Bai Choi Becomes a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage

Vietnam, culture, UNESCO

Bai Choi, a folk music genre practiced in Central Vietnam, has been officially recognized as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

The recognition of Bai Choi music was made at the 12th session of the UNESCO Inter-governmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in Jeju, the Republic of Korea, on December 7, 2017.

This recognition is of great importance to Vietnam, reflecting the country’s rich and diverse culture and its commitment to protecting traditional values.

To celebrate the registration of Bai Choi, local people and tourists came to listen to performances of the traditional singing in the UNESCO-recognized protected city of Hoi An. Drums were played and pink pennants awarded to top performers were placed aside, for a game to acknowledge these ancestral songs.

The structure of a traditional Bai Choi singing festival contest consists of nine to ten bamboo huts with four huts standing parallel and one or two in the middle where the game’s umpire (a line judge) sits. The game starts when the umpire, who wears a traditional costume, gives the players three bamboo or wooden cards printed with pictures and words.

When the umpire sings a sentence of a folk song that has the same words as the card of a player, he or she hits the wooden bell to signal that his or her card matches the umpire’s words and thus becomes the winner.

Performing Bai Choi songs is all about festivals, daily life and work, and are accompanied by musical instruments. Bai Choi is an important cultural activity in Vietnamese villages and communes.

“I usually sing Bai Choi during spring festivals and my singing often goes like this: On the first days of the lunar year, bowing in front of ancestral altars, we’d like to pray for peace and harmony to our families, health to our parents and loved ones and joy to all fellow countrymen. We also wish for our businesses to grow 10 times bigger than the previous ones,” said Le Dieu Khoa, a Bai Choi singer in Hoi An.

Bai Choi singing is a diverse art combining music, poetry, acting, painting, and literature. Performers and their families play a major role in safeguarding the practice, which has been passed down to younger generations. UNESCO’s recognition of Bai Choi has called for greater efforts in protecting the heritage.

Phung Tan Dong, a researcher of Bai Choi singing in Hoi An, said, “Bai Choi is the pride of people in central Vietnam and nationwide as well. To better preserve the art form, it’s necessary to set out policies at national level, not just at local level. We need proper funding for training for young artists and promoting the art form to a a wider public.”

A total of 90 art troupes and clubs specialising in Bai Choi singing have been established across Vietnam. Hoi An is taking the lead in bringing Bai Choi to schools.