Chaw Ei Thein: Expression and Exile in Burma

Back when I was finding my bearings while writing on contemporory art in Saigon, an artist and RMIT faculty member named Richard Streitmatter-Tran was one of my most informative and generous contacts. During my last interview with Rich, he touched on an aspect of his life we hadn’t spoken about in our previous conversations: his wife, the Burmese artist and political asylee, Chaw Ei Thein.

So when I received an email notification from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop that Chaw Ei would be performing and speaking at their 27th Street space, I marked my calendar.

I arrived to find the chairs arranged around a curious performance space comrpised of a toy motorcycle, a model airplane, a bed of stones, a bowl of rice, and a bucket of water. As the evening began,  Chaw Ei emerged from a back office, her face obscured by a black detention hood, ambling in a rigged, pained march that recalled butoh. At the motorcycle, she raised her arms in front of her and squatted, as if riding an imaginary bike. Then, at the airplane, she stood on one leg with arms stretched out to her side, again seemingly simulating transport. Next, she kneeled on the stones and ate from the bowl of rice, her arms behind her back. As she crawled forward to the bucket, I thought she might drink from it. Instead, she submerged her face, as if being drowned by a phantom assailant.

Performance photos courtesy of Jonathan Hulland

Afterwards, during a discussion led by Todd Lester, founder of event co-sponsor freeDimensional, Chaw Ei spoke about her belief that all Burmese have a responsibility to do what they can to fight for freedom. As a political asylee unable to contribute directly, performance has become Chaw Ei’s contribution.

The performance, in fact, is a quite literal expression of torture in Burmese prions: the motorbike and airplane simulations mirror stress positions prisoners are made to endure, while eating from the rice bowl expresses the humiliation tied to even the most basic human necessity of sustence. The drowning requires no explanation. Through this visceral and disturbing art piece, Chaw Ei raises awareness of the more than 2,000 political prisoners currently being detained and tortured in Burma. In the photos above, you can see representations of them meticulously scrawled on her face, arms, and legs.

Chaw Ei herself has spent time in a Burmese prison. She described a performance in which she and collaborator Htein Lin sold items on the street pegged to the old currency, a means of calling out the rapid inflation caused by the Burmese junta’s devastating monetary policy. The authorities were not amused; they locked up Chaw Ei and Htein for a brief period.

September Sweetness, Chaw Ei Thein & Richard Streitmatter Tran, via http://chaweithein.blogspot.com/

September Sweetness, Chaw Ei Thein & Richard Streitmatter Tran, via http://chaweithein.blogspot.com/

She also touched on September Sweetness, a collaborative project from the 2008 Singapore Biennale that I’d seen in materials Rich had given me. The project encompassed a 5.5-tonnes sculpture of a Buddhist temple, inspired by a photograph of a decaying temple in Burma’s Bagan region. Once completed, the impressive piece, which was completed with the help of more than a dozen volunteers, was left in the humid open air to melt. Chaw Ei mentioned that the project reflected the Buddhist concept of impermanence, but it is also open to interpretation. Among many things, one can read into it the state of decay Burma has long suffered, reflected by the actual decay of its architectural heritage.

In as far as it sought to raise awareness, the event was a success. After Chaw Ei’s performance and Todd Lester’s interview, many in the audience were eager to hear Chaw Ei’s feelings on the current political situation in Burma and find out how they could better inform themselves. I would strongly urge anyone interested in these issues to support the work of freeDimensional and event co-sponsor, the World Policy Institute. Through freeDimensional, Chaw Ei and other artists have been able to secure positions in New York Foundation for the Arts’ Immigrant Artists Program.

More about the artist:

CHAW EI THEIN (b. 1969, Yangon, Myanmar) is a painter and performance artist currently based in New York. Chaw ei was selected for the New York Foundation for the Arts Mentoring Program for Immigrants Artists through a partnership with freeDimensional. Her work has been widely covered in the international arts press including Asian Art Now, Asian Art Achieve, Artforum, Art Asia Pacific, Yishu, C-Arts, The Strait Times and The New York Times. In addition to her work as an artist, she is also co-founder and Director of the Sunflower Art Gallery in Yangon. In this capacity she has developed several initiatives including the organizing of art exhibitions and fairs including special exhibitions for children’s art in Myanmar and Cambodia, and for psychiatric patients. She has been teaching art to children for more than 15 years and served as Editor for a youth magazine in Yangon. As an advocate for art, education, and creative expression, she has been a vocal critic of the restrictive curricula in Burma. Currently living in New York, she has exhibited new works at the Point B Gallery, Da Gallery, Fardom Gallery, Puffin Room, SoapBox Gallery, United Nations Plaza and the International Studio and Curatorial Programme (ISCP) Open Studios, Grace Exhibition Art Space in United States. Her website is www.chaweithein.blogspot.com.

