Thursday, July 31, 2014

Pride in Embroidery—the Beautiful Huayao Yi

                                                       by Jim Goodman

    China’s southwestern province of Yunnan drips with colors:  deep blue high-altitude skies, green forests, red soil, turquoise streams and piebald cliffs.  Seasonal changes enhance these with spring and summer flowers and the brilliant yellows and crimsons of autumn.  This splendid environment has influenced the traditional taste in clothing.  Most of the costumes of the province’s 24 minority nationalities deploy bright, strong colors, with embroidery patterns inspired by nature.  Exemplifying the indigenous zest for color and imaginative stitch work is a little-known ethnic group called the Huayao Yi.
Huayao Yi girl, Shaochong district
    The Yi are one of China’s biggest minority nationalities, numbering roughly five million in Yunnan and nearly three million more in Sichuan, Guizhou and Guangxi.  Though all Yi share a common origin, as well as some social institutions and customs, they are divided into over 30 distinct sub-groups, living under a variety of ecological conditions.  Their Tibeto-Burman language has six major dialects.  As for clothing variety, researchers have identified over a hundred separate outfits. 
    Although the Yi are scattered across most of Yunnan, very few of them come into contact with either foreign or domestic tourists.   Yi villages are generally off the beaten track, in high mountain settings or on secluded plateaus only recently connected by roads to urban commercial areas.  The average traveler sees them at the Stone Forest, catches glimpses around Dali and spots them in Ninglang County en route to visiting the Mosuo of Lugu Lake.  Yet the Yi are as approachable as anyone else in the friendly province of Yunnan and it’s easy enough to find out which branch appeals to one’s taste.  Nowadays you can browse Yi photos on the internet, while in the past century you simply thumbed through the big pictorial books published in Kunming and decided from the photos.  That’s how I discovered the Huayao Yi.
    The Huayao Yi inhabit a rolling plateau, about 2000 meters high, in the northern part of Shiping County, off the road to Tonghai, around six or seven hours ride south of Kunming.  Ethnologists say they are a splinter group that broke off from a bigger Yi tribe further north.  But the Huayao Yi claim that they have lived in these hills for over 3000 years, descendants of people saved by the hero Ah Lu.  He appeared on the scene in the wake of a great natural disaster that ravaged the mountains, while overhead nine fierce suns burned up anything trying to grow.  Upon the advice of the elders, Ah Lu drank all the ”Righteous Spirit” waters of the mountain, then with his bow and arrow shot eight suns out of the sky.  The Yi revived and prospered.
the characteristic flat roofs of a Huayao Yi village
    Contemporary Huayao Yi still revere Ah Lu.  In every village they place a stone with a hole in it beneath a prominent banyan tree.  Ah Lu’s spirit resides in this ”cave” and protects the village from harm.  The story, common to all Yi groups, resembles the Chinese myth of Yi the Archer.  The Huayao Yi show other signs of Han influence, too, such as Chinese-style doors, simple domestic altars and the suspension of banners inscribed with Chinese characters wishing for wealth and prosperity.
    Yet a Huayao Yi village is easily distinguishable from a Han settlement, for the flat roofs of the houses identify it from a distance.  Yi houses are two-story, quadrangular compounds.  A small square courtyard lies behind the entrance, with the kitchen off to the right and storerooms on the left.  Sleeping quarters are above.  The open room behind the courtyard contains the family altar and is also used for dining and for receiving guests.  The flat roofs are for drying crops such as rice, wheat and maize, while tobacco—the area’s major cash crop—they cure in a tall square building separate from the compound.
    The Yis’ most extraordinary difference from the Han, however, is in their traditional apparel.  The Han people in this area historically favored dull shades of blue or grey.  Huayao Yi women present a scintillating contrast, with the accent on bold red.  Indeed, their very name reflects their taste in decoration.  Huayao in Chinese means “flowery waist,” for these Yi believe a woman’s hips and waist to be the most attractive zone on the body, and so pay much attention, especially at festivals, in adorning that area.

