Category Archives: Causes

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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Filed under Art, Causes, New York City

A New Home, Full of Smiles

This past Sunday was a special one for Smile Group, a grassroots organization that supports disadvantaged HIV/AIDS-affected families in Ho Chi Minh City.  After operating out of the Thao Danh drop-in center for more than a year, Smile Group has found its own house in a beautiful building with an enclosed courtyard shaded by a mango tree. You can tell by the photos how excited the families are to have this new space for their meetings and activities.

What will they do with that new space? Lots. One of the best things about Smile Group is their focus on enrichment. Documentarian and social worker Leslie Wiener’s photographs never fail to express the ability of Smile Group’s activities to foster community-building among HIV-affected families, some of whom face deep stigmas in their physical communities. With ample accommodations, Elisabeth Nguyen will make yoga sessions more sustainable by enrolling in a course on teaching yoga for children (with her costs covered by the Global Fund for Children). Leslie is also seeking opportunities to have Macs supplied to the house to teach the kids practical computer skills. And of course, the dancing, singing and musical performances will continue, not to mention invaluable workshops on living with HIV/AIDS.

Thomas Maresca’s “Living Positive” cover story that follows the lives of three Smile Group families is no longer in the AsiaLIFE archives, but you can read the profile of Leslie that I contributed to the July 2009 People Issue (issue 28), still available in the online archives.

Here are some more photos from the day, courtesy of Leslie:

A bit of new school…

And a bit of old school

Crashing the dance floor

The gang’s all here

Enjoying the new house

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Filed under Causes, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Raid on Illegal Vietnamese Wildlife Restaurants Gets NY Times Coverage

illustrated by Brenden Wenzel, AsiaLIFE March 2010

I woke up this morning to find the following news item in my Google Alerts: Vietnam Raids Restaurants Selling Exotic Meats. The piece, which ran on The New York Times Green blog, reports that a large, coordinated raid by the Lam Dong Forest Protection Department involving more than 100 wildlife agents led to the seizure of hundreds of pounds of illegal meat and the arrest of a dozen restaurant owners. The campaign was supported by surveillance work carried out by NGO Wildlife Conservation Society.

Back in March, I travelled into Lam Dong Province to visit a sustainable agro-forestry farm for a cover story on conservation in Vietnam. My research turned up some troubling facts about the imbalance between the profits from the wildlife trade and the resources available to tackle poaching and trafficking. In his research paper Wildlife Trading in Vietnam: Situations, Causes, and Solutions, Nguyen Van Song of the Hanoi University of Agriculture estimated that the Forest Protection Department employee’s monthly pay is roughly equivalent to daily profits at exotic meat restaurants.

Read the entire article in the AsiaLIFE archives, issue 24.

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Filed under Causes, Vietnam

PBS Picks Up Documentary on Vietnam AIDS Activist

Update: Watch the entire documentary at the PBS Global Voices website.

I recently spoke to Leslie Weiner, one of the three women behind Smile Group, and her documentary on Vietnamese AIDs activist Nguyen Van Hung will premier on PBS in the United States on May 10. I profiled the work of Smile Group and the legacy of Hung in a February 2009 AsiaLIFE article, “The Teacher’s Lessons.” Now, his story and the stories of those living with HIV/AIDS in Vietnam will be broadcast to millions. Check out the trailer for Thay Hung: Teacher below:

For those unfamiliar with PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), it’s the States’ most widely broadcasted nonprofit public broadcasting television service, with affiliates in more than 350 locations. Thay Hung: Teacher will appear under the banner of the PBS series Global Voices. If you live in the United States, check for air dates at pbs.org.

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Filed under Causes, Ho Chi Minh City, Media, Vietnam

Painting with Street Children

I stopped by a painting class for disadvantaged youth and street children run by Armed with a Paintbrush to research an article I’m writing about the American nonprofit for AsiaLife HCMC. The good folks at AWAP handed me a paintbrush and let me paint with a gaggle of pre-adolescent artists:

Painting with street children

Painting with street children

Friends from back home will recognize my inspiration: Charlie, the beagle I left behind…

When the AWAP gallery opens next month on Bui Vien Street, conscious-minded art enthusiasts can swing by to purchase paintings created by local youth and to get their hands dirty doing a spot of painting. For the time being, you can peruse AWAP’s paintings currently available at its online store.

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Filed under Causes, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Saigon Sellers Hawk Cookies for a Cause

Walking through the backpacker district in Saigon means shoeing away street vendors hawking everything from hammocks to hashish, not to mention the bevy of poor Vietnamese vying for your heart strings. But there’s one group of street sellers you can feel good about supporting.

Sozo street sellers operate between Pham Ngu Lao and Bui Vien and are readily identified by their baskets of American-style cookies: chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, peanut butter, and white chocolate. Packages of 3 cookies cost 20,000 VND (just over a dollar), the proceeds from which benefit Sozo Centre, a bakery and nonprofit on Bui Vien that provides poor families and disabled Vietnamese with job training, specifically in baking and running a business. Sozo also runs volunteer programs and funds schooling costs for some of the families with whom they work.

So before you brush off the seller who approaches your lunch table, look for the Sozo label. Not only do the cookies support a good cause, they’re tasty and more practical than a hammock.

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Filed under Causes, Food & Drink, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam