• Perle
  • Perle


“I detest ice,” she muttered. “It’s bad for the digestion and it fails to cool you. And it makes a mess like this.” - an excerpt

Nguyễn Ái Châu, which means Precious Pearl, was born in Saigon in 1912. She was known to the French by the name Perle. She was well educated in both French and Annamite schools. She wore Paris fashions and Viet chignons with equal grace. The French described her as svelte; the Annamites as skinny and undernourished. She was a parishioner at the Huyện Sĩ church on the rue Frere Louis, opposite the railway terminal and near the central market, and she made regular offerings and prayers at various Viet and Chinese temples. Like many of her compatriots, she saw nothing strange or contradictory about this. Her mother was from the family that owned the art-deco flatiron building on the main road to Cholon, the rue Gallieni. People on the Saigon-Cholon tramline always watched for it as part of the scenery along the way. Its chief occupant, Uncle Nguyễn Văn Hảo, was a leader in the auto parts business. On her father’s side she was related to Philippe Lê Phát Ðạt, the builder of the Huyện Sĩ church. Through that connection she was distant cousin to Marie-Thérèse Nguyễn Hữu Thị Lan, wife of Bảo Đại, the last emperor.

She enjoyed life, and loved dancing, but could be a bit of a prig and a snob. Christian Bardinet entertained her in the tea room of the Grands Magazins Charner one hot afternoon. Most patrons were wilting, but she was perfectly composed, only the tiniest beads of sweat forming on her upper lip. Bardinet thought it made her look even more kissable, and was contemplating that agreeable notion when the ice boy reappeared with bucket and tongs. As he made his rounds he dropped new ice into each glass on his circuit, regardless of its contents. As it cooled, Pearl’s glass of lemonade began to sweat again, like most of the patrons. With long, slender fingers she adroitly wrapped a napkin around the dripping slippery glass.

“I detest ice,” she muttered. “It’s bad for the digestion and it fails to cool you. And it makes a mess like this.”

Christian’s mind was rather elsewhere. He was thinking that anything with those long, slender fingers wrapped around it would sweat as much.