Zam Khan Cingh holds a treasure in her family’s Sea-Tac apartment: she keeps a collection of textiles made by fellow women of the Chin ethnic minority. As a refugee from Myanmar, where the Chin reside, Cingh, who belongs to the Siyin tribe, traveled to the US with the bright colors and intricate patterns of the textiles in tow, determined to preserve this part of her cultural heritage.
For two decades, Cingh has served as a self-appointed guardian of the weaving artistry of her people. She began gathering cloth made by Chin women years ago, amidst what she describes as a time of poverty and discouragement for many of the ethnic group. Victims of racial and religious discrimination by the ethnic Burmese majority, Zam says both the people and their textiles were dismissed as “rubbish Chin material,” an attitude many internalized. But she was determined to inspire in others her own belief in the significant cultural value of the fabrics. “I said, ok, I will help sustain the skill and knowledge, and make it so that people say, "this is good.’”
Textiles had been a special matrilineal link in a patriarchal society. “As Chin, the women have no right to inherit the parent’s property, so the only things we can inherit are the textiles that our mothers or grandmothers make for us,” Cingh explained. “They make one set for each of their children. So people never sell it; they keep it, and they treasure it.” But increasing poverty led to desperation, and ultimately, many women did put their family heirlooms up for sale.
Zam bought textile collections from women, and in 1994, began to use them to start training programs designed to preserve the fading knowledge of weaving. Though not a weaver herself, she had the vision of how to organize her community to maintain this cultural skill. Women would use the originals as templates, recopying them over and over until they became practiced in the technique. “The first time they make it, it is not nice, and the second time, it is not nice. It takes a long time. It’s a LOT of investment in how to do it,” she said. She believed so strongly in the project that she funded a part of it with her own earnings, despite the fact that at the time, most Chin did not see much value in the traditional fabrics. While those who took up profitable work with diamond smugglers from India received community approval, friends looked down on Zam for pursing what seemed like a useless mission.
Her project began to catch on when she was able to access a foreign market through the United Nations Women’s Association, of which she had become a member. When foreign women started to appreciate and buy the Chin textiles, it set off a chain reaction. “Then the [ethnic Burmese] people also say it’s good, and then we [ourselves] dare say it’s good,” said Cingh. Her cousins, who had been selling indigenous medicine, began to sell Chin textiles when they saw it could earn money. Cingh continued the training programs until she left Myanmar in 2007. When she then entered Malaysia as a refugee, she set up two programs in refugee communities there with support from the UN Human Rights Commission.
Zam’s work preserving textiles and promoting weaving skills grows, in part, out of her strong belief in women’s empowerment. She recounts the plight of the women in her own family. Her grandmother, the unwanted seventh daughter in a family of all girls, was cast off and left to die until her parents had a last-minute change of heart. Cingh’s mother, a very bright woman with a strong desire to attend school was forbidden to do so by her father, who believed that women only needed sufficient education “to be able to read love letters from men.” Zam currently works to overcome this history as a domestic violence advocate with the Refugee Women’s Alliance (ReWA). She believes that equal rights and education for women can lead to the end of abusive situations.
Cingh sees possibilities to continue weaving projects with Siyin Chin and Burmese refugees here in Seattle. Learning the weaving techniques can be a productive contribution for women in a new country where it is difficult to integrate and find work. “Some ladies don’t go out, and they look after their children only, so it would be good if they can do something like weaving, which they can do at home,” she said. However, she arrived in the US only one year ago and currently has her hands full. With full time work at ReWA, part-time studies at Highline Community College, and raising her three high school-aged sons, Zam has adapted remarkably well to American life in a short time. But meeting the responsibilities of her new life here doesn’t leave much time to establish a program at the moment. “The rent, the bills and the food come first, so I can’t do those things now,” she says.
Here in the US, her textiles sit in bags. She pulls samples out now and then to show those who are interested. At a Community Open House held at the Tukwila Commons in March, she proudly presented some of her collection. But for the most part, the materials stay in storage and Cingh worries that they will become damaged without proper preservation. She has consulted with experts from the Burke Museum regarding preservation techniques, though she was still getting her bearings here at the time, and did not understand where to source all the needed materials.
Still, Cingh continues to collect textiles, and hopes to undertake academic research about them in the future. She dreams of having more time for other side projects as well, like contributing to a Zomi encyclopedia, a book that aims to preserve the Zomi language and historical knowledge of the Chin which was forcefully suppressed by the Myanmar government. Despite the challenges of resettlement in a foreign country, Zam’s fierce cultural pride and leadership will no doubt make its mark in the greater Seattle community.
Text: Signe Predmore