Meet the YouTube singing star of the Hakha Chin diaspora | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

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Meet the YouTube singing star of the Hakha Chin diaspora

Burmese refugee Elena HT Par, a high school student in Chicago, won the Chin Cable Network’s 2019 award for song of the year.

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Elena HT Par arrived in the U.S. at age six, after leaving Burma for Malaysia a few years before. - BETH SUNG TIN PAR
  • Beth Sung Tin Par
  • Elena HT Par arrived in the U.S. at age six, after leaving Burma for Malaysia a few years before.

The YouTube video opens with a young woman seated at a vanity table, writing in her diary and waving good-bye to end a FaceTime chat. The soundtrack begins with a brief acoustic-guitar intro, and then a soft, sweet voice floats into the arrangement, slightly sad but still comforting. A good voice to listen to in hard times, or when sheltering in place.

The song is called "Melody," and the singer is Elena HT Par, a 17-year-old student at Holy Trinity High School in Noble Square, where I teach. Though Par isn't one of my students, I have directed her in school drama productions. I first learned about her because she, like a lot of teens, regularly uploads short clips of herself singing to YouTube. But Par is a standout among young amateur YouTubers. "Melody" has attracted more than 1,685,000 views since she uploaded it on January 1, 2019. It's also elicited more than 2,500 comments from fans around the world: "Love from Korea." "Love from Australia." "Love from Mizoram [a state in India]."

Even if it hadn't attracted almost two million hits, the video would stand out. It's not a shaky selfie, with audio captured in real time by a phone mike. Par is clearly lip-syncing along to a song she's already recorded, and though she does a superb job, the edits give her away. In one shot she sings at a professional-looking microphone, round pop screen in place; in the next shot she's back at her vanity, lingering over her diary.

Par met the videographer for "Melody," Rin O. Zual, at her church, and they shot at his home on what could be generously described as a shoestring budget. "We didn't spend any money," Zual says. "Everything was done by friends supporting each other."

  • Elena HT Par's song "Melody" is by far her biggest success, with nearly two million YouTube views.

"Melody" was written by a fellow YouTube performer, Indianapolis-based Honey KhuaitiZuu, who has her own YouTube channel. The song is sweeter and less gritty than KhuaitiZuu's usual rap tracks.

"Her name is really cool, because Honey means 'honey,' right? And KhuaitiZuu means 'honey' in our language," says Par. English is her second language; her first is Hakha Chin. "So it's like Honey Honey."

The way Par sings the song, it flows like honey. The first word is in English—"FaceTime"—which Par draws out, letting it hang for a moment before switching to her native language. The words appear in the air around her, and though they're spelled out in the Latin alphabet, if you only know English that'll be no help. Hakha Chin, also called Lai, is spoken by fewer than half a million people worldwide. It's the shared language of the Chin, an ethnic group in Myanmar (or Burma, as Par prefers to call her home country).

Par came to the U.S. when she was six. "It was so much safer here in the U.S.," she explains. "And more opportunities and an education."

The Chin people were one of the founding groups of what became the Union of Burma at the end of British rule in 1948. The Chin had converted to Christianity during the colonial period, and that put them at odds with the country's powerful Buddhist elite. They've been persecuted in Burma since the military takeover in 1962, and the situation hasn't improved much since the country became a democracy in 2011.

This persecution has taken the form of the destruction of churches, the arrest or murder of clergy, and attempts by the Burmese military to forcibly convert Chin people. The Chin State, a mountainous, sparsely populated area, has suffered acute shortages of food and medical facilities. The Chin haven't been targeted by the kind of genocidal attacks inflicted on the Muslim Rohingya, but there's nonetheless a large and ongoing diaspora of Chin people from Burma to safer havens around the world. Many Chin live in India and Bangladesh, and there are Chin communities in North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. "Most Chin people [in the U.S.] are in Texas and in Indianapolis," Par explains. "But we are in Chicago."

