The ordeals of the rich

TN News

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Forbes still lists David Beckham among the top ten money makers among athletes worldwide despite his retirement from football in May.

The fashion icon is known for his love of tattoos, which cover much of his upper body, but to the Brau people of Kon Tum Province in Vietnam's central highlands, Beckham displays little in the way of wealth or elegance as his teeth are not filed down, his earlobes are not strained, nor is his face tattooed.

Among the Brau of Bo Y Commune in Ngoc Hoi District, uot bung (filing of teeth), tavattopit (straining of ears) and chingkrackang (tattooing of face) were once the way for the elite to show that they came from families of substance.

According to Thao Loi, chief of Dak Me village, population 700 people, only the rich were permitted to subject themselves to uot bung, tavattopit and chingkrackang so that the size of their earlobes corresponded with the number of heads of cattle they owned and the degree that their teeth were filed down to their level of elegance.

That is how it used to be. Nowadays, there are only three surviving members of the community who witnessed and practiced the customs: Y Bui, Nang Nang and Y Giang.

Y Bui, who claims to be 130 years old, can no longer remember a single detail about the ordeals she underwent over a century ago despite the evidence still visible on her face and head, and in her mouth, but the sprightlier Nang Nang, who is a mere 90 years old, can recall the pain and pride she felt so long ago.

She was one of the first generation of Brau settlers whose families moved from Laos to Vietnam and founded Dak Me.

"There were many [who practiced the customs] before, but they all passed away," says Nang, who was born into a wealthy family of nomadic farmers and now lives in a small wooden stilt house on a hill.

Out of the several tattoo motifs commonly used by the Brau, like flowers, circles, squares, portraits, even side-whiskers, Nang chose to decorate her forehead with a line connecting her temples and a knot in the middle and two crossed flags, along with several black dots on her jaw. "They were very beautiful before, but age has blurred them somewhat," she says.

"It was an effort to choose a suitable design and make the ink," she says, and adds that the tools and ink container were made of gold.

Once she'd decided what she wanted, Nang sent her men into the jungle to find the bark of a certain rare tree for making the ink. The bark was steeped in water and crushed to extract blue, violet and purple ink.

Since nobody in her village knew how to make the tattoo, Nang's family spent a big sum of money to invite an artisan from Laos to do it for her. For three days after the needles had done their work, she was not allowed to bathe or even wash her face with water so that the wounds could heal properly.

Unlike Y Bui and Nang Nang, Y Giang has no tattoo on her face. Now aged 80 years old, the youngest and poorest of the trio says that when she was young she was only rich enough to afford the teeth filing and ear straining.

"It wasn't compulsory, and the village leaders gave permission only to the richest among us," says Giang, whose people led a nomadic life for eons and occasionally resort to the slash-and-burn method to grow rice, corn and cassava with rudimentary tools.

For uot bung, Giang, who was 14 at that time, lay on the floor while the villagers filed her six upper front incisors down to stumps with a serrated knife. The process took days.

In addition to seed-hair fiber, obtained from the fruit of the kapok tree, to soak up the blood and stop the bleeding, a sap released from a burnt tree was applied to the stumps to ease the pain. Giang also chewed gong, a native herbal leaf, for two to three months to dye and polish what remained of her filed teeth.

"The more the teeth turned yellow or even black, the prettier our smile," Giang says.

While teeth filing was not done until the baby teeth had been replaced by permanent molars and incisors, the ear straining (tavattopit or sip tieu) was usually done soon after birth or, at the latest, by the age of three years.

For this, the adults carved bamboo into sharp slivers and dried them on a fire of forest leaves before piercing the middle of the earlobes. The holes were stretched and strained wider and wider day by day for several months until they were big enough to fit a pair of big, heavy earrings made of tusk.

Making the earrings took months as well. "The earrings were very heavy, so their weight lengthened the holes. The longer the ears and thus the bigger the earrings, the richer the wearer," says Giang, who owned a pair of tusk earrings as big as a child's fist until money woes forced her to sell them in 2000.

Even a modest pair of earrings could buy a mature buffalo, "Mine were very sophisticated and pretty. I still feel sorry about selling them, but I'm sure that, had I kept them, I could have not survived until now."

According to Thao Loi, whose people form the smallest population of any racial group in the province, the last earrings were sold some years ago.

"Learning that the villagers intended to sell them, some provincial officials bought the earrings for display in Kon Tum's museum to preserve this aspect of culture and tradition," Thao Loi says.

In the past, he says, tusk was purchased from Thai people or obtained from local wild elephants, but due to the beasts' dwindling number mostly because of poaching, the custom is no longer practiced.

Nang disagrees and says the three customs died out for a practical reason "In our people's new home here, we learned from the local Kinh people that our practices were unhealthy, even dangerous."

Teeth filing love story

Though tattooing is only seen among the Brau community in the central highlands, teeth filing and ear straining were practiced by several tribes in the area, including the Ede, Bana, Ma, Stieng and M'nong.

Apart from the purpose of demonstrating their wealth and high-class like the Brau, the other ethnic groups filed teeth and strained ears as a sign of adulthood.

According to Ede elder Y Bhiong Nie from A ko D hong, a village on the outskirts of Dak Lak's provincial capital Buon Ma Thuot, having one's teeth filed had to be endured in order to be accepted and acknowledged as a member of the community entering adulthood.

"While a male with wide, big earlobes and filed teeth is considered brave enough to face life's obstacles and fight for his people and family, a female is praised for her endurance, diligence, and patience," says Nie, adding that the customs originated in a tragic tale of two lovers from different tribes.

As their love was not approved by the elders, the pair decided to meet in the jungle one last time. Neither felt able to go on without the other, so they spent their first night together before binding one to the other with a vine, and then biting their tongues in order to die together.

After their deaths, the two groups promulgated an unwritten law that all males and females had to have their teeth filed when they reached puberty to prevent a recurrence of the tragedy of the star-crossed lovers in the jungle.

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