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How did Silk Street begin and change over time?
The real Silk Street is not Hang Gai, as many visitors mistakenly believe, but Hang Dao. This once fashionable street in the Old Quarter is lined now with shop selling jewelry, wristwatches and clothes. "Pho Hang Dao" means "street where red-dyed fabrics are sold" in the old days. The street’s name reflected its commercial activity. As early as the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries, villagers-mostly from Dan Loan village in Hai Duong province-settled there, forming the guild of Dai Loi. A stone stele at 90 Hang Dao notes that the edifice was built in 1706 as a communal house to house to honor the village tutelary god and patron saint of dyers.
Silk Street, as indicated in Nguyen Trai’s Du dia chi (Treatise on Geography) was part of a dike separating Ho Thai Cuc (Lake of the Great Primary Principle), which is now completely dry, from Ho Hoan Kiem (Restored Sword Lake). A canal connected the two lakes on the site of the present Pho Cau Go (Wooden Bridge Street).
In his Book Of poems, Vu trung tuy (Collection Written on Rainy days) Writer Pham Dinh Ho (eighteenth century) creates vivid descriptions of scenes in Silk Street and Silver Street (Pho Hang Bac) which displayed the wealth, corruption, and fraud of a troubled period. French attacks in 1873 and 1882 reduced the prosperity of Silk Street, which revived toward the end of the century. Its traditional features were still intact in the early 1900s. Families traded in silk although the dyeing had moved to Wooden Bridge Street, During this period. Silk Street was also famous for its scholars and mandarins and for the elegant young women who were skillful in commerce and whose plentiful dowries attracted graduates of the newly opened French university.
A hundred shops housed in narrow in narrow, low-roofed houses lined the outer road. Each shop had two compartments, the outer with a small glass case to invite in the passersby, many of whom came from the countryside. The inner compartment featured a plank-bed, on which the shop owner or her daughter sat surrounded by glass cases filled with rolls of brocade (gam), flowered satin (voc) and silk gauze.
Trading in raw silk involved much haggling because the seller usually began with exorbitant prices. Silk Street was particularly animated on the first, sixth, eleventh, sixteenth, twenty-first, and twenty-sixth days of each lunar month, when weavers brought un their products: gauze (the) from La Ca and La Khe, silk-floss (dui) from Dai Mo, and satin (linh) from Buoi, from Dyers’ Street (Pho Tho Nhuom), Wooden Bridge Street, and from areas bordering West Lake.
Patriotism blossomed on Silk Street. In 1907, Luong Van Can and his scholar friends opened the Public School Upholding the Just Cause (Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc) at 10 and 63 Silk Street, starting the neighborhood struggle against the colonial administration. Luong Van Can was later exiled to the prison island of Poulo Condor. His son, Luong Ngoc Quyen, was killed in 1917 during a military uprising against the French in Thai Nguyen.
After the end of the First World War, Silk Street experienced a measure of modernization. Indians from the five French trading-posts in India opened shops to sell cotton fabric distributed by French companies (Dumarest, Denis Fre’res, etc) other Indians, called chettys, practiced usury.
Shops selling Vietnamese silk decreased Merchants who remained in business arranged their storefronts like those kept by the Indians. They replaced the curtains that had their shop names in Chinese characters with glass windows, a counter, and a signboard lettered in the Romanized vernacular or French.
The first haberdashery appeared in 1917. By the 1930s, linen shops that also sold fancy, hats, neckerchiefs, handkerchiefs, and ties) dominated Silk Street. Then after the French defeat in 1954, the street’s activities were muted for several decades because the Government did not then encourage private trade.
However, a spectacular revival began in the late-1980s with the adoption of a market economy Watch-maker’s shops, haberdasheries, and shops selling ready-to-wear garments proliferated along with ugly concrete buildings.
Source: Hanoi's old quarter, by Huu Ngoc and Lady Borton, The Gioi Publisher