can only blame the French bureaucracy and our singular system of placing at the head of the colonial services civil servants who have never seen the colonies, with, as sub-orders, people of colour who are subservient to petty quarrels and partial in discussions between colonists of different skin tones.
Here, as in the Palace of Cochinchina, are models of houses, junks, various boats, farming implements, weapons - parade weapons and religious weapons: the halberds of the Swiss in our churches -, sculpted and lacquered panels, Annamite tableware, desk sets; silverware, silverware, fans, musical instruments, silks, embroideries, mats, porcelains, bronzes, inlays especially, bamboo in all its industrial and domestic applications, betel chewing boxes, opium dens, marvellous furniture, woods, beds, marbles, chests, coffins - that essential piece of furniture of the Indo-Chinese Buddhist, which the son offers to his parents - statues, etc.
Among the products of the soil, it is worth mentioning ramie, this extraordinary textile plant, essence of citronella, be-moc and generally all the productions mentioned above in connection with the Palace of Cochinchina.
© Guide Bleu du Figaro et du Petit Journal 1889