Culture is not for sale

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 Ethnic people performing with their gongs in a traditional festival

"Our gong is not for sale," said Mi Hop emphatically, pointing to a tarnished bronze disc covered in graying animal skin. Hop has the last family-owned gong in the central highlands' Buon Trap Town.

Sitting in her longhouse, Hop tells Tran Viet Du, cultural officer of Buon Trap Town in Dak Lak Province, of their family gong, which has been passed down for generations, and is always the highlight of family celebrations.

"Nowadays, people cough up VND200,000 (US$10) or more to hire traditional musical instruments from other villages to play at festival," said Du.

Unlike Hop, who fondly holds on to her family's antique gong, most villagers have already sold their family treasures or bartered them for novelties such as televisions and DVD players.

Y Phang, Hop's neighbor, recently sold his six gongs for VND5 million ($250).

And he is already planning his next sale. Phang points to the 20- meter-long chair he is lying on. "This is a traditional K Bang chair. Together with some more furniture around the house, a drum and a set of big gongs, I stand to make VND250 million ($12,500)."

Near the town's entrance, a young girl is inviting people to buy her mother's dug-out canoe. Despite the canoe's rotten bottom, the girl is asking for VND5 million (US$250). "The late artist Y Moan had wanted to buy the canoe for VND2 million ($100), but my mother didn't sell it then. Now it is worth a lot more," she said.

Le Thi Cuc, director of the museum in Gia Lai Province, says that most families had their own gongs in the past. In the last decade, the number of gongs has whittled down to just two or three per village. The museum exhibits several sets of gongs that tell fascinating stories about the ethnic people of this region.

In an interview with Thanh Nien Weekly, Cuc said, "The Gong culture was recognized by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage five years ago. But for the poor people belonging to this ethnic minority group, their family antiques are disposable property. The government can't stop them from selling what belongs to them."

According to Y Wai Bya, director of the Department of Culture, Sports, and Tourism in Dak Lak Province, the shoddy policies of culture conservation are to blame. That, and modern creature comforts.


A set of gongs displayed at the Museum of Cultures of Vietnam's Ethnic Groups in Thai Nguyen Town.

"The antiques are often bartered for TVs, plastic basins, cigarettes, or even instant noodles," said Minh, an antique trader in Ho Chi Minh City. "The villagers exchange their antiques for things which are more useful to them."

An M'Kong ethnic man, recently traded his bow, crossbow and jar for a DVD player for his wife. "I use a shotgun to hunt now, not bows. And the jar occupies too much space."

To meet the increasing demands for antiques, traders buy everything from traditional musical instruments like drums, flutes ($35-75), tools like knives, mortars, pestles, papooses, to dresses and handbags made from tree barks.

In Don Village in Dak Lak Province, which has been a center of elephant hunting and training for hundreds of years, antique traders prowl for hunters' tools.

According to Ama Pet, a pro elephant hunter, now that elephants are protected by the government, very few families have any use of the hunting ropes.

Pet is planning to sell his own rope, a 20-arm-long intricate plait made with the skin of wild buffaloes, for VND15 million ($750).

Y Wai Bya said the People's Committee of the central highland province of Dak Lak has just approved a resolution to preserve gongs and other traditional artifacts. The local government will soon conduct a survey to find out the number of gongs left, and give $25 to each family that still wants to keep their gongs.

The museum of Gia Lai Province, in cooperation with the Department of Culture, purchases gongs to give to villages whose gongs have been stolen or lost, said Cuc, the museum director.

"This is just temporary solution and insufficient to preserve the culture here," she said.

Bya and Cuc agree that a longterm strategy must include rearranging cultural activities, promoting traditional festivals, and building museums for each village.

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