Chinese-Vietnamese textile merchants in Saigon’s Soai Kinh Lam market are persevering in the face of fundamental market changes.
It’s 7:30 a.m. and Lieu Ngoc Chau, 43, ups her shutters for a new business day. She says the first and most important job she has to do is to burn incense for Than Tai, or Caishen, the Chinese god of prosperity, and Tho Dia (Landlord God), a folk deity that Chinese pray to for luck and good business.
The Chinese-Vietnamese merchants in the area attribute their business success to these gods and deities. Chau is one of the 500 traders who have stuck to her business of selling various kinds of fabric in Soai Kinh Lam market in the Chinatown area.
Most of traders at the Soai Kinh Lam market are Vietnamese of Chinese origin. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.
Born into a Chinese family that migrated from Guangdong to Vietnam a long time ago and growing up in the Cho Lon area, which consists of four districts, 5, 6, 10 and 11, Chau inherited the fabric business from her mother when she was just 17.
The ethnic Chinese, locally referred to as the Hoa people, arrived in the south of Vietnam over 300 years ago.
“In this market, most merchants are of Chinese origin. Many of them can’t speak Vietnamese and instead converse in Cantonese. Luckily, I have learned a little Vietnamese to communicate with my customers, but I too don’t really speak it very well,” Chau said.
“Our business is no longer as good as it was in its heydays about ten years ago. Demand for fabric has significantly slowed down in recent years,” she said. “I have still been maintaining the business thanks to orders from familiar customers and compatriots but local people have almost stopped buying fabric.”
Chau said the business gets better in the lead up to the Lunar New Year or Tet, Vietnam’s biggest and most important holiday, as many people choose to by different kinds of fabrics to make new clothes for the New Year.
“During the low season and normal days, we mainly sell fabric at wholesale prices to retailers or regular customers in the city and neighboring provinces like Dong Nai, Binh Duong and the Mekong Delta region.
Although lesser known than other famous Chinese landmarks like the Binh Tay market, Soai Kinh Lam, an old, downgraded trading center on Tran Hung Dao Street in District 5, is an inseparable part of the Chinatown. The market was established before 1975, but no one seems to know the exact time. It was once the busiest hub for wholesale textile merchandising in the southern part of the country after 1989.
Soai Kinh Lam market on Tran Hung Dao Street, District 5, HCMC. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.
Many old traders at the market said that the fabric business was hit hard by the emergence of new sale channels in the city, like shopping malls, fashion stores and e-commerce sites.
A large number of customers have turned away from traditional fabric stores, they said. Most customers now prefer readymade clothes to buying fabric and ordering tailors to custom-make clothes. It is far more convenient and much cheaper to buy readymade clothes.
In addition, with e-commerce booming in Vietnam and busy daily schedules occupying people’s lives, shopaholics have been switching from walking from store to store to just sitting back in their chairs and ordering what they want on computers and phones.
A survey released in October 2017 by Vietnamese market research firm Q&Me showed fashion standing on top of all products purchased online in Vietnam, followed by IT, cosmetics, food and beverages, and books and stationary.
All this has made life very difficult for traditional textile merchants who have to pay rent, import fabric, pay transportation and other costs.
Tieu Quang Dan, a 60-year-old Vietnamese textiles trader of Chinese descent at Soai Kinh Lam market, said the fabrics in his store are mainly imported from China, because he has close ties with traders there.
The fabric business has fallen on hard times in recent years because of the emergence of new sales channels like shopping malls, e-commerce and a customer preference for readymade clothes. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.
“I feel worried as the business has fallen over the past years and shows no signs of picking up,” said Dan, who has been devoted nearly half of his life at the market.
“I am old and cannot find any jobs. And I am also used to trading fabrics for nearly 30 years and meeting my fellow traders every morning. So I have accepted that I will follow the business until I have no heath to continue with it,” he said, smiling.
Despite all the problems, Chau has no doubts about what he will do.
“I will devote the rest of my life to preserving my traditional family business, and continue selling fabric in this market.”