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Pop Act Pushes Back: Asian Girl Group Challenges Myanmar's Ultra-Conservative Values

"I want this band to hit Hollywood!”

(credit: New York Times)

They sing. They dance. Their "skimpy" stage outfits drive parents (and young men) crazy. And they want everyone in the world to know who they are and buy their just-released album.

Pretty typical fare for yet another girl group charging after pop stardom.

But since this twenty-something quintet hails from Myanmar—the ultra-conservative southeast Asian nation formerly known as Burma—it's anything but typical.

You see, Me N Ma Girls (get it? Me N Ma...Myanmar? good) is the first girl group in the land. And as is often the case with trailblazers—especially of the female ilk who dare to test the limits of their country's censors and elders (and boyfriends)—the bumps in the road are plentiful.

“We are living two different lives,” group member Lung Sitt Ja Moon told the New York Times. Moon—who goes by Ah Moon on stage and sports a Baptist minister for a dad—admitted that after “we do what we want to do onstage...then we go home to our parents.” (And preferably by 10 p.m., thank you very much.)

After a long period of dictatorship, Myanmar has been loosening up and moving toward the Asian mainstream. The government’s censorship board—which approves songs, films, and news articles—could be getting its own muzzle quite soon; and even longstanding cultural mores, such as acceptable female dress (i.e., ankle-length sarongs), look to be on the outs in favor of "more Western-inspired entertainment, clothing and lifestyles," the Times said.

And the members of Me N Ma Girls are surfing this swelling societal wave, all the way down to their (gasp!) tank tops and denim shorts—clothing the Times said "would raise eyebrows on the streets of Yangon." (But forget colored wigs, which censors barred the group from donning last year.)

“We try our best to be hot, but not too sexy,” said Wai Hnin Khaing, another band member.

Guess that depends on your definition (and in this case, your culture's definition) of sexy.

To wit: Me N Ma Girls' video for “Festival” features group members dancing in a sweaty nightclub, hitting a swimming pool, and peering over sunglasses while singing, “Hey you! Are you happy? You want some?”

Lalrin Kimi's father couldn't have been pleased seeing his daughter in the latter clip. “He wanted me to do only gospel songs,” Kimi (a.k.a. "Kimmy") said, adding that Dad disapproved of her joining the group in the first place.

Of course there's less risque stuff, like "Liar!" Inspired by the breakup experience of Su Pyae Mhu Eain, a Me N Ma Girls member whose stage name is Cha Cha, the chorus (“You are a liar!”) is clearly directed at yet-another no good boyfriend:

The video was shot in Bangkok late last year, an experience that seems to have left quite the impression on Me N Ma Girls, as four of them had never before ventured beyond Myanmar's borders. The Times elaborates:

They marveled at the mass transit system in Bangkok, were floored by the selection in the shopping malls and basked in the anonymity of a big city.

“I felt freedom there,” said Kimmy. “We could wear whatever. We didn’t need to care about other people. Here if we wear shorts we get teased.”

The band also saw the libertine side of Bangkok, including a sex show at a sleazy set of bars known as Nana Plaza.

“There were so many things we don’t see in Myanmar,” Kimmy said. “Prostitutes — so many!”

(The show, which featured one particularly explicit sex act, was too much for Cha Cha, the zoology major. She ran to the ladies’ room and vomited.)

But at this stage of the game, it's dues-paying time. And with the power regularly fritzing in one of their rehearsal spaces (the roof of which leaks during the rainy season), the group is quite far from Beyonce & Jay-Z monetary status. Heck, they're not even in the Spice Girls' financial galaxy.

Not that they're unfamiliar with shallow pockets. Kimmy grew up in a mountain village near the border with India, the Times noted, an area that "regularly suffers from famine and plagues of rice-eating rats." She's still hard up for cash these days (recently not having enough to spring for bus fare), earning what money she can by singing in bars and restaurants.

Cha Cha is nevertheless undeterred: "I want this band to hit Hollywood!”

(h/t: New York Times; watch video accompanying story here)

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