Francesco Crispo knows more than a thing or two about how to make a great pizza. For the past 12 years he’s been consumed with honing his craft, which was first cultivated while working under a renowned Italian chef in the Caribbean’s Dominican Republic for four years. The accountant-turned-chef was even born in Naples, which in the 16th century became the birthplace of modern day pizza. Luckily for Yangonites, Mr Crispo (whose name couldn’t be more apt) arrived in the commercial capital three months ago to become executive chef of Parami Pizza, which opened in Yangon’s northern township of Mayangone on July 25.
“We ferment the yeast for at least 24 hours before using it: if it’s any less than that, a person’s stomach may start to feel strange a few hours after eating a pizza,” Mr Crispo told Mizzima Business Weekly while furiously rolling identically sized balls of dough.
Mr Crispo said that most pizza chefs have their own individual style of creating a pizza base – his preference is for a soft yet crispy one, “So that you can hear the crunch.”
However he added that he always takes his customers’ tastebuds into account, which is why he thinned down the crusts a little since the restaurant first opened.
Parami Pizza imports the finest quality Italian ingredients for its pizzas, such as flour, wild mushrooms and tomato sauce (as well as risotto, pasta, olives and coffee – to name but a few). However importing foreign produce is not without its obstacles in Yangon, as some of the ingredients have never before set foot in Myanmar and raise eyebrows when they arrive.
“Sometimes when our orders from Italian suppliers are delivered, the customs department asks us to supply additional paperwork before the goods can be released – they say they don’t know what it is we’ve had delivered. This can make things difficult because the delays sometimes result in us lacking every ingredient we need on any given day,” Mr Crispo said.
“But we always serve up the best food we can according to our supplies; even if that means having to apologise to customers for not being able to provide a particular item on our menu,” he added.
Another challenge Parami Pizza currently faces is the lack of reliable wood suppliers in Yangon. Strips of wood are generally sold on the street-side or bought from local farmers after being exposed to heavy monsoon rains, which is highly problematic for a restaurant seeking to cook pizza in the traditional Italian style using a wood fired oven.
“We’ll have to wait a month before our stock of wood dries out, so in the meantime our pizzas are cooked using gas. For more than 10 years I’ve cooked pizzas in a wood fired oven: wood is my baby!” Mr Crispo said with a somewhat bittersweet laugh.
He said he is so determined to have the wood dried out as quickly as possible that he heats it in the oven every morning when he arrives at work.
Fortunately, Parami Pizza’s general managers Nat Hutley and Nico Elliot (who also established the highly popular Union Bar and Gekko Bar) were far-sighted enough to purchase a combination oven that allows the use of either wood or gas.
“In the past 10 years gas ovens have become very good – it’s difficult to taste the difference,” Mr Crispo explained.
Pizza prices start at USD$9 (for the Parami Special) while the Norcia pizza, which features artichokes, parmesan flakes and black truffles, tops the list at $16. The Prosciutto e Funghi ($12) is highly recommended and has already established itself as a favourite among diners, as it contains a delectable combination of ham, basil, tomato, cheese, king mushrooms and adorably tiny wild mushrooms.
However Parami Pizza isn’t limited to pizzas alone. Its menu includes a wide range of antipasto dishes, salads, pastas and risottos, a daily soup special ($4), as well as the Milanese specialty Osso Bucco (sheared veal shanks served with vegetables and risotto), which will set you back $24.
The coffee is excellent (and also includes liquor coffee) and there are Italian aperitifs such as Campari ($6), while cocktails are priced between $7 and $8 and include the romantically named, “Breakfast at Cipriani.”
Many of Parami Pizza’s 20 kitchen staff have worked in Italian restaurants abroad and although only around 50 percent speak English, Mr Crispo dismissed the idea that communication was a problem.
“I’ve often worked with kitchen staff who don’t speak English. It doesn’t matter because I show people how to cook; I don’t need to tell them,” he said.
“I love Myanmar people – here in Yangon I start my day with a smile. I’ve worked in 11 different countries and I believe that Myanmar people are the nicest. They keep me calm,” he added.
Mr Franceso’s days are long because he refuses to leave the restaurant until it’s closed and arrives before it opens (other staff work either the lunch or dinner shift). His sense of personal responsibility for his diners’ satisfaction is admirable – and the results tangible.
“I often get calls from customers after I leave a restaurant. When I left one particular restaurant in the UAE, customers continued to contact me over the following year. Some would send me photos of food on their smartphones with a message saying, ‘Look what they serve now!’” he said with a grin.
On the day Mizzima Business Weekly visited Parami Pizza, the inside dining area became increasingly busy from noon: to the point of virtually every seat being occupied (the outdoor terrace will open once the monsoon season ends). According to Restaurant Manager Ko Myo Paing Aung, the evenings are even busier.
