Friday, January 19, 2018

Ethnic Entertainers Make the Scene


Ethnic Entertainers Make the Scene

By Min Zin MAY, 2003 - VOLUME 11 NO.4 

Burma’s ethnic diversity hasn’t translated into equal representation in the entertainment industry, but young ethnic stars are gradually rising above the prejudice held by the Burman majority. 

Back in the 1970s, when Sai Khan Lait would walk the city streets to go to school at Mandalay Medical Institute, kids along the way would heckle him for his peculiar attire: an ethnic Shan outfit. When hanging around campus, schoolgirls simpered at him. When at the hospital, he would be roundly upbraided by the nurses. "As a student coming from an ethnic minority group, I was very much aware that my life would not be easy in Mandalay," says Sai Khan Lait, who has since become the most famous and respected composer of original modern music in Burma. "Those experiences were deeply personal, and compelled me to compose the song, ‘A Shan Living in Mandalay’." The song went on to become one of the biggest hits in Burmese pop music history. I don’t swap my identity with others I am proud of being a hill person But it’s not easy to be a Shan living in Mandalay —"A Shan Living in Mandalay" Like most other ethnic entertainers looking to break into the national scene, Khan Lait had to hurdle walls of discrimination and prejudice. And while much of his work reflects on his untoward encounters in the predominantly Burman cities, Khan Lait never conceals the proud fact that he is Shan. 

His ethnic pride was tested, however, when he fell in love with a woman who was ethnically Burman. Heated pressure to reconsider his affection came not only from Burmans, but from his own ethnic peers as well. "After I married my Burmese wife, my Shan community freaked out," remembers Khan Lait. "They didn’t talk to me for a year." Earlier in his career, Khan Lait only composed songs in the Shan language, but his affection for his wife compelled him to start putting his music to Burmese lyrics. 

But Khan Lait’s amorous exploit is not applauded by all Shan, particularly the younger generation. "I would never marry a Burmese woman," vows Sai Bo Bo, a 28-year-old model who was born and raised in Shan State. "I have a responsibility to preserve my ethnicity. I’ll surely marry a Shan woman." Not that he’s turned his back on Burma. "I see my country as a union," explains Bo Bo, "but people don’t treat one another as equals." When speaking to his friends in Shan amid Burmans, he says, the latter would deride him for his choice of language. Burmanization has proved an irrepressible phenomenon, and has served the majority Burmans well. Burmanization is a typical practice of the dominant group to ride roughshod over the minority. Bo Bo says, "It’s not only Burmans versus Shan—we can also see how Shan mistreat the Pa-O a sub-ethnic group in Shan State. I hate it." 

Unfortunately, ethno-racism has plagued efforts at national unification for decades. Racist attitudes, whether concealed or flagrant, are found among all societies in various degrees and forms. But such grudges run especially deep in newer, post-colonial nations, where textbooks excoriate imperial powers for destroying the glory days of old and government statements feed citizens a steady diet of propaganda and political diatribes against outside intruders. In military-ruled Burma, however, ethno-racism thrives and proliferates in the dark. Since the country gained independence in 1948, ethno-racism has gained enormous destructive power as successive military regimes have systematically advanced such bigotry to bolster their legitimacy and to detract the masses from turmoil at home. 

Burma is a mosaic of ethnic diversity, but that has not translated into equal representation in the entertainment industry. Ethnic minorities and indigenous people represent one-third of the country’s 52 million inhabitants, which speak more than 100 different languages and dialects. Yet, the Burman-dominated military is bent on Burmanizing the entire country by eliminating—through military and other means—any potentially threatening vestiges of cultural independence in predominantly non-Burman areas. 

Thus, for young ethnic stars to make their mark on Burma’s entertainment landscape, they must assimilate into the Burman’s culture. But with this rise in popularity, observers have begun to explore the dynamics of Burma’s ethnic relations and the ethnic influence in popular culture. "When I speak Burmese, I have a difficult time adjusting my Chin accent," explains the 21-year-old superstar model, Thet Mon Myint. Born and raised in Chin State, she moved to Rangoon a few years ago after graduating from high school and is now a second-year economics student. After arriving in the capital, she gave up her given Chin name, Zung Cer Mawi, to become Thet Mon Myint. Since adopting the Burmese moniker, she says she never experiences ethnic discrimination, but actually receives encouragement from her adoring fans. "I think many of my fans love my Chin accent." 

