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The Chinese and Vietnamese Migrating Music

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Whether it be forced or voluntary, music has made its way to various parts of the world due to migration. In Soundscapes, author Kay Kaufman Shelemay discusses the migration of many, including that of the Chinese and Vietnamese. The Chinese migration was mainly voluntary. It started around 1850 due to an attraction to the United States’ California Gold Rush and transcontinental railroad. However, in the mid-nineteenth-century, there were negative factors that encouraged others to migrate. Many migrants borrowed money to travel to the New world. After arriving, they dealt with discrimination and exclusionary laws, and the situation did not get better until the enactment of the Refugee Relief Acts in the 1960s. The Vietnamese migration was forced due to fear and suffering. The French had control of the whole country by the 1880s and impacted the Vietnamese religiously, politically, economically, and culturally. Ho Chi Minh’s declaration of independence and consecutive fighting resulted in defeating the French and a divided Vietnam in 1954. The communist North was controlled by Minh and the South was led by Ngo Dinh Diem (French-supported). The conflict between the two led to the Vietnam War and U.S. involvement in 1961 under President Kennedy. It was not until 1973 that the U.S. involvement mainly came to an end. In April 1975, Saigon fell resulting in the South Vietnamese seeking refuge in the U.S., as well as Paris. Some refugees ended up in the Philippine and other Southeast Asian refugee camps. North and South Vietnam were eventually reunited.

Many Chinese Immigrants thought themselves to be temporary sojourners and wanted to maintain traditions from their homelands. Many of them did not return home and as of the 1960s, most have settled in North America. A traditional southeastern Chinese genre is muyu or muk’yu in Cantonese. Muyu texts are about everyday life and its concerns. They are transmitted both orally and written and can be sung by men or women. Muyu songs are divided depending on their story lines. Written Muyu have a fixed form with seven syllables per line and are frequently rhymed, though when sung, vocables are often added. There is typically a syllabic text setting, but ornaments may be added to have a melismatic setting. At the end of a line of text, a muyu may have three linguistic tones, but the main divisions of the song end on the same low pitch and then by a glissando due to Chinese being a tonal language.

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The Vietnamese tried to preserve their traditions and cultural life, such as with maintaining their Buddhist religion and by observing Tet. The Vietnamese festivities include a variety of musical styles, dances, and fashion shows. Large musical events also include da vu, meaning night dance, which would have known singers singing popular Vietnamese songs. These events have also been filmed and made their way worldwide. Vietnamese diaspora communities also have those who maintained their traditions and instruments perform traditional music. Gathering together and playing music causes feelings of nostalgia for Vietnam to arise, instruments play a strong role in those emotions as well. The dan bau, meaning musical instrument of the people, is a monochord that uses both hands. It is said that the dan bau can create any sound and is rather delicate but resonant and may be electronically amplified. The khen is a panpipe that is made from half of the same gourd as the dan bau. Musical styles in refugee camps were composed of a variety of different forms such as Buddhist chant, popular and classical Western music, and Vietnamese folk and chamber music. Tan nhac was a style that combined Vietnamese lyrics and Western instruments and has duple and quadruple meters. The Vietnamese would sing love and sad songs to show political ideology because they were prohibited by the Communist regime.

While the Chinese case study mainly just mentions the muyu, Shelemay discusses more about the Vietnamese case study. She does this by mentioning instruments used, as well as different styles of music such as ru and ho, and song categories like folk, heart, and peace songs, and gives a variety of listening guides. The Chinese muyu and the Vietnamese tan nhac were performed on various occasions and allowed performers to add to the songs, though in muyu, the singer may add vocables to the end and in tan nhac, the performer may especially improvise during the introduction of the song. Both musical styles were a way to express emotions and concerns about life and of the transition from home to new and unfamiliar places. The Chinese and Vietnamese faced negative factors such as discrimination and conflicts that added to the feelings and emotions behind the music. The song Ng Bak Loi Gimsaan or Uncle Ng Comes to the Gold Mountain looks back at the Chinese migration process, as well as the difficult circumstances that led to the initial migration and the want to return home. Although the Vietnamese were affected by more negative factors that led to them being traumatized from the initial escape from Vietnam and the stay in refugee camps, their music expresses similar emotions and descriptions of the journey they encountered such as with the songs in Pham Duy’s Con Duong Cai Quan or The National Road: A Voyage through Vietnan like A Thousand Miles from Home.

The obvious difference between the Chinese migration and the Vietnamese migration is that one was voluntary and the other was forced. However, Shelemay connects the case studies by stating that the idea of exploration and economic opportunity is mainly just a romantic myth in the Chinese migration case and that in reality the migration was intense and conflicting. It is not to say that one migration was more or less serious or difficult than the other, but the Vietnamese migration was intense, conflicting, and also very traumatizing. The Vietnamese were also more affected and influenced by Western style music and the initial French missionaries in the mid-seventeenth century. Though, whether the migration was forced or voluntary, Shelemay establishes that both group wished to preserve their traditions and culture, and thus we are still able to learn and experience these different styles of music. Even though they did face discrimination and hardship, the Chinese and Vietnamese exemplified pride in who they are and the places they came from.

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