Last week, the municipal legislature, the city’s People’s Council, had appproved a plan to build an opera house in the new urban area of Thu Thiem 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 the meeting.
Le Thanh Liem, the city’s vice chairman, said the city would raise the VND1.508 trillion ($64.61 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.
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
The opera house in Thu Thiem would take four years to build, and when it was completed in 2022, it would seat 1,700 people in two halls.
Liem 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.
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.
A 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.
“The residents need more hospitals and schools, and for now, we don’t have any interest in this opera house,” one reader, Goldenjet 79, said in a comment.
“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,” it said, receiving almost 4,300 likes.
“Spending VND1.5 trillion on a theater is unnecessary when traffic infrastructure is still incomplete. Traffic jams and urban flooding still put the lives of residents in misery, and schools and hospitals cannot meet the demand (of residents). This theater will serve a minority group only. Please do not waste money on such an investment now,” said reader Tran Cong 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,” reader VMT joked.
“How many people need that theater and how many people need more hospitals and want flooding and traffic jams gone? Just do a survey among all the city’s residents and see what the residents really want. 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.
Yet another reader, Nguyen Kim Thanh, remarked: “Local officials rarely listen to the voice of the people when making decisions on public projects. They just do what they want and if there are problems, they say they will “learn from experiences”.”
Pham Sy Liem, former deputy minister of construction, said a mega opera house in HCMC can work as a new icon for the city but that was something for the future.
“In order to make Thu Thiem a true new urban area, the city should focus on traffic infrastructure first,” he said.
The current theaters in the city, though they are small, still meet the demand of locals. “It is a fact that the Saigon Opera House still cannot attract audiences every night. If it holds one or two symphony concerts each week and the hall is packed, then the city can talk about building a bigger theater.”
The interior of Saigon Opera House in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Quynh Tran
Le Nhu Tien, former deputy chairman of the Committee on Culture, Education, Youth, and Children at the legislative National Assembly, agreed with the plan to build a new theater, but he felt the city should reconsider its timing.
“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 said last month that the city authorities had committed many violations in site clearance, compensation and resettling process for the Thu Thiem urban area, and years of residents’ grievances and protests are justified.
“The city officials say the theater is to serve the residents, then they should ask the residents for their opinions and come up with what they decide as the most important,” he said, adding that speaking of culture, the city also needs more stadiums, parks and libraries.
Architect Ngo Viet Nam Son said he does not think another opera house is what the city needs right now and that the project can be set aside for later.
“I think the city needs to deal with what its residents really need right now and once the people have their basic needs fulfilled, they will care more about cultural projects.
“A city of more than 10 million absolutely needs a standard cultural center, but it would be very odd if you travel in a luxury car, wear a suit and wade in a flooded, jammed street.”
Writer and researcher Nguyen Ngoc Tien agreed with the plan for the opera hall.
He said: “People have the right to sit in a luxury theater for cultural enjoyment. It is true that we need roads, hospitals, bridges and solve floods and traffic gridlocks… But if we do not build big cultural works, future generations will have no meaningful project like the Hanoi Opera House.”
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