Water Festival as Spectacle: Sino-Burmese Identities, Ethnic Politics and Public Performances in Macau

Talk by Tasaw Hsin-chun Lu, Academia Sinica, Taiwan

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In the decades after Ne Win’s military regime seized power in 1962 and anti-Chinese riots occurred in 1967, many Sino-Burmese people chose to flee Burma and immigrate to Macau. Today, they number over 40,000, making up 8% of Macau’s total population. They also constitute 60% of what the Macanese government officially calls gui qiao (“returning overseas Chinese”), and are thus recognized as Macau’s largest gui qiao community. To claim their ethnic subjectivity, this group has successfully created a unique Sino-Burmese Water Festival (derived from the Burmese Theravada Buddhist thingyan festival). When it was first held in 1995, it was simply a community initiative to commemorate their nostalgia towards their second homeland, Burma. Soon after Macau’s sovereignty was transferred from Portugal to China in 1999, the Macanese government transformed this festival from a one-day community gathering into a three-day grand Water Festival Carnival. The transformation has not only helped the group form a notable ethnic identity, mian hua (Burmese Chinese), but also boosted Macau’s city tourism, which, along with its gambling enterprises, facilitates an economic boom enjoyed by all residents.

Based on an ethnographic study conducted in 2015 and 2016, this talk examines how music and dance are crucial to the making of the Sino-Burmese water festival, and to its articulation of identity. The festival can be said to draw on collective understanding of space and agency, and to operate within a rhetoric of multiculturalism, nostalgic sentiments, community networks and bureaucratic logic. However, whilst presenting this cultural production as spectacular, the festival has obscured the continuous unbalanced power dynamics amongst subgroups. A “twin festival” phenomenon reveals the tensions sparked between the Sino-Burmese inhabitants and ethnic Burmese migrant workers occurring in recent years. This speaks to the idea of “festival reclamation,” where subaltern groups reclaim representations of a festival constructed by the dominant culture.

Tasaw Hsin-chun LU (Ph.D. UCLA in Ethnomusicology, 2007) is an associate research fellow at the Institute of Ethnology in Academia Sinica, Taiwan. With a geocultural focus on Burma and its diasporas, her research interests are the everyday politics, identity shifts, soundscape formation, and embodiment as exemplified in music performances. Her ongoing project is a comparative ethnographic study concerning the Sino-Burmese musical practices in Yangon, as well as those in Taiwan and Macau. She is the author of Unfaded Splendor: Representation and Modernity of the Burmese Classical Music Tradition (National Taiwan University Press, 2012), and co-producer, with a filmmaker Chuan-Chiang YU, of a documentary film “Musical Sojourn: Circle of the Losing Drum” (2015) on a legendary Burmese drummer in exile.

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Duration: 00:54:59


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Published: Friday, April 29, 2016