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D&D Banh Mi in New York

On the corner of Seventh and Heaven

I’ve been looking all over New York City for a proper bánh mì đặc biệt. Or as I call it, a down-and-dirty bánh mì đặc biệt.

Why down and dirty? Because the bánh mì đặc biệt that I’m used to is layered with the type of meat that timid to semi-cautious diners out would avoid: porous white pork meat, fatty pork skin, etc., etc. I’ve had some plenty good bánh mì in New York City, but most of it is dressed up for the health-conscious Manhattan/Brooklyn set. Less marbling, more marinated pork shoulder.

But then I found it. A true D&D bánh mì. In pursuit of a can of ginger ale, I wandered into what looked like a bodega in Chinatown not even noticing the Paris by Night-esque posters plastering the door, and realized this was no ordinary bodega. It was a tiny Vietnamese deli. Behind the sneeze guard was a range of salads, giant tapioca balls and banana leaf-wrapped treats. The rest of the joint was given over to bootleg DVDs, Vietnamese records and other sundry items from the motherland. And tucked away behind the counter, the telltale tin bins stocked with julienned pickled carrot and daikon, sliced cucumbers, and meat. Glorious, dodgy meat.

I forked over four bucks and walked out with what looked like any bánh mì I’d ordered on the streets of Saigon. The first bite confirmed what the looks of this sandwich seemed to promise: a taste of home. The thin-sliced, slightly chewy texture of the meat, the cilantro and lemongrass lovingly tossed atop the fixins, the thin slather of mayo reminding me of Banh Mi Hanoi down in D3.

God bless you, Sau Voi Corp. You and your dodgy D&D bánh mì.

Sau Voi Corp., 101 Lafayette St., corner of Walker, one block south of Canal Street, Chinatown.

20110609-114536.jpg

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The Queen is Back in Town

Photo courtesy of Eric Isaac, ericisaac.com

One day back in Saigon, I stopped by Bread & Butter for lunch expecting to order from the tiny Pham Ngu Lao joint’s menu of English pub fare. While I wouldn’t have my craving for bangers n mash satisfied that day, I would get a surpise that would sustain me through many a bout of lunchtime homesickness.

On that fateful day, I pulled up a stool and began perusing a new menu that read like a best hits of American comfort food. 

Philly cheesteaks. Grilled cheese with tomato basil soup. Blackened catfish po’ boys. Muffuleta  sandwiches. Mission style burritos.

Who was sprinkling this manna from heaven? None other than Liza Queen.

Residents of Greenpoint may remember Liza from her Brooklyn eatery, The Queen’s Hideaway. The Hideaway closed in 2008 due to some serious New York landlord douchebaggery, but that misfortune sent Liza to Saigon, where she took up residence alongside her long-time buddy and friend to Bread & Butter barflies, Dan Carey. But it turns out Liza wasn’t just schooling B&B’s kitchen staff on the finer points of American classics; she was learning, too.

Liza recently debuted her Vietnamese fare under the banner of Queen’s Dahn Tu at the inaugural Smorgasburg, the Brooklyn Flea’s new food market. After reading about the event on Brooklyn Based, I trekked over to the Williamsburg waterfront to try Liza’s take on banh xeo, banh trang tron, and bun thit nuong. (Bep is also serving bun thit nuong, corn on the cob [i.e., bep], and other Vietnamese staples at Smorgasburg.)

Apparently it was good. By the time I showed up at 2pm, Liza and her crew were slinging their last few servings and getting ready to restock. I got my hands on one of the banh xeo, and though for $8 the portion was a bit smaller than I’d expect, it was certainly tasty, made with more elegant ingredients than you’ll typically find at the smoke-billowing Saigon street stand.

(Plus, 9000 hours in Saigon will make a cheap bastard out of anyone.)

