09 July 2009

A Day of Dissent in Mandalay - Part 2: The Moustache Brothers, Comedy's Most Wanted

So I had a toothache, and so I went over the border to Thailand. The dentist took a look at me and said “What, in Myanmar don't they have dentists?” I looked at him and said - “In Myanmar, we have dentist – but we're not allowed to open our mouths!”

Lu Maw, Moustache Brother

Mandalay's star attraction has nothing to do with temples or teak bridges. The real reason to visit the second largest city in Burma is for Lu Zaw, Lu Maw and Par Par Lay. The Moustache Brothers – the Myanmar government's enemy number 1.

The Moustache Brothers are a traditional A Nyient group – a mixture of vaudeville, traditional dancing and one liner stand-up – and they had traveled the country for decades with their act until a rare opportunity to perform in front of Aung San Suu Kyi at an huge event in Rangoon. That evening, in front of members of the government, Par Par Lay decided to infuse the usual antics of drag and prop comedy with a few political jokes, comparing the Generals to robbers. The next day he was imprisoned and sentenced to hard labour.

For the 7 years that Par Par Lay was in Myanmar's gulags, his brother Lu Maw kept the tradition alive and defiantly continued the act despite constant fear of imprisonment and economic ruin. Slowly, word started spreading to the tourists and the act became a magnet for backpackers, more for the symbolic act if defiance than for entertainment. The more backpackers arrived the more freedom Lu Maw had to speak his mind – the junta may be ruthless but they are also money grubbing. Perhaps they thought that arresting the remaining Moustache Brother would tarnish the slightly softer new image that they was trying to cultivate and that would mean that all tourism would cease. But no one really knows why Lu Zaw, Lu Maw and their wives were permitted to continue their show – but one thing did change. No Myanmar citizens were permitted to attend. Just lingering in front of the family home cum theatre can get a Burmese person grilled by the secret police, yet tourists are allowed to come in droves.

Par Par Lay was arrested again, in 2007 after helping to organize protests against the government, and was released again last year. If he will be arrested again remains to be seen.

The show gets started around 8pm with one liners and pop culture references that lead into a video featuring many Hollywood celebrities speaking out against the crimes in Burma. “This has Jennifer Aniston, Steven Segal, Rammmmbo, Will Ferrall – but this one my favourite!” Lu Maw says to us before pressing play on the segment featuring Tila Tequila, the buxom MTV star. “Don't tell my wife - I pay you hush money – you know hush money? I pay you 10 dollars each. 10 Zimbabwe dollars! Don't tell my wife – better half, ball and chain!”

He tells us a bit more about Par Par Lay, showing us another clip, this one from the Hugh Grant film “About a Boy” where he is referenced, and then the man himself comes out, mugging for the camera, dancing about and making light of his many imprisonments using body language and sight gags.

Lu Maw brings out his wife, a fabled beauty who was on the cover of the 1996 Burma Lonely Planet.

I normally am not fussy on dancing, but she was really entertaining - Lu Maw handed me a dance book and told me to pick a page and his wife would perform the dance and song on that page.

The whole time we were watching the show, Lu Maw's 80+ year old Mum was out front keeping an eye out for the police. "If the secret police - KGB, you know KGB? You from Canada, you know CSIS? If they come, I run out the back and they arrest all of you!" He gleefully announced. "Just kidding! I am a comedian! 10 more dollars hush money - you know hush money? But they Zimbabwe dollars! Don't tell my wife!"

Their mother is not the only family member to get involved - the act is populated with various sisters, wives, and cousins and even the littlest members of the family come to watch and learn the craft of comedy that has been in this family for 3 generations.

What is crazy, sitting and watching Par Par Lay's buffoonery, the family's dance and listening to the witty banter of Lu Maw is that these people are heroes. Not just entertainers getting away with some mildly offensive blue comedy in a tiny dimly lit club – the Moustache Brothers are pioneers flouting the law in country where it is dangerous to do so. They do it in their own home because they have been forbidden to do it anywhere else. They are saying 'Fuck you” to the brutal dictatorial regime governing their country and refusing to keep quiet even after stints in inhumane prison camps.

They do it because they can't bear a life in which they don't do it.

That evening our taxi driver asked us how the show was. He gave us a thumbs up. “They make good words. Very nice words.” The sentiment was echoed a few days later we were touring the temples of Bagan and both Sean and our friend Julia were wearing the Moustache Brothers t-shirts they had picked up after the show. A group of teens scrambled around them, pointing excitedly. “The Moustache Brothers!!! Did you hear their words? Did you hear their words!?” These kids had been taught that even though they were not permitted to see them perform, the trio in Mandalay had some important things to say. Their words were dangerous to the status quo – and that was a good thing.

Sean in his Moustache Brothers t-shirt weeks later, in Ko Phi Phi

Comedy is important – it is often the comedians who have more relevant things to say in a society than the great writers and thinkers. Even if it is not more important, it certainly reaches and resonates with more people.

If there was any doubt to Par Par Lay's hero status, this quote that he famously said upon his release from jail in 2001 should put it to an end: “You cannot close my mouth, ears and eyes. If you want to do that, it would be better not to release me.”

To be in a room and laughing with and at these men and women was an honour.

It remains to be seen how long Par Par Lay, Lu Zaw and Lu Maw will permitted to continue their act. Some hope that the scheduled elections in 2010 will signal a new day for the people of Burma, others look to the recent sham arrest of Anh San Suu Kyi on the eve of her release as proof that the Generals have no imminent plans to loosen their stranglehold on the country.

If you go to Burma make sure you see the Moustache Brothers. And yeah, buy the t-shirt.

From Left: Par Par Lay, Sean, Me, Lu Maw


Sam said...

Did you take the video of the wife dancing? What was written on the page, and how does someone her age dance while squatting like that? Ouch.

Violet Dear said...

Yep - we have a few more videos too....

The book had about a hundred different Burmese dances, each one telling a small story. I just randomly chose one and she performed it!

Texas Atheist Teen said...

This blog is absolutely adorable, I love the setup, and I have a week spot for anything remotely close to oriental. Definately following this.

Violet Dear said...

Thanks! There is a ton of India stuff from earlier this year as well if you are interested - Cheers!

Jim Archer Scribbler And... said...

sense of humour shone through everything.........great work long may insanity reign