Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Pagoda prayers, dusty roads, and Tanya Tucker: Impressions of Yangon, Myanmar

Yangon has been on my radar, albeit way off to the side, for decades, ever since I read about Beyond Rangoon in Entertainment Weekly's summer movie preview 22 years ago. That 1995 Patricia Arquette film got half of its title from the former name of the largest city in the country previously best known as Burma. (Incidentally, Burma debuted on my radar half a decade earlier, via "Mountains of Burma," one of many standouts on Midnight Oil's 1990 album Blue Sky Mining.)

Despite my passing interest in Burma/Myanmar, it would be the last Southeast Asian country I'd cross off my to-do list. (And I still haven't seen Beyond Rangoon!) If that makes it sound more like a chore than an adventure, well, it kind of is. Yangon, which is not exactly a cushy metropolis with easy horizontal mobility, requires a bit of work. Thank God for my four-star accommodations at Jasmine Palace Hotel, which puts Yangon right above Vientiane in Laos, Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, and dead-last Koh Samet off Thailand's east Gulf of Thailand coast, on my list of most-to-least-favorite places in Southeast Asia.

Not that Yangon really cares what visitors think of it. The people are incredibly friendly and welcoming, occasionally bordering on obsequious, but the city itself is like a detached employee who is too busy texting friends to be bothered with impatiently waiting customers. Yangon doesn't care that you've arrived, and it's certainly not about to break out the good china.

Billed as the Southeast Asian metropolis with the worst infrastructure, the sprawling city is dusty and dirty, despite the efforts of the women who diligently sweep the streets with old-school brooms. Dilapidated city buses are the extent of public transportation, so if you want to get around the rush-hour traffic, your only options are to negotiate the rickety, uneven sidewalks or to stay home.

On my final evening, an American expat in Bangkok sums it up as a "fun city but not particularly easy," and the "not particularly easy" part pretty much nails the Yangon experience. It's not fun in the "good times" sense, but more as a cultural curio. Anyone who has ever thought of "Asian" as a catch-all for interchangeable people and customs across different countries should spend one week here. There's no mistaking this for Bali, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, or Singapore.

It's not that I have a problem with underdevelopment. That quality actually works in Cambodia's favor, making Siem Reap and Phnom Penh two of my favorite Southeast Asian destinations. But underdevelopment is better suited to smaller, more modest cities that are uncluttered and unburdened by overpopulation and bumper-to-bumper traffic. In those places, it builds character, which is something Yangon could use more of outside of its famous pagodas.

Yangon may lack charm, but that doesn't mean it's a bore. Over the course of five days, it made strong impressions. Here are some of them...

The look A Southeast Asian version of Tanzania's Dar es Salaam, only with more paved roads and no livestock interrupting traffic. But as in Dar, four- and five-star hotels hover over one-star housing on the outskirts of the city center, occasionally filling the higher ups with twinges of guilt while overlooking the true grit.

The looks Aside from my one-year stint in Cape Town, I've spent the last decade plus living in countries with a paucity of black people. I'm used to the race-inspired attention, but the locals in Yangon bring the art of the stare to a new high.

The people Few Western faces pop up among the peak-hour downtown population - or anywhere else. Many of the men wear longyi sarongs (right) instead of trousers, and nearly everyone wears flip-flops. The level of English spoken is considerably lower than pretty much every other Southeast Asian country I've visited, which is too bad. These are some of the loveliest people I've encountered in Asia, but the language barrier gets in the way of meaningful communication with them. Can they possibly be this agreeable when talking amongst themselves in their native tongue?

The customs Be prepared to doff your shoes before entering the pagodas (the two largest ones, Shwedagon and Sule, dominate the Yangon skyline), and respect the locals engrossed in prayer. Yangon's "number one" and "number two" pagodas, as Shwedagon and Sule are respectively called by locals, are not just tourist traps but emblems of a devoutly Buddhist culture. Like the city itself, the pagodas haven't been tidied up in anticipation of your arrival, so be careful not to slip on the damp floors during rainy season.

Downtown It looks like an urban center that was destroyed by world-war bombs and rebuilt in a day. A plethora of electronics stores reminds you that you haven't time-traveled back to the 1970s.

The money It confounds. Unlike Thai baht, the bills are all the same size and demand considerable concentration to decipher denominations. Were they designed to make it easier to rip off tourists? That's my inner cynic talking - the Burmese people I encounter give me no reason to suspect dishonest tendencies among the general local population. But the money is so hard to keep organized. On the plus side, there are no pesky coins to make your pockets bulge.

The shopping I nearly fell off my chair when I heard "Can I See You Tonight," Tanya Tucker's 1980 Top 10 country hit, playing at Mr. Chef, a restaurant on the fourth level of Dagon Centre 2. Named like a sequel, Dagon Centre 2 is a crowded mall that feels more like a 1970s community center than the slick high-fashion malls of Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.

Tanya Tucker "Can I See You Tonight"

The traffic Dense and chaotic, with no motorbikes, just cars, it befits Yangon's status as a Southeast Asian metropolis. But judging from the volume and frequency of honking horns, Burmese drivers are not as patient as their urban counterparts in other major Southeast Asian cities.

