Burmese host a New Year fest in East Portland

Haven’t heard of the Burmese Water Festival? Take a look, and learn how our outer East Portland neighbors celebrate the coming of their New Year …

Guests are welcomed to the Burmese Water Festival, and given an opportunity to participate in a free lucky-number drawing for prizes.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton

In Western culture, New Year’s Day was months ago.

But, in mid April, our Burmese neighbors were saying, “Thingyan”, as they celebrated their New Year traditions – including the “Water Festival”, a primarily-Buddhist celebration, covering a period of four to five days, and culminating in the New Year.

More than 150 celebrants gathered in the atrium of Ron Russell Middle School in the Powellhurst-Gilbert neighborhood on April 23 to celebrate this holiday.

From all over the mid-County area – celebrants, friends, and neighbors come to the Water Festival.

The Water Festival holidays are observed as the most important public holiday throughout Burma, and are part of the summer holidays at the end of the school year, explained “Uncle” Victor Law.

“They call me ‘Uncle Victor’ as a term of respect, because I’m the oldest one here,” Law told East Portland News.

“In Burma – they now call it Myanmar – we have so many ethnic groups; that’s why we get all together and have this celebration for the New Year.”

Addressing the assembled group, Law remarked, in part, “We are excited to continue to celebrate, and ring in the New Year, here in Portland. It is an exciting event for us, with every major Burmese ethnic group participating in today’s celebration.”

The music began, and a group of performers demonstrated an ethnic dance.

The self-described “happy ladies of the community” come from several Burmese ethnic groups; some are Burmese Muslim, some are from the Buddhist temple, and others are from Christian churches.

“Uncle” Victor Law and Kathy Wai tell about this special festival.

As more than a dozen volunteers prepared a buffet line – as long as the room was wide – volunteer Kathy Wai told East Portland News, “I identify as Burmese, and wanted to help out, and make sure that this event is welcoming to the entire community.”

Although no one was appeared to be sprayed or doused with water at this celebration, this practice is a distinguishing feature of this festival, Wai said.

“We splash each other with water; the purpose being to symbolically cleanse and purify ourselves spiritually, as we go into our new year,” Wai explained. “In the Buddhist tradition, other features include giving alms, giving respect your elders, and many activities in our temples.

“It’s important for our community to be carrying this tradition on, here in our new home,” Wai went on, “to preserve our culture and tradition – especially for the younger generation. Celebrations like this also help to create a sense of unity, and strengthen our community here.”

Performers with the Zomi Cultural Group say they enjoy performing the songs and dances from their region of Myanmar.

From Burma to Portland have come many different ethnic groups; within those ethnic groups there are many cultures and traditions, Wai noted. “We want to respect that, and honor all these cultures.”

Beverly C. Naymyo and Ko Naing introduce some of the entertainment and cultural acts

Before Yin Oberg went on stage to share stories about her homeland, she said told East Portland News about her favorite activity.

“This is the most happiest and joyous time of the year,” Oberg said. “There, many people build pavilions on every street. They have hoses and containers filled with water, and spray anyone who comes by. It’s really fun!”

Volunteers prepare to serve a feast of favorite traditional holiday foods.

Tradition mixes with the new, as these dancers perform a classic dance to a decidedly western beat.

The day of celebration continued long into the afternoon, with readings, songs, dances, and the feasting on traditional foods. One particularly popular dish was a style of chicken soup that all attendees seemed to enjoy.

On the way out, we were wished, “Thingyan”!

© 2016 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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