Chorus of disapproval greets HCMC’s new opera house plan

By Staff reporters   October 14, 2018 | 06:23 pm PT
Ho Chi Minh City has many problems that need urgent attention, a new opera house is a skewed priority, people say.

Last week, the municipal legislature, the city’s People’s Council, had approved a plan to build an opera house in the Thu Thiem New Urban Area in District 2.

The project was crucial for the city’s development and would improve the social life of local residents, Nguyen Thi Quyet Tam, the council’s chairwoman, said at a meeting.

The city would raise the VND1.51 trillion ($64.53 million) needed for the project by auctioning a land lot in District 1 that had been chosen to build the symphony hall in the first place.

The opera house in Thu Thiem would take four years to build, and when it is completed in 2022, it would seat 1,700 people in two halls.

Le Thanh Liem, the city’s Vice Chairman, highlighted the importance of the project, saying: “HCMC is a modern, civilized city, a hub for economic, cultural, scientific and technical exchanges and thus it needs a worthy cultural project.”

HCMC used to have three theaters, but the Opera House in the downtown area was the only one still functional, the other two do not meet criteria to host international performances, he said.

Thu Thiem New Urban Area is under construction to become the new financial and cultural hub of Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Quynh Tran

Thu Thiem New Urban Area is under construction to become the new financial and cultural hub of Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

Public opposition

The city’s residents, however, are not impressed.

As soon as the plan was made public, it received a backlash with many people saying it was a waste of money and a case of skewed priorities at a time when the city still needed to deal with urban flooding, traffic jams and overloaded public infrastructure every day.

VnExpress poll found that as of Monday morning, a week after the plan was announced, nearly 4,400 Vietnamese disagreed with the project and just 630 approved.

Many people rejected the plans as they argue that the opera house would look like a piece of luxury, and that would be odd while the city lacks basic facilities.

A reader nicknamed Goldenjet 79 said that when the people are still in need of hospitals and schools, they would have little interest in the opera house.

“Every year, parents have to do everything they can for months before a school year starts, just to make sure their kids can get into a decent school. Then there’s the all too common scene of patients waiting in line before sunrise for a health check at public hospitals,” the reader said in a comment which received almost 4,300 likes.

The new opera house in Thu Thiem will lie near the edge of Thu Thiem Peninsula just across the Saigon River in District 2 and less than six kilometers from the Saigon Opera House in downtown HCMC.

Tran Cong Bao, another reader, pointed to traffic infrastructure in the usually-congested city as an issue that deserves more investment.

He said that spending VND1.5 trillion on a theater is unnecessary when traffic jams and urban flooding still put the lives of residents in misery very often.

“This theater will serve a minority group only,” said Bao, whose comment got 1,500 likes.

“I think the city should invest in water puppetry instead because the city gets flooded every time it rains,” a reader nicknamed VMT joked, referring to the fact that many streets in the city would be submerged any time the tides are high or the downpour is heavy.

Some readers suggest that the city government should conduct a survey to know if their residents care more about having more hospitals and less flooding or having a big theater.

“For a city to be civilized, the first thing is that it should have complete infrastructure, quality healthcare and education. It should become a livable city first,” said reader The Dung, revealing his vote if he has the chance.

Experts' voices

Through the lens of experts, a new opera house is a proper idea and that it can work as a new icon for the city, but that should be something for the future.

As they argued, aside from all the ongoing problems HCMC needs to deal with now, it is a fact that the current theaters in the city, though they are small, still meet the demand of locals, and the iconic Saigon Opera House so far still cannot attract audiences every night.

“If Saigon Opera House holds one or two symphony concerts each week and the hall is packed, then the city can talk about building a bigger theater,” Pham Sy Liem, former Deputy Minister of Construction.

He shared the public' views that in order to make Thu Thiem a true new urban area, the city should focus on traffic infrastructure first.

 The interior of Saigon Opera House in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Quynh Tran

The interior of Saigon Opera House in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

Le Nhu Tien, former Deputy Chairman of the Committee on Culture, Education, Youth, and Children at the legislative National Assembly, also agreed that the city should place its attention in the right place at the moment.

“I don’t think now is a good time to build an opera house at such a high cost,” he said, pointing out that HCMC is facing a series of problems in urban development, including the planning of the Thu Thiem New Urban Area.

Government inspectors last month said that the city authorities had committed many violations in site clearance, compensation and resettling process for the Thu Thiem New Urban Area, and years of residents’ grievances and protests are justified.

Speaking of culture and entertainment facilities, Tien said, the city officials should ask the residents for their opinions about what is the most important, because the city also needs more stadiums, libraries, and parks.

In March last year, the Administration of Technical Infrastructure under the Ministry of Construction warned that Vietnam’s biggest cities, including HCMC, have only two to three square meters of green area per person.

That is a third or less than what the World Health Organization has recommended for a healthy urban life.

People will care more about cultural projects when their more basic environment concerns, including health quality, are dealt with, experts said.

Architect Ngo Viet Nam Son said that a standard cultural center is something that a city of more than 10 million should have, but along with other neccessities too. "It would be very odd if you travel in a luxury car, wear a suit and wade in a flooded, jammed street," Son said.

Writer and researcher Nguyen Ngoc Tien showed rare support for the plan, saying people are entitled to the rights of cultural enjoyment.

"People have the right to sit in a luxury theater for cultural enjoyment," he said.

He said it is true that the city needs roads, hospitals, bridges and solve floods and traffic gridlocks, but it should dare to build big cultural works too, because otherwise, "future generations will have no meaningful projects."

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