"Melody" is by far the most popular song Par has released, and it's one of a handful of songs ("Lonely," "White December") that she's uploaded for streaming on Spotify and Pandora and for sale digitally via iTunes and Amazon Music. Despite its success, though, Par has no immediate plans to try for a career in music. She's performed at a few concerts, but she doesn't tour—she's still a full-time student, after all. She downplays her status as a YouTube celebrity at school. At a school event last year, a mischievous friend teased her by playing "Melody" on her phone; Par grimaced, blushed, and made her turn it off. Par is an honor student, and likes to keep her school life separate from her online life. "At the moment, singing is a hobby, but I do hope to put my music out there," she says. "I am interested in education [in music], but nothing is for sure. I'm still learning and discovering new things about me."

When did Par start singing? For that question she has an immediate answer: "That is basically asking me when I first came to the U.S.," she says. "I started singing when I came to the U.S. in 2010. I was like six."

Par's older sister, Suisui Zaathang, has another story. She's four years older, and she says she can't remember a time when Par wasn't singing, even when they were growing up in Burma. (The sisters have different surnames because, according to Par, "All of our families have different names—it's not a tradition to go by last names.")

Zaathang says they lived in "a city called Than Tlang in Chin State," close to the Indian border in the west of the country, and the family didn't have a TV in their house. "We would go to a friend or neighbor's house to watch TV," she recalls. "Most of the time they would put on a music video with many talented singers from all over Burma. Every time my sister and I would come home, she would imitate the singer. She would climb on top of a chair or a desk and sing."

Elena Par saw the Disney Channel movie Camp Rock when she was 13, and she took it to heart. "Demi Lovato was really my inspiration, how I wanted to be," she says. - BETH SUNG TIN PAR
  • Beth Sung Tin Par
  • Elena Par saw the Disney Channel movie Camp Rock when she was 13, and she took it to heart. "Demi Lovato was really my inspiration, how I wanted to be," she says.

When Par was done, she would demand that the family give her flowers to show their approval. "That's a very popular gesture during her live shows," Zaathang says, "because that was a very popular gesture seen in many music videos."

Par has few memories of Burma. "I left Burma when I was three or four," she says. "Then we went to Malaysia for three or four years, then we came to the U.S." Her family moved separately to Malaysia—father, mother, two sons, and two daughters—but from there they moved together straight to Chicago.

Par had trouble at first adjusting to her new life here. "Kindergarten was such a struggle for me," she says, "because I didn't know English. I would have anxiety attacks. I had an outgoing personality, but I could not communicate with my friends." Par credits PBS Kids with helping her pick up English—that, and being forced to speak her new language every day. "What's so hard was, I was afraid I would forget my Chin language."

Par's church, the Chicago Chin Baptist Church on Foster west of Harlem, also acts as a de facto community center, and it gave her a place to practice her language and keep in touch with her roots. The church has a video on its website that prominently features Par, dressed in red, at the head of a small choir. Par credits singing in church with helping her develop her talent.

"My Sunday school teacher and the people at my church realized my talent before I did," Par says. "They were like, 'Wow, you have so much potential.' On Sundays there would be solos. And they would encourage me to sing solos, to use my voice."

In a video Par posted in April 2019, titled "Q&A with Elena HT Par," she admits she's had no formal musical training. Or rather, all the training she has received came through singing in choirs. (She was also a member of the Chicago Children's Choir for "about four months.")

"I hope this doesn't come off wrong, but I never learned how to sing," Par says. "When I was younger, I had this thing—if you want to sing, to be able to sing, you just have to keep on singing."

Zaathang seconds that emotion: "[My sister is] very passionate about learning new songs, and I watch her sing pretty much every day."