The taxis They're serviceable on the outside and shabby on the inside, with no seat belts to increase your chances of surviving getting from point A to point B. Oh, well. I guess you get what you pay for, and you don't pay a lot for taxis in Yangon. It costs only 7,000 kyat (US$5.15) to my hotel from the airport, and I never pay more than 4,000 kyat (US$2.94) for any trip I take over five days. But the bargain comes with some effort. Who wants to negotiate the fare every time you hitch a ride?

The food Toto, we're not in Bangkok anymore. The street food scene, though bustling, isn't nearly as compelling as the one I left behind in the Thai capital. It's hard to go wrong with fresh sliced pineapple, but the dried-up samples I see on the side of roads look like they'd require a bit of water to go down smoothly. Interestingly, the best meal I have (twice) in five days is the Korean fried chicken and garlic mashed potatoes at 50th Street Bar and Grill. The chef here has even figured out a way to make cole slaw interesting: Just add blue cheese sauce!

The mojitos Shaking and stirring them just right is a rare art indeed, but Myanmar bartenders can really turn out a drink. Yangon cocktails are some of the yummiest I've had in Asia. Thai mixologists, take note.

Midnight Oil "Moutains of Burma"

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Why I'm not quite rejoicing over the "diversity" of this year's Oscar nominees

I know I should be applauding.
After 2016's shameful Oscars blackout and the subsequent #OscarsSoWhite boycott over the lack of black nominees, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has done a complete 180 this year by embracing color in an unprecedented way. A record six black actors have been nominated, with three of them competing in the Actress in a Supporting Role category alone.
Meanwhile, three of the nine Best Picture nominees (FencesHidden Figures, and Moonlight) feature predominantly black actors in the main cast. That's definitely a first. Just three years ago, Lee Daniels' well-received The Butler was completely shut out of the Oscar nominations, presumably (depending on whom you ask) because it had the misfortune of being released in the same year as the eventual Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave.
But have we actually overcome? And if so, with Fences v. Hidden Figures v. Moonlight also recently facing off at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, why do I still feel like shrugging?
Despite the obvious progress, closer inspection of the nominees reveals a troubling pattern. When it comes to black actors and the Oscars, a collectivist attitude continues to drive the Academy's choices.
In some ways, there's been no progess at all. Every black acting nominee has been cited for a movie with predominantly black actors in the central roles (so-called "black" movies) or one with racism at its center (Loving). Two performers, Actor in a Supporting Role frontrunner Mahershala Ali and non-nominee Janelle Monae, even appear in both Moonlight and Hidden Figures.
I suppose we should be thankful that none of the black Oscar contenders were nominated for playing slaves. (And if an old rape accusation hadn't come back to haunt The Birth of a Nation auteur Nate Parker, that would certainly not have been the case.) There's that.

But I wish that just one of them had been nominated for a role she or he could have won over, say, Michelle Williams or Casey Affleck, who, perhaps tellingly, remains a clear lead-actor frontrunner for the spartan intensity of his Manchester by the Sea performance, despite sexual harassment allegations against him by two women who worked on his 2010 directorial effort I'm Still Here.
The problem, however, isn't really with the Academy. Considering the options they were given, the voters did remarkably well this time. I commend them for pulling off one of the most diverse line-ups in the history of the Oscar nominations. The problem is with Hollywood. More than sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education integrated U.S. schools, Hollywood still has segregation issues.
Casting directors continue to overlook actors of color for non-race-specific movie roles. One might get the impression that the only reason three black actresses are headlining box-office hit and Best Picture nominee Hidden Figures is because the demands of historical accuracy forced the hands of the producers.
In some ways, 2017 is a step backwards from 2002, when Halle Berry and Denzel Washington took the lead acting Oscars for roles that, with some story tweaks, could have been played by Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks.
While a biopic like Jackie had to be led by a white actress (Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was, after all, white), it's hard to excuse the whitewashing of the year's most honored film.
La La Land nabbed a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations (only All About Eve and Titanic have managed to score as many), and it's likely to take Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress, among many others. Impressive as it is, the film has been rightly criticized.
It's dominated by jazz music (a black music form, if ever there was one), yet the two leads, one of whom plays a jazz pianist, are white. The few black characters who do populate the movie are either incidental or peripheral. Despite his pop-star popularity and a decent performance, supporting co-star John Legend almost feels like a token big-name black inserted into the proceedings to give them a smidgen of color and credibility.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are wonderful actors, but couldn't, say, Legend and rising How to Get Away with Murder and The Birth of a Nation star Aja Naomi King have been just as believable in the main roles. As Hidden Figures has proven, you can put black actors up front and center and still score a massive box-office hit.
Speaking of Hidden Figures, the movie about three real-life black female mathematicians was at the center of the biggest Oscar-season gaffe so far. On the Golden Globes red carpet, former U.S. first daughter Jenna Bush accidentally called Hidden Figures "Hidden Fences" while chatting with Pharrell Williams, who produced Hidden Figures and wrote several of its songs. Interestingly, Michael Keaton made the same error while presenting Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in any Motion Picture.
The online peanut gallery immediatly started screaming "Racist!" While I understand the outrage, I think it's misplaced. The slips made by Bush and Keaton are understandable when you think of the subliminal implications of the bigger Hollywood picture.
Will Smith, Jamie Foxx and Denzel Washington vehicles aside, Hollywood seldom uses actors of color in substantial roles outside of aforementioned "black" films. So in a year with four "black" films in the Oscar-season discussion, we pretty much had those Bush and Keaton flubs coming. If Hollywood were less segregated, if black performers weren't banished mostly to "black" films and were more integrated into the movie mainstream, perhaps people wouldn't subconsciously blend "black" films into one.
Despite the asterisk hovering over my enthusiasm, I do consider the diversity of this year's Oscar nominees to be a positive step. And on Oscar night, I'll be cheering as loudly as everyone else when Viola Davis picks up her supporting-actress prize for Fences. (Please God, let it happen.)
But I'll also be hoping that someone in Hollywood will finally have the good sense to cast her in a leading movie role as dynamic and un-race-specific as her Emmy-winning one on How to Get Away with Murder. Annalise Keating is one of the most complex characters ever to hit TV screens, and she easily could have been played by Nicole Kidman or Julianne Moore.
And they wouldn't even have been slumming. TV is no longer viewed as being on a lower Hollywood rung than movies. I like to think it's partly because, unlike films, TV is finally getting diversity right.
May movies, and by extention Oscar, eventually get it right, too.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