Yi of the"flowery waist"
Huayao girl embroidering
    But Huayao costume art is not restricted to the midriff alone.  Only the trousers—plain black with blue stripes at the ankles—are left unembellished.  Traditionally, even the shoes were fully embroidered.  The top consists of a sleeveless tunic over a long-sleeved coat, usually black, the tails of which feature thick rows of embroidery on the hem, hanging below the hips.  The tunic is appliquéd on the sides and down the front with embroidered strips and on the back with a lushly decorative rectangular patch.  It is enhanced by silver studs on the collar and fastened by Chinese coin-buttons.
Huayao girls en route to a festival
    In a land famous for strange headgear, the Huayao bonnet ranks as one of the most unusual.  Basically it’s a rectangular piece of cloth, with embroidered flower panels on one end and two long, narrow bands of cloth attached at the other end.  To wear it, the Yi woman tucks the cloth, puts it on her head, then wraps the long bands around it, looping them at the sides to hold it in place.  The bands in front are embroidered and ornamented with silver and with red wool tassels.  Those which stand up above the forehead are called “red bayberry flowers” while those hanging over the ears they call “flowers to drive away flies,” a task the tassels do indeed perform as the woman bends down over her crops in the field or her food in the kitchen.  Women wear this headgear at all times except when sleeping, and even those who have put away the rest of the costume still wear the bonnet. 
Huayao mother and child
    Embroiderers employ several styles.  The floral motifs on the tunic strips and waistbands resemble traditional Han-style silk patterns.  The cross-stitched designs are similar to Miao and Yao motifs.  But the execution of these techniques is strictly their own.  Likewise, the stylized birds, trees, butterflies, bees, flames, rainbows, the sun and the moon are uniquely Huayao.  According to the young women, whose outfit is more elaborate than that of their mothers, it takes a year to stitch all the components.  If they finish early they may make a plain black jacket with embroidered patch pockets, striped and tasseled leggings and a studded, flower-stitched belt for their brothers or boyfriends.
    The girls’ carefully crafted costumes are not worn often, being reserved for special occasions such as weddings and festivals, though some still dress up on market days.  Married women, however, as well as the older generation, still by and large favor traditional Yi clothing.  But one shouldn’t assume that the younger generation’s reluctance to dress their best for fieldwork indicates the erosion of traditional culture.  On the contrary the Huayao Yi, like most of Yunnan’s minorities, are enjoying a revival of traditional culture and ethnic pride.  Today’s teenage girls are better artisans than their mothers and know more old Yi songs than their grandmothers.  Prosperous families deck out their children in Huayao Yi clothing, which is far more expensive than the modern alternative, and tote their babies in large cloth carriers featuring an explosion of embroidery.  And Shaochong district’s Cultural Center actively promotes local music and dance, as well as inter-village festival participation.
departing from Shaochong on market day
    One trait which Huayao culture shares with neatly other Yi branches is the role of the bimaw (also spelled bimo), keeper of old books of rites, mythology and divination, in the Yi language and ancient Yi script.  He is not the village leader, for that job belongs to the local longtou, (literally “dragon head”), but the bimaw is the one the Yi call upon to expel evil spirits from their houses and fields, recall a soul lost because of a mysterious illness and, at funerals, direct the soul of the deceased to the realm of the ancestral spirits.  The average village has one or two of these specialists, who must study several years to be fully qualified.  The bimaws I met were relatively young men, clear evidence that the cultural revival extended beyond the externals of colorful costumes and dances.  
a Huayao Yi family at dinner
    Like their fellow Yi everywhere, too, the Huayao are extremely hospitable, responding especially well once one’s interest in them is clear.  They prepare excellent meals of pork dishes, chicken soup, spiced vegetables, mushrooms and liberal amounts of maize liquor, served on a layer of pine branches and punctuated with frequent toasts of “Daw fa!” (“Good Health!” in the Yi language).  For a highland people they are fairly well off, enjoying good yields in their well-watered fields and an active market every five days.  Crime is virtually non-existent and in my three years’ association with them, periodically employing embroiderers to make shoes and other traditional items, I found them honest and meticulous workers.  They took great pride in their work and enjoyed using the vegetable-dyed threads I supplied.
