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The Sing-Sings of Papua New Guinea


For the island country of Papua New Guinea, nothing is more culturally symbolic than sing-sings. The term refers to a gathering of local tribes, who perform folk music, dance as well as rituals in highly decorative costumes which appear highly exotic in modern eyes. Sing-sings have existed as long as history can record. Like tribal warfare, these spontaneous self-entertaining events are indispensable parts of the social life of Papua New Guinea. Starting from the 1950s however, smaller and sporadic sing-sings were organised into much larger annual events in population centres across the country, and renamed as cultural shows. The hope was to bring together as many tribal groups as possible to celebrate their cultures and diversity, thus help promote inter-tribal relationships and reduce the conflicts which hindered the development of the country.

Today, globalisation and information technology have unveiled the country to the rest of the world. As the media eyes turn to the events and indigenous costumes of Papua New Guinea, more and more people are being intrigued by what seems to be the last anthropological relic of the distant past. A new role of tourism has thus added to Papua New Guinea's cultural shows. The multi-day shows are now undoubtedly the best known cultural events in the entire Pacific region, generating significant revenues to the country's developing economy.

Papua New Guinea is located at the east side of the second largest island in the world. There are more than a thousand tribes speaking over eight hundred languages. Each year, they gather at their nearby provincial towns, from Kavieng in the island of New Ireland, to Wabag in the mountainous Enga Province, for the Pacific style carnivals. The two most notable shows are staged in August and September respectively in Mt. Hagen and Goroka, the two largest towns in Western and Eastern Highlands Provinces. Each of them proclaims its show to be the largest in the country. Unimportant are their claims, they both have more than one hundred participating tribal groups, each perform fiercely and tirelessly for three days in front of the judges to compete for the pride and prize.

However, one should not ignore the numerous shows of the grass-root level held in smaller places, for they largely retain the original nature of local ceremonies and entertainment. They can happen anywhere and any time, with or without presence of tourists. These shows are either free of admission or just cost a hundredth of the big shows. Also in many smaller shows, foreigners enjoy special access privilege - a big bonus for photographers. Personal escort by police in crowded areas is not uncommon.

Denying government monopoly, some local communities organise their own mini-shows, attracting clientele through their own travel agents. Despite in smaller scale, these shows are no less brilliant and spectacular than those in Mt Hagen or Goroka. What's more, mini-shows have a perfect village setting instead of large show grounds in the outskirt of the towns. This allows a much closer personal interaction between visitors and villagers. For instance, one may have an opportunity to have a glimpse of the village chief's usually forbidden enclosure, and meet with his five consorts. The entrepreneurial villagers often wisely package more contents into the show with aspects of their daily life, which may include the making of mumu (traditional way of cooking) and the reenactments of tribal disputes and fighting. By joining these mini-shows, tourists have their money benefiting directly the local communities.

Contrary to myth, modern Papua New Guineans do not wear traditional dresses in their daily life. As much as they are proud of their native culture, they use sing-sings to remember their root and heritage, and to express them to people from continents apart.

Sing-sing can be a physically intensive affair. Participants begin the day with hour-long makeup, followed by a march of chorus to the show ground. The idiosyncratic tiptoe jumping stresses enormously on the hamstrings; constant drum-beating and chanting add more fatigue on the muscles and lung capacity. At the end, the day winds down with physical exhaustion.

The sing-sings of Papua New Guinea feature typically Pacific style hula skirts made of raffia, hemp or grass, for men as well as women. Their naked upper bodies are usually adorned with small apparels like necklaces of beads and bones. Headgears are usually bundled with fur and flamboyant feathers. The most valuable ones, however, are those long feathers of the national birds - the birds of paradise. For the famous wigmen, their signature is the large hats woven with their own hair.

Facial paintings are essential to sing-sings. Men's facial colours are apparently more sombre than those of women's and children's, with the exception of the yellow-faced wigmen. The locals make use of the natural material around them, from charcoals to ochre, from plant pigments to clay. In front of a tiny mirror, they painstakingly create a pattern which reflects their creativities.

Sing-sing women adorn themselves with abundant seashells. It is not uncommon to demonstrate personal wealth this way, since seashells were still circulating as the country's currency until 1933. The modern-day currency unit, Kina, literally means seashell and reflects this piece of history. By contrary, sing-sing men tend to use animal bones for jewellery, especially the teeth of wild boars. Along with stone axes, long spears, bows and arrows, they display a man's bravery and courage.

The sing-sings of Papua New Guinea are certainly a phenomenon that reflects nation's indigenous tradition. However, even with modern-day transportation, the island country is not somewhere that is easily accessible by general tourists. It is my hope that through the photographs in this book, the readers would be able share the same excitement I experienced in the Pacific wonderland.

Last Update: October 23 2009 01:13:58 -0500