 The experience of noshing on banh xeo while looking out over the Manhattan skyline was surreal, but then, so was tucking into a Mission burrito as roving bicycle vendors squawked their sales pitches in the hem outside Bread & Butter.

Welcome back, Miss Queen.

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Filed under Food & Drink, Ho Chi Minh City, New York City

Tom Gets Scribd

I’ve just uploaded seven of my greatest hits from my tenure at AsiaLIFE HCMC. (Or at least my mom says they’re my greatest hits.) Check them out at my new Scribd account or click right to the articles below.

Scooter Madness: How American intervention, an underground economy and Cold War politics created the world’s last stockpile of classic Italian scooters. April 2009.

I Want My VNTV: Local audiences remain critical of Vietnamese television, but it’s hard to deny the demand for homegrown content. Industry insiders speak about delivering better programming in Vietnam. June 2010.

Primates on the Rebound: On a small island in Cat Tien National Park, a group of conservationists has big plans to counter the trade in endangered primates through rehabilitation, research and education. April 2010

Work in Progress: Over the past decade, the contemporary art scene in Ho Chi Minh City has quietly flourished. But limited infrastructure, lack of funding, and the enduring challenges of working within the confines of state oversight have presented obstacles to providing services to artists and attracting collectors. An overview of the scene and a look at some of the art being created in the thanh pho. April 2010.

Wildlife in Jeopardy: Vietnam is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet, but it has also suffered from decades of deforestation and habitat loss and remains a hot spot for wildlife trade. Today, conservationists face an uphill battle to save Vietnam’s beleaguered wildlife. March 2010

The Next New Battleground: Local and international businesses have found an alternative to shrinking export markets in the last place anyone expected: rural Vietnam. November 2009

Solving Saigon’s Congestion Question: The way we drive now and a look at the plans and problems that lie ahead for Ho Chi Minh City. November 2009.

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Filed under Art, Conservation, Culture, History, Ho Chi Minh City, Pop Culture, Television, Transportation, Vietnam

9000 Seconds of Saigon 05.20.11

Introducing your friendly Saigon blogger’s weekly biweekly-ish digest of roughly two and half hours worth of reading and viewing on Saigon, Vietnam, Asia-Pacific, and Asia’s intersection with New York City.

Right here on 9000 Hours in Saigon, Mike from Along the Mekong posted a query about getting your foot in the door at expat magazines to the About section. Check out my lengthy reply if you’re a budding wordsmith in Vietnam.

courtesy of diacritic.org

After a long absence from the blogosphere, contemporary artist and dia/projects founder Richard Streitmatter-Tran has dusted off diacritic.org and logged a breakdown of dia/projects’ activities one year since its opening.

courtesy of diacritics.org

Meanwhile, the folks inspired by the original diacritic have been reliably churning out dispatches from the diaspora. This week, the diacritics (plural) published articles on a surviving warren of Vietnamese refugees in France, contemporary art photography in Phnom Penh, spoken word artist Bao Phi, and Tran Anh Hung’s latest film, Norwegian Wood

courtesy of Asia Society

Being back in New York has its advantages–like getting to visit Ai Wei Wei’s new public sculpture in Grand Army Plaza. The Asia Society has a short post and two-minute video on Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads on its blog.

If that blurry chef in the background of the lead photo for this New York Times article looks vaguely familiar, you were probably a regular at Pham Ngu Lau’s Bread &  Butter during the past couple of years. Liza Queen is back in Brooklyn and serving up the Vietnamese fare she learned to make during her tw0-year stint in Saigon. Look for her bun thit nuong and banh xeo under the banner of Queen’s Dahn Ta at the Brooklyn Flea’s new all-food market, Smorgasburg.

And speaking of Western chefs in Vietnam, you can check out the Phan Thiet/Mui Ne segments of Gordon Ramsay’s Great Escapes on muinebeach.net (for which blogger Adam Bray was a consultant). 

From Tom’s twitter stream this week:

Border Troubles
 
Cambodia refuses to remove troops from #PreahVihear, Thailand responds by blocking Indonesian observers along border. http://t.co/guq6rtZ
 
Soundtrack of Street Life in Vietnam
 
Propaganda or poetry? Vietnam’s iconic loudspeakers punctuate public life with messages from the Party. http://bit.ly/mrFR7s
 
Trouble Among the Hmong
 
Report on #Hmong conflict in northern #Vietnam via @ChristianPost suggests some culpability among messianic leaders http://t.co/A1u4RE8
 
@hrw pressures Vietnam to open investigation into recent unrest among #Hmong hill tribes in Muong Nhe.
 