“It wasn’t busy the first day we opened – but that’s not been the case ever since,” said Mr Crispo.
Parami Pizza is open daily from 11am until midnight and it is located on 11/8 (7th Quarter) on the corner of Malikha and Parami roads in Mayangone Township.
For more information, call (01) 667 449 or visit Parami Pizza’s Facebook page
Former model John Lwin is the CEO of Stars and Models International and is arguably the most powerful force in Myanmar’s male modeling industry. He has 200 models on his books; some of whom include Myanmar’s best known film stars. In 1995, Mr Lwin organized Myanmar’s first fashion show and in December 2013 he acquired the copyright of Manhunt International, which will give Myanmar’s male models the first opportunity to compete internationally.
Yet Mr Lwin’s entry into the world of male modeling was completely accidental.
“In 1988 Myanmar completely collapsed and my father told me that if I remained here I’d have no future. He enrolled me in a three month English speaking course in Singapore, but I didn’t want to go. At the airport I cried and threw my shoes in protest.”
Yet within a couple of months, 22-year-old Mr Lwin began to enjoy his new lifestyle in Singapore and told his father he’d enrolled in a hotel management course. To supplement his father’s $500 monthly allowance, Mr Lwin began working in a cassette factory.
“I worked at the factory from 11pm until 7am and then slept on the bus that got me to college by 9am. I was very unhappy.”
While standing bleary eyed at a bus stop one morning, he noticed a woman sizing him up.
“I thought she was trying to steal my bag so I held it close. But then she said, ‘Do you want to be a model?’”
Mr Lwin had no idea what modeling involved, but when he was told he could earn up to $10,000 a month, he didn’t hesitate to arrange a meeting. Within a few months he was making $15,000 a month, travelling extensively throughout the region and in 1992 won the title of Singapore’s “Face of the Year.”
“I was the only Burmese model in Singapore at that time and most assumed I was of Malay descent. But it wasn’t that I loved modeling – I was doing it for the money,” he said.
Five years later, Mr Lwin was approached by a famous Singaporean designer called Bobby Chng, whose clothes he’d modeled in the past.
Bobby’s offer to enter a clothing export joint venture was financially unappealing to a highly paid male model, but when Mr Lwin stumbled and fell on a pavement while racing to a fashion show, he started to think twice about his long term prospects (the damage to his chin alone lost him a week of work).
Mr Lwin agreed to set up Myanmar Asia Trading, which involved exporting male fashion wear from Myanmar to Singapore. His network of contacts in the fashion industry expanded and he was invited to organize Myanmar’s first fashion show in 1995. Its success prompted him to set up Myanmar’s first modeling agency, Stars and Models International.
How a male model is born
Along with those enrolled at his training academy, John Lwin regularly scours the streets of Yangon to scout for untapped male beauty.
“I saw one guy in a tea shop – I asked him to stand up to determine his height and asked if he’d like to be a model. He’s now making $50,000 a month,” he said with a laugh.
While Mr Lwin says he can’t put into words what the “X Factor” is, certain traits aren’t negotiable.
“I don’t want anyone over 25 – that’s getting old,” he said.
Unlike much of the rest of the world, a male model’s height (or lack of) isn’t a deal breaker in Myanmar, he said. However long hair and facial hair is. Those who look Korean are far more likely to become commercially successful, he said.
Furthermore, many male models incorrectly assume that advice on regular exercise and eating healthily can be ignored.
“They believe they can make it with their face alone – but that’s an unwise decision to make,” Mr Lwin said.
Despite the fact that Myanmar has an abundance of attractive men of Indian descent, this is a no-go zone in terms of Myanmar’s modeling industry.
“I have one singer on our books who’s handsome but looks a little Indian. He’s on a 10 year contract and is doing very well because he has a beautiful voice, but when shooting his music videos, I usually never show his face. He’s Muslim and there are problems with Muslims, so it wouldn’t work,” Mr Lwin said.
Freelance fashion photographer Ko Taik told Mizzima Business Weekly that he often feels frustrated while shooting male models.
“Females are far easier to shoot. Women have more experience and their poses are more original. Males are more difficult because their poses are often awkward. They need a lot of direction from the photographer and getting a male model to relax is hard. They always seem to want to look powerful but a relaxed posture is almost always better. But if a male model has experience with a modelling agency they know what to do. And male models turn up on time, while women usually don’t,” he said.
While male models are, on the whole, less prone to egotism than their female counterparts, Mr Lwin takes a strictly no-nonsense approach when dealing those who step out of line.
“Sometimes I call a model and their mother answers the phone and says, ‘Talk to me – my son is busy.’ I’ve even had to drive to models’ homes, where I then stand out the front and scream at them. Then I freeze the model for at least three months – I give them no work whatsoever.”
