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An inopportune time for a Myanmar holiday

In my final days in Myanmar before I embark on a reporting trip elsewhere, thought I’d update this page.

So far I’ve had a taste of what it’s like to work for a Myanmar news outlet—wonderful people in cramped quarters with betel-nut spittoons that runneth over—walked the streets endlessly taking photographs, and spent an inordinate number of hours in hotel lobbies subjected to the musical stylings of Filipino lounge acts. Billy Joel with sequins is tough on the noggin when you’re trying to write.

I’ll be back in Yangon in April, but I’m still sorry to leave at what’s turning out to be an exciting, troubling phase in Myanmar’s post-junta evolution.

When I got here in November this was still largely a place of optimism. Now there’s lots of evidence suggesting that, in the behind-the-scenes struggle between the government’s progressive camp and old-guard hardliners, the hardliners are gaining ground. Change came swift to Myanmar, and the backlash that’s underway, or at least appears to be gathering force may be just as intense.

One item is Naypyidaw’s bellicose stance on what did or did not take place last month in Maungdaw Township. Rights groups and the United Nations say dozens of Rohingya Muslims died there during Rakhine State’s most recent outbreak of sectarian violence. The government isn’t budging. When a Rohingya MP, Shwe Maung, repeated in a video news item accounts he’d heard from locals in the area suggesting police may have set Rohingya homes ablaze, President Thein Sein himself sought the permissions required for police to interrogate him.

That story is unfolding against increasingly casual anti-Muslim sentiment throughout Myanmar, where for example there is broad support for legislated interdictions against marriage between Buddhist women and non-Buddhist men.

Meanwhile, a reporter with Eleven Media has been sentenced to three months in prison for what she said in an interview she conducted while working on a corruption exposé. And authorities have detained the CEO of Unity Weekly and four of its journalists after that paper published reports about a secret chemical weapons factory in Magway Region, central Myanmar.

Then there is the video of Ohn Myint, a former military man and now minister of livestock breeding, fisheries and rural development, upbraiding villagers who complained about access to water. Ohn Myint must have felt he could get away with flipping his longyi skirt at people, exposing leg—very likely a reflection of how his peers in government feel.

“I will attack anyone who insults the ruling government and if I cannot attack them verbally, I will throw them in jail,” he told the group, all of it captured on camera (you can watch it here in this delicious Democratic Voice of Burma piece). “This is how it’s done internationally—if you oppose the government, you go to jail and only come out when we’re out of office.”

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi remains largely missing in action on these issues—she’s busy campaigning for a change to Myanmar’s 2008 constitution that will permit her to become president if the National League for Democracy, the party she leads, wins the general elections in 2015. I wrote about this state of affairs late last year in Maclean’s.

But there are scenes of striking beauty here, and I’ve had the chance to write about that also—for example here in a piece I did for the Toronto Star about Myanmar’s magical national sport, chinlone. The above photo is of 13-year-old Mg Naing Tun, at a monastery in Mandalay, kicking a chinlone ball with his knee behind his head .

I mean, where else do you get to see that? I look forward to seeing more.


Dinner by the lights of the pivoting cranes

Dinner by the lights of the pivoting cranes

In the north end of Yangon, just around the corner from where I’m staying in the Pyin Nya Waddy condos, a commercial work site I’m told is one of the largest in Myanmar history has sent pastel-coloured cranes soaring above No. 1 Industrial Road, and their lights blaze there, the generators rumbling, late into the night. The cranes, maybe a half dozen of them, pivot, lean dramatically, and seem to gesture, and by their lights, just below and on the opposite side of the construction fence, ordinary Yangon life goes on.

Al fresco dining, off miniature plastic tables and shower stools, caters to the truckers who stop here—they eat, pick up their quids of betel nut, then climb to the roofs of their cabs in their lungi skirts and doze below the dazzle of insects reflecting the halogen glow above.

They will fix you something if you stop at the outdoor kitchen, a buck for long-grain rice laced through with nuts, a chili paste, beef or pork with the consistency of jerky, and a soup of leaves with a pungent, fermented taste.

Close by, the betel nut vendor assembles the teabags of leaf and areca, slathered in the blindingly white industrial lime paste, and you will see the product of this habit, the thick syrup of red-stained saliva, expertly aimed into gutters and from taxi windows everywhere. But here the vendor permits me to photograph the ritual of bagging the doses, and I notice his mouth is clean, and not dyed the blood colour, the gums not dissolved around the enamel like so many of his clients.

Everything is changing here, fast, and the reality of last week is replaced by the urgency of now and then forgotten. There is the strange co-existence of the novel and the nostalgic. Not long ago there were no ATMs. When they arrived you could not use them to draw on foreign accounts, but you had to arrive at the airport saddled with wads of pristine American dollars for changing to kyat, the local currency. Now the machines will take your bank card, and the American dollar appears near to obsolete (although the money changers still hustle along Sule Pagoda Road outside of Traders Hotel, the expat hub).