Guns Blazing
 
ASEAN defence ministers seek to halve weapons spending by coordinating trade among regional industries. http://bit.ly/im9M6r
  
A Message for Canada’s New Conservative Majority
 
Editorial: Canada needs to rethink its commitment to the #EastAsiaSummit. http://bit.ly/mzWUhU

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Filed under Cambodia, Media, New York City, Photography, Vietnam

My [Doi Moi]

One of the things I missed most about New York when I was living in Ho Chi Minh City was theaters like the IFC Center in the West Village. While looking for a Thursday night diversion recently, I discovered that the director of My Perestroika, Robin Hessman, and one of the families she profiled in the documentary, the Meyersons, would be attending a screening of the film that night at IFC.

The film tracks the lives of four subjects, from their childhood in Soviet Russia through their coming of age during perestroika to the present Putin-dominated day. In addition to documenting the day to day of schoolteachers Boris and Lyubov Meyerson and their son, Hessman turns her lens on a French shirt shop franchisee, a hopeless punk rocker, and a wealthy wife cum billiards company saleswoman.

In a film such as this, history and politics are certain to loom large, but Hessman manages throughout to establish Soviet culture as a context rather than a subject. This is a film about people; the tagline, after all, is “A nation’s history is personal.” Still, I was not surprised when, during the Q&A, audience members, both Russian and American alike, either directly questioned Hessman and the Meyersons about politics or paired their comments with statements about the dire situation in Russia.

At one point, an American man asked Hessman if she ever felt compelled to question her subjects directly about politics. She offered an explanation of the relationship between the personal and political in Russia. For many people, politics existed parallel to their everyday lives during the Soviet era, and the two very seldomly intersected. It was only during the 90s that free elections created that intersection. Under Putin, the personal and poltical have since diverged into parallel existences again. The Meyersons’ answers to similar questions seemed to echo this idea; things are not getting better, and they will not at least until Putin is out of the picture. But we’ll keep living our lives.

This idea of a parallel existence between the personal and political, where seldom the two shall meet, seems very much to apply to life in Vietnam, as well. The questions I get about living in Vietnam often imply an overriding idea of the place, one essentially defined by one-party communist rule. But Vietnam is a country of about 88 million people in which membership in the ruling Communist Party stands at 3.6 million. And while the I consider the Vietnamese to be tremendously well-informed–the sight of xe om drivers cracking the morning paper is still fresh in my mind–it also struck me as a fairly apolitical place. Like perestroika, doi moi and subsequent reforms have placed the focus squarely on a now obtainable better future.

And that’s why I think, as a journalist, filmmaker, or documentarian of another stripe who lives long term in a country like Russia or Vietnam, one’s attention naturally veers from the overtly political and begins to focus on the ways in which people create paths of self-determination in places where human rights and civil liberties are curtailed. It’s why the topics broached in a soap opera seem as fascinating as the outcome of a party congress, why consumer trends can seem revelatory, and the choice of one motorbike over another is suddenly fascinating.

When you crack open that monolithic idea of a place and start examining the minutiae of everyday life, you realize that you could spend your entire life in a place, and never come close to offering a definitive portrayal of it. You can only ever offer glimpses and impressions–hopefully rendered with respect and discipline (which Hessman certainly does in My Perestroika). There will always be people whose instinct is to boil down a place or a people to an essential truth, but for journalists and documentarians, I think the best possible retort will always remain, “Yeah, but…”

My Perestroika is successful, I believe, because it acknowledges a widely held belief about a certain place in a certain era, but offers plenty of buts.

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Filed under Film, Ideas, Vietnam

Telling Stories in an Adopted Land: Or Why I’m Not a Foreign Correspondant Cowboy

The guy was an old hand–if you’ve practiced journalism in Vietnam, you know the OH type. Within a few minutes of talking, my elder colleague was boasting of being blacklisted, or having suffered some such form of censure by the Vietnamese government. Exactly what offense had invited the attention of the information authorities the OH did not disclose. Or perhaps I simply do not remember–because I was busy eyeing the room for an escape route.

Jesus. I was just here for the press lunch.