“A lot of people in this industry are scared of me,” he added.
Mr Lwin said he’s recently adopted a new approach to keep his talent pool in check.
“I don’t let anyone become famous for at least six months anymore, because their heads just aren’t ready for it and they end up crashing. I make my models go through a lot of training and jobs like ushering before I allow something big to come along,” he said.
Manhunt – Myanmar’s biggest male modelling competition
John Lwin is an unapologetically ambitious entrepreneur and thus in December last year he acquired the copyright for Manhunt International – which for the past three years has been considered the ultimate platform for male models to gain exposure on a purely local level.
The local version of Manhunt has been headed by Htay Min Htun of Myanmar Model Management and attracts more than 300 competitors from across the country. Expats in Singapore also reportedly return to compete for the title. The competition is held in October and is aired twice daily on MRTV4 for a week. The winner receives 1.5 million lakh – half of which goes towards a modeling contract.
U Aung Paing Oo, 26, is a trainer at Myanmar Model Management and he told Mizzima Business Weekly that if further negotiations are unsuccessful, his company will continue to run Manhunt in Myanmar, even if it requires changing the name of the competition.
Model Kyaw Ko Ko Wai, who is also a trainer at Stars and Models International, was awarded second place in Manhunt’s 2013 competition.
“It was an experience I’ll never forget because it was so competitive. There was so much pressure to perform.”
The winners of Manhunt are often subject to various forms of gossip and backlash – rumours abound that the competition is predetermined to award those with close relationships with the judges.
“People say nasty things about the winners but our competition is fair and completely unbiased,” U Aung Paing Oo said.
Some are hopeful that by engaging with the internationally recognized Manhunt International competition, Mr Lwin will provide much needed opportunities for Myanmar’s male models, who are often subject to illegitimate business proposals.
For years, Mr Lwin has received a steady stream of emails from China inquiring about his male models, who propose shared contractual arrangements.
“I worry about the possibility of human trafficking – none of these people ever actually come to Myanmar to meet with me in person.”
Two years ago, Mr Lwin was contacted by an organization in Indonesia who claimed to be casting male models for a well known TV series that could purportedly lead to three year modelling contracts, international assignments and a salary of $8,000 a month.
“So we selected three models and flew to Indonesia for a meeting. On the first night, a gay man took us out for dinner and asked me if one of my models would accompany him for a drink later that night. I refused. His phone was then permanently off and we ended up having to pay for the hotel bill and airfares – which was contrary to the original agreement,” he said.
“Singapore’s male model industry looks for height, muscle build and a sharp face. Hong Kong’s models most often have chubby faces, while in mainland China, height and strong cheekbones are in vogue. Myanmar models often don’t fit these profiles,” said Mr Lwin.
No pay for editorial shoots
The possibility to work overseas is much needed, as Myanmar’s fashion magazines and journals rarely pay models for editorial shoots – whether it’s a cover or an inside spread.
“The model’s name and agency name is credited – that’s it,” Mr Lwin said.
He said that Myanmar’s models are willing to work for free to gain exposure; even movie stars don’t expect remuneration.
“The problem is that all models will shoot for free – they must come together and refuse to work without pay. I think the time will soon come when this changes,” he added.
While commercial product advertising pays well, the vast majority of local and international fashion labels are unwilling to shoot with Myanmar models.
“When we’ve approached men’s clothing companies for shoots – or even events like Myanmar Fashion Week – they tell us that the collars or what not might get dirty in the process and refuse to provide us with clothing. The local fashion industry has to change: how else can they market their clothes? Most often, models bring their own clothes to a shoot or a designer creates something for them.”
For those like U Aung Paing Oo, who never wanted to divert to the more lucrative alternatives of singing or acting, making a living as a model wasn’t viable.
“It’s difficult to make ends meet through modeling alone. I had to supplement my income by working for my father’s car import company. Working as a trainer is a much better alternative financially,” he said.
“If somebody just wants to be a model – he may get work twice a month and then needs to be ‘happy’ in his home for the rest of the time,” said Hpone Thaik.
Flocking female fans
There are of course upsides to being a male model – such as having a flock of female fans.
“Sure, I get a lot of attention when I go out. I’m a single guy and it’s fun,” Kaung Sitt Thway said with a grin.
Hpone Thaik, 29, is one of Myanmar’s top male models and he’s starred in several TV series, films and commercials. In July last year he married Myanmar’s superstar singer Chan Chan (who also models with Stars and Models International) and the couple have a five-month-old baby.
“I actually have more female fans now than I did before Chan and Chan and I got married. When I post pictures of my baby girl on Facebook, women write lovely things about me loving my family,” he said.
