Yangon Calling

Chapter 1
 Myth-busting and the Punks of Myanmar

 

 

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It only took three days to hear those dreaded words: Are you a journalist? Matte-black visor glasses made it impossible to read his eyes. I tightened the grip around my road-worn camera and tried to remember which of the two slots held my decoy memory card in case I was forced to give anything up. It was 10 p.m. and Yangon’s Chinatown was packed; cream-faced thanaka-painted women shoved their way between us, woks hissed, and inky-red bettle-spit soaked the promenade. I was probably faster than the man in front of me and his two friends should anything go seriously wrong, but to find a break in this crowd would be impossible. Plus, as the only blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy I’d seen in 72-hours walking the streets of Mynamar’s old capitol, it wasn’t exactly as though I could hide.

Under different circumstances I would have been flattered by his accusation. A recent chemistry graduate who’d spent his after-hours writing arts and culture columns, the term journalist didn’t fit quite as well as I wanted it to. In fact, part of the reason I was here—three months into a backpacking trip from Brisbane to New York—was to attempt to shoehorn my way into the shrinking travel-writing industry.

The man whispered something in Bamar to his friends, the turn of his head revealed a cleft earlobe, pierced and knotted with twine—part of the reason I’d asked to shoot his portrait in the first place

And he’d agreed without question, hadn’t he? I suppose I owed him the most honest answer I could afford.

“Back home I shoot and review concerts,” I said. “But right now I’m just a tourist.”

The two men flanking gave a unified nod of approval. “So,” he said “You like punk?”

--

There’s a disarming amount of openness on the streets of Yangon given the local regime. Or at least given what I’d read about it—a military-run state since 1962’s coup d’état, trade-barricades have selectively fogged the lenses through which Myanmar is seen by the West. Tales of human trafficking, systematic rape, and child soldiers flow liberally across the borders, yet a detailed portrayal of day-to-day life within the country is incredibly hard to find. The most accurate way, it seems, is to enter Myanmar yourself. Yet despite the government’s attempts to bolster tourism in recent years, the task remains an inconvenient one. A lack of international banking infrastructure makes it nearly impossible to book hotels in advance. And then, of course, there’s that blacklist again foreign press…

I’d spent the month prior to my visa application stripping the web of any incriminating bylines. I’d left my recent employment history blank and paid for an express visa to minimize the chances of the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok having time to look me up. Two months after meeting a photojournalist who has his equipment confiscated while exiting the country, I loosened my grip on my computer bag and slid it through the customs line marked nothing to declare.

--

“Punk? I’m from Vancouver!” I answered his question. I hoped being born in a city once defined by acts like D.O.A., the Pointed Sticks and the Subhumans would fill in for punk-rock pedigree I so clearly lacked.

Whether my response was the one they were looking for, I couldn’t tell. Perhaps the pathetic scruff I’d begun to grow in the place of a beard, my beaten-to-hell clothing, or the fact that I’d spent the last months sleeping on floors and couches would help to sell my case.

“So,” said the punk. “What do you think of Myanmar?”

--

Although I’d brushed shoulders with a couple Caucasians at Shwedagon —the 99-meter gilded pagoda that crowns the city—I spent the rest of my time swimming in a sea of foreign syllables. Still, I’d been able to get by on a currency of smiles. I was invited to play rattan ball each time I passed a park; on my first night in town I got pissed on a cocktail of extra-strong stout, pilsner, and whisky with an old man whose vocabulary consisted of the word “gift.” Stumbling home after midnight a cabdriver gave me perfect directions even though I told him I’d rather walk.

I hadn’t expected the city to be unsafe, but everything I’d heard leading up to my trip suggested my professional aspirations would make me a problem. But that afternoon within minutes of unsheathing my camera in the city’s industrial district, I was invited to take portraits of the workers as they packaged coal at a local warehouse. Everyone was eager to pose—nobody seemed bothered by my bulky black SLR the way the country’s travel disclaimers said they would. The only question I got was what I’d planned to do with the photos once I got home. And to each I gave the same answer: I’m making memories. It wasn’t exactly a lie, but in a perfect world it wouldn’t be true either and that left a bitterness in my mouth.

While studying chemistry I’d taken creative writing classes at the University of Victoria. I chose to specialize in non-fiction and by doing so learned the basics of reportage. Be a fly on the wall, I was told time and time again—the less you interfere with a story the more the subject will disclose. The advice had served me well in the past, but surrounded by so much unquestioning openness the technique seemed more manipulative than ever before. I was here to seek out other people’s stories. If my goal was to retell them, especially in the inescapable bias of my own voice, didn’t those people have the right to know in advance?

--

Punk rock is a genre built to bust myths. In the 1970s when rock and roll was preoccupied with turning out titans—Led Zeppelin, The Who, and Pink Floyd—a young band called the Sex Pistols took root in England to fill the rapidly growing void between the one time voice of a generation and the people it claimed to represent. Punk rock was accessible in a way what we now call classic rock wasn’t—the shows were cheap and encouraged crowd participation, and simplistic songs structures made it possible for anyone with a guitar and a message to join in on the fun. Obviously things don’t always turn out the way we intend them: it only took three years for The Clash to evolve from a dingy barroom band to the auteurs of esoteric genre blending double-disks like London Calling. The last punk-show I saw back home featured a triple-bill of Hot Water Music, The Gaslight Anthem, and Rise Against. Steeped in strobes and elevated above the crowd on a bed of monitors, the show felt more like theatre than anything else.

The punk took out his phone and showed me a mosaic of tattooed torsos, topless women, and studded vests. The final image featured a newspaper clipping: The Punks of Myanmar. Beneath it, a masked and mohawked figure pummelled the sky with a single fist

“That’s me,” he stuck out his jaw proudly.

Each April, Myanmar’s punks assembled at a location out of town. The site of the concerts were changed regularly to avoid undercover police—local rockers were known to be punished ruthlessly for their loud opinions. La Paing, the front-man of Myanmar based Rebel Riot, had just been released after six-years in jail.

And yet, these three had no problem sharing their scene with a foreigner they’d just met.

“You should come,” the lead punk said.

I took his phone to enter my contact information. “I would like to share your story.”

I handed it back and stepped into the halogen glow of the food stand I’d used to light the punk’s portrait minutes earlier. He raised his phone to take a single exposure. The purple bulbs felt over-exposing, but it was only fair.


A late-night game of Rattan ball, lit by the 99-meter Shwedagon Pagoda.

A late-night game of Rattan ball, lit by the 99-meter Shwedagon Pagoda.

A worker at a local coal-packaging warehouse pauses for a portrait.

A worker at a local coal-packaging warehouse pauses for a portrait.

The government of Myanmar currently recognizes 135 distinct ethnic groups, most originating from China, India, or Nepal.

The government of Myanmar currently recognizes 135 distinct ethnic groups, most originating from China, India, or Nepal.

A local boxer poses between loading cargo onto a ship bound for Mandalay.

A local boxer poses between loading cargo onto a ship bound for Mandalay.

The cobble-stoned streets of the Bogyoke market -- the closest thing to Orwell's Burma, this infamous bazaar was first openned in 1926.

The cobble-stoned streets of the Bogyoke market -- the closest thing to Orwell's Burma, this infamous bazaar was first openned in 1926.

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STORIES FROM MYANMAR