Singing also runs in the family. Par says that her father, who died of a heart attack four years ago, loved to sing and write songs. Zaathang explains that he was an evangelist and then became a pastor. "He would go from village to village [in Burma] singing, preaching, and that's how he met my mother," she says. "They both sang together for a long time at jubilee, churches, conferences, and many more events. My dad loved to write and sing early in his teens—and he even taught me how to play the guitar. Singing is one of the many ways we bond in my family."

Par credits one other factor in her singing career: the Disney Channel. "There's this movie called Camp Rock," she says, laughing and a little embarrassed. "When I was like 13, I watched the movie, and I was so inspired. Because of the music and the actors—you know, the Jonas Brothers, Demi Lovato. Demi Lovato was really my inspiration, how I wanted to be."

Released in 2008, Camp Rock revolves around Lovato's character, a girl from a poor family with a powerful singing voice who can only attend a prestigious camp for aspiring pop stars by working in the kitchen. The dramatic question that powers the film is whether her talent will be recognized and celebrated.

Lovato sings a powerful anthem at the climax of the movie, "This Is Me," bravely revealing her true self and bringing down the house. (It's not to be confused with another powerful anthem called "This Is Me," delivered at the climax of the 2017 movie The Greatest Showman.)

Par took the song to heart and started singing it all the time. "My sister recorded a video of me singing the song," Par says, laughing. "I used a vacuum cleaner as a microphone. At that moment I knew I loved music, I loved singing, and this is what I do—this is what I am here for."

Par and her sister started recording Par singing covers of songs she liked. "I told [Elena] it would be amazing if she had a page of some sort, so that she can just upload them and share it with the world," Zaathang explains. Soon after, she encouraged her sister to create a Facebook page to post these videos—a page she still uses, despite the popularity of her YouTube presence. One of Par's early videos was a cover of Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love."

"On Facebook," Par says, "there are a lot of people from my community. So my sister and I decided to record a video. And it got a lot of reactions. Many people were like, 'You need to start a YouTube channel.' My sister said, 'Go for it!' And so we created a YouTube channel."

That was in August 2017, when Par was about to begin eighth grade. Since then she's attracted more than 30,000 subscribers, and at publication time the channel had more than 2.3 million total views. The videos she posts are a mix of cover versions of pop hits, original songs in Hakha Chin, and concert footage from events—religious and secular—where Par has sung. This past winter she and her sister posted an original Christmas song, "White December," that they'd written in Hakha Chin.

In November 2017, Par started collaborating with videographer Rin O. Zual, who would later work with her on "Melody." In February 2018, Par posted a video shot by Zual where she sings a cover of "Rewrite the Stars" from The Greatest Showman. Par performs with another young amateur, Dave Lian, who also plays acoustic guitar, and the video identifies them in its title as "Dave and Elena."

  • Elena Par and fellow amateur Dave Lian perform "Rewrite the Stars" from the 2017 movie The Greatest Showman.

"It took us about two hours," Zual says. "We didn't have a budget for this. It was just the camera gear that I have, and the location was at my house." Zual and Par continue collaborating today.

Since posting that track, Par has become something of a celebrity in the Chin community. She and KhuaitiZuu won the Chin Cable Network's 2019 song of the year award for "Melody." "I got a little trophy for it," Par says, smiling. "Which was cool."

But even more surprising is how popular this sweet little song—about someone wishing she could see her beloved in real life, and not just on social media—has become worldwide. "When I saw my music doing well in the Philippines, I was really shocked," Par says. "There were YouTube comments like 'Love you from the Philippines.' There was one I remember from Africa. The biggest population of people who listen to my music is from India, a place called Mizoram—that's a state in India. They were like, 'Oh, this song is very similar to our language.'"

Par says she's proudest of how "Melody" advances the Chin language in her new country. "It's not an everyday thing that there's someone in the community who is able to do something like this," she says. "With the Chin community, there are lots of kids who have grown up in America and have forgotten the Chin language. A lot of young kids hear ['Melody,'] and it has inspired kids to learn their language and to find out about their roots. I think that's cool."  v

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