Late for Nowhere

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Archive for January 2014

Collecting data for The Man

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Myanmar is set to conduct a nationwide census from March 29 to April 10, the first such survey in 30 years. Below are a few thoughts on my experiences working as a temporary enumerator during the 1990 US census.

In 1990 I spent six months living in the small city of Gainesville in north-central Florida. As a 22-year-old college dropout who harbored a robust dedication to slackerdom, I wasn’t keen on squandering my days on full-time work, especially for the paltry minimum wage at the time of US$3.80 an hour.

For a couple of months I earned money working for a libertarian farmer who lived just outside the city – he needed help skinning goats and moving rocks from one part of his property to another. Then I heard that the US Census Bureau was hiring temporary enumerators to go door to door collecting population data. The hours were flexible, and the pay was $6 an hour.

After the short training program, I was assigned an under-served African-American neighborhood near downtown. For the next six weeks I woke up each morning, slung my official Census Bureau bag over my shoulder and made the rounds on my bicycle.

One of the first houses on my list was owned by a 40-something bachelor. When I visited, he was enjoying a front-yard cookout with some friends.

The homeowner laughed when I tried to explain, as per my official government training, that the census would help community leaders decide on the allocation of services and infrastructure projects, and would also determine the number of seats in the US House of Representatives “so your voice is heard where it counts the most”.

Pointing his barbecue-glazed spatula at the road in front of his house, he said, “I’ve spent my life paying taxes and answering census questions, and that road hasn’t been paved since I was 10 years old.” The road in question, one of the main thoroughfares through the neighborhood, did look a bit like bomb-cratered highway to hell.

Despite his resistance, the man was not belligerent: His point made, he agreed to answer my questions on the condition that I pile a Styrofoam plate with pork ribs and help myself to a beer from the cooler. (This probably went against some federal policy or another, but I was willing to do whatever it took to get the job done. Never let it be said that haven’t made sacrifices for the good of my country.)

This encounter was just one example of the way in which my census work became an extended case study in attitudes toward the government among the disenfranchised. In a related manner, as a federal employee I also became a sounding board for various societal and personal concerns among the populace.

There was the grandmother who complained about crime as she sat on her sofa with a long-barreled shotgun with easy reach of her bony hands. There were many lonely people who didn’t seem to be getting much support from anyone, like the elderly man whose breath smelled of alcohol at 10am and who wouldn’t let me leave until I picked the image of his younger self from his fading army photos.

And nearly every day I was flagged down by young African-American men who wanted to know if there were still jobs available with the Census Bureau because there just wasn’t any steady work to found in their neighborhood. 

What I didn’t run into were any conspiracy theorists who thought the data would be used for nefarious purposes. The greatest resistance I faced came from a small crew of dropouts who lived in a compound behind a high wooden wall.

It took a fair bit of snooping before I finally found a gate leading into the property. On the other side was a dirt parking lot bordered by trees, and the only vehicle in evidence was a beat-up Volkswagen microbus.

The only person I saw was a little girl, maybe 10 years old, who was standing among the trees, watching me. She had blonde, stringy hair and was wearing a cotton peasant dress. I asked if her parents were around. The girl stared silently for a second or two, then turned and trotted barefoot down a dirt path leading into the forest.

I followed. She led me to a woodworking shop where a white guy with dreadlocks was handcrafting a percussion instrument destined someday to find its way into a Deadhead drum circle. I explained why I was there. Without a word, he led me back to the microbus in the parking lot and pointed to a sticker affixed to the bumper: “Don’t Stand Up and Be Counted: Boycott the 1990 Census.”

It was a bold statement, but he and his anarcho-hippie cohorts were too easygoing to resist the charms of the Census Man. They eventually abandoned their carefree hostility and answered my questions, even inviting me to leave my bike at their commune the next time I came to the neighborhood to collect information. (I imagine they’re all high-powered brokers on Wall Street by now.)  

In retrospect, working for the US Census Bureau wasn’t the worst job I’ve ever had. As an American who grew up in a town with a population of fewer than 6000 people, more than 90 percent of whom were white, I found that knocking on the doors of strangers in a marginalized neighborhood brought me into contact with people I otherwise never would have met.

It opened my eyes to the brilliant, sometimes heartbreaking diversity of the world, and I’ve never stopped exploring it since.

Written by latefornowhere

January 27, 2014 at 4:38 am

Kachin villagers commemorate the reason for the season

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The road to Kapna in northern Shan State. The creek is the
international boundary, with Myanmar on the left and China on the right.

Up until 100 years ago, the Kachin residents of the northern Shan State village of Kapna were resolutely animist in their beliefs. Several visits by Christian missionaries had failed to dissuade them from making offerings to the spirits in the way their ancestors had done for generations.

According to village lore, that all changed when a Kapna resident who suffered cataracts was instantly healed after he stopped honoring spirits and started praying to the Christian god. He converted and was followed not long after by another villager.

The third convert, a man named Hkam Leng, was the cousin of the second villager. Hkam Leng was also the duwa (headman) of Kapna and the surrounding region, a title he had been granted by the regional sabwa, or ethnic Shan ruler.

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Duwa Hkam Leng (left) and Dujan Nang Ja

Following Duwa Hkam Leng’s conversion, everyone else in the village abandoned animism and followed his lead into the Christian faith. Despite the mass conversions, for decades there was no church or pastor in Kapna – only a bamboo hut where villagers gathered to study the Bible.  

Duwa Hkam Leng and his wife Dujan Nang Ja were the grandparents of my mother-in-law, Nang Hseng, who was born in Kapna on July 4, 1943. Years later, Nang Hseng moved to Yangon, where she married an ethnic Rakhine actor and film director named Aung Lwin.

In early 1967 Nang Hseng and Aung Lwin travelled from Yangon to Kapna for a visit. At that time, Nang Hseng told me, inhabitants of this wild, remote region near the China border would think nothing of killing a non-Kachin man for the cultural crime of marrying a Kachin woman.

In fact, her father asked Aung Lwin not to come to Kapna, but the family’s high standing in the community – as the descendents of the earliest Christian converts – overcame any impulse toward blood-lust, and murder was averted.

Violence arrived in a different form a few months after their visit, when Chinese and Burmese communists destroyed Kapna and other villages in the area. This was revenge for Myanmar leader Ne Win’s attempt to drive the communists into China from the border regions and divert Shan State’s rice southward to overcome food shortages in Yangon.

The Chinese-style mansion that belonged to Duwa Hkam Leng and Dujan Nang Ja was destroyed in the attack. It was described to me as a magnificent structure with a vast, open courtyard in the center into which horses could be ridden through majestic sliding wood doors. The tall wood posts that supported the house survived the razing, but they were filched by the communists and used to build a new headquarters in another village.

Duwa Hkam Leng and his family fled to Muse, 20 kilometers (12 miles) west. The original village site is now deserted – nothing is left except the villagers’ walnut trees, which locals harvest to this day.

The communists are long gone, and Kapna was eventually re-established at a new site: It’s now on the other side of the mountain from the original village, and only a few steps from the China border.

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Kapna resident and her child

This past Christmas, the residents of Kapna – now a mix of Kachin, Lisu, Shan and Chinese – held a four-day festival to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the region’s abandonment of animism in favour of Christianity. Honorees Duwa Hkam Leng and Dujan Nang Ja are now interred at a twin mausoleum in the jungle, just uphill from the new Kapna.

Nang Hseng invited me to attend the festival with her family. She assured me that the village was a bit tamer than in the past, and therefore I need not fret about possibly being murdered for having married into a Kachin family.  

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Kachin women in traditional dress sing outside a church in Kapna on Christmas Eve.

What was more worrying was the security situation. Kapna lies in an area where the Myanmar army (Tatmadaw) and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) are both active. The pastor who organised the festival had asked the Tatmadaw soldiers to stay away, or at least to take off their uniforms if they entered the village during the celebrations. They seemed to comply – I didn’t see anyone in military garb – but I was told that plainclothes soldiers were lurking around in the forest, watching.

Where the original Kapna had no church, the new village boasts two. During the anniversary celebrations the bigger one was the site of numerous Kachin-language sermons and plenty of hymn and carol singing.

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A Kachin pastor delivers a sermon in Kapna.

At night, with mountain temperatures dropping to near freezing, villagers performed traditional dances on an outdoor stage. Before sleep we gathered around a campfire to grill homemade sticky rice patties.

On Christmas Eve morning I walked with Nang Hseng and the rest of the family to the tomb of Duwa Hkam Leng and Dujan Nang Ja, a 20-minute uphill hike through murky forest and across lush, sun-drenched meadows. We brought along a machete to cut brush from the burial site, and a few family members set to work prying caked dirt from the mausoleum after we’d arrived. This was quickly stopped by a villager who informed us that the accumulation of soil on the gravesite was a “blessing” – perhaps a remnant of the region’s age-old animist beliefs.

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At the tomb of Duwa Hkam Leng and Dujan Nang Ja on Christmas Eve

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Family photo of the funeral of Dujan Nang Ja

Heads were bowed, Kachin-language prayers were recited, photographs were taken. Then we walked back down to Kapna, where villagers were preparing to celebrate Christmas the Kachin way: with singing, dancing and healthy, home-cooked food.

Growing up in the northeastern United States, I had always marked Christmas by exchanging gifts, hanging ornaments on a fake pine tree and watching A Charlie Brown Christmas. I did none of these things in Kapna, but rarely have I felt so in touch with the genuine spirit of the season.

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Fresh food delivered the Kachin way

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Shan noodles around the campfire on Christmas Day

 

 

Written by latefornowhere

January 20, 2014 at 8:56 am

Yangon Marathon champion to defend title

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Earlier this week I conducted a brief email interview with Joseph Gitau Kariuki, the Kenyan runner who won last year’s Yoma Yangon International Marathon. 

The second Yoma Yangon International Marathon will be held on January 19, with 2013 champion Joseph Gitau Kariuki from Kenya returning to try for a second consecutive victory.

 Kariuki, 27, covered last year’s course in 2 hours, 19 minutes, 13 seconds, besting second-place finisher Onesmus Muindi, also from Kenya, by 28 seconds. Thaung Aye of Myanmar nabbed the last podium spot with a time of 2:27:12.  

The Yangon victory turned out to be the start of a successful year for Kariuki, who went on to win the Pattaya Marathon in Thailand in July and placed second in Malaysia’s Penang Bridge International Marathon in November.

“Last year was my most successful year as a marathon runner to date,” said Kariuki, who started running long distances in 2008. “Out of the four marathons I ran, I won two and came in second in another.”

 Of these, he said, Yangon stands out above the others.

“To be honest, the Yoma Yangon Marathon is my favorite marathon to date. They treat a champion like a champion, and I am humbled by that,” he told The Myanmar Times in an email interview. “I also like the course, the security and the well-mannered fans on the streets.”

Kariuki’s only complaint was the first prize of US$2500, which he said was small for a marathon. The prize is the same this year, but he still feels inspired to defend his title.

“I run long distances for my health. As the saying goes, health is wealth. Besides that, the cash prize also motivates me,” he said.

As for training, Kariuki has taken the same careful approach to this year’s event as he has in the past.

“Mentally, I always remain focused in my training and setting achievable goals,” he said. “Physically, I train as hard as I can, but I ensure that I do the right training by following my training program to the fullest.”

Kariuki said that on race day he always wakes up three hours before the start time and takes a shower.

“Two hours before the race I take energy drinks, if any. One hour before the race I only take totally plain water. With 30 minutes remaining, I do a very easy warm-up, and with 10 minutes remaining I go to the starting line.”

He expects to follow the same ritual this Sunday, arriving at the starting line at Thuwunna National Indoor Stadium just before the gun goes off at 5am.

The top marathon competitors are expected to cross the finish line around 7:15am. The day’s events will also include a half-marathon and a 5-kilometre fun run.

A total of 2697 runners are registered to participate in the day’s events, of which 2133, or 70 percent, are from Myanmar. Entries in the 42km marathon total 397 – 269 from Myanmar and 128 from other countries.

This story can also be seen online on The Myanmar Times website.

 

Written by latefornowhere

January 16, 2014 at 10:44 am

More Myanmar metal

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Last Day of Beethoven (photo supplied by the band)

 

This week The Myanmar Times has published an excellent story on the Myanmar death metal band Last Day of Beethoven, written by Lwin Mar Htun and titled “Waiting for Beethoven”. The story can be seen online here.

I took some video footage of Last Day of Beethoven performing live at the Jam It concert in Yangon on December 6, 2013. It consists of concert footage with a studio soundtrack. The first half of the video features Last Day of Beethoven, while the second half showcases Yangon punk bank No U Turn. The video can be seen at The Myanmar Times channel on You Tube.

For more on the Myanmar death metal scene, see my story “The last day of pleasant music” published by Southeast Asia Globe magazine in April 2013.

Another, much longer, death metal concert video I made in 2013 can be seen on here on Vimeo. The sound is terrible but the visuals are fairly decent.  

Written by latefornowhere

January 15, 2014 at 2:36 am

Book commentary: “Burma Rifles”

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How a war story for teenage boys evokes a fake Myanmar monk’s righteous disregard for human decency

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A Myanmar friend recently handed me a tattered paperback copy of Burma Rifles (1960) by American author Frank Bonham, a World War II novel aimed at adolescent boys.

The cover of the book features a comic-book drawing of four grim-faced GIs emerging from the jungle and overrunning an enemy machine gun nest. A dead Japanese soldier is visible in the lower right-hand corner.  

Judging the book by its cover, I was expecting a story about gung-ho John Wayne types defending truth, justice and the American way from hordes of shrieking, subhuman “Jap” invaders.

Instead, the narrative was much more interesting: It delved into the irrational panic, ignorance and racism underlying the US government’s wartime internment of Japanese Americans, including many who were US citizens.

The main character is Jerry Harada, a Nisei (second generation Japanese American) whose California-based family faces harassment from hillbilly American “patriots” in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Eventually, institutionalized xenophobia prevails, and the family is sent to a “relocation camp” to live out the war behind barbed wire and sentry towers.

Jerry soon finds a way out of the camp by joining the US Army to work as an interpreter in an intelligence unit; he ends up being sent to fight in Myanmar’s Kachin State with Merrill’s Marauders, at which point the book takes a turn toward the overtly martial.  

Adolescent target audience aside, the novel should hold some minor attraction for anyone interested in the history of World War II in Myanmar – described, from the perspective of the foreign soldiers, as the “land of pagodas, mud and malaria” – but there is another way in which Burma Rifles resonates with modern-day Myanmar: hysteria over immigration and certain minority populations.

After the December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor attack, paranoid stories spread around the United States about Japanese Americans hiding guns under their houses, sending coded signals to enemy submarines and plotting other fifth column activities to help Japan take over the American homeland – tall tales that fomented hatred and provided an excuse to herd Japanese Americans into internment camps.

Seventy years later, when violence broke out between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine State in 2012, similar unfounded rumors were spread by people who had no interest in finding a humanitarian solution to the conflict. Many of these stories were targeted, in particular, at a group of stateless Muslims who have generally been refused access to citizenship in Myanmar – they’re referred to as “Rohingya” by those who view them as a distinct ethnic group and as “Bengalis” by those who prefer to see them through the crude lens of immigration.  

According to one particularly ludicrous but persistent tale, the international nongovernmental organization Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) was secretly supplying guns to Muslims so they could rise up against the Buddhists and take over the country.

Burma Rifles presents a character named Shafer, a bigoted, fear-mongering fascist who incites his fellow hillbillies into a violent, paranoid frenzy, resulting in physical assaults against the Haradas and other Japanese-American families.

While reading these passages, I couldn’t help thinking that Myanmar has been cursed with its own version of Shafer: His name is U Wirathu, a faux-Buddhist monk whose angry, unenlightened rhetoric has, since the first wave of Rakhine State violence in 2012, helped whip up anti-Muslim sentiment among his followers and has certainly contributed to further outbreaks of religious bloodshed around the country.

The Shafer character in Burma Rifles is based on the real-life reaction of bigoted white farmers in California during World War II: Resenting the presence of Asians in their communities, they used the war as an excuse to bay like rabid hounds for the relocation of immigrants from their homes to distant internment camps.

In the future, films will be made and books will be written based on the violent incidents that have occurred recently in Myanmar. In these works there will be “good guys,” among them the real Buddhists who continued to promote peace and loving-kindness in the midst of the anti-Muslim pogroms.

There will also be the Shafer-like “bad guys,” righteous in their disregard for human decency (to paraphrase Christopher Hitchens). They will be modeled after U Wirathu and his followers, and they will be shown, quite accurately, as ugly, pernicious, regrettable blips that sought to impede the country’s progress toward enlightened democracy.

A story of unrequited love in Shan State

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Christmas holiday in northern Shan State: Day 3

On a cold December morning in northern Shan State, I drove west out of the border town of Muse in a Ford pickup truck along with my wife Pauksi, her mother Nang Hseng and a few relatives from the Kachin side of the family.

We were heading for Namkham, about 30 kilometres (18 miles) away. The rough and narrow road followed the south bank of the Shweli River, which forms a porous boundary with China. Myanmar’s northern neighbor would have been visible a mere 200 meters to our right had it not been for the murky fog drifting from the water.

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Departing Muse for Namkham on a cold, misty morning in December

Until last year, Namkham was closed to foreigners, and even now security remains sketchy. A few months before our visit, fighting in Namkham township between the Myanmar Army (Tatmadaw) and the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S) armed ethnic group had killed at least nine government soldiers.

According to a May 9 report on the Irrawaddy website, the skirmish prompted about 1000 villagers to flee from the mountains and take refuge in Namkham town, while others displaced by the fighting sought shelter in Ruili on the Chinese side of the border.

An atmosphere of calm prevailed when we passed through the area last month, and we encountered no checkpoints on our way to visit one of the few Kachin households in Shan-majority Namkham – the family of Nang Hseng’s 86-year-old aunt, Lathaw Ja Hkawn.

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Pauksi and Lathaw Ja Hkawn

Upon our arrival, Lathaw Ja Hkawn’s family sat us down at an outdoor table for a tasty breakfast of Shan noodles, fried tofu and instant coffee. For dessert, they plied us with homemade ice cream – one of the family’s small business ventures – which was delicious but did nothing to stop us shivering in the frosty winter air.

After breakfast, some of us walked to the chaotic town market. My wife bought some blankets, but a relative who had come with us from Muse was victimized by a pickpocket, who filched K60,000 (about US$58) and her national ID card straight out of her purse. She didn’t notice anything until she tried to buy a sweater and found her money gone.

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Posing with Lathaw Ja Hkawn’s family

Our last stop in Namhkam was the hilltop site of a hospital established in the 1920s by a legendary American doctor, Gordon Seagrave. Born in Yangon, Seagrave was the son of Baptist missionaries, and his first language was Kayin. He moved to the United States at an early age and later earned a medical degree at Johns Hopkins University before returning to Myanmar in 1922 to set up his hospital in Namhkam.

In his uneven but entertaining book Burma Surgeon (1943), Seagrave describes how he built the hospital and the adjoining buildings using stones hauled from the Shweli River, and how he trained ethnic Shan, Kachin and Karen women to be skilled nurses.

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Stone buildings at the Seagrave hospital compound, now a government-run infirmary

When the Japanese invaded Myanmar in 1942, the doctor joined the US Army Medical Corps to contribute to the Allied cause. In May of that year, facing imminent defeat at the hands of the Japanese, US General Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell famously declined to fly out of Myanmar on the last available military cargo plane. Instead, he led more than 100 of his staff on a 230-kilometre trek to safety in India via the rugged, malarial Chin and Naga hills.

Seagrave and his nurses walked out with Stilwell to render medical assistance during the march. They returned to Namkham in 1944, following the Japanese retreat, to re-establish the medical buildings and residences that had been bombed out during the war.

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Roster dating back to the early years of Gordon Seagrave’s hospital

Seagrave carried on his practice in Shan State until he died, aged 68, at his own hospital on March 28, 1965. His nurses, active and retired, collected donations to build a monument to the doctor at the nearby church where he was buried.

I had read Burma Surgeon earlier in 2013, unaware that I would be visiting the town in December. The hospital is still there and now operates as a rather decrepit government infirmary – the local staff had treated the casualties brought in during last May’s fighting between the Tatmadaw and the SSA-S.

Until we visited Namkham, I was unaware that my wife’s family had any connection with the hospital. As we looked at the buildings, Nang Hseng, a native of the region, commented that she had had her tonsils removed there when she was 11 or 12.

Then she told another story that was much more interesting: During the postwar period, one of her cousins had served at the hospital as a Seagrave-trained Kachin nurse.

Not only that, but the eldest of the doctor’s three sons, Weston, had bought an engagement ring and proposed marriage to this cousin, who declined on the grounds that she was already locked into an arranged relationship and destined to marry a local Kachin man.

Weston, who had been born in Namkham, carried the ring in his pocket in the hopes that she would change her mind, but he eventually gave up and moved to the United States. It was only after Weston’s departure that the nurse realized the enormity of her feelings for him, and to this day she speaks openly about her regret at passing up his marriage proposal.

We didn’t meet the cousin, who now suffers from poor health, but Nang Hseng showed me a curious family memento: a photograph that Weston had given to the object of his affection. Oddly, Weston had snipped off the left edge, cropping out a person who had been in the photo with him (his left arm is still visible).

What remains is the image of a smiling, clean-cut American man sitting on a concrete wall in northern Shan State – a place he would soon leave with a broken heart.

Gray Scale

Weston Seagrave in Shan State

This story was originally published in the January 13-19 2014 edition of The Myanmar Times.

Written by latefornowhere

January 13, 2014 at 10:05 am

Music Review: Yone Lay’s “Gangster Life”

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Hip-hop that should be stopped

Myanmar boasts a vibrant hip-hop scene spearheaded by a number of talented rappers. Unfortunately, Yone Lay is not one of them.

The first time I listened to the song “Last Chance” on Yone Lay’s album Gangster Life, I thought something was seriously amiss with my stereo system.

The song starts out agreeably enough, with well-known singer Chan Chan’s pleasant voice lilting over a softly strummed guitar. After about half a minute, however, things go terribly awry.

This is the point at which Yone Lay takes the microphone and starts rapping in a way that is shockingly at odds with the rhythm of the song. Chan Chan is singing pop, while Yone Lay delivers lethargic rhymes to an off-kilter beat that apparently only he can hear.

It’s like being caught between two radios tuned to different stations – I wanted to turn off the hip-hop radio and let Chan Chan finish her song without the interference. This is unfortunate because 99 times out of 100, I would pick hip-hop over saccharine pop vocals.

Except that some people just weren’t cut out for rapping. There’s more to the art form than simply spewing rhymes into a microphone and aping the “gangsta” trope, which, like “punk”, has been rendered virtually meaningless through years of misappropriation by glee clubbers.

Hip-hop requires timing, flow, versatility and a few other hard-to-define attributes that might best be collectively described as “soul”. The most talented rappers make it seem easy, but when it’s done poorly, it inspires a greater appreciation for those who have mastered the essential skills.

This point is aptly illustrated in “Underground Life”, which is by far the most likeable song on Gangster Life. The six-minute track features a collection of eminent guest rappers, including Jauk Jack, Kyaw Htut Swe, Satan, Player-K and Mi Sandy.

Despite the song’s chintzy electro-orchestral backing music, the guest rappers spend the first five minutes demonstrating how Myanmar hip-hop is meant to be performed: It’s flowy, powerful and playful. Were the bass track to be deleted, you would still be able to sense the beat pounding through the rhythmic vocal delivery.

Then, with a minute to go, Yone Lay takes over with his cotton-mouthed, beat-deaf style, and the song instantly tanks. The listener can discern a crucial lack of conviction, and the effect is like dumping cold water on a merry campfire: sizzle, hiss, lights out.

Yone Lay does acquit himself reasonably well on songs like “Just Two of Us Like Before”, in which he sings pop music accompanied by an acoustic guitar. But in the midst of what is ostensibly a hip-hip album, such tracks seem rather dull and out of place.

You might not know it from listening to Gangster Life, but Yone Lay is quite accomplished as a composer of songs for numerous Myanmar pop stars. This is where he first gained fame and where his true talents lie.

I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that Yone Lay give up recording his own music. He’s free to exercise his creativity in any way he chooses – just as I’m free to delete the Gangster Life mp3 files from my iPod as soon as I’m done writing this review.

Written by latefornowhere

January 9, 2014 at 3:29 am

Myanmar media watch for January 8

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The state-run New Light of Myanmar daily newspaper has made some small editorial improvements since the end of military rule in Myanmar in early 2011, but it still serves as the primary English-language propaganda rag for the government and has a long way to go before it can be considered a real newspaper.

As a typical example, the January 8, 2014, edition features the following mind-blowing bit of breaking news on page 2. The story is a mere four sentences long, and yet the writer still manages to bury the lead – as dull and pitiable as it is – in the third sentence.

 Here’s the story in its entirety:

Greening and beautifying of Kalay railway station inspected

Kalay, 7 Jan—Kalay railway station is crowded with travelers every day.

Kalay-Gangaw train runs daily at reasonable price for ensuring better transportation of passengers and swift flow of commodity.

Kalay District management committee Chairman U Maung Htoo met with officials of the station on 6 January and instructed them to keep the railway station neat and tidy and maintain necessary parts for convenience of travelers.

Kalay railway station is a rail transportation hub for residents of Kalay Township and Chin State.

ENDS

 

Written by latefornowhere

January 8, 2014 at 7:21 am

Along the Burma Road to the China border

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Christmas holiday in northern Shan State: Day 2

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Driving on the old Burma Road between Lashio and Muse.

