ASEAN is becoming a growing economy with the population of more than 600 million citizens. Its member states are urged to pursue greater integration and increasing cultural and people-to-people exchange meanwhile preserve the cultural diversity and unique identity of the region in the context of increasing globalization.

Let’s take a glimpse into the “same but different” culture of this diverse region through the ASEAN exhibition in Hanoi.

The exhibition locates in the campus of the Museum of Ethnology, one of the most visited museums in Vietnam. The four-storey building named Kite is co-designed by Vietnamese and French experts and open since 2013. Covering more than 500sqm, the exhibition features more than 2,000 artefacts and photographs displaying the unique cultures of the Southeast Asian countries.

Young visitors at ASEAN exhibition. Photo Credit: Van Nguyen

Young visitors at ASEAN exhibition. Photo Credit: Van Nguyen

The rich cultures of Southeast Asian countries are diverse with the influences from Indian, Chinese, Arabic and European civilisations. Yet we also can see that the shared indigenous culture is still the foundation forming the unique identity of Southeast Asia with rice being the staple crop, with sophisticated handicrafts being well-preserved for generations as well as unique traditional forms of art are still popular in today’s life.

The exhibition goes through different aspects of life of Southeast Asian people ranging from clothing, habitat, marriage, funeral, to script, performing art and handicrafts.

As Southeast Asian women produce some of the world’s most beautiful fabrics, one would be mesmerized by the hand-made delicate and sophisticated piece of cloth using batik weaving method or ikat dying technique or supplementary weft patterns.

A piece of cloth using the supplementary weft patterns. Photo Credit: Van Nguyen

A piece of cloth using the supplementary weft patterns. Photo Credit: Van Nguyen

The common practice of jewelry making in Southeast Asia is also displayed in the exhibition with the most widely used technique: repousse. The high-relief motifs are created on the outer side of the metal object by hammering from the inside. The technique of incision is applied to create designs on gold and silver jewelry. In some regions of Malaysia and Singapore, fine wires made of gold and silver are wound(you could have meant woven???) or soldered into the patterns.

Lacquer is also an art known throughout Southeast Asia. It is known to be at its most developed in Myanmar with four unique techniques of decorations – yun, applying colours on incised designs; shwei zawa, drawing motifs by gum solution which is then pasted over with gold leaves; thayo, creating patterns by laying threads rolled from lacquer mixed with paddy husks or even cow dung on the object before covering it with lacquer; and hman zi shwei cha, embedding fragments of colored mirrors, glass or precious stones on relief designs.

Visitors also have chance to look at the so-called house on stilt that can hardly be seen in cities. It was once actually the most popular architectural style in Southeast Asia. Essential materials such as wooden poles, bamboo walls and thatch for roofs are available in this region. The styles of houses are varied among populations and regions.

Decorative finials in the form of crossed horns are also a commonly seen architectural feature across Southeast Asia. They can be found among some communities in Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore, Malaysia as well as Laos and Indonesia. They are a symbol that is believed to protect the home and show the important role of the buffalo in Southeast Asia.

The shadow puppetry of Indonesia is often performed at ritual feasts. Photo Credit: Van Nguyen

The shadow puppetry of Indonesia is often performed at ritual feasts. Photo Credit: Van Nguyen

The practice of betel chewing, which is totally strange to the west, is however prevalent in Southeast Asian culture. A betel quid consists of the betel leaf, areca nut and lime paste made from slaked limstone, coral or shells. Other ingredients such as tobacco fibres, cinnamon bark, turmeric, cloves are added depending on different local customs. The betel leaf is daubed with lime paste, then folded around a quarter of areca nut. The betel set includes a betel cutter, a lime pot, and a betel box or tray. Some people use some boxes and tray made of copper or silver comprising smaller boxes for different ingredients. Sophisticated cutters appear in the shapes of horses, roosters or birds. In Cambodia, the lime pots are often bird-shaped while they are made in the shape of Buddhism stupa in Thailand. The elderly women with impressively black teeth often use a small mortar to crush the areca nuts. Traditionally, betel and areca are used to receive guests, at weddings, funerals and many other rituals. This practice is still widely observed in Vietnam.

A betel box displayed at the ASEAN exhibition. The practice of betel chewing, which is totally strange to the west, is however prevalent in Southeast Asian culture. Photo Credit: Van Nguyen

A betel box displayed at the ASEAN exhibition. The practice of betel chewing, which is totally strange to the west, is however prevalent in Southeast Asian culture. Photo Credit: Van Nguyen

Religion is also an interesting topic to learn regarding culture of Southeast Asia. Animism used to be popular throughout the region. Since the early AD, Buddhism and Brahmanism began to influence the area, leading to the emergence of civilizations glowing from the 7th century to the 12th century, leaving many outstanding temples such as Angkor in Cambodia, Borobudur and Prambanan in Indonesia, Bagan in Myanmar. From the 13th century, Islam arrived in the region with Middle East merchants. Missionaries from Europe evangelised Catholicism here from the 15th century.

A statue of Buddha. Buddhism is among the popular religions practised in Southeast Asia. Photo Credit: Van Nguyen

A statue of Buddha. Buddhism is among the popular religions practised in Southeast Asia. Photo Credit: Van Nguyen

Today, Mahayana Buddhism is prevalent in Singapore, Theravada Buddhism popular in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Islam predominant in Indonesia and is the national religion of Brunei and Malaysia. Catholicism is popular in the Philippines, Hinduism is concentrated in Bali, and Buddhism is prevalent in Vietnam.

Nowadays indigenous beliefs based on animism remain popular in the region. People perform a number of ceremonies each day in order to revere the natural spirits, animals and plants.

Shamanism and spirit possession are based on the belief that interacting with the supernatural world can help to heal diseases. In spirit possession ceremonies, spirits enter the medium in order to communicate with the community, whereas shaman voyages into another world to communicate with spirits and retells the voyage after returning. Mediumship (or hau dong in Vietnamese has become an important ritual in the Mother Goddess Worshipping practice which was recognised as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2016. worshiping

A mythical animal displayed at the exhibition. Photo Credit: Van Nguyen

A mythical animal displayed at the exhibition. Photo Credit: Van Nguyen

Southeast Asia is so blessed to have such a diverse and rich culture. It is important for its citizens, especially the young generation to take a trip back to the past to learn about and preserve the valuable culture and history of the region.

By Van Nguyen, ASEAN Correspondent from Vietnam.

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