Posts tagged ‘Laotian children’

January 12, 2014

In A Past-Plagued Laos, A Youth Chases A Future

art & life

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January 09, 2014 5:00 PM

Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam) and Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe) bond when they encounter each other in a Laotian refugee village in The Rocket.   Tom Greenwood/Kino Lorber

The Rocket

  • Director: Kim Mordaunt
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 92 minutes

Not rated; violence, partial nudity, ribald humor, animal sacrifice

With:  Sitthiphon DisamoeLoungnam KaosainamSuthep Po-ngam

In Lao with subtitles

To help his struggling family and escape his own status as an outcast, a plucky young boy enters a competition. Yes, The Rocket is a sports movie, with an outcome that’s easily foreseen. The cultural specifics of this Laos-set tale, however, are far less predictable.

Australian writer-director Kim Mordaunt came to his debut fiction feature via a documentary, Bomb Harvest, about Laotian children who collect scrap metal from American bombs. The Rocket’s 10-year-old protagonist isn’t one of them, but he does encounter some unexploded bombs and rockets — “sleeping tigers,” in the local lingo. These become of particular interest to Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe) when he learns about a singular contest.

The story begins, though, with Ahlo’s birth, which his superstitious grandmother (Bunsri Yindi) deems inauspicious: Although his sibling is stillborn, Ahlo is technically a twin, which according to local lore means he may be cursed. But his mother (Alice Keohavong) refuses to kill him, as the older woman advises.

Nothing comes of grandma’s premonition for a decade, until Laos’s communist government and an Australian corporation announce plans for a new dam that will inundate the village where Ahlo and his family live. (There’s only one Aussie in the film, and he doesn’t even have a speaking part, but he embodies Mordaunt’s regret about what his countrymen have done in Laos.)

On the way to their new home, catastrophe strikes the family, and grandma begins to chide that it’s all Ahlo’s fault. Things only get worse in the relocation camp, where the promised new houses haven’t been built yet.

There, Ahlo befriends 9-year-old Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam) and her only surviving relative, “Uncle Purple” (Thep Phongam). Kia is playful, but a little more sensible than her new pal; her violet-suited uncle is an amiable alcoholic and, a bit too whimsically, obsessed with James Brown.

They’re pariahs in the camp, so Ahlo’s father (Sumrit Warin) orders him to avoid them. Still, the boy has a genius for getting into trouble all by himself, and after his antics enrage the shantytown community, Ahlo’s family must join Kia and her uncle on the lam.

Making their way through a country still hobbled by a war that ended in the 1970s, the refugees encounter preparations for a “rocket festival” — the goal being to puncture the sky and release rains to end a troublesome drought. Thinking he can win enough money to buy his family a new home, Ahlo turns to Uncle Purple, a former child soldier, for tips on explosives.

Laos is reportedly the world’s most bombed country, per capita, and The Rocket conveys a strong sense of the devastation. It also shows a documentarian’s eye for the earthy rural culture, with its phallic talismans and animal sacrifices.

Like Beasts of the Southern Wild, the movie depicts a world where humans and other critters live closely together, and where animals are treasured yet routinely slaughtered. Ahlo himself is quite the killer, in fact, although Kia stops him from aiming his slingshot at one particular endangered species.

More poetically, Ahlo takes a swim that becomes metaphorical: Diving into a lake created by an existing dam, the boy floats past submerged statues that symbolize the country’s scuttled traditions. This interlude, like the movie’s conclusion, is both agreeable and a little glib.

As Ahlo, Sitthiphon Disamoe demonstrates the resourcefulness he learned during a period when he was a street seller and beggar. It’s his exuberant performance, as much as the pungently naturalistic setting, that lifts The Rocket’s scenario above the generic.

The Wall Street Journal - Life and Culture

Film Review

A Lovely ‘Rocket’ Arrives Under the Radar

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Jan. 9, 2014 1:44 p.m. ET

A special pleasure of movie going is sitting down with low expectations and coming out with surprised delight. “The Rocket” will do that for you, even though your expectations will have risen somewhat if you’ve read this far.

From left, Loungnam Kaosainam, Bunsri Yindi, Sitthiphon Disamoe and Sumrit Warin Kino Lorber

It’s a small film, set in Laos, with a big theme—changing one’s destiny. The hero, 10-year-old Ahlo, carries a curse almost from birth. He’s supposed to be bad luck, and he does have a gift for creating chaos wherever he goes. But he has the great luck to be played by a former street kid, Sitthiphon “Ki” Disamoe, whose irrepressible verve confers plausibility on this feel-good fable. (So does Andrew Commis’s stylish cinematography.) Kim Mordaunt’s debut feature was shot with a mostly nonprofessional Laotian cast. You’d never know, though, that the amateurs hadn’t had extensive experience—Mr. Mordaunt, an Australian, is an actor himself, and he directs actors exceptionally well—or that the one seasoned pro wasn’t tossing off his distinctive performance with beginner’s luck.

