A Night at Healing House: A Safe Space, in a Hidden Place
Fullbright Scholar intern Apeksha Atal explores Chiang Mai’s vibrant and burgeoning performing arts scene in this four part series.
“Turn left” Google Maps instructed me as I attempted to identify where I’d managed to direct my cab to the right spot. The street that I’d gotten off on was almost completely empty, save for some parked motorbikes and a few sleeping cats. The absence of other human voices was my first indication that I’d arrived at the wrong location, considering I was looking for an Open Mic Night.
I’d first heard about Open Mic Nights in Chiang Mai through Citylife’s editor. She’d mentioned the Woke Folks Festival that had taken place earlier this year, and encouraged me to look into ongoing events around the city. Some Facebook perusal led me to the page of a place called ‘Healing House’. Healing House’s page had several posts announcing some Open Mic Night or the other happening on Fridays. I thought I’d check it out.
The street that I walked down was lined with large houses, all gated shut. It seemed like most of the residents on this street had either turned in for the night or were looking for a somber evening indoors, away from the damp heat and lingering pollution from the week. I knew I was looking for a house, so this was encouraging, but the silence was jarring. The slapping of my broken sandals against the tarmac was the loudest noise in the night. That, and my Google maps beeping with my increasing proximity to my final destination.
About a three-minute walk away, I heard a motorcycle pull up behind me. My heart stopped.
“Hey, are you looking for Healing House?” A familiar voice asked.
“Yes, I am,” I answered turning around to see a man balancing a polythene bag stuffed tight with a takeout container over the handle of his motorbike. He asked me my name.
“Apeksha,” I said.
“Apeksha! Hi! I’m Binkey.”
I spoke to Binkey on the phone the Sunday prior to ask a few questions for a piece I was writing. The story he told me took me from the Southside of Chicago all the way to the venue that we were about to approach together. I remember that there were voices in the background of our phone call, the voices of Binkey’s housemates.
“We literally live in the house,” he explained to me. I was immediately intrigued. I had been planning to stop by for a while and was excited to finally have a Friday free to check out the place.
This particular night, however, was special, and I knew that before I set out that evening.
During our conversation, Binkey had mentioned that my call had come at an impactful moment for the house.
“Sometimes when we’re expecting more people, we choose an alternate venue. For a while that was The Three Little Pigs, which was owned by a man named Richard. He passed away today.”
So Friday night was a tribute to Richard, the kind soul that had been so many things to so many people, and had provided another home to the souls of Healing House. “It’s going to be special,” Binkey had promised, “hope to see you there.”
Entering the space was like something out of an 80s indie movie. The wall to my left had the word ‘Love’ spray painted on in thick, bold letters, with a subtle ‘All you need is’ preceding it in the top left corner. Wicker mats and throw pillows littered the floor, and a black couch leaned against a decorated bar. On the far wall were posters for events around Chiang Mai, including familiar names like ‘Quest Quest’ and unfamiliar titles like ‘Yes, my name is Mohamed Ali’. A red wall to my right was mostly blocked by individuals leaning on and around it, nursing beers and exchanging thoughtful words.
I took a seat on the floor and assumed my position as wallflower for the night. Everyone around me was huddled in groups. A couple of women were plucking at a guitar, a small Shit-Tzu sleeping behind its owner, friends huddled on the couch, and mellow but upbeat rhythmic sound was escaping a speaker in the corner of the room. This corner was where the microphone was standing, waiting to be taken.
As I sat scribbling down every detail of the visually stimulating room I had entered, avoiding eye contact, I was approached by a man I’d never met before.
“Are you writing poetry?” He asked me.
David, my new friend, plays the melodica. It was his first time at Healing House, and he had been brought in by a friend of his own. This friend later approached us with a large white piece of cardboard and a pink Sharpie highlighter. They’d compiled a list of performers under four categories: ‘Music’, ‘Storytelling’, ‘Poetry’, and ‘Other’.
“What will you do David?” they asked.
David asked to be penned in with one of the other musical performances.
Soon Binkey and Moe, another house veteran, took the stage to bring the room together before the night took off.
A little light, comedic banter was followed by a mention of Richard. The giggles in the room turned into bittersweet smiles as Binkey and Moe ran us through the legacy of the special soul that had just left us.
“He literally looked like Santa Claus,” Binkey insisted, “But he was incredible. He marched with Black Panthers, he got arrested with Black Panthers… He only hired Burmese refugees, and he wore pyjamas for 6 years straight.”
There was something about the stories they told that held the room together in a thoughtful silence. I too remembered this joyful, giving soul that I’d never met, and together with a room of strangers, felt the weight of a loss that Binkey and Moe insisted wasn’t a sad one.
“I know it’s clich? to say, but it’s true. He wouldn’t want us to be mourning him. We’re here to celebrate him.”
Before the performances started Binkey beatboxed and invited the crowd to contribute to the riff. We created a rhythm as a room, and those who had only come to watch, sat up more attentively before taking a more comfortable seat. After that, people melted into the shadows of the black cloth covered windows, laid down with their arms open on the floor, and huddled with their friends around them. I sat next to the rotating fan, which acted like an offbeat metronome in the otherwise silent room during each performance. It turned as if to take in every expression of every person with every performance that took place. I followed its lead.
The first performance of the night was a beautiful original piece by returning Healing House performer Aldo. After a quick fumble with the mic, he sat on the floor, holding his guitar close. The bar lights were flicked off and everyone went quiet. He started with a quick, light, playful strum, and then leaned in to start. I think I held my breath the entire time. Looking around the room I saw heads rocking and hands beating lightly against chests. Everyone was in a trance. I saw a single tear roll down the cheek of a man sitting next to me.
I was sad to have to leave earlier than anticipated, but felt warmth and happiness all the same. Every performance was followed with whoops of encouragement and genuine applause. During every performance, not a person in the room spoke or whispered. It was soon apparent to me that everyone had come to listen.
Stepping out in the street to wait for my next ride, I heard another performer take the stage. She said it was her first time performing and that she had been nervous at first. I too felt nervous for her, more because of my own nerves than because of any idea I had of the faceless voice echoing into the night. I felt my pulse through my left wrist and took a deep breath. The room went silent for a second, and then her voice rang strong, right into the street. She was powerful. I almost couldn’t believe she had been nervous in the first place.
“Why the name,” I had asked Binkey towards the end of our Sunday phone call. “Why Healing House?”
“Well it’s a house,” he chuckled, “and it’s a place where people come to heal.”
To stay updated on future events at Healing House, follow their Facebook page: healinghousechiangmai
As we go to press we were told that Healing House will be moving to a new home in the coming weeks. Best to check them out on their Facebook page to find out current info.