More sad news from Mandalay today: legendary comedian Par Par Lay, a member of the famed Moustache Brothers troupe, has passed away at the age of 67. One obituary I read listed the cause of death as kidney disease and yet another blamed prostate cancer. Whatever the real cause, one thing is for certain: Par Par Lay passed away far too soon. His energy, sense of humor, vitality, and perseverance will be missed by both the citizens of Myanmar and foreign tourists who had the chance to see Par Par Lay perform.
Par Par Lay was both an entertainer and a political activist, not afraid to poke fun at the ruling military junta of Myanmar during their years in power. In fact, making jokes about the generals landed Par Par Lay a stretch in jail (one of several incarcerations he endured) after an Independence Day performance in 1996. Whatever the exact joke was, it ruffled enough feathers to earn Par Par Lay a seven-year sentence, later commuted to five years. After his release in 2001, he re-formed the Moustache Brothers “A-nyeint Troupe” with his younger brother Lu Maw and cousin Lu Zaw. Barred from making public performances by the government, the trio cleverly started giving “demonstrations” of traditional Burmese dances and songs at their home in Mandalay. Their singing and dancing performances were spiced by Lu Maw’s comedic spiel in English, along with some bold political opinions thrown in for good measure. The Moustache Brothers’ performances started drawing crowds of tourists, thanks to write-ups in guidebooks such as Lonely Planet and daily newspapers such as the New York Times. They even warranted a mention in the film About a Boy.
I saw several Moustache Brothers performances over the years and would even stop by their house in the afternoon on occasion to buy t-shirts or take Lu Maw some books he had requested. The “brothers” and their wives (along with sundry other relatives who were always hanging out at the house) were always very hospitable, inviting me in for tea and conversation. One time they entrusted me with a DVD of a benefit performance they had given in Mandalay for victims of Cyclone Nargis, asking me to send copies to various websites and newspapers.
But what I remember most about Par Par Lay was his big smile, a grin that could look either mischievous or joyful. Whether he was playing bongos, crooning a traditional Burmese tune, or dancing with wild abandon, Par Par Lay always looked like he was having a great time.
As popular as Par Par Lay and the Moustache Brothers became with tourists in recent years, it couldn’t rival the fame that they enjoyed with natives of Myanmar. Par Par Lay was a huge star, both before and after his arrests. Even Burmese people working in Thailand knew that face. I’ll never forget the time in Bangkok when I had just hopped off a motorcycle taxi one night. As I was paying the driver, another motorcycle slowly passed us and the driver turned his head and stared at me with this look that conveyed both total surprise and sheer joy. “Par Par Lay!” he shouted. I thought; Huh? And then it dawned on me: this guy had noticed the Moustache Brothers t-shirt I was wearing and had been overjoyed to see Par Par Lay’s familiar face grinning back at him. I couldn’t help but laugh.
Damn, Par Par Lay is going to be missed by a lot of people.