traditional shoes in vegetable-dyed colors
    Traits embedded in Huayao tradition become especially apparent at the big annual festivals—the Torch Festival (Huobajie) in mid-summer and the Dragon Festival (Jilongjie ) just after Lunar New Year.  As with other Yi, the Torch Festival features singing and dancing around a bonfire at night.  Jilongjie is more of a Huayao sub-group festival, including a procession, rituals at Ah Lu’s shrine, afternoon Yi dances and Chinese dances, with dragons, lions, oysters and several costumed men walking on tall stilts.   For me, of course, the high point came with the performance of about sixty young Huayao women, a riot of red in motion. 
advertising their traditional skill
     I had witnessed Huayao Yi dance performances already at the special Shiping Bean Curd Festival (Doufujie).   County authorities invited a Huayao Yi contingent, together with troupes from various other minorities in the county, to perform in the city stadium.  The Huayao Yi dazzled the crowd with fifty girls and a dozen drummer boys marching into the stadium behind a lead umbrella that read, in Chinese and English, “The Exquisite Embroidery of the Yi People.”   They took the field, started in a circle, then dashed in and out in patterns that resembled lines of fireworks bursting in the night sky.
    Chinese movie watchers have become a little familiar with the Huayao Yi this past decade thanks to the success of the film Huayao Bride, produced by a provincial company and shot in a traditional Huayao village near Shaochong. The plot revolved around the complications of a Yi custom that newlyweds must keep separated from each other for one full year.  The bride, a pretty and vivacious, spunky girl, wants to join a dragon dance team that will compete in Jilongjie, but the husband is also involved in the dances.  Since they are not supposed to associate with each other, problems arise.  Huayao Bride’s national success led to two sequels.

Huayao Yi singer Li Fenglin
Huayao dance performance
    While the dialogue was in Mandarin Chinese, though many in the cast were local Yi, the songs were all in the Huayao dialect of the Yi language.  Listening to these songs while I watched the film revived memories of my excursions to Shaochong.  Girls often sang for me as part of the hospitality offered when I visited their villages.  And once I arrived in Shaochong just as a quartet of singers, led by the most famous local vocalist, Li Fenglin, were rehearsing for an upcoming recording session with a Kunming music company. 
    I thought of her as “the Sad-eyed Lady of the Highlands” for her mournful, quivering voice, now soft, now strong, suggestive of the deepest feelings.  She sang in the Yi language, ballads of Yi ancestors, tunes of unrequited love and songs of her beloved homeland.  Even without knowing the words any listener would be haunted by Li’s voice, as it reverberates in the back of the mind, stirring a hundred sentiments, long after the performance ends.
                                               Fly, fly, fly, the bird flies
                                               What kind of bird is flying?
                                               A small, golden bird is flying
                                               Fly, fly, fly, the bird flies
                                               What kind of bird is flying?
                                               A small, silver bird is flying
                                               And the place where the golden bird
                                               And the silver bird are flying 
                                               Is my own beautiful, charming homeland
                                               My home—the Yi village

Huayao Yi girl in her best ethnic style
                                                                        * * *  

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Akha Swing Festival, a.k.a. ‘Women’s New Year’

                                                                 by Jim Goodman

    The mountains of southern Yunnan, China and the northern parts of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos are home to several different ethnic minorities.  Their villages look similar, created by clearing a patch of the hillside forest and employing wood, bamboo and other jungle materials for the construction of their buildings.  The main difference among them is in the house type.  The Yao, Hmong and Lisu houses tend to sit directly on the ground.  The others—of the Akha, Lahu, Jinuo, Bulang and Wa—are stilted houses, with open-air attached balconies, modeled on the houses of the Shui Dai, Shan, Thai and Lao of the plains in the respective countries. 
    From a distant view, even before one can discern whether the village houses are stilted or not, it is still possible to identify a traditional Akha settlement.  It will feature one structure, clearly visible in an open area, usually at the high end of the residential area, which no other hill people have—the village swing.  Made of four long tree saplings lashed together near the top, it stands as a cultural symbol of the people, a proclamation that this is an Akha village.  It’s not the only distinctively Akha structure, for each traditional village has a pair of entry gates at opposite ends of the village.  But these are half hidden by trees and not as easy to see as the swing.
