Tag Archives: Southeast Asia

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

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

New Vietnamese Films Out This Month

Yesterday I sat down to compile the listing of movies due out in Vietnam next month for the upcoming issue of AsiaLIFE, and I was pretty surprised at the number of local flicks hitting the theaters.

Vuot Qua Ben Thuong Hai (Journey from Shanghai)

This period thriller follows the journey of Nguyen Ai Quoc–better known to the world as Ho Chi Minh–from Hong Kong to the Soviet Union by way of Shanghai. For those who don’t know the story, Ho Chi Minh escaped from prison in Hong Kong by conspiring to fake his own death. Journey from Shanghai follows the events immediately after his escape, and from the trailer, it looks like the filmmakers have gone for a noir-meets-martial arts tone. Central to the film is Ho’s friendship with Soong Ching-ling, the once wife of Sun Yet-sen who supported the Communists during the Civil War.

Saigon Electric and Bui Duong (Street Dust)

The trailer above isn’t actually for the 2009 Vietnamese hip-hop drama Street Dust–it’s for director Nguyen Duc Viet’s December 2010 release, Saigon Electric. Perhaps to build the anticipation for Saigon Electric, local theaters are re-releasing Street Dust next month. The film follows siblings Hanh and Nam’s journey towards hip-hop fame. After their mother dies, Nam gives gives up his dream to find employment, but Hanh is determined to secure them both a shot at a competition in Bangkok.

Saigon Electric was written by Owl and Sparrow screenwriter Stephane Gauger and similarly follows the dreams of a Saigon hip-hoppers to beat out a rival crew and advance to a competition in South Korea. Read more about the film here.

Canh Dong Bat Tan (Floating Lives)

Viet Kieu actor Dustin Nguyen (21 Jump Street, Heaven and Earth, Little Fish) continues to bolster the local film industry with his latest release, Floating Lives. The film follows some pretty heavy subject matter: love, infidelity and betrayal in a small town in the Mekong Delta. I haven’t found much about the plot just yet, but it’s based on Nguyen Ngoc Tu’s “The Boundless Rice Field” (available in English translation). It looks like director Nguyen Phan Quang Binh is continuing to push the envelope with some steamy-for-Vietnam scenes.

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Filed under Film, Media, Video, 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

Meanwhile, at the AsiaLIFE blog…

I’ve been blogging less than usual over at the AsiaLIFE blog, largely because I wrote the last two cover stories for the March and April issues (issues 24 and 25) on top of my regular managerial and editing duties, leaving me little time to devote to the digital domain. However, I’m back in the swing of things. Here’s what you can find over on the AsiaLIFE blog:

Leslie from Smile Group, a fantastic local nonprofit that builds community among and provides support to HIV-affected families, sent us an update on what the group’s been up to. Read the post here.

Also check out AsiaLIFE contributing editor Thomas Maresca’s excellent story from Issue 20 in which he profiles three of the families and sheds light on HIV/AIDS in Vietnam.

Sugar-coated Karma by Tuan Andrew Nguyen @ San Art's "Syntax + Diction"

Although the artist talk took place this past Thursday, check out this post for a brief introduction to leading Vietnamese artists Dinh Q. Le and Tuan Andrew Nguyen. Other suggestions:

1) Head over to the Galerie Quynh website for more info on Tuan Andrew Nguyen.

2) If you’re visiting Saigon, check out San Art and Galerie Quynh.

3) If you’re in New York City or visiting there this year, go see Dinh Q. Le’s installation The Farmers and the Helicopters, opening June 30 at the MoMa and on until January 11, 2011.

4) Read my cover story on contemporary art in Ho Chi Minh City in Issue 25 of AsiaLIFE.

Nordic Week at the Equatorial Hotel Returns to Saigon

One of my favorite food events in Saigon, Nordic Week, returns to the Equatorial Hotel from April 24 to 30. Get the skinny here, or head over to VietNews Online, where you can read my article on New Nordic Cuisine first published in the June 2009 issue of AsiaLIFE.

David Macmillan and Keith Rotheram in Phnom Penh, photo by Fred Wissink, photo editor for AsiaLIFE

I also wrote a third blog post on the controversial media coverage of the Sean Flynn discovery. It seems that Tim King, the executive editor of Salem News, took note of my posts on the questionable reportage and what I view as clear bias against Macmillan. He picked up on the story and put the news media under the lens in two stories.

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Filed under Art, Food & Drink, Ho Chi Minh City, Media, Vietnam

My Life at the Quan

Photo by Nam Quan for AsiaLIFE

I haven’t been watching which of AsiaLIFE‘s articles have been syndicated on Vietnews too carefully lately, but I just dropped by and saw that the editors picked up my piece on quan nhau: “Living the Quan Life.”

This one was a real bummer to research: head to a few local quans with friends, nosh on the savory grilled fare typical of these joints, wash it down with dirt cheap beer and shoot the shit. (That’s why I get paid the big bucks.)

As my friend Hai explains it, that’s basically nhau. Eat. Drink. Talk. No one element is more important than the other; each one fuels the other two. I go into the culture of nhau in greater detail in the article.

Oh, and I eat pig’s brain.

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Filed under Culture, Food & Drink, Vietnam

Mad Men of Southeast Asia

I had a great interview this evening at Qing with ad man John Archer, who I was introduced to by my creative director Jonny Edbrooke. John was the executive creative director of Ogilvy & Mather Singapore from 1978 to 1983 and, after that, the regional creative director of Bates 141 Indochina. The guy is full of great stories about advertising in Asia in the 1970s and 80s.

The Q&A with John will be out in December’s AsiaLIFE, but there are some intersting articles on the era at Ad Asia Online, one penned by John and two others written by fellow creatives Allein G. Moore and Bill Gartshore. There’s also a portfolio of work from the era by notorious ad man Neil French at www.neilfrench.com; it does a great job of illustrating the adventurous print advertising that ruled in Singapore that John’s stories bring to life.

Also here’s an interesting snippet from my interview with John regarding the hit show Mad Men that didn’t make the final cut of the Q&A:

I started in advertising in that Mad Men period. I actually started in the early 60s. I was a Dispatch Boy—a delivery boy. It was called a Dispatch Boy. Capital D. Capital B. I’ve only seen two episodes of Mad Men, and it’s been said many times before, so I’m just repeating what others have already noted, but it is so accurate. I can remember it. Everyone wore suits and ties. The women were always dressed up like they were out of Vogue magazine with their hair done up, etc. Everybody smoked: men, women, secretaries. I didn’t smoke in those days. Everyone but me smoked. It was a wonderful time.

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Filed under Media, Southeast Asia