Accents and other indigenous traits may attract instant attention from Burmese fans in search of new tastes and sounds, but no matter how exotic the appearances or the music, penetrating a domain that has traditionally been dominated by Burmans requires courage and great sacrifice. Sung Thin Par, a celebrated ethnic vocalist, is a prime example. "When I was setting off on my first venture into music," she says, "I was strongly encouraged by my producer and others to change my Chin name and use a new, pretty Burmese name." But the 23-year-old didn’t bow to the pressure. Her name, which translates as "noble" or "treasured flower", was given to her by grandma, and Sung Thin Par explains she would rather have forfeited the opportunity to sing than to embrace a Burmese sobriquet—a wise decision in retrospect. "I’ve heard some of my fans got interested in my albums now because of my name." Other singers also refuse to compromise their ethnicity to gain acceptance from the mainstream. "Since it is known that I am an ethnic, I believe that my fans will accept me as I am," explains an ethnic celebrity requesting anonymity. "But the producers and directors may be reluctant to give me contracts." But talent, of course, is what matters most—regardless of the singers’ social, ethnic, or economic backgrounds. "At the end of the day," says a renowned movie director in Burma, "the most important thing is whether one is a good actor or performer." 

Still, many young ethnic celebrities are keen to don their traditional apparel, not so much to set them apart from the Burman majority, but to express their ethnic pride. "The times when I wear my own ethnic dress are cherished moments," says Thet Mon Myint. "When I have photo shoots for calendars and posters, I love putting on my Chin outfit." Several ethnic celebrities also want to show Burmans that traditional attire is not reserved only for special festivals or state-sponsored events, such as the Union Day commemoration. "Traditional clothes are just that—not something we wear only for formal occasions," says Sai Bo Bo. "I wear Shan trousers almost all the time." 

For some aspiring ethnic performers, Christianity marks another distinction from the Burman mainstream. Attending church was key in shaping many singers’ identity and also proved a suitable venue to sing hymns. Sung Thin Par says that she tries to sing at least one religious song on each of her albums. Hackett, the 23-year-old heartthrob, also says that his experiences in church afforded him the opportunity to nurture his musical talents. The mixed blood Karen-Karenni first entered the entertainment industry in 1999 as a dancer before becoming model. He is now cutting his first album. "My life was enriched by my faith and ethnicity," Hackett says cheerfully. "But I am not parochial. I speak Karen as well as Kayah (Karenni) at home, but I get along fine with my Burman friends." Although he refers to his mother’s ethnicity as Kayah, the term given to the Karenni by the Burmese government in the 1950s, Hackett says his life’s mission is to improve the lives of fellow ethnic people, something that requires more than his art and performances. "My dad gave me the name Hackett. To me, it means that I must represent our region and devote my life to ethnic causes. My dad wants me to serve the development of the hill people." 

Nevertheless, nationwide popularity alone is enough to earn stars like Sai Bo Bo and Sung Thin Par adulation from their ethnic peers. Sai Khan Lait, however, cautions that while the fame and respect showered on ethnic celebrities by all quarters of Burmese society is certainly a step forward, further progress is needed. The bigger test, he explains, is whether the talents of these entertainers can lead to a better understanding between the marginalized ethnic people and the Burman majority. Sai Khan Lait has reason to be skeptical. He was recently approached by a Burman video director who asked permission to make a video comedy based on the hit single "A Shan Living in Mandalay." It is a deeply personal song that he says reflects the trying experiences of all ethnic people. "I was shocked and saddened by the proposal," he says. "Does he want to make fun of ethnic sentiments?" The lyrics he composed for that song over three decades ago still appear to ring true today: The life and experience of a Shan Who tries to settle in Mandalay Is the same as before. 

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