WORLD FOCUS

Safeguarding Asean's rich cultural heritage

Singapore last month announced its bid to put the country's rich hawker culture on Unesco's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. If chosen, the local food scene will join over 20 Asean entries already given that honour. ST looks at some of the practices and traditions from the region that have made the cut.

Tugging rituals and games in Vietnam. The entry was inscribed in 2015, and is also shared by the Philippines, Cambodia and South Korea.
Tugging rituals and games in Vietnam. The entry was inscribed in 2015, and is also shared by the Philippines, Cambodia and South Korea.PHOTO: VIETNAM INSTITUTE OF CULTURE AND ARTS STUDIES
The Hudhud is chanted by the people in Ifugao, a province in the Philippines known for its rice terraces, during the sowing and harvesting of rice, and during funeral wakes and rituals.
The Hudhud is chanted by the people in Ifugao, a province in the Philippines known for its rice terraces, during the sowing and harvesting of rice, and during funeral wakes and rituals.PHOTO: 2008 BY J. UNALIVIA/NCCA-IHC
Japan has given funding to the Royal Ballet of Cambodia for research and documentation, and training programmes. (Left) Inscribed on the Unesco list in 2008, mak yong has been around for over 200 years and contains spiritual elements and aspects of H
Japan has given funding to the Royal Ballet of Cambodia for research and documentation, and training programmes.PHOTO: MINISTERE DE LA CULTURE ET DES BEAUX-ARTS

She has watched with illicit thrill a mak yong performance in Kelantan, where the dance drama is banned, sat cross-legged in a pondok in Bali making batik, and watched artists in Phnom Penh carve intricate figureplates for a sbek thom shadow puppet performance.

South-east Asia has been the holiday destination of choice for South Korean teacher Nah Hyun-jeong, who makes sure to set aside time amid a whirlwind schedule of shopping and eating for a bit of culture.

Her interest started with a month-long trip hopping from island to island in Indonesia and the Philippines after graduating from university eight years ago.

"It's an affordable region to travel around, and the countries have very long and rich histories. I fell in love with batik in Indonesia, and one of the craftsmen told me it was part of a Unesco list," said the 33-year-old.

"So now, before I travel, I check the Unesco site not just for places to visit - for example, World Heritage Sites like Angkor Wat - but for performances to watch or traditional food to try."

By the end of last year, 399 cultural treasures - including traditional festivals, centuries-old art forms and oral expressions - from over 100 countries have been inscribed on Unesco's sprawling list of intangible cultural heritage.

FORBIDDEN MASTERPIECE

In Kelantan, it can be performed only for outsiders, so only foreigners and tourist groups have the chance to watch it. It's sad that mak yong was born in Kelantan and is recognised by Unesco as a 'masterpiece', but we're forbidden from experiencing a piece of our culture.

MR KHAIRUL BAHARUDDIN, a sales assistant from Kelantan, on the ancient dance drama that rankled conservatives.

It is an esoteric spread of practices and traditions that have helped build identity and foster a sense of community, from Turkish coffee culture and France's gastronomic tradition to Brazil's capoeira and the family smoke sauna custom of Estonia.

Singapore is now eyeing a spot on the list, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announcing at the National Day Rally the country's plans to nominate its hawker culture.

Hawker centres - what he called the nation's "community dining rooms" - are a cultural institution, and a unique part of Singapore's heritage and identity, he said.

Not only will putting Singapore's hawker culture on the Unesco list help safeguard and promote it for future generations, "it will also let the rest of the world know about our local food and multicultural heritage", added PM Lee.

The country's nomination dossier will be submitted to Unesco by March next year, and the result is expected to be announced by the end of 2020. If Singapore makes the cut, it will join five Asean countries already on the list: Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines.

An inscription is not just a point of pride, it is a promise to do more to safeguard these longstanding practices. Besides detailing how the nominated element is important to its people, countries must in their nomination papers outline past efforts and future plans to preserve and promote it.