Akha women drawing water for ritual use
    After entering the village and going to look at the swing, though, one finds that actually it’s just a swing frame.  Nothing is hanging from the yoke.  Nobody can swing on it.  But nobody’s supposed to on an ordinary day.  The swing is not there for amusement in a villager’s leisure time. It is activated only during a major festival, an event so full of revelry and entertainment it can be more fun than New Year celebrations.
    The Akha call the Swing Festival Yekuja, which literally means “eating bitter rice,” but don’t seem to know its origin or why the event is called that.  The Akha have a large corpus of oral literature, passed down fifty generations, detailing their migrations, conflicts, mythology and the origins of various customs, beliefs, taboos and traditions.  But the origin of the Swing Festival is not mentioned.  In Thailand the festival falls sometime in September, nine twelve-day cycles after the
preparing the ancestral offerings
ceremonial first rice planting.  This is a month or two before harvest time, so some researchers assumed that the “bitter rice” referred to the low rice stocks people would have at this time of year, so long after the last harvest.  But in China the Akha stage it in July, around the time the Dai hold Guanmenjie, marking the Buddhist retreat season.
    No matter where or when it is held, the festival begins on a buffalo day in the twelve-day cycle.  Women draw water from a sacred spring, to be used in ancestral offerings that day, and must dress in their full traditional outfit for the task.  Families sacrifice a chicken or small pig that day and perform ancestral rites at the house shrine.
raising the new swing frame
    The following morning, under the direction of the dzoema, the traditional village leader, men tear down the swing frame and build a new one.  Strict rules are in order.  The new swing has to use two postholes of the old one and they must dig two new ones.  Everyone has to be shadow-conscious.  The swing must be in a spot where no house shadow falls across it.  The diggers cannot let their shadows cross the postholes.  The dzoema first makes offerings of bits of egg and silver to each of the postholes to appease the ground spirits and insure against any untoward accidents.
    Groups of men raise the four poles and get them to sort of lean against each other near the top.  Then a pair of men climbs up the poles to lash them together a couple of meters from the top ends.  In the space just below where they’ve roped the poles together they tie a wooden yoke at the junction.  From the middle of this a long rope hangs suspended, the bottom end of it looped and just above the ground.  When all is done the men descend and the
lashing the ends together
dzoema gives the swing a test ride.  He pulls the rope back as far as he can while standing, places one foot in the loop, leaps forward and uses the other leg to pump the swing and ride higher.  A short ride is enough for him to judge it safe for everyone else and for this and the following two days (though not at night) anyone can ride the swing. 
    This day in Thailand’s Akha villages young men dominate action on the swing.  They stick one foot in the looped end, take a running leap and pump so hard and well with the other leg they swing so high you expect them to loop the yoke.  Only an increasing sense of vertigo seems to persuade them to stop pumping to the stratosphere and commence the slow return to the ground.  Of course they invited me, as a guest, to
installing the yoke and the swing rope
have a ride.  But I could never get it right.  I wound up just spinning around.  How they got so high I still can’t figure out.  After all, this is the only time of the year the swing is in use, so they don’t practice ahead of the festival.
    The third day the women dominate the swing action.  The village men slay and butcher a buffalo and divide up the meat in portions for each household.  Since traditionally, men cooked the meat and women cooked the rice and vegetables, on this day the women have more time for the swing.  Women of all ages dress up in their best traditional outfits and jewelry.  Traditional female clothing comprises a halter blouse, jacket, belt, short pleated skirt, a sash-pouch over the skirt in front, leggings on the calves, a shoulder bag and ornamented headgear. 
    The Swing Festival is one of two occasions during the year, New Year’s the other, when changes can take place in the costume components.  Around puberty, the Akha girl changes her round children’s cap for a much fancier one, decorated with lots of silver, coins, beads, chicken feather tassels, gibbon fur and the like and begins wearing  the sash-pouch in front of her skirt.  She wears this girl’s cap through adolescence and then changes to the headdress worn by fully-grown adult women.
Aini man riding high in Xishuangbanna
Akha woman gets her friend started
    In the weeks preceding the Swing Festival some teenage girls might be busy making that headdress they will don at that time. Others will be embroidering or adding appliqué patterns to newly made jackets and shoulder bags.  So will their mothers and it is this aspect of the Swing Festival, the girls and women showing off their skill and beauty wearing their best, new, gorgeous hand-made traditional clothing, that has earned the event a second name—Women’s New Year.
