Friday, March 9, 2012

(Re) Defining Cultural Heritage in Vietnam?

It appears that debate over what defines cultural heritage in Vietnam, both tangible and intangible, is being held once again. This article describes the goings on of "a series of conferences," all centered around the issue of where to draw the line between cultural performances for tradition's sake vs. renewing/maintaining customs that otherwise might die solely for the benefit of tourists. This is especially true for aspects of "intangible" heritage, such as folk music and singing and theatre, the beauty and merits of which would most likely not translate well or, rather unfortunately, be deemed not aesthetically or aurally pleasing enough for the majority of tourists. Certain aspects of a culture like clothing or handicraft will always find a market if the objects are at the very least "beautiful" enough (even if original dyes and patterns are not used, or if the more abstract meanings behind the use of authentic motifs are kept secret to foreigners).

"Intangible" heritage doesn't even have this luxury, yet it deserves protection all the same, especially as some styles of song and dance are being kept alive by very few elderly masters, desperate for apprentices. Examples given in the article from Vietnam include Central Highlands gong music (video example here). Although I can't personally attest to the accuracy of this video, I agree with the general sentiment expressed that renewing such performances for tourist's sake only would cheapen them in time, even if the younger generation would not have been made aware of these "lost" ceremonies otherwise. More popular forms, such as Hanoi's Water Puppet Theatre will always have its commercial and international appeal, but where does that leave the so-called 'niche market' styles like Quan Ho (northern) or Ca Tru (central), or music of any of the numerous ethnic minorities (e.g. the Jarai)? Let alone those of the dozens of other ethnic groups throughout the region and more contemporary styles influenced by traditional music from (e.g. a Karen music video here and slightly older Khmer folk/pop here)?

I also agree with Dr. Trung Quoc's statement that too much government involvement, as opposed to grass-roots community initiative, is in the end not a good thing. The same problem is always at hand in regards to historical and archaeological site preservation/excavation vs. commercial management for tourism vs. short-term looting. The reality in much of Southeast Asia (and the world) is that there is only so much independent academic researchers/NGOs can be expected to foot the bill to subsidize the day to day needs/gear of non-commercial musicians (or everything needed to preserve an excavated site).

World class institutions such as the Musical Instrument Museum and Earthwatch routinely sponsor their own research or arrange for volunteers to help on digs, with the proceeds helping to fund the project. With so many art and music styles (and archaeological sites) worthy of protection or rediscovery before they are lost, a happy medium needs to be found soon. As with the archaeological record, linguistic diversity, biological diversity etc., when taken out of the purely academic realm, time is of the essence to preserve what we study for its own sake and the people who have always lived with it first and foremost.

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