I was fortunate enough to be invited to the first-ever conference held by the UNESCO Center for Research and Conservation of the Chăm culture in Hồ Chí Minh City last week.
I was surprised to be chatting with interested parties from all over the world who converged on the city to celebrate and take part in keeping alive this ancient group of people who have survived against all odds.
A group of Chăm girls are pictured performing a traditional dance during the UNESCO conference in District 1 last week
In particular one dignitary whose presence above all gives a face to the Chăm people – Chế Linh.
The singer who currently resides in Toronto, Canada was a proud man taking his place among the other Chăm dignitaries who discussed in great lengths the way forward for the minority people who reside in Việt Nam and in particular the traditional and modern songs and dance.
The thing that has always struck me about the Chăm culture apart from the beautiful red sandstone temples and monuments to a past time in places like Phan Rang, Đà Nẵng City, Nha Trang and Phan Thiết, is the interest it garners in those with no Chăm background.
One of those was Japanese professor Shine Toshihiko, who speaks fluent Chăm and Vietnamese and took part in the debate at the all-day symposium on the preservation and development of Chăm music in District 10.
He represents Japanese universities and is co-director of Việt Nam National University – Hà Nội and Kyoto University Collaboration Office.
Toshihiko first became interested in the Chăm culture thanks to a famous professor of Champa history at Hiroshima University, the late Professor Sugimoto Naojiro.
“I knew him when I was a high school student.
Thanks to his inspiration, at university in central Tokyo I seriously studied Champa’s history.
In my fourth year at university I traveled to see all the Cham ruins in Việt Nam.
Two years later I moved to Việt Nam for good as a Japanese language lecturer at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities and Vietnam National University –Ho Chi Minh City, and my career in Việt Nam started.
Now my life work is reading Cham royal archives and study on socio-economic history of Champa from the 17th to 19th century,” he says.
According to Toshihiko, in the beginning of Islamization in Southeast Asia, Islam followers came from Persia and the Malay aristocrats originated from Persia (and some came from Champa).
However, when the Hadramies (Arabs from Hadramawt region) came to Malay, they changed the Islam teaching from Persian style (ShiaSchool) to Hadramies style (SunniSchool).
The Islam followers in Cambodia and Indonesia also were influenced by the Hadramies.
Only the Chăm in Việt Nam still keep the early style of Islam in Southeast Asia.
The conclusion of the conference was that there should be separate modern musicians, dancers, directors and religious musicians and dancers.
The Chăm officials agreed to develop so-called modern Chăm’s secular music and dance, and keep traditional Chăm’s religious music and dance which were performed by some attractive young Chăm girls during the conference.
Another interested foreigner was Billy Noseworthy, 27, from Wisconsin-Madison University who is also well-versed in the Chăm language and is in Việt Nam to work on his university dissertation.
He admits that he was completely oblivious to the existence of the Chăm civilization and the Chăm culture before 2006.
However, listening to Professor of Asian Religions at Swarthmore College, Steve Hopkins, changed all that.
“Professor Hopkins is a phenomenal story teller.
His recounting of portions of the Ramayana at Mỹ Son is one of my earliest if not the earliest encounter I had with the Chăm culture.
My first formal collegiate level study of Việt Nam was a year later in the spring of 2007 when I took a course in Vietnamese history in preparation for my return visit to Việt Nam, as I had visited here in 2006 when I was 20.
I am here to do my dissertation which is on extensive reassessment of the history of the borderlands between Việt Nam and Cambodia and the place of the Chăm in the region.”
There are 162,000 Chăm people still residing in Việt Nam, 217,000 in Cambodia, 10,000 in Malaysia and 4,000 in Thailand.
There are even 3,000 in the US and 1,000 in France.
Chăm architecture and statues were inspired by religion, and flourished since the fourth century and ended along with the fall of the Chăm Kingdom in the 15th century.
There are priceless Chăm artifacts with some individual pieces literally worth millions of dollars in the Việt Nam History Museum in District 1 as interest in the ancient culture continues unabated.
You have to say it is looking in good shape with poster boy Linh an important figurehead in its modern-day resurgence.