I’m really excited that Pema Tseden’s film Balloon is (finally) receiving a UK wide release starting from TODAY! I’d heard so much about it and managed to somehow miss the one London screening that took place at the London East Asian Film Festival in November 2019 – almost two years ago!!
So I was thrilled to be asked to write the programme notes for the marketing pack that accompanies the film’s release via the BFI Film Audience Network (FAN) initiative. Not only was I able to watch the film courtesy of the distributor Day for Night, I was able to, for the first time, really think about the themes and formulate some thoughts about a Pema Tseden film.
(Photo Caption: My brother Jigme and I at Woking Fairground in 1982)
There are not many people who could write about growing up in a Tibetan family in Woking, Surrey, in the 1980’s. There were so few Tibetans in the UK at that time in general and in Woking we were two or three Tibetan households at the most! My older brother Jigme and I were both born in St Peter’s Hospital in Chertsey, Surrey and many years later, my cousin Riga was born there too. Although it has been a long time since we moved from Woking, I look back on my childhood with very happy memories, it was both very ordinary and at the same time, unique.
In some ways, it was a typical English upbringing that many will recognise, our green school uniforms, our Friday afternoon trips to the sweet shop with 10p at the ready and holidays involving camping in the rain and stopping at Happy Eater. Entwined with those memories however are the many times we boarded the train to Waterloo to attend 10th March demonstrations, Losar parties, Tibetan language Sunday school lessons and also those exciting days we were taken out of school when His Holiness might be in the UK giving an audience to the tiny Tibetan community.
Being Tibetan wasn’t something we actively discussed or talked about, but it was embedded within our everyday lives. It was just natural that we would speak Tibetan at home, eat Tibetan food at home, and be involved in Tibet related activities that were happening, usually in London. During the summer holidays we could catch up with our relatives in Germany and extended family in Switzerland that had much larger Tibetan communities. During those days it wasn’t so easy to travel to India and Nepal but we were able to go on family trips there in the 90s and be exposed to the exile communities there.
My parents told me that when I started going to school, I didn’t speak any English at all but I soon caught up. My brother and I were the only Tibetans in the school and I would regularly be asked if I knew how to meditate to which my answer would be, no. I think the first time that people seemed to have heard of Tibet was when it began to make some early appearances in pop culture. When “The Golden Child” starring Eddie Murphy came out in 1987 we went on a family outing to the cinema to watch it just because we had heard that it had a Tibetan theme. Prior to that the only cinematic claim to fame we had was that we could understand what the Ewoks in “Return of the Jedi” were saying!
Ever since I was little, I loved books and I loved reading. Woking Library kept me stocked with all the Enid Blytons and Roald Dahls that filled my free time. I can’t say that I remember reading much in the way of Tibetan stories apart from perhaps a Milarepa comic book that had somehow made its way from India. I’m fortunate that my family supported my interests in literature and language from an early age. I went on to read English and German at University College London and am now the founder and editor of a translations website called High Peaks Pure Earth which translates essays, poetry and music videos from Tibet into English. The website was started at the end of 2008 primarily to give an English language forum for Tibetan writer and poet Tsering Woeser, one of our most important contemporary Tibetan voices.
Included below is one of my favourite poems by Tsering Woeser that she wrote in 2018, inspired by a surveillance camera she saw in Lhasa that was disguised as a Tibetan prayer wheel.
Image by Tsering Woeser
“Eye of the Empire” By Tsering Woeser Translation by Palden Gyal
What kind of eye is that? Yet, it must be an eye of utmost desires: An eye of greed, anger, ignorance, jealousy, and pride –filled with wisps of blood. Among the Six Paths, this eye of all beings neither save itself nor saved by, And such is then accordant with the image of a powerful empire! That day, he arrived without any invitation, the pale-faced scholar. Keeping an overtly chastened smile Yet his movements are not at all that modest, As he quickly occupied the seat in the center Exposed his fangs like the glittering of frost and snow, Revealed his claws like that of an eagle’s sharp claws. I dare not look into his eyes anymore, His eyes are blazing with the five poisons And it can easily control and capture souls.
In anticipation of the release of Tashi Wangchuk from 5 years in prison for advocating for Tibetan language rights, I took part in this online panel discussion on 18 January 2021. For some reason you can’t see it on the video but Rinzin Choedon la and I had written our names in Tibetan on the screen – it’s showing as squares!
Thank you to International Tibet Network for inviting me to speak as well as to the fellow panelists.