Laos gives the action a haunting context—a nation, scarred by the Vietnam War, where unexploded American bombs, or “sleeping tigers,” still lurk in the fields. After Ahlo’s family experiences a string of disasters that include the loss of their home and land to a giant Australo-Laotian hydroelectric project, the kid goes forth with his father and grandmother in search of a place to live and a way to survive. Soon they meet an endearing orphan, Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam), and her boozy uncle, Purple (fine work by a veteran actor and comedian named Thep Phongam); the characters may be clichés, but the performances are utterly fresh. At that point the group’s journey becomes, by turns, a charming road movie—Purple is a mysterious eccentric with a military past and a James Brown fetish—and a peacetime variant of “Forbidden Games,” René Clément’s 1952 classic about a young orphan girl and a poor farmer’s son making their way through Occupied France during World War II.

Mr. Mordaunt is no stranger to that latter part of the plot, having made a documentary feature, “Bomb Harvest,” about an Australian bomb-disposal expert and Laotian children who collect bombs to sell as scrap metal. But his taste is eclectic, with talent to match, so “The Rocket” is ultimately a canny piece of entertainment in which Ahlo gets a chance to redeem himself, and save his family, at a local rocket festival. A rocket festival? Yes, such things do exist in Laos, according to the production notes. They’re county fairs of a sort, competitions that ring changes on the nation’s history by firing rockets back at the sky that once rained bombs, awarding prizes for the missile that flies highest. Far be it from me to reveal the outcome, but watching Ahlo mix his explosives is like watching a Cordon Bleu chef whipping up a stupendous soufflé.

August 19, 2013

Mandarin asserting its dominance in north Laos

Mandarin asserting its dominance in north Laos

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By Farish A. Noor

19 August 2013| last updated at 11:22PM

BEIJING CALLING: The hegemony of English is declining fast in northern Southeast Asia as China ups its investments in region

I AM currently working on a documentary research project about borders and frontier-zones across Asia, and have been startled by some of my findings thus far. On a research trip along the Laos-China border recently, I was struck by the number of Mandarin schools that have popped up in the small towns and villages that lead to the border, and the number of Laotian families that have chosen to send their children there to study Mandarin.

The reason for this shift in attitudes is simple enough: China is the biggest investor in Laos at present, and the might of China’s economy is keenly felt among the small population of Laos, who see hundreds of Chinese lorries and boats go down the highways and the Mekong river.

Entire communities have sprung up as a result, and along the border, new Special Economic Zones have emerged where Chinese businessmen and tourists flock by the tens of thousands all the time.

So strong is China’s presence, the most popular language now, apart from Lao, is Mandarin, and increasingly, poor Laotians are learning the language so that they can get jobs with Chinese firms that are investing in their country.

Nobody could have anticipated this more than a decade ago, when it was assumed that Communist China would keep its capital within its borders. But China’s economic liberalization has occasioned the rise of a new form of soft power politics, and this translates as expanding Chinese cultural and economic influence, via language.

I visited a small Mandarin school by the border and noted that even the textbooks came from China, and Laotian children now learn about Chinese history and geography. In time, they may know more about China than any other Southeast Asian child today. In the process of learning more about China, they are also forgetting what their parents and grandparents had learned about Europe and North America.

This development also has another twist to it that will bear interesting results in the long run: the demise of English as the language of choice, and with that, the demise of Western political, economic and cultural influence in Southeast Asia, too.

But this is, in a sense, inevitable — for Western investment in Laos pales in comparison with the Chinese presence — and there is no point in learning English or French if American, French and British companies are not investing heavily there. During my trip, I was only able to speak French with one elderly Laotian gentleman who was born during the French colonial era. As he put it: “This is the new world. And now everyone looks to China and wants to learn Mandarin instead.”

The same pattern of economic development and cultural influence can be seen in Myanmar and northern Thailand, where there is the same influx of Chinese capital and with that, Chinese migration and settlement, too. There, too, I found that locals were keen to learn Mandarin, and to get their kids into Mandarin schools.

It seems a far cry from the 1960s-1980s when Coca Cola and Hollywood were the popular symbols of progress and the good life. Now, the currency that is most commonly used is the yuan, and the northerners of these countries look further north towards a more prosperous future.

