Ethnic Entertainers Make the Scene
covering burma and southeast asia
Wednesday, November 21, 2018
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CULTURE

Ethnic Entertainers Make the Scene


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


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"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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