    They and the children ride the swing differently from the men.  Women insert a plank into the looped end of the swing, carefully tuck their skirt in as they sit on the plank, while a companion draws them back as far as possible, by hand or with the aid of rope, and lets go.  The rider pumps with both legs, like on the two-rope swings we use in the west, yet can climb as high into the air as the most vigorous young man. 
Akha dèhâw scene at festival time
    Children ride the same way as the women and girls, though they don’t try to go very high.  The whole scene is completely spontaneous and unorganized.  There are periods when a large group of girls arrives and the action is constant for a while.  Then comes a lull, interrupted by a few children playing on the swing.  Then perhaps an old woman will sit on the plank, using her foot to push her back and forth to sway a little while she sings a slow, lugubrious old song about unrequited love or the sufferings of troubled migrations and natural calamities.
    At dusk the swing area empties as people return home to feast and afterwards watch or take part in the night activities.  The young people, still in their most resplendent clothing and as many ornaments as they own, gather at the dèhäw, the open space designated as the village dancing ground.  This is the spot where young people traditionally socialized after dinner, often singing and dancing together, especially during nights of the New Year and Swing Festivals, which could go on for a few hours and include both traditional Akha songs and dances as well as modern Thai tunes.  One troupe of young men and women go house to house everywhere in the village to chant and beat bamboo tubes on logs to chase off bad spirits.
drumming with bamboo tubes
    The fourth day features family visits to relatives in the village and another round of feasting.  Akha living in the plains might come up to the home village this day.  Those who have yet to ride the swing may have a last chance before dusk.  At that time men remove the swing from the yoke and put it away.  The frame, however, stays up until the next Swing Festival.
    Over the years the essential elements of the Swing Festival have remained unaltered, but it is not celebrated in Thailand as much as before, partly because so many villages have converted to Christianity and thus abandoned all traditional festivals.  Also, in those villages still resisting conversion, television and videos have undermined the dèhâw scene and even though it may fill up at festivals there are proportionately fewer young people electing to live in the villages.
China's Aini girls swing without a plank
    Knowing that the original Akha homeland was in Yunnan, I always wondered how different the festival might be there.  Finally, a few years ago, while doing research on Xishuangbanna, I got to witness the Swing Festival in Menghai County.  In China, the Akha identify themselves as Akha, but the Chinese government, because kha is the local Dai word for “slave”, renamed them as Aini.  In general, they are better off than their cousins in Thailand, Laos or Myanmar.  Many villages have become rich from tea and rubber plantations in the past decade or so.  They still live in stilted houses for the most part, though bricks or cement piles might substitute for wooden stilts. 
    The Aini have also had very different recent historical experiences, like forced collectivization and government campaigns against traditional beliefs and customs.  That was all over by the 1980s, with the new government of the Reform Era encouraging ethnic tradition now.  Ethnic pride returned to the Aini as well as other ethnic minorities.  But revivalism did not encompass everything traditional.  For one thing, most Aini had shifted from rice cultivation to cash crops, which thus obviated the necessity for rituals and festivals tied to the rice-growing
on the swing in XIshuangbanna
cycle.  The influence of secularism and the spread of education also handicapped a revival of the traditional animist mind-set.
    Nevertheless, the new ethnic pride demanded revival of something of traditional Aini significance.  New Year celebrations, yes, of course, but everybody has those.  Only the Aini/Akha had a Swing Festival.  It may not be exactly like the Swing Festival of olden times.  The dèhâw scene had disappeared here for much the same reasons as in Thailand and so there were no dances at night, nor a troupe of bamboo tube drummers chasing spirits away from the village houses.  But they still erect and use the swing in the old fashion and by the same rules as in Thailand.  Unlike their southern cousins, too, they will also reactivate it on 2 January, the fixed Aini New Year day.