Until recently, foreigners were not allowed to travel past the town of Lashio on the Mandalay-Muse Road without a special permit. But in early 2013, Myanmar’s Ministry of Home Affairs released a list of previously forbidden destinations around the country where foreigners are now allowed to go, including Muse Township along the border with China.

I was keen to explore this border area but also knew from previous experience that in Myanmar, the reality on the ground does not always match the “official” word from the capital Naypyidaw: Local authorities in northern Shan State might not be aware of the ministry’s new decree and might still be stopping foreigners from traveling past Lashio.

To help defuse any confusion, I brought along a Myanmar-language printout of the ministry’s list of newly opened areas, as well as multiple photocopies of my passport and visa to satisfy immigration officials. As a last resort, I had loaded my mountain bike into the back of our pickup truck: If I was stopped, my family – all Myanmar nationals – could keep going, and I could spend three or four days cycling around Kyaukme or Lashio until they returned – not the worst way to pass my holiday.

Since departing Yangon the previous day we had met up with more relatives in Kyaukme, and we left town at 7:30am in two cars: me, my wife Pauksi and Maung Maung Lwin in the Ford pickup, followed by a Toyota Belta sedan carrying Pauksi’s mother Nang Hseng, brother Tha Tun Wai, aunt Daw Thein Htwe and family friend Zaw Oo. Still others traveled to Muse by bus, to avoid the frigid ordeal of riding in the back of the pickup: Pauksi’s sister Naychi, my stepdaughter Nang Nuu Mai and Pauksi’s uncle L Zaw Maw from Taunggyi.

We started with Maung Maung Lwin driving the pickup, first in sunshine, and then through a valley of cold, dense fog. We stopped just past the town of Thibaw for a quick breakfast of Shan noodles, and again in sunny Lashio for a mid-morning meal.

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Shan noodles: The best breakfast anywhere in the world.

I took over driving when we left Lashio, and the “moment of truth” passed anticlimactically as the old foreigner-impeding checkpoint outside of town had indeed been dismantled, as per the ministry’s orders. We sailed calmly into far northern Shan State, and suddenly I was in a region of Myanmar few Westerners have visited since the British colonial era.

We were now on a legendary stretch of highway, following what had once been the Burma Road, which played a strategically important role just before and during World War II. The 717-mile (1,154 km) road, extending from Lashio to Kunming in southwestern China, was built in the late 1930s and used by the British to send supplies – consumer goods, military materials, parts and gasoline – to China, which was suffering under a war of aggression and naval blockades launched by Japan.

An excerpt from the Pacific War Online Encyclopedia describes some of the hazards of the Burma Road: “At its prewar peak, about 10,000 tons of supplies per month came through the road. However, the road had many limitations that made it a serious bottleneck. It was not an all-weather road, limiting its usefulness during the monsoon. It passed through areas in which malaria was endemic. Its status as the last link between China and the outside world made it a focus of intrigue and corruption.”

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A treacherous section of the Burma Road in 1939 or 1940.
Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The two-lane road is now a paved, “all-weather” thoroughfare, but still poses challenges. There were flat, fast stretches through agricultural land, and tricky sections that hair-pinned up and down steep, forested mountains. There were plenty of dusty construction zones, and we were constantly forced to pull into the oncoming traffic lane to accelerate past trundling, road-hogging trucks carrying Myanmar-grown watermelons to China. But the mountain scenery was green and gorgeous, and the brisk air made for pleasant travel.

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A quiet section of the Burma Road in December 2013.

We reached Kutkai – the halfway point between Lashio and Muse – around noon; it looked more like a grimy bus depot than a proper town. We had an early afternoon break in Nampaka, where we ate lunch at another Shan restaurant, and we finally reached Muse and the China border around 3:30pm.

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Lunch in Nampaka

Some members of our group stayed at Shwe Yar Su Hotel – overpriced at $50 a night but boasting friendly staff, clean and decent-sized rooms, and free wi-fi (but the China-sourced internet connection meant Facebook was censored) – while others stayed at the nearby Kachin Baptist Church. We spent the evening checking out the unappealing array of shoddy Chinese goods at the town’s night market, had barbecued fish and beer for dinner, and then walked back to the hotel through the cold, commerce-hectic streets of Muse.

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Roadside scenery: A cemetery along the way between Lashio and Muse.

Written by latefornowhere

January 4, 2014 at 8:11 am

Winter Solstice on Myanmar’s Death Highway

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Christmas holiday in northern Shan State: Day 1

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Left to right: Naychi, Nang Nuu Mai and Pauksi bundled up for the chilly trip from Pyin Oo Lwin to Kyaukme in Shan State.