A Spotify Playlist: David Bowie - 70th Birthday Mix

I ended 2016 listening to George Michael non-stop, and now I've begun 2017 binge-listening to David Bowie.

Exactly one year ago today, I got off a flight from Bangkok to learn that he had passed away at age 69 from liver cancer. (In Australian time, it was Monday, January 11, but still January 10 in New York City, where he died.) On January 8, he would have been 70. I thought about it numerous times before he left us, and I could never imagine Bowie being 70.

Although I got to interview him twice, I always felt a little cheated when it came to David Bowie. He once told me that up until before the first Tin Machine album, all of the albums he made in the '80s, he made for money, not art. For those of you not doing the math, that would be 1980's Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) to 1987's Never Let Me Down.

Well, it just happens that I'm a child of the '80s, and the music that Bowie made in the '80s was the music that made me a lifelong fan. It wasn't until "Under Pressure" (the first Bowie song I can remember hearing and knowing who was singing it) hooked me in 1981 and I went back and checked out his earlier stuff that I discovered the brilliance that is "The Man Who Sold the World," "The Jean Genie" and "Sound and Vision" (my all-time favorite Bowie song).

But even after I discovered vintage Bowie, and even after his '90s creative renaissance, his '80s music still held up. It's all over my Spotify Bowie playlist, and I think it fits in quite nicely, thank you.

I like to think that as Bowie lay dying, as he made peace with God and made peace with his life, he also made piece with "Blue Jean." Ridiculous video attire aside, it really is a brilliant song.

Monday, January 9, 2017

A Spotify Playlist: Boy Bands

A few things that ran through my mind while I was compiling my latest Spotify playlist:

1. "Hangin' Tough" by New Kids on the Block sounds a lot better now than it did in 1988, when, if my memory serves me correctly, I kind of hated it. How did that happen?

2. LeVert's "Casanova" has aged incredibly well. It's a shame that after it went Top 5 in 1987, white people pretty much lost interest in LeVert.

3. No shade to "Oh Girl" and "Have You Seen Her," but The Chi-Lites are best known for the wrong songs.

4. Since we're on the subject of artists who are best known for the wrongs songs, so are The Moments and The Delfonics.

5. I can listen to The Spinners' "Working My Way Back to You/Forgive Me Girl" medley on repeat all day long and still not be tired of it.

6. It pains me to write this, since I'm so respectful of the late Curtis Mayfield's talent, but I prefer Brian Hyland's 1970 cover of "Gypsy Woman" to The Impressions' 1961 original. Both versions are killer, though.

7. Why can't I remember any country male vocal groups besides The Statler Brothers and The Oak Ridge Boys? Alabama doesn't count because they played instruments.

8. The '80s weren't so kind to R&B male vocal groups hoping to cross over to the pop (i.e., white) charts. New jack-era boy bands like Guy, Troop and Today struggled on Billboard's Hot 100 while racking up hits with relative ease on the R&B singles chart. If it had been released in the mid-'90s, Guy's "I Like" probably would have been a no-brainer Hot 100 topper.

9. The Temptations during their late-'60s/early '70s psychedelic soul era were so much more interesting than The Temptations during their "My Girl" traditional Motown soul phase.

10. It may sound dated as hell in 2017, but Another Bad Creation's Coolin' at the Playground Ya Know! (featuring "Playground") is crazy-good early '90s new jack swing.

Editor's note: I define a "boy band" as an act featuring no women and at least three male singing vocalists whose primary instruments are their voices. That makes acts like The Four Seasons, Bee Gees, The Osmonds and The Jackson 5, traditional "bands" whose members played instruments, ineligible.