    Admittedly, though, not so many Aini villagers come to use the swing or watch those who do.  Many of the girls dress to the hilt for the day, though, for it’s kind of Women’s New Year here, too, still.  The adults lay more stress on the family get-togethers and feasting.  That is the traditional festival requirement they enjoy the most.  But it’s more than the food and drink, for they could find excuses for that any time of year.  They partake of the feast as part of the Swing Festival they insist on maintaining, an occasion when they put their ethnic identity on display, to announce and to share.  As one Aini swing-maker told me, “We have to do it because it’s our Aini tradition.”  In the ethnic revivalist frame of mind that affects the consciousness of today’s Aini, many things they do are traditionally Aini, but the Swing Festival distinguishes them from everybody else.  Therefore, to be Aini in Banna, as it is to be a traditional Akha in Thailand, means having a Swing Festival.
Aini girl all dressed up for'Women's New Year"

                                                                      * * *
             for more about the Aini see my e-book Xishuangbanna: theTropics of Yunnan

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Hà Tiên—the Last Seaport in Vietnam

                                              by Jim Goodman
Mạc Cửu, founder of Hà Tiên
    Along its long coastline Vietnam has always had a string of seaports, some of which date back centuries, serving both domestic and international maritime trade.  The last one established was Hà Tiên, on the southwestern border with Cambodia, originally a Chinese refugee settlement that rose to become the most important port on the Gulf of Thailand in the 18th century.  It owes its origin to the suppression of a revolt in southern China against the Manchu rulers of the Qing Dynasty, which prompted an exodus of thousands of Chinese to Southeast Asia.  Some of them went to Hội An, while the Nguyễn Lords ruling over the southern part of Vietnam at the time sent large groups of them to the Mekong Delta areas around Biên Hoà, Saigon and Mỹ Thọ.
    A smaller group of refugees from Guangdong, led by Mạc Cửu, fled to Cambodia. They at first resided in the capital, but after several years the king let them settle in Pream, in the southeast, ancient Funan territory.  In 1700 Mạc Cửu secured permission to found a settlement on the coast at Hà Tiên.  The Cambodian Court agreed because it was looking for a new outlet to the sea, since the Vietnamese had already incorporated parts of the Mekong River territory.  Mạc Cửu quickly turned his fief into a thriving international seaport.
    The Nai Peninsula hill shelters Hà Tiên on its western side.  On the other side lie two small beaches near a Khmer village with a hilltop temple.  East of the peninsula stretches the East Lake,
one of the beaches jjust west of Hà Tiên
actually an inlet of the sea.  The Nước Mạn lagoon spreads northeast of the town, while flat, fertile farmland lies to the southeast and the north.  The area has several limestone hills, some with caves, a few of which contain shrines inside.
    Hà Tiên’s economy centered on silk, pepper, light industries, mining, turtle shell products, ceramics and farming.  It established international trade links with Japan, India, Holland and Southeast Asia.  It also made a lot of money from gambling revenues.  The town lay at the mouth of the Vĩnh Tế River, the upper branches of which ran close to the Hậu Giang River, a major branch of the Mekong, and in the rainy season flowed directly into the Hậu Giang, from which it was an easy trip upriver to Phnom Penh and Udong.  Even in the dry season traders could offload their wares at the end of the Vĩnh Tế tributary, from where it was a short distance by land to the Hậu Giang.
    Hà Tiên’s rivals on the Gulf of Thailand, Kampong Son and Kampot, had no direct water link with Phnom Penh.  Goods offloaded at these two ports had to be taken by cart overland, which was not only long and laborious, but also only possible in the dry season.  Thus Hằ Tiên became an emporium for goods from Phnom Penh and central Cambodia, and even from Kampong Som and Kampot, for it had easier access to the Cambodian capital.
Hà Tiên  port today
    Its very success quickly aroused the cupidity of Ayutthaya and Hà Tiên soon suffered from Siamese attacks.  Mạc Cửu realized he could not depend on weak Cambodia for support.  In 1708 he sent an entourage to Phú Xuân to seek protection from Lord Nguyễn Phúc Chu.  With this switch in allegiance, Hà Tiên basically seceded from Cambodia and joined the Nguyễn Lords’ realm, though Mạc Cửu continued for some time to send tribute to the Cambodian Court.  The Nguyễn Court incorporated Hà Tiên into its territory, but granted it and the surrounding lands autonomy under the rule of Mác Cửu, who was then ennobled, with the rank to pass on to his successors for seven generations. 