The “expressway” that stretches for 366 miles from Yangon to Mandalay opened only a few years ago, and it didn’t take long for the poorly engineered road to earn the nickname “Death Highway”.

The hazards are abundant: lanes that end abruptly at concrete barriers; poor lighting and inadequate warning signs; sharp curves that aren’t properly cambered; and rough concrete and puncture-inducing bumps, to name a few.

The lousy engineering has been attributed, in part, to poor funding and the short time-frame given to complete the project. According to an article on the Irrawaddy website, “The former military regime prioritized rapid development of a new highway between Burma’s major cities after it began its secret construction of a new capital.” The new capital referred to is Naypyidaw, which became the country’s official administrative center in 2005.

The highway quickly racked up some of the highest accident rates in the country. From January to November 2013, for example, there were 219 car accidents that caused 100 deaths and 546 injuries, according to highway police records. Drivers tend to blame these incidents on the deficient engineering, while the government likes to point the finger at poor vehicle-operating skills and lack of safety awareness among Myanmar drivers. The truth, of course, is a combination of these and other factors.

In early 2011, my wife’s sister Naychi was involved in an accident on the highway: Working as an interpreter for visiting Japanese businessmen, she was traveling from Yangon to Naypyidaw in the back seat of an SUV that hit a concrete barrier and overturned. She survived with minor head and neck injuries, but the crash killed two fellow passengers – one Japanese and one Myanmar – who were sitting next to her.

I drove on the highway for the first time this past December 21, the shortest day of the year. I was traveling with my wife Pauksi and stepdaughter Nang Nuu Mai, and we were heading to northern Shan State to meet other family members for the Christmas holiday. It was also the first long road trip with our recently purchased 2013 Ford Ranger pickup truck.

We left at 4am, knowing we had about 10 hours of driving ahead of us: 352 miles on the Death Highway, then another 100 miles up to Kyaukme on the Shan Plateau along the much slower Mandalay-Lashio Road.

Nighttime driving in Myanmar can be frustrating and dangerous: An overwhelming percentage of vehicle operators here lack even the most basic familiarity with driving etiquette, and nearly everyone cruises around at all times with their high beams ablaze. This makes it difficult to see the road very well, even if you join the fun and blast everyone else with your own high beams.

But once the sun came up, I didn’t find driving the so-called Death Highway to be all that terrible. Yes, there were the poorly placed concrete barriers, and the too-sharp curves, and the stray dogs trotting down the middle of the road, and the bullock cart crossings, and the slow-moving motor scooters, and the overloaded jalopies with bald tires, and the SUV drivers at the rest stop guzzling beer at 10:30am – but for the most part I was able to cruise along at the posted speed limit of 100kph (60mph) without relying on my stunt-driving skills to keep the rubber side down.

The main hazard was boredom: the sleep-inducing sameness of the slightly hilly, scrub-land terrain, and the fact that there are only two proper rest stops along the entire length of the highway.

But those haters who declare that the Myanmar government does not care about the safety of drivers need only contemplate some of the useful, philosophically astute signs that officials have thoughtfully posted along the highway. Examples include:

“Life Is a Journey, Complete It”

“Drive With Care, Make Accidents Rare”

“If You Drink Don’t Drive, If You Drive Don’t Drink”

Any my favorite, which, in its utter irrelevance to highway driving, seems to have been swiped from the pages of an in-flight travel magazine:

“Your Safety Our Responsibility, Your Comfort Our Reward”

With the help of these signs and my expert driving skills, we made it to Mandalay without padding the highway’s accident statistics.

Back on Myanmar’s “normal” surface roads, we ascended to the Shan Plateau from the central lowlands. About an hour from Mandalay we stopped at the old British hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin to pick up Naychi and her husband Maung Maung Lwin, who would be accompanying us on the rest of the trip. They had recently moved to Pyin Oo Lwin to set up a Japanese-style café, due to open later this year.

The December air was already cold in Pyin Oo Lwin – located 3510 feet above sea level – a precursor to the frigid weather we would encounter farther north. Maung Maung Lwin drove the final 90-minute stretch to Kyaukme, while Pauksi, Naychi and Nang Nuu Mai bundled up and volunteered to ride in the truck bed. After more than eight hours of driving, I was able to enjoy the comfort of the passenger seat for the last stretch of the day’s journey.