On this day January 29: Saigon’s Continental Palace Hotel


Continental Palace Hotel january 29

On January 29 1973, the Austin American-Statesman published an article about Saigon’s Continental Palace Hotel. The headline promised titillation: Ex-Picturesque Saigon Bar Gathering Place for Freaks.

Who then were the freaks?

“Assorted prostitutes, transvestites, lesbians, homosexuals, pimps, beggars and bums.”

The good old days

Ah yes, the good old days.

Terrible as the language seems today, reading it evokes fond memories of my teenage years. Back then, some of us treasured snippets such as this. In the 1970s, open discussion of sexual matters remained taboo. The mere mention of homosexuality on television invited a flurry of outraged correspondence to newspapers. The word transsexual was barely known.

So news of people like us in foreign lands was akin to learning that life existed on other planets.

Associated Press correspondent Hugh Mulligan wrote the article. In 1973, a sense of impending doom hung over the South Vietnamese capital. The US would soon end its involvement in the Vietnam War. In just over two years, the last US personnel would flee in helicopters from the roof of the American Embassy as frantic locals tried to scale the compound walls and join the exodus. North Vietnamese troops would enter Saigon and soon the South Vietnamese capital would bear the name of the North Vietnamese leader.

The Continental Palace Hotel still stands in Ho Chi Minh City. The reporter apparently preferred the French colonial-era habitués of the fabled hotel over the people he encountered in 1973.

Noisiest and most noisome freak gallery

“The picturesque terrace bar where Somerset Maugham sipped his gin at sundown and Graham Greene took notes for The Quiet American has become the noisiest and most noisome freak gallery in Saigon. The waiters bow to way-out hippies in bra-less T-shirts, hot pants and false eyelashes, of whose sex they cannot always be certain.

“At nightfall, the terrace of the Continental Palace Hotel becomes a collecting point for assorted prostitutes, transvestites, lesbians, homosexuals, pimps, beggars and bums.”

During the Vietnam War, the so-called Fleshpots of Asia did a roaring trade. Young servicemen on Rest & Recuperation breaks from the fighting rarely bothered with rest. Rather, they flooded into red-light districts in search of ‘boom boom’ – sex.

Destinations like Pattaya’s Walking Street, Singapore’s Bugis (Boogie) Street and even Sydney’s Kings Cross did a roaring trade. Bugis Street became famous for its beautiful transwomen. Indeed, even years after the war, Australian sailors would rhapsodise the exotic beauties who prowled that cobbled thoroughfare. Like the sirens of Greek mythology luring ancient sailors to their doom, those irresistible temptresses enticed modern-day warriors to test their sexual boundaries.

I hit the less exotic environs of Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley a few years after the war. But the arrival of a naval ship at the Hamilton wharves still promised a hot time in the old town tonight. We more promiscuous denizens of the Valley nightlife learned it was indeed true what they said about sailors. Until the AIDS crisis of the 1980s scared the sailors away. Meanwhile, back in Saigon…

Life is a cabaret, old friend…

Hugh Mulligan insistently hammered home his contempt.

“The long bar against the wall under the old wooden fighter plane propeller is reserved by garish custom for transvestites in tight pants and silk shirts cut to the navel, and the tables in the corner seem set aside for half-dozen deaf, mute prostitutes who gesticulate obscenely at would-be clients.”

The writer didn’t want anyone to assume he was tempted. No! He was just a dispassionate observer cruelly slagging the less fortunate. Oh, and also reassuring his American readers of his and their superiority over lesser human beings – ‘other’ people in ‘other’ places. Miserable old f_ck!

He finished with a pop culture reference, hoping readers would think him hip despite his journalistic troglodytism.

“Life is a cabaret, old friend, so drink away the impending doom.”

Read more: January 28 <— On this day —> January 30

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