Much of this change is painful. Yangon is now the most expensive city in Southeast Asia, with commercial rents outstripping Singapore, even downtown Manhattan (a phenomenon well covered by Bloomberg here). The developer working on the site by me, a five minute walk from where Aung San Suu Kyi spent 15 years under house arrest in a property on Inya Lake, sought to billet some of its employees at my condo, threatening to triple the rent there.

Therefore locals are increasingly pushed out—by the likes of me, willing to pay top dollar for a little room, and I think of this as I jog around Inya Lake, threading my way through the couples walking hand in hand under parasols, a weirdly old-fashioned, enchanted scene. Traffic clogs the street, and the politics, widely advertised as leaning toward transparency, remain opaque. “Nationalist panties in stores now!” reads graffiti down the street, an umbrella—or is it a parasol?—painted alongside that apparent poem like a massive punctuation mark, and I am eager to know what it means.


Just a few days before the blast

When the quotidian explodes

When I was in Beijing earlier this month I became fascinated by the tourists flowing in and out of Tiananmen Gate, or capturing snapshots of each other with Mao’s portrait in the background, a great ideological Grand Canyon, the vacationer’s proof of purchase.

I wrote about it, but I did not mention how I’d crossed the Jinshui Bridge, above the ancient moat, and entered the Forbidden City myself. On the way, I captured this image of the crowd, a jumble of looks and expressions out of Ezra Pound’s faces in the Paris metro.

Yesterday, very near to where I snapped the shutter, a Jeep jumped the curb and crashed into the gate here, plowing through people, injuring dozens and killing five. Three of the dead were in the vehicle, which was almost certainly aimed into the crowds before it exploded into flame, a suicide attack.

The Chinese aren’t saying much, but foreign news reports, quoting anonymous sources close to the investigation, suggest that the incident may be linked to a separatist movement in Xinjiang, a province in China’s deep west. This Reuters story is particularly good.

The Economist, meanwhile, mentions a string of odd goings on that took place around the Forbidden City in the days prior to the blast. Reads a piece posted to the magazine’s site yesterday:

Just an hour before the crash, reports surfaced that a group of … seven or eight people caused a scene by linking arms and jumping fully clothed into a lake near the Forbidden City, the imperial palace that lies behind Tiananmen. Photos show the group huddled together, standing in the water.

It was also reported that on Friday October 25th a worker at the Forbidden City stabbed to death two of his co-workers, inside the palace’s cafeteria. Official media say the murders were the culmination of a dispute between employees.

The day I went, before I went across the bridge and through the gate, a friend of mine had told me that there is something sexual about visiting the Forbidden City: it is a series of revelations, one layer of intimacy wrapped in another, and at the centre you are in a private realm, an interloper, a voyeur.

Shortly after I’d passed through one of the many interior gates inside the palace, I stumbled across a group of people done up in finery and regalia. They were older, with sunned, wizened faces, and they wore dark turbans or towering headdresses, flowing robes encrusted with jewelry, floral cummerbunds and sneakers. I’ve included a shot of them here (if anyone can tell me how to get WordPress to publish this image as large as the one above, I’d be grateful).


I felt like I’d encountered characters from the One Thousand and One Nights. They did not appear to speak Mandarin, judging from the puzzled expressions on their faces when people approached them to take pictures. I assumed they were members of a minority ethnic group from a far-flung region of China, but they were so arresting a group that I also wondered if they were an official part of the pageant of the Forbidden City, like the green-tinted soldiers who march through the place—paid to wander the courtyards with their flashing teeth and high cheekbones.

But soon they were surrounded by tourists, a mob of vacationers clamoring for snapshots, and the members of the group began to turn their backs on the courtyard and huddle together, their smiles grown wooden.


Classical music in China: “More popular than Jesus?” Well, not really.

Here’s the piece I wrote, for my old pals at Maclean’s magazine, on western myths surrounding the popularity of classical music in China. For the story I followed the National Arts Centre Orchestra around during the Beijing leg of its China tour earlier this month, and I talked to a lot of conservatory profs across the country, from Guangzhou to Chengdu. I shot the above in the concert hall at Tsinghua University, a prestigious school located in Beijing’s north end, just a few minutes before the NACO performance began.

You’ll notice that there are still many empty seats here. Don’t let this fool you: the halls in Beijing do fill up, but many spectators arrive after the music starts, likely a function of the city’s horrendous traffic. Even the NACO was late for this show. And yes, there were many more young people in the audience, here and elsewhere, than you’d see at classical music performances in North America and Europe. At the Tianjin Grand Theatre, on the coast just south of Beijing, I also saw many more people dead-to-the-world asleep in their seats.

The story spends some time on crowd-management strategies at Chinese concert halls, where ushers are equipped with laser devices to publicly shame unruly spectators. Wait for the security guards I describe at the Beijing Zoo, cordoning off an area around a trio of NACO musicians there to serenade the pandas: the bouncers were apparently dispatched to protect the instrumentalists from marauding toddlers.


