Houng Baccam

Tai Dam musician
View Transcript
Audio files:
(there may be a brief pause after pushing the play button)

Download mp3

Houng BaccamHoung Baccam spends much of his time promoting the culture of the Tai Dam people. In 1940, he was born in the village of Muang Pieng, Son La Province in the state of Mung-Tai, North Vietnam. Today, Baccam, who works for the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services, is a dance teacher and a musician.

In 1952, the Vietmin or Vietcong, forced Houng and his family out their homeland. Separated from their parents, Houng and his sister were airlifted to Hanoi with hundreds of other refugees. They were finally united with their parents in a refugee camp. From there, they and others moved around every few days until they finally found an abandoned temple. There, they settled for two years, building about 200 houses and setting up a school run by a Catholic priest.

On July 20, 1954, Vietnam was divided, and the Tai Dam people fled to Laos. After some time in the mountains, where the temperatures dipped below freezing, the Lao government gave the Tai Dam land in Vientiene, the capital. There they lived and farmed until 1960, when a series of coups d’état resulted in a right wing government, which was engaged in a civil war with the communists. This situation, exacerbated by the Vietnam War, continued until 1975, when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia and the Vietcong occupied Saigon.

Since many Tai Dam supported the American forces in Southeast Asia, thousands of the fled to refugee camps in Thailand. Houng Baccam, one of the leaders, was involved in the transportation of 3,500 Tai Dam over the course of four to five months. The Thai government refused to give the Tai Dam permanent asylum, and the group did not want to return to Laos; they had been fleeing communists since 1952, and they were tired. At this point, a series of coincidences resulted in then Governor Robert Ray’s offer of Iowa as a refuge, and 600 Tai Dam came to Iowa in two groups in the fall of 1975. Houng and others lobbied the U.S. Dept. of State to reunify the families, which eventually occurred.

Besides his political role, Houng was and is active in preserving Tai Dam traditions, particularly dance and music. Before the Tai Dam left North Vietnam, there were 36 dances, which had originated two to three hundred years ago while the group was still in China. Even in the refugee camps, individuals organized and taught traditional dances to the children. From time to time, especially at the New Year, which the Tai Dam celebrate in August in their homeland, new dances and songs were composed and passed on. But refugees often find it difficult to sustain their traditions, and cultural survival can depend on just a few dedicated individuals. Thus, when there was no one else around to do it, Houng learned to play the t’ing t’ao, a traditional strummed instrument with a gourd resonator, two strings, and a long neck. The t’ing t’ao accompanies traditional dances and is also played by young men during courtship. Houng and others were also actively involved in preserving and performing traditional dances.

Contact Information: Houng Baccam, 515.266.2331, hbaccam@dhs.state.ia.us