Flames Lighting the Prague Night Sky

Two major fires scared and excited the Prague public during the recent days. Luckily, none of them claimed any casualties. The first claimed a major historical building and the second may have an unwelcome impact on the attitude off the majority towards the Vietnamese minority in Czech Republic.

On 16th of October, the Industrial Palace at the Prague Exhibition Ground (Výstaviště) almost burned down. One of the reasons of its partial collapse was its construction: the steel skeleton of the building probably cracked after it was heated by the flames and then abruptly cooled down by water from fire extinguishing machines.

It’s not the whole building, only its left wing, but the loss is enormous. It will be a conflicting question whether the previous form should be copied, or a completely new architecture developed out of the rubble.

The Exhibition Ground was built to host an exhibition of great importance, the 1891 celebration of the 1781 exhibition that took place in Klementinum. The preparations took three years and it seemed the whole business will have to be postponed, as Prague was damaged by major floods in 1890. The organizers managed to keep with the timetable. The palace was opened at the same day as the exhibition: on March 15, 1891. Technically speaking, it did not, and does not lie in Holešovice, but in Bubeneč, on the area taken out of the Stromovka park. The palace was the first major building with steel construction in the area of today’s Czech Republic. The design carried modern features, but generally it was built in historicist style, not the then- dominant art noveau.
During the five months it was open, the exhibition was visited by approx. 2,5 million people. Many large exhibitions and international fairs took place at the site since then. In 1948 its status was changed, the Industrial Palace was renamed as Congressional and it hosted the Czech Communist Party conventions. It remained so until 1991, when a jubilee exhibition marking its hundred years of existence was opened. Unfortunately it was not very successful.

Then, on November 6, a large Vietnamese marketplace was up in flames. It took fifty- three firefighter units (more than 400 firefighters) sixteen hours to defeat the fire. There was a huge cloud of waste, people living nearby were told to stay at home, traffic was complicated.

It took place in Libuš, in the commercial area called Sapa, or Little Hanoi. The fire was not that terribly large, the main problem was that the marketplace/storage was stuffed with various goods. The firefighters didn’t know what was inside, whether there won’t be an explosion, or when the roof would collapse. For safety reasons, they decided to extinguish the fire from the outside.
It’s possible that safety standards inside the building were not met. Little Hanoi is said to have been quite isolated and the suspicion is there. Also, the fire bothered many people nearby, the operation cost millions and it was potentially dangerous to other objects. These points are likely to add to the reserved attitude of Czechs towards the Vietnamese minority in CR. The relationship is not actually bad, Czechs often admire the Vietnamese shopkeepers’ determination and ability, after all, they’re working hard, but the Czech attitude is still quite patronizing and often suspicious. There is a stereotype of every Vietnamese being an uneducated shopkeeper and of their goods being faulty and often fraudulent. Any case like this one may add to the suspicions and latent xenophobia that may sometimes be seen in the Czech public. While stereotype- breaking examples are scarce and little accented by the media, images of a Vietnamese market covering its neighborhood in smoke, is not welcome.

So far it seems both cases were accidental, although the second is yet to be investigated.

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