    The Cambodian Court raised no objection to this de facto annexation at the time because it also sought protection against Ayutthaya from the Nguyễn Lords.  In 1714 Ayutthaya’s army invaded Cambodia in support of its own candidate for the throne.  Ayutthaya’s navy attacked Hà Tiên and completely destroyed the city.  To prevent a recurrence of this disaster, Mạc Cửu initiated a tributary status with Ayutthaya and set about rebuilding his fief.   In 1724 he journeyed to Phú Xuân to pay homage to the Nguyễn Lord and Hà Tiên remained free of foreign threats for another fifty years. 
    In 1727 the Qing Court lifted the last bans on overseas trade and travel and Chinese junks began plying routes again in Southeast Asia.  Hà Tiên was one of several ports in the Gulf of Thailand that rose in importance at this time. Most of the junks sailing out of Guangdong stopped at one or more of the Delta ports on their trading routes to and from Southeast Asia, exchanging goods at each stop.  These items included tin from Malaya, sappanwood from Siam, betel nuts from Biên Hoà, pepper from Kampot and Hà Tiên and salt from Sóc Trăng. 
Khmer temple near Hà Tiên
pagoda at Tam Bảo Temple
    For the next decade Mạc Cửu oversaw Hà Tiên’s return to prosperity.  More Chinese immigrants arrived, joining the original Khmer settlers and a small community of Vietnamese.  Mạc Cửu commissioned the construction of Chùa Tam Bảo, today on Phương Thánh Street, a modest, one-story temple embellished since then by a 13-tier pagoda in the courtyard.   He died in 1735 with the titles of Marquis and Grand General. By then Hà Tiên had become the paramount port between Ayutthaya and China.  He was buried on the slope of Núi Làng, the Hill of Tombs, north of the town and a popular site for visitors.  His family and successors remained loyal to the Nguyễn family throughout the vicissitudes of the 18th century.
Mạc Cửo's tomb on Núi Làng
    In 1739 Cambodia’s King Thommo Reachea II launched a campaign against Hà Tiên to reclaim sovereignty from its pro-Nguyễn ruler.  Mạc Cửu’s son Mạc Thien Tứ had been running Hà Tien since his father’s death in 1735 and his forces repelled the Khmer attack and drove the foe back into Cambodia.  Hà Tien suffered no further pressure from Cambodia and entered into its golden age. 
    Mạc Thiên Tứ continued his father’s open port policy, encouraging merchants from all ethnic backgrounds to set up business in Hà Tiên and promoting a policy of religious tolerance, which would later prompt the arrival of Vietnamese Christians fleeing periodic persecution campaigns in the south.  For a time he ruled over Kampot and Kompong Som and, claiming authority over the whole country of Cambodia, tried to open direct trade negotiations with Japan.  As the primary port for maritime commerce with Cambodia at the time, Hà Tiên flourished once again, the busiest port on the Gulf of Thailand.  A scholar-poet himself, he invited Chinese writers from Guangdong to visit Hà Tien and create poems about the city.  In memory of this tradition, contemporary Hà Tiên holds an annual Poets’ Festival the first full moon after Lunar New Year.
new church on an old site in Hà Ti
    He also maintained Hà Tiên’s virtual autonomy, remaining an ally of the Nguyễn regime while officially still a vassal of Cambodia.  In 1747 he served as intermediary in a new succession struggle in Cambodia between pro- and anti-Vietnamese factions. He also kept himself informed of affairs further on and in 1765 learned Ayutthaya was making preparations to attack Hà Tiên.  So he put together an expedition to launch a pre-emptive strike on Chantaburi, the presumed staging point in eastern Siam.  But before Ayutthaya could retaliate it found itself in a war with Burma that destroyed it once and for all. 
    After a few years the Siamese state rose again under self-appointed King Taksin, who soon made demands on Cambodia and in 1771 launched an invasion via Hà Tiên, first bombarding it for ten days.  Mạc Thiên Tứ put up a spirited resistance, in which the Siamese captured several of his children, but in the end withdrew and escaped to Châu Đốc. Taksin’s army advanced towards Phnom Penh, but the Nguyễn Court mobilized 10,000 troops on 30 war junks that sailed up the Mekong River and on the outskirts of Phnom Penh met and soundly defeated the Siamese.