Unfortunately, I was unable to elude the OH, and during our lunch,  the conversation cycled around to a topic that I thought I’d discouraged earlier by changing the subject from subversive journalism to something so thoroughly inconsequential I cannot now remember it. The OH complimented my magazine, AsiaLIFE HCMC, but he wanted to know why we hadn’t used our long-form journalism platform to dig deeper, explore the good stuff, the really controversial stories that would get people talking.

Re: the type of stuff that would get me blacklisted, possibly denied my next visa.

In the past, I had been pretty non-confrontational in answering this question. It came up frequently enough. The OH designation isn’t exclusive to august journos. It’s a cowboy mentality inspired by the perception (or projection) of Southeast Asia as the Wild Wild East, a place where one can live out one’s own modern-day Dispatches. The OH credo might be, “If a story doesn’t stir enough shit, it’s not worth telling.” I’ve found that OHs typically assume that you, as a fellow journalist in rollicking Southeast Asia, abide by the same maxim. When you burst their bubble, it can get uncomfortable.

But this time, I don’t know. Maybe I wasn’t feeling so polite. Maybe I just wanted this guy to stop talking so I could enjoy my coffee. I told the OH that I felt it was presumptuous for Western journalists to enter the country and immediately begin writing about what was wrong with it. Although heavily censored, domestic media exists in Vietnam, and institutional criticism is best handled by Vietnamese, the people for whom the end results of that criticism matter the most.

That did the job. I finished my lunch in peace.

This incident came to mind last night while I listened to a panel of journalists and media professionals speak on working in East Asia at the Weatherhead East Asia Institute at Columbia. Among the speakers were Isabel Hilton, founder and editor of the bilingual news site chinadialogue.net and Abi E. Wright, director of Columbia’s DuPont and Chancellor Awards and formerly of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The conversation, perhaps inevitably, led to self censorship and respecting the situation of partner journalists in countries with limited press freedom.

It was particularly refreshing to hear Hilton say that chinadialogue is strategic about what subjects they cover. They do good work, penning stories that many would be surprised they’re allowed to publish. On top of that, they’ve never been censured. I always felt our role at AsiaLIFE was to provide the context and insight necessary for a majority expatriate audience to process Vietnam more thoughtfully and compassionately. Doing so month after month, I believe, was more valuable to our readers than a one-off expose that resulted in our publishing house being shuttered. 

Wright also brought up a great point in response to my question about partnering with foreign journalists. Sensation sells, especially a sensational story from a place widely perceived as repressive, and for someone who will be leaving the country behind, it can be tempting to snag that big byline. But when you leave the country, your contacts and partners are still there. To breeze over this reality is a pretty clear breach of journalistic ethics.

On a similar note, moderator Robert Barnett, director of Columbia’s Modern Tibetan Studies Program, spoke to the importance of writing on the issues rather than the event. One runs the risk of getting an editor (and oneself) hooked on sensational event pieces, when in fact an investigation into issues is more valuable to the reader. 

For me, the speakers’ insights reinforced that foreign journalists and media professionals working in countries with established, albeit controlled media need to listen to and learn from local journalists. If I decided not to write or assign a story at AsiaLIFE, it wasn’t always because I knew the censor would contort it into a misleading jumble of non-information; it was just as often because I felt that I or the writer did not have a sufficiently nuanced understanding of the culture or underlying issues to achieve what the story sought to achieve. In forming partnerships with local journalists, I’m convinced that the foreigner should more often than not play a supporting role.

It was serendipitous that just before the event, I was reading a chapter entitled The Newspaperman from former Washington Post Beijing Bureau Chief Philip P. Pan’s Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the New Soul of China. This chapter of Pan’s excellent book follows the role of Guangdong Province’s Southern Metropolis Daily and its editor in chief, Cheng Yizhong, in exposing government dishonesty during the SARS epidemic and closing down the brutal shourong detention system. Cheng and his staff took on these fights at tremendous personal risk, and were only able to accomplish what they accomplished thanks to a cunning rooted in their deep understanding of the context in which they were working.

Out of Mao’s Shadow is full of stories such as this, stories in which ordinary people rise above fear and champion the truth. I wondered as I finished the chapter on the train home whether telling their stories might have been just as rewarding as any byline Pan ever earned in his eight years in China.

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Filed under Ideas, Media, Uncategorized, Vietnam