Vietnam tops the list


Half-game, half-theatre, Vietnam's bai choi came about some 400 years ago to entertain the community after the harvest season. PHOTO: VIETNAMESE INSTITUTE OF MUSICOLOGY

Vietnam is the list's South-east Asian leader, with 11 inscriptions. Xoan singing, a genre of folk music performed in the northern province of Phu Tho, and bai choi, which combines music, acting and literature, made the list last year.

Half-game, half-theatre, bai choi came about some 400 years ago as a means to entertain the community after the harvest season.

It involves players sitting in bamboo huts (choi) trying to guess the name of playing cards, known as bai, mentioned in the verses of folk songs being sung.

Unesco in its decision noted that bai choi is an important cultural practice within village communities, and includes lessons on morality, compassion, as well as love for the village. Vietnam's 15-page nomination paper, it said, provided a clear and sufficiently detailed description of steps being taken to safeguard the art form, including organising bai choi festivals.

Incentives for artists have also been introduced and a formal education curriculum on bai choi drafted to attract the young.

Among South-east Asian nations, Indonesia has the second-most number of entries on the list.

The six include the art of building pinisi, a traditional Indonesian sailing ship; the kris, an asymmetrical dagger shrouded in mystique and myth; and the angklung, a traditional musical instrument made of bamboo.


The art of building pinisi, a traditional Indonesian sailing ship, is among Indonesia's six entries on Unesco's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF EDUCATION AND CULTURE, INDONESIA

Unesco inscribed batik - fabric decorated with intricate patterns in hot wax and then dyed - on its list in 2009, acknowledging that it permeates the lives of Indonesians "from beginning to end - infants are carried in batik slings decorated with symbols designed to bring the child luck, and the dead are shrouded in funerary batik".

Yayasan Batik Indonesia secretary-general Ine Hakim Tohir said since then, more people have started caring about the preservation of batik as a national culture, drawing more collectors and funders.

The Philippines and Cambodia have three elements each on the list, including tugging rituals and games - a tradition the two countries share with Vietnam and South Korea.

The Unesco programme allows more than one country to nominate a shared heritage.

Indonesia and Malaysia last year submitted a nomination paper for the Malay oral tradition pantun, which is still being examined.

On list, but restricted

For now, Malaysia has one entry on the list - mak yong, an ancient dance drama that has rankled conservatives. It remains restricted in its birthplace of Kelantan, one of the most conservative parts of Malaysia, along with other traditional art forms like wayang kulit.

When Parti Islam SeMalaysia came into power in Kelantan in 1990, it declared mak yong un-Islamic. The art form has been around for over 200 years and contains spiritual elements and aspects of Hindu-Buddhist mythology.

Kelantan-born Khairul Baharuddin had his first brush with mak yong not in his home state, but in Kuala Lumpur.

"In Kelantan, it can be performed only for outsiders, so only foreigners and tourist groups have the chance to watch it," said the sales assistant.

"It's sad that mak yong was born in Kelantan and is recognised by Unesco as a 'masterpiece', but we're forbidden from experiencing a piece of our culture."


Inscribed on the Unesco list in 2008, mak yong has been around for over 200 years and contains spiritual elements and aspects of Hindu-Buddhist mythology. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF TOURISM, ARTS AND CULTURE, MALAYSIA

There are some scattered efforts to keep the art form alive. Heritage group Pusaka, for instance, has taken mak yong performances to KL, and helped mak yong performers document their traditions to be passed down to future generations.

Its creative director, Ms Pauline Fan, said the art form has seen growing interest, especially among the young, partly because they feel alienated from their own cultural heritage.

"Whenever Pusaka presents a mak yong performance in Kuala Lumpur, it draws a large audience, mostly young people in search of themselves," she told The Straits Times.

"One can only hope that policymakers in Kelantan will come to embrace the mak yong as the deep and distinct cultural heritage that it is."

But mak yong's move to urban areas such as KL means this ancient form has mutated, adapting urban theatrical conventions, said Professor Mohamed Ghouse Nasuruddin of Universiti Sains Malaysia's School of the Arts in a column for New Straits Times earlier this year.

This, he said, may contribute to "the loss of identity and integrity", adding that securing Unesco recognition is not enough, and it is more important "to ensure its continuity and preserve its originality".

Professor Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof of the University of Malaya noted that the mak yong nomination papers submitted to Unesco, prepared on behalf of the Malaysian ministry overseeing culture, included an ambitious plan for its revival, such as the setting up of permanent training and performance facilities in Kelantan, Terengganu and KL.

In fact, three years before mak yong was inscribed on the Unesco list in 2008, Unesco had proclaimed it as one of the masterpieces of humanity.

But the arts expert noted in a 2011 speech that "almost nothing or very little has happened" since then. Now, he told The Straits Times, the art form desperately needs support, "but it may already be too late, with almost all the veteran artists gone".

Despite efforts to keep old practices alive, other countries are also facing an uphill battle.

Struggling for survival

Funding woes, as well as rapid social and economic changes - even in rural areas - are threatening the survival of ancient practices.

Vietnam, in a 2011 report to Unesco, noted that its gong culture, inscribed on the list three years earlier, is struggling to stay alive in the face of challenges, such as villagers abandoning traditional beliefs for organised religion.

The switch from farming rice to cultivating crops such as coffee has also forced households to sell their gongs - a key instrument present in all the rituals of community life in the country's central highlands - to buy production tools.

Meanwhile, Cambodia in a report said that despite government efforts, the number of students enrolling in artistic courses continues to dwindle as training periods are long and careers in the arts are still seen as unprofitable.

"Because Cambodia is still very weak in terms of funding, it will be unable to ensure the durability of projects to safeguard and promote its particularly rich intangible heritage," it said, calling for partnership and outside funding.

Unesco has a funding programme - which includes contributions from countries like Norway and Japan - to support activities aimed at safeguarding cultural heritage. More than US$80,000 (S$110,000) from Japan has gone to the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, which was inscribed on the list in 2008, for research and documentation, and the development of training programmes, among other things.

In 2016, grassroots efforts spearheaded by two young sisters helped fend off a blow to yet another of Cambodia's cultural treasures - the shadow puppet theatre sbek thom, which also made the Unesco list in 2008.


The Khmer shadow puppet theatre sbek thom made the Unesco list in 2008. PHOTO: MINISTERE DE LA CULTURE ET DES BEAUX-ARTS DU CAMBODGE

Veteran puppet-maker Mann Kosal, grappling with a rent hike on his studio, back pain from hunching over his work and a lack of income, announced he would retire and close his Sovanna Phum art association.

Sisters Lomorpich and Lomorkesor Rithy launched a fund-raising campaign that raised US$30,000, and organised puppet-carving workshops to draw interest.

"It was the first time we saw the culture of sharing money in Cambodia for art," said Ms Lomorpich, then 25, in an interview with The Independent newspaper last year.

"Usually that only happens around religion. We are a country with a lot of culture and art history, but we don't really value them."


Asean entries on Unesco's Intangible Cultural Heritage list

Tugging games and rituals

This entry, inscribed in 2015, is shared by Vietnam, the Philippines, Cambodia and South Korea. Communities in these countries participate in these games as a means of wishing for abundant harvest, and to promote unity, harmony and solidarity.


Sbek thom 

This Khmer shadow theatre, which was nearly wiped out under the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s, features 2m-high puppets made of leather, bringing to life tales from the Reamker, the Cambodian version of the Ramayana, an Indian epic.


Hudhud chants

The Hudhud is chanted by the people in Ifugao, a province in the Philippines known for its rice terraces, during the sowing and harvesting of rice, and during funeral wakes and rituals. The chants, which touch on a range of issues, including ancestral heroes and the importance of rice cultivation, are believed to have come about before the 7th century.


What is intangible cultural heritage?

Cultural heritage goes beyond monuments and collections of objects, says Unesco. It also includes the intangible, ranging from oral traditions and performing arts to rituals, and knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe.

''While fragile, intangible cultural heritage is an important factor in maintaining cultural diversity in the face of growing globalisation,'' says Unesco on its site.

''An understanding of the intangible cultural heritage of different communities helps with intercultural dialogue and encourages mutual respect for other ways of life.''

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 11, 2018, with the headline 'Safeguarding the region's rich cultural heritage'. Subscribe