The tourists of Tiananmen

The tourists of Tiananmen

For people-watching, Beijing is hard to beat: looking on as Tiananmen Gate, with its muted portrait of Mao, is transformed into a sightseeing backdrop, with the tourists sporting outfits as loud as the Communist slogans to their rear. On the streets the sense that something momentous is happening, strangely imperceptible under the surface of things, and the sugary drinks and cold bottled tea hocked from vending trucks on the square. Sweet azuki beans baked into pastries in the narrow hutong alleyways to the south, or great vats of soup still offsteaming around the bend from McDonald’s. When I arrived a giant vase filled with hulking fake flowers and Gulliver-sized peaches still sat in the middle of it all, on my way to the Forbidden City, a hangover from China’s National Day, on Oct. 1. The display sparked criticism in the ramp up to the holiday, for its $100,000 price tag, but it was an arresting sight. An odd thing, and foreboding, seeing flowers, which are meant at some point to wilt, blown up to Godzilla proportions, so heavy and imposing, so vividly coloured, and so immune to the wind.


The surreality of the familiar


Touched down in Bangkok the other day for the first time in 25 years. The smells—that odd mix of coriander and sewage—just as I remember, and just as intoxicating. But in my old neighbourhood the city has erupted upwards, turning to chrome or ribbons of concrete. Walked from Asoke to the Chao Phraya River, through the new glistening shopping district, then the ancient storefronts of golden Buddhas beyond that. As I neared the temple complexes along the river, bypassing the fast-talking tuk-tuk drivers under the spires of Wat Ratchabophit, the old Bangkok of my childhood sprang up and welcomed me, that blur of candy-coloured traffic.


Somewhere in Montana

Somewhere in Montana

Polebridge, MT is at the end of a gnarly dirt road in a valley adjacent to Glacier National Park. Every so often, an old debate erupts again over whether to pave that road, but the paving proponents always lose. Oliver, the German-born owner of the North Fork Hostel, where I stayed last night in a one-room cabin called the Goat Chalet, told me the dirt road is so daunting that it tends to filter out all uninteresting people. Therefore, Polebridge remains impossibly small. Nearby the North Fork Hostel is the Polebridge Mercantile, a general store that’s developed a following in the area for its confections, including its huckleberry bear claws, and the Northern Lights Saloon, a bar and restaurant (pictured above) with picnic tables set out in front under a huge canopy tree. At the Northern Lights I ate seared trout made by the cook, Tater, whose chef’s hat, which towered above him like a small nuclear cloud, lent him a strange kind of dignity. Yesterday was Tater’s birthday—I judged that he might have been turning 25 or so—and friends of his, a country and western band from Knoxville, Tenn., drove up along that long dirt road in a great white school bus, and set up for an outdoor show under the Northern Lights tree. Tater had to continue cooking through much of the music, which made his friends taunt him. At 10 or so, though, the kitchen shut, and Tater, who is lanky and pale and wears his dark hair long, joined his pals. It was quite a party. When I got up this morning, at 8:30 or so, Tater was still going—he hadn’t gone to bed yet, I heard him tell someone—and by now he was standing with his buddy out in front of the Mercantile, and had switched from his chef’s toque, to a 10-gallon cowboy hat.


Russell and August Cobb

Russell and August Cobb

August and Russell Cobb eating tiramisu in the Painter House, part of the Leighton Artists’ Colony at the Banff Centre. Once owned by Glen Sather, former player and coach of the Edmonton Oilers, the Painter was transplanted from Buffalo Street, in the town of Banff, to the colony a few years ago. Russell, a transplant from Oklahoma, teaches Latin American studies at the University of Alberta, and has been working on a piece of non-fiction at the Banff Centre. His amazing story, Heretics, about a preacher in Tulsa who became the subject of controversy within the church when he rejected the notion of Hell, appeared on This American Life in 2005. It is hard to know who likes tiramisu better—Russell or his four-year-old son August. Like many people, August enjoys dancing to the Daft Punk tune Get Lucky; unlike many of his fellow enthusiasts, both adult and pre-school, August can pull it off.


My reading

My reading

Last night, all of us in the literary journalism program read from the stories we’ve been working on here at the Banff Centre. I went last. One of my classmates speculated this was because organizers worried people might flee after hearing me. Ian Brown, the Globe and Mail writer who runs the program, spent a lot of time over drinks later impersonating me and the way I read in front of large crowds. Supposedly, when I said “suture,” my hands made sewing gestures. This photo courtesy Richard Johnson.


After the reading

After the reading

Measha Brueggergosman, the Canadian soprano, and Calvin Trillin, the New Yorker writer, having a drink at the Banff Centre. Earlier in the evening, as part of the Literary Journalism program here, Trillin did a reading—from pieces on Conrad Black and poutine, amongst other things—in front of an audience, which included Brueggergosman, who is a fan. Brueggergosman is to perform over the weekend. She and Trillin got along.