Friday, October 28 2016


When festivals lose sight of the people

Update: April, 27/2015 - 08:25
Lit up: Visitors at a shop on a pedestrian street in Hue. — VNS Photo Phuoc Buu
by Phuoc Buu

THUA THIEN-HUE (VNS) — Last year I visited George Town in Penang, Malaysia. I was excited to find a lot of similarities between it and my hometown, Hue.

George Town and Hue are both listed as world cultural heritage sites for their ancient structures. Also, the charming, old towns are both home to annual cultural events.

George Town holds the George Town Festival every year, attracting thousands of visitors and entertaining local residents.

Hue holds festivals, too. On even-numbered years it has the Hue Festival, gathering artists and acting troupes from several countries. The Hue Traditional Craft Festival is held on odd-numbered years, showcasing traditional village craftsmanship from around the country.

Local authorities want the city's slogan to become "Hue, a festival city". But after my visit to George Town it became clear the Malaysian city's festivals were putting my hometown's to shame.

The George Town Festival is a month long. Its organisers arrange proper stages for artists' performances, making the heritage sites less crowded. Hue's festivals are a week long, gathering thousands of people at the same time at one specific structure in the heritage building system.

This suggests that the Malaysian town's festival creators care more about ancient structures than Hue's do. International artists attending the George Town Festival get paid for performing, and the performances are free to attend. Festival Director Joe Sidek said the funding came from the town council and local businesses.

In Hue, international art troupes are encouraged to take part in the festival voluntarily or under diplomatic missions. The organisers receive little money – if any – to cover fair expenses. Unpaid performances and participation under diplomatic duty have led to a decrease in the festivals' quality.

Local residents and researchers have demanded reconsideration on the biennial organisation of the festivals, saying they should be held every four years. The first two festivals held in 2000 and 2002 were successful, but those organised later were called boring and unoriginal.

Researcher Nguyen Xuan Hoa, a former director of the local Department of Culture who organised the 2000 and 2002 events, said recent iterations have lost the principles the festival was founded on, including boosting local tourism, highlighting local culture and entertaining locals with foreign shows.

Hoa said at a conference held during last year's Hue Festival that the event should be postponed until organisers could think of new ideas.

Hue residents do not have a lot of access to the festival shows, because they cost so much. They have no chance to watch the opening and closing ceremonies either, because the stages are always full of government officials. Even journalists find it difficult to report comfortably at the ceremonies.

I asked my friends in Hue about this and most said they didn't think the festivals were held for locals. But they declined to speak on the record about it.

The fourth Hue Craft Village Festival will start tomorrow, gathering artisans from around the country. But some told me they were reluctant to participate and only did it out of a feeling of duty.

It will take place on Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street, where city authorities set up 11 nha ruong (Hue-styled houses with wooden beams and pillars) to serve as storefronts. Many shop owners were ordered to move their businesses and goods out of the houses to make space for the festival.

"We had to move without any compensation from the city," said Luong Thi Hoa, a shop owner. "We don't understand why we are not allowed to run our businesses at a time with such demand, like the festival. We sell traditional craft products."

Many also share the concern about whether or not the festivals are held for locals. The festivals will start to wither away and disappear if they can't regain the public's faith. — VNS


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