Fortunately Tashi Wangchuk was released on 28 January but now faces 5 years of deprivation of political rights, the harshest length possible. Here is the link to the video of the panel: https://fb.watch/3sQd1sytrk/
Update 24 February 2021: I took part in an online discussion hosted by Tibet Action Institute last Friday on the topic of how we can protect Tibetan language rights, it was also International Mother Language Day this past Sunday so it was a good occasion for this event. Here is the link to the video: https://fb.watch/3QDc0DTsT1/
This year I’ve greatly enjoyed being part of a small group of committed Tibetans involved in the project smartvote Tibet.
Even though the Tibetan election details have only been announced relatively recently, our group has been busy getting ready for many months.
smartvote Tibet is a user-friendly online platform designed to help Tibetan voters to make an informed decision on election day. We’ve been collecting questions from the general public and will next enter the phase of launching the online platform – Chithue and Sikyong candidates will be asked to create their profiles so that they can answer 30 questions. The idea is that we will all then be able to create our own profiles and answer the same questions to get a match. I’m excited to see how this will go!
Another aspect of the project has been to gain feedback from the amazing Advisory Board members about the questions so that we have a representative selection in the final 30. I’ve participated in several calls and there’s always so much to discuss and think about.
On 1 September, my colleague Wangpo Tethong la and I were interviewed by Palden Gyal la of Radio Free Asia to talk about the smartvote Tibet project. I’m linking to the interview below. In the meantime please keep an eye on https://www.smartvote-tibet.org/english/ for exciting updates!
On 17 April, 2020, while in lockdown, I participated in an SFT Facebook Live Discussion titled “The Politics of the Pandemic: China, Tibet, and the Future”. It was a long session but I was happy to speak alongside Dhondup Wangchen, Tenzin Tsundue and Tendor. Thank you Dorjee Tseten and SFT for the invitation!
For so many of us around the world, now is the time stay in but it doesn’t have to be boring or unproductive. We can all experience amazing culture and support Tibetan artists in the process!
I was recently refunded a bunch of theatre and events tickets and now that we’re facing weeks/months of isolation, it’s a good time to remind ourselves how much great art is being produced by Tibetans. I’m more than happy to re-direct the money to supporting Tibetan artists at this difficult time for them.
A lot of people forget that Tibetan artists are, more often than not, doing everything by themselves. How many Tibetan filmmakers, musicians, artists have agents, managers, assistants, producers or any kind of professional body of support? Very very few. How many Tibetan artists generously put their work online for free? Too many. This post is about how we can place value on our artistic community by GIVING THEM OUR MONEY.
So let’s start by watching the incredible Royal Café on demand and I’ll keep adding to this post as I come across other ways of giving Tibetan artists our money.
Following on from the playwriting workshops held at the Royal Court Theatre last Autumn, our writers group have decided to carry on with writing workshops this spring. We’re excited to keep going with what we’ve started and are looking to expand the group. If you are a UK based Tibetan please join us, no previous writing experience necessary! All details in the announcement below, deadline for applications is 3rd February, 2020.
Apple has blocked over 1000 VPNs from its App Store, delisted HKmap.live and banned the use of ‘sensitive’ terms – such as Tibet, Tiananmen and the Dalai Lama – that are blacklisted by the Chinese government from device engravings in its Apple stores in China.
Far from promoting the web as a tool for communication, Apple is facilitating it being used as a tool for incarceration. For details on what Apple has been doing, I recommend reading this report put together by TibCert: https://blog.tibcert.org/apple-app-censorship/
Our panel was made up of myself plus:
World Uyghur Congress Advocate, Zumretay Arkin
GreatFire.org Community Director, Karen Reilly
SumOfUs Senior Campaigner, Sondhya Gupta
Andy Li from Fight for Freedom; Stand with Hong Kong
Tibet Action Institute Digital Security Director, Lobsang Gyatso
Moderated by Free Tibet Campaign Director, John Jones and convened by Mandie Mckeown, International Tibet Network.
After ten successful years in Zurich and Dharamsala, the Tibet Film Festival finally came to London in November 2019! It was my honour to co-organise the Tibet Film Festival in London along with Kunsang Kelden and an incredible team of volunteers.
Having attended the Dharamsala Film Festival in the past, we felt it was time for London to have two days completely dedicated to Tibetan filmmakers and Tibetan films. We were fortunate to have amazing venues for the two days, Deptford Cinema in Deptford, Deptford Does Art for the after party and artFix in Woolwich.