The Burmese Bad Boys Of Mandalay: The Mustache Brothers

I was lost. Well, not “lost” as in I-can’t-find-way-home lost, but in that way where you suddenly find yourself in such unfamiliar territory, you just feel like you’ve stepped into another dimension. I knew I was in Myanmar, the country still sometimes referred to as Burma. And I knew I was in Mandalay, the second largest city in the country. I was traipsing through a street fair when I happened upon a booth selling posters. Next to images of the Chinese version of Justin Bieber (or is Justin Bieber the American version of this guy?) were displayed posters of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient and the main thorn in the ruling junta’s side.

I took a picture of it. And then someone said to me, in English, “Be careful.” I knew what he meant. After all, this was Burma. Government agents, I’d been told, may or may not be shadowing tourists like me.

Displaying pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi – who has served several stints under house arrest but was recently elected to Parliament – was verboten a year ago. Now they’re nearly ubiquitous. Still, though, despite the recent changes in the country, this is an isolated land. Decades of totalitarian rule by the Burmese military have left the country in a freeze of sorts. There are no Starbucks or McDonalds in Mandalay or Yangon, the city formerly known as Rangoon. Cellphones from abroad don’t work, so visitors who want to get any kind of reception have to fork over heaps of cash to buy a SIM card. And it has to be cash, as there are no ATMs in this land. You can’t buy an iPhone or a BlackBerry but you can score a Chinese-made knockoff called a Black Jerry (I’m not kidding) for about $100.

The country is so insolated that kids walk around wearing T-shirts emblazed with the Nazi swastika (or, as you see from this pic I took, on the back pocket of their jeans). They’re not Nazis. Nor do they necessarily hate Jews. As one local told me: “People here somehow believe the swastika is a symbol of modern Germany and have no idea of its connection to the Nazis.” With this kind of information control – or, rather, lack of information available to the populace – is it any surprise that after George Orwell spent five years in Burma, he went on to write 1984? Answer: not at all.

I wasn’t just aimlessly wandering around Mandalay. I was on my way to a show. But this was no ordinary show. Meet the Mustache Brothers. They consist of mustached siblings Par Par Lay and Lu Maw, and their barefaced cousin, Lu Zaw. Every night of the year they put on a show for tourists in their garage-cum-theater that’s something like a mix between vaudeville, folk dancing and the type of show you see on cable access at 3 a.m. and wonder the next morning if that was for real or if what you had been smoking was just really potent stuff.

I walked down a dim alleyway and then made a left down an even darker hallway before being spilled out into the 25-seat performance space in a garage. It was occupied exclusively by foreign tourists, mostly lumpy looking northern Europeans. The reason? Par Par Lay and Lu Maw have both served time in prison for openly criticizing the government. After their release, in 2002, they were banned from touring around the country doing shows for the Burmese. So, they set up shop in their home and now only perform for tourists.

“It’s the tourists and the international attention the audience brings,” Lu Maw said when I introduced myself before the show. “This protects us from the government. ” And then he asked if I would please write about them for my blog. I didn’t tell him I had a blog. Nor did I say what I do for my job. I figured he just assumed everyone in the West has a blog these days.

Lu Maw began the show with rambling banter punctuated by political jokes. Example:

A Burmese man goes to a dentist in Thailand. And before the dentist examines the Burmese man’s teeth, he asks: why did you come all the way to Thailand to see a dentist.

“Because,” the Burmese man says, “in Burma we’re not allowed to open our mouths.”

“We’re not afraid of getting arrested anymore. Thank you Aung San Suu Kyi and Secretary Clinton,” Lu Maw said to the audience. He said the current international focus on Myanmar means the government has to act very carefully now. Though he did concede: “The New president? He’s a new bottle, same wine.”

Somehow during the show they managed to reference Ashton Kutcher, Bruce Willis, Al Pacino and Rambo. They held up hand-painted signs scrawled with phrases to emphasize a point or as the punchline to a joke – “Back Door Man” and “Whoop It Up,” for example. Other times, Par Par Lay would sit around in chains, looking not unlike some kind of circus sideshow act, referencing the time he was a political prisoner (see photo above). In other skits, the entire family took part. Wives and kids danced. There were costume changes. There was some hollering. In the end, it wasn’t the best show I’d ever seen. But that’s not at all the point. That they’re even performing, saying the things they’re saying – in public – in a land where getting imprisoned for the words you choose to use, is the point. And I was happy to support it.

After the show, just before the 25 or so of us shuffled out, Lu Maw hollered: “Don’t forget to write about us on your blogs.

It was a promise I said I would keep.