    By now the Tây Sơn revolt had begun, the beginning of the Nguyễn regime’s downfall.  Hà Tiên’s next role in history was as the meeting point for the refugee prince Nguyễn Ánh, the sole survivor of a massacre of the Nguyễn royal family, and the resident French Catholic missionary Pierre Pigneau de Behaine. When Tây Sơn pursuers reached Hà Tiên, Pigneau helped the prince flee to islands in the Gulf of Thailand.  He later became Nguyễn’s Ánh’s strongest, most faithful supporter, arranging for foreign supplies and volunteers to help the Nguyễn cause.  This enabled Nguyễn Ánh to secure a firm base in Saigon and eventually to triumph over the Tây Sơn.  To reward the Mạc family for their services he confirmed Hà Tiên’s autonomy upon becoming Emperor Gia Long.
Tô Châu Hill and Ngọc Tiên Temple
    After the Nguyễn vanquished the Tây Sơn, Saigon’s importance as a port increased rapidly, eclipsing that of Hà Tiên, which never did compete again with the ports of the Gulf of Thailand.  Hà Tiên kept its autonomy, though, until the French colonized the entire Delta territories.   The town’s next role was as a persistent anti-French bastion and Tô Châu Hill eventually became a Viẹt Minh stronghold.  Later Hà Tien was in the news again in the mid-70s, when it was a haven for Cambodian refugees running away from the Khmer Rouge. The latter also staged a vicious cross-border
memorial to a massacre
attack on a Vietnamese village just past the northern suburbs of the city.  Only in recent decades has Hà Tiên made a kind of comeback, based on its proximity to the popular tourist destinations of Phú Quốc Island and Kompot, Cambodia, the establishment of a cement industry and its recent designation as a Special Economic Zone.
    Nowadays Hà Tiên boasts many new buildings, both commercial and religious, that reflect the new prosperity.  The old pontoon bridge across the Tô Châu River has disappeared, replaced by a concrete bridge at the other end of the riverfront, which features a clean, new walkway.  It’s still a rather relaxed town, with light traffic and lots of fresh seafood available in the evening restaurants near the river.  From the large, new Buddhist Ngọc Tiên Temple and nunnery on the slope of Tô Châu Hill across the river one has a great view of the town, its setting, the East Lake beside it, the marshes, farmlands and limestone hills beyond, the tall buildings along the riverfront as well as the towers of new temples and the steeples of modern-style churches.
seafood choices on a Hà Tiên ev

    The same relaxed, unhurried atmosphere that characterizes the town is even more evident on excursions beyond it.  The easiest and most popular place is Mũi Nai, a site around the bend from a Khmer village several kilometers west of Hà Tiên.  A pair of beaches lies here, lined with leafy shade trees, backed by verdant hills, with a view tower atop one of them.  On a clear day you can see Phú Quóc Island.  The water off the beaches is clear, clean, warm and placid, good for swimming and splashing.  But even the waves are leisurely here, so nobody brings a surfboard. 
    A walk through the Khmer village nearby is quite in contrast to what one sees in the town,
beachat Mũi Na
especially in its temple.  This is in purely Khmer style, with half-bird, half-female figures on the roof struts and a tapered, pointed roof unlike anything in the temples within the town.  It’s a reminder of Hà Tiên’s identity, its amalgamation of different elements—Chinese, Vietnamese, Khmer, Mahayana, Theravada, Catholic—united by a common interest in social harmony and economic progress. 
    A very confident mood pervades Hà Tiên.  Change and improvements seem to come at an ever more rapid rate.  Conscious of their history, they have expanded and renovated the Mạc family tombs vicinity and erected a new statue of him near the entrance to the town.  If things keep going smoothly, they believe, Hà Tiên will enter another golden age and go beyond the most optimistic visions Mạc Cửu and Mạc Thiên Tứ ever visualized.
Chùa Tam Bảo, the first temple Mạc Cửu built in Hà Tiên
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