Charwei Tsai. Healing Harmonies

Charwei Tsai’s latest works tell the sung stories of people living far from home in precarious living conditions and uncertain legal status. Together with her partner and filmmaker Tsering Tashi Gyalthang, they visited marginalized communities in Nepal, in the UK, and in Taiwan, recording voices of sorrow and longing, but also of hope.

Charwei Tsai & Tsering Tashi Gyalthang, Songs of the Migrant Workers of Kaohsiung Harbor, 2018. Courtesy of the artists.
I love anyone, anyone,
who has come far from home.

Sings Dau Dinh Chinh, a sea worker coming from Vietnam. He is one of the many people we meet in Songs of the Migrant Workers of Kaohsiung Harbor — a short video in which a succession of young migrant workers from Tanzania, the Philippines, and Indonesia sing against a backdrop of rusting fishing boats.

These migrants spend up to two years at sea working under challenging conditions at the mercy of their assigned captain. The NGOs that try to assist them often have difficulties with following their cases due to the transitory nature of their lives — one day in the harbor, two weeks later, gone.

Prompted by Tsai, they sometimes perform acapella, sometimes accompanied by guitar, always by the water. Dau Dinh Chinh’s voice is raspy, mirroring the film's simplicity and rawness. Some sing better than him, but all offer a generous mix of vulnerability and confidence. “Singing shows emotions instead of politics," says Tsai. "It reveals the basic emotions common to all of us.”

Charwei Tsai & Tsering Tashi Gyalthang, Songs of Chuchepati Camp, 2017. Courtesy of the artists.
I was born in Solu,
where will I die?

So sings Kumari Nepali, a Nepalese earthquake victim who now lives inside one of the many colorful makeshift tents clustered in the Chuchepati displacement camp near Kathmandu.  

Songs of Chuchepati Camp was conceived after a visit to Buddhist scholar and teacher Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche. Initially, Tsai went to Nepal with the intention of creating a piece centered around his singing practice: a practice founded on the understanding that singing embodies spiritual beliefs. However, she ended up recording the songs of people living in Chuchepati camp, producing a series of portraits in which people either chant their life’s story or sing folkloric songs. “It is not an intellectual expression,” she says. "Singing allows for a more immediate way of expressing oneself, instead of internalizing, and is a way to connect with others."

Three years have passed since The April 2015 Nepal Earthquake, yet according to the academic publication The Conversation, 70 percent of quake victims still live in temporary shelters, of which the Chuchepati camp has around three-thousand people residing in five-hundred tents. “I wanted it to be heartfelt and not manipulate it too much for the sake of art,” explains Tsai about the documentary aspect of the film. Watching this film, one does indeed feel like they are witnessing the fragments of these people’s lives.

Charwei Tsai & Tsering Tashi Gyalthang, Hear Her Singing, 2017. Courtesy of the artists.

For Hear Her Singing, Tsai and Gyalthang's approach was slightly different. They collected the songs of women asylum seekers at the Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Center in the United Kingdom. The detention center holds illegal foreigners before their eventual deportation.

Life at every step is a new battle.

Sings Vinay Ali from India. The video opens with the camera being set upon a fence that surrounds the center and its surveillance cameras. There, it captures female voices singing of Kyrgyz mountain tops or the joys of feeling the morning dew at sunrise.

I want to give a song of encouragement
to every woman in the whole world
that is facing one problem or the other.

Sings an anonymous woman offering only her silhouette to the camera. In her voice, there is a sense of urgency and resistance, but also of lightness and beauty. Another rendition is surprisingly rhythmic. Relying on the spoken word, it features the lyrics of Sia’s “Titanium”:

I'm bulletproof, nothing to lose
Fire away, fire away
Ricochet, you take your aim
Fire away, fire away
You shoot me down, but I won't fall
I am titanium

This speaker is not entirely visible at first. The camera only shows the lower part of her face, that is until the moment her eyes are revealed — tormented and sad, but also determined. For Tsai, it was a revelation. She initially went to the center thinking that she could offer some relief, but “some of them are so strong and so compassionate, that it was me who ended up learning from their strength” she says, admiring both the detainees and the social workers.

“At the beginning of my practice, I was intrigued with the more mysterious aspects of spirituality such as shamanism. Now I am attracted to the much more practical sides,” reflects Tsai on an artistic practice deeply entangled with her Buddhist beliefs in which developing compassion is fundamental.

Charwei Tsai & Tsering Tashi Gyalthang, Hear Her Singing, 2017. Courtesy of the artists.
Cristina Sanchez-Kozyrevar