All of this signals the eventual eclipse of English as the global means of communication, and perhaps also the waning influence of North America and Western Europe in the affairs of Asia.

The experiment has just begun, but already the effects are palpable and in some respects irreversible: as Laotian kids learn Mandarin, their world view, value system, means of cognition and knowledge, are all bound to be shaped by the perspective of the Mandarin tongue.

Is English faced with the threat of extinction then? Perhaps not immediately, but its influence and its hegemonic power is certainly declining fast. The powers of the Western world may still wish to preach the values of the West and to predicate their foreign policy upon Western notions of justice, liberalism and equality; but what is happening now in parts of Southeast Asia may well render all of that futile.

The Western world view will simply become a parochial one if Asia opts to looks at the world anew, via a different linguistic lens that reconstructs reality through the prism of Mandarin instead.

This is a development worth watching closely, for its impact will be lasting and will re-shape the cultural and political contours of Asia for good.

March 24, 2011

Laotian children to get healthy meals under UN project that also helps local farmers

For the first time in Laos, nearly 1,000 primary school children will receive a healthy, balanced school lunch prepared from food bought at the local market under a joint United Nations-Government pilot project that will also benefit local farmers.

By UN News


Thursday, March 24, 2011

School meals provide vital nourishment, act as safety net for poor families and also help keep children in school

23 March 2011 – For the first time in Laos, nearly 1,000 primary school children will receive a healthy, balanced school lunch prepared from food bought at the local market under a joint United Nations-Government pilot project that will also benefit local farmers.

The children will receive a lunch made from rice provided by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and completed by food which their school buys at local markets.

“The Government of Lao PDR has already made great strides towards a national school meals programme,” WFP country representative Eri Kudo said, using the official title of the South-East Asian country – Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

“The Home Grown School Feeding (HGSF) pilot is an important step in this direction, and WFP stands ready to support the Government now and in the future to ensure no child in Lao PDR has to attend school hungry.”

During the past week, 42 officials from the Laotian education ministry have been trained on the principles of HGSF and healthy nutrition. Activities will be piloted in nine villages across Phongsaly and Oudomxay provinces during the 2011-2012 school year, starting in September.

The project will not only ensure children receive a nutritious meal every day they attend classes, but also support local farmers by buying the foods they produce. The lessons learned in the pilot villages will be used to refine the programme and expand HGSF to more schools in the following school year.

Some 157,000 pre-primary and primary school students children living in remote villages in Laos already benefit from the WFP-assisted school meals programme. Every day at school, they receive a nutritious mid-morning snack that stills short-term hunger and helps them concentrate on their lessons.

At the beginning and end of the school year, take-home rations of rice are given to the students to help them and their families continue on the path of education. In addition to the nutritional benefits, school meals have been shown to be an effective way to encourage parents to send their children, especially girls, to school.

February 28, 2011

In Laos, Bringing Books to Children—Via Elephant


The story of one American expatriate’s local publishing company

By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 27, 2011 2:37 PM CST

Children of an Laotian mahout look on as their father prepares his elephant for ceremonies, but this is not one of the elephants used for book delivery.

(Newser) – In Laos, many children had never seen a book until “Uncle Sasha” came to town. American Sasha Alyson first visited the impoverished country in 2003, and was struck by the lack of books for children. “Many [kids] don’t even know what a book is. Sometimes you have to show them how to turn a page,” he tells the Christian Science Monitor. So he created his own publishing company, Big Brother Mouse, in 2006 and, along with two dozen local helpers, he’s been publishing and distributing children’s books in Laos ever since.

There are original stories, fairy tales, riddles, alphabet books, science books, and local folk tales. Most are written by “Uncle Sasha,” who taught himself the language, or his staff members; more than 30 titles are produced each year. Books sell for $2, but most are sponsored by foreign donors through “book parties,” where books are given to children and then a small library is set up in a village hut. The only problem? How to get all the books to the remote villages where parties are held. Staffers often lug the books on their backs and trek for days by foot, by boat … or by elephant. Fittingly, the elephant is named Boom-Boom, which means “books” in Lao, and she is the subject of one of Big Brother Mouse’s books.

Publishing children’s books – and delivering them by elephant

Sasha Alyson hauls (sometimes by elephant) children’s books in the local language to kids in rural Laos eager to learn to read.


Sasha Alyson (c.) reads ‘New, Improved Buffalo’ – a book he wrote and published in Lao and English – to two children at the elementary school in Pakseuang village in Laos during a ‘book party.’ Mr. Alyson’s group, Big Brother Mouse, aims to ‘make literacy fun for children in Laos.’ Tibor Krausz


By Tibor Krausz, Correspondent / February 21, 2011

Luang Prabang, Laos

The little booklet contains riddles about animals – and the children in Pakseuang village just love it. Squeezing around a young Laotian staffer from Big Brother Mouse, the 40 or so second-graders listen with bated breath as he reads out the rhyming riddles to them.

