I spent four months in South East Asia; two and a half were spent working in Vietnam, but I also got to go to Thailand, Laos, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. Although it has been the longest time I’ve been away from the UK, it would be impossible and presumptuous for me to generalise the arts in the whole of South East Asia, or even just one country. Instead, this will be a reflection on the things I experienced whilst travelling.
The most obvious art form was present within religion. It was in grand temples where lots of money went into, but also where artistic expression could be seen. Although this means that they have to tolerate the tourism this brings, it would have been a shame to travel through these countries without having witnessed these sights. The craft that went into these structures was awe-inspiring, but in terms of the artistic expression itself, I was less interested in which were the biggest or most shiny and gold, but rather in the perhaps more modern. In Ninh Binh, whilst Chua Bai Dinh has been criticized for its being more like a theme park than a place of worship, what I found interesting was that older temples tend to create identikit Buddha statues and images, and yet all unique. In Da Nang, a smaller pagoda showed a range of characters from religious stories, and the whole place was a rainbow of colours. In Singapore, there were both Hindu and Buddhist temples, and both incredibly detailed and colourful.
Aside from this, at times it could be easy – living in Haiphong in Vietnam, at least – to believe that the arts were non-existent. In the UK, and other Western countries I’ve experienced, we talk about access to the arts and the domination of white middle-class men in the field. However, Vietnam is obviously a much poorer country, and it reminded me of practicing the arts as a form of luxury. One of my Vietnamese friends, whose family was wealthier than others, was able to study graphic design, and had a passion for the arts, but the reality was that she needed to speak good English and her aim was to go to the UK to study further. Another fact, which seems true the world-over, is that the arts are simply not valued, despite being something essential to having a fulfilling life. This need is perhaps seen by the popularity of karaoke bars – in Bangkok, Thailand, I even joined in with some locals who were singing in a park! Singing is one of the best forms of self-expression and so important for mental health. This is one thing I will miss a lot.
There were, of course, some more overt creative expressions throughout my travels. In Hanoi there were some amazing galleries, which presented women in a strong and positive light (I talked about some here, too). This was true of the large national galleries, as well as the small independent ones; in one of the latter we spoke to the curator, a young woman full of passion, with short brightly coloured hair. In Laos, there was an exhibition that focused on women in the Ethnology Museum, and one of the members of staff expressed how the women often have to work harder than the men, because there is still the expectation of childcare being the woman’s responsibility. That said, there were beautiful moments I witnessed between fathers and children, and I would say that a lot of families I’ve met seem to have more egalitarian households and beliefs.
In Singapore, the wealthiest of all the countries I visited, and which has English as one of the official languages, I was actually able to attend an open mic night. I loved this country, and felt it was truly unique, yet I also felt at home here. I was intrigued by the use of Singlish, and the range of accents was fascinating. Every single poet and singer who stepped up to the microphone was incredibly talented. They also had poetry in Kuala Lumpur, but I was unable to attend. In both Laos and Indonesia, I went to the theatre and saw different dance shows. The Kecak Fire and Trance Dance in Ubud, Bali, was incredible in terms of the atmosphere it created, where a choir of men made the music, as a mixed-gender cast danced around a fire. Here I was also able to attend a jewellery making workshop, and I made a ring, which was one of the highlights of my visit.
Growing up in London, I realised, I was spoilt when it came to the arts, and I missed that immediacy when travelling. But I got to experience things that I never would have otherwise, and it also means I appreciate what I have in the UK, which really is – as I was reminded once more – both a privilege and a necessity.
Featured image: Vietnam Museum of Ethnology via HanoiHotels