Buffalo!” “Snake!” “Frog!” they shout back their guesses. At each correct answer they jump up cheering with arms raised.

Books – even simple ones like the 32-page “What Am I?” – hold a magical appeal for Laotian children. Many of them have never seen a book, much less owned one.

“What struck me when I came here [as a tourist in 2003],” says Sasha Alyson, the American expatriate who founded Big Brother Mouse, a local children’s publisher, “was that I never saw a book for children.”

The literacy rate in Laos, an impoverished communist holdout of 6 million people bordering Vietnam, is around 70 percent. Yet most people have nothing to read besides old dog-eared textbooks and government pamphlets. At many village schools blackboards are the sole means of instruction, and children lack even pencils and paper.

I knew I couldn’t do education reform here,” notes Mr. Alyson, who once ran a niche publishing firm in Boston. “But I could set up a small publishing project.”

So he did. In 2006 Alyson obtained the very first publishing license in Luang Prabang, a historic northern town on the Mekong River where he now lives. He recruited several young locals he had met by chance: One was a waiter who wanted to become a writer, another a Buddhist novice monk eager to try something different.

The mission of the small but thriving enterprise, which has a bookish cartoon mouse as its logo, is to “make literacy fun for children in Laos.”

On a recent Friday morning, Alyson and several of his helpers were in Pakseuang to hold a “book party” at the local elementary school. They led the children in playing games and singing songs with words like “Books are good/ Books make me smart.”

The children then each had their pick from a stash of new books – and instantly lost themselves in them. Khamla, a shy 9-year-old with a Young Pioneer’s red kerchief, chose “Animals of Africa.” At a previous book party she received “The Monkey King” storybook.

When I read, I feel happy,” she says.

Based in a modest two-story house in Luang Prabang, Alyson and his two dozen helpers produce more than 30 new titles a year in print runs of 6,000 copies each: colorful alphabet books, science primers, fairy tales, and folk tales. All the books are produced in-house and most are written by “Uncle Sasha” and his Laotian staff.

An elephant and a mahout, or handler, share a light moment at the ElefantAsia festival in the Hongsa district of the northern Lao province of Xayabouri.

“When I was 7, my parents bought me ‘The Cat in the Hat.‘ That turned me on to reading,” Alyson says. “Most Laotian children have no comparable memories. Many don’t even know what a book is. Sometimes you have to show them how to turn a page.

Inspired by the playful style of Dr. Seuss, Alyson, who taught himself to read and write the Lao language, has penned more than two dozen children’s books.

New, Improved Buffalo,” for one, tells the story of a village boy who outfits his trusted mount in various ways, much to the animal’s dismay. Like all the publisher’s books, it’s printed on glossy paper and illustrated in a charming, idiosyncratic style by local teenage artists recruited from schools and villages through drawing competitions. It sells for just 15,000 kip ($2).

Alyson’s team also sets local folk tales down in writing to preserve them and translates out-of-copyright foreign children’s classics, retelling them in a local context. In its version of “The Wizard of Oz,” illustrated by a 16-year-old Hmong boy, Dorothy is a girl called Kham who is swept away by a flood from Luang Namtha Province to the magical land of Oz.

Most of the books – and the “parties” at which they’re given to children in 500 villages near and far – are sponsored by foreign donors, many of whom are tourists like Stuart and Alison McKenzie, a couple from Glasgow, Scotland, on their honeymoon.

“[Alyson and his staff] seem very engaged,” Mr. McKenzie says. The couple paid for the book party in Pakseuang. “It’s great to see children so happy with something we take for granted in the West,” he adds.

Printing books is one thing. Getting them to children in remote villages is another. Alyson’s helpers, several of whom are from Hmong and Khmu villages, regularly fan out across the rugged countryside.

Lugging stacks of books strapped to their backs, small teams undertake arduous days-long treks on foot, by boat – and at times astride Boom-Boom, a sturdy Asian elephant whose name means “books” in Lao. Boom-Boom now even has her own book, “The Little Elephant That Could.

In village after village they set up “junior libraries” for children in the bamboo hut of a local volunteer.

Very few people read books in Laos,” says Siphone Vouthisakdee, who is from a village where only five people have finished primary school. He now writes, edits, and designs books at Big Brother Mouse.

“But some children are becoming little bookworms,” he says, “and take their books everywhere with them.”

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