Hpone Thaik does have one memorable stalker though. For more than a year, he received hand-written love letters and phone calls from a young woman in Meiktila. She even posted him a CD containing images of international male models, complete with tips on how to strike a pose.
Hpone Thaik said he never felt stressed by her fanaticism, but was grateful when things finally came to a head. When the woman had learned that Hpone Thaik was in Magwe, she hopped on a motorbike and drove four hours just to see her idol in the flesh.
“When she saw that I was there with Chan Chan her face fell. She cried a lot and after that I didn’t hear from her again,” he said.
“Most models come from middle class families. Wealthy young people aren’t attracted to modeling – they prefer to study and go clubbing and look down on modelling,” said Kyaw Ko Ko Wai.
He said that whilst some models have acquired reputations as socially immorally party-people, as well as being money hungry by seducing the wealthy.
However there are also known cases of “rich people dating models for fun – most wouldn’t marry them,” Kyaw Ko Ko Wai said.
According to Hpone Thaik, many sections of society assume that male models are gay simply because they wear make-up.
“Educated people understand the fashion industry and don’t share these views,” he said.
The award-winning Finding George Orwell in Burma is a non-fiction account of a woman who retraces George Orwell’s footsteps during the five years he served as a colonial police officer in what was then a province of British India. After his return to Britain in 1927, George Orwell (whose real name was Eric Blair) wrote a scathing account of colonial rule called Burmese Days, as well as the dystopian classics Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty-Four - the latter of which depicts a society shackled by its extreme authoritarian rulers. Recounting her visits to Yangon, Twante, Pyin Oo Lwin, Mawlamyine and Katha, where Orwell served as a police officer, the author shed new light on the creative influence Myanmar had on his later works and political outlook. Extensive interviews with sources – connected and unconnected to Orwell – also provide a glimpse into Burmese society during the 1990s and early 21st century, when it was truly Orwellian.
Finding George Orwell in Burma was written by an American journalist who uses the pen name Emma Larkin. The author has never disclosed her identity and little is known about her, except that she was born and raised in Asia and that she studied Burmese in London. In an exclusive interview with Mizzima Business Weekly to mark the 10th anniversary of the publication of Finding George Orwell in Burma, Emma Larkin discusses contemporary Myanmar and explains why the time is not yet right to shed her nom de plume.
Which came first – your interest in George Orwell or your interest in Myanmar?
It was a case of both working in parallel. I’d read Orwell’s books and while I was travelling around Burma [during the 1990s] I developed more and more questions about the country that I couldn’t find answers to. His later books, such as Animal Farm, Nineteen-Eighty-Four and Burmese Days really spoke to me in a literary sense. I found his work very intriguing and came up with the idea to write a book about Orwell’s time in Burma and how it influenced his writing.
In previous interviews you said that you would not disclose your identity to protect your sources and to be able to return to Myanmar. Is that still the case, 10 years on?
Actually in terms of Burma, I think I probably wouldn’t need to keep a pen name anymore. However I’m working on a book about Thailand and things here are quite tense. As I live here permanently, it turns out it’s quite useful to have a pen name and I’d like to hang onto it for a couple more years. If you’d asked me just three months ago, I would have answered the question differently, but since the coup [on May 22] I need to be more careful than ever about protecting my identity – and it’s becoming increasingly difficult in this era of social media and what not. I was just talking to a friend about a protester who was arrested in Bangkok last month for reading Nineteen-Eighty-Four. I never thought that would ever happen in Thailand – it used to be Burma where something like that could occur. It’s very strange and worrying.
How often do you visit Myanmar? Have you noticed a change in atmosphere since the transition to quasi-civilian rule in 2011?
I’ve always lived in Bangkok, so Burma is close and I used to come about three or four times a year. But of late I’ve not done so as frequently because I’m working on my new book. My most recent visit was back in February. My last few trips have just been to Yangon and I can definitely see a dramatic change. One thing is that everyone is so busy – Yangon used to be a city stagnating but now it’s a city on the move. In the past, no one ever had anything to do except sit in a teashop.
That reminds me of a passage in your book when you say to a source, “I don’t want to take up too much of your time” and he replies, “Time! Time is the one thing in Burma we have a lot of. We are forced to spend our days quite listlessly. After all, what is there to do?”
When I visit nowadays I’m lucky if I have 15 minutes with that guy! So that’s definitely a turnaround. However I’d need to travel outside Yangon to get a sense of whether change has really occurred. I suspect that life doesn’t feel very different in the villages.
Are you and your sources cynical about the reform process in Myanmar?
It’s funny to hear you say “sources” because I’ve known the people in my book for so long now that I think of them as my friends. In February people were – I don’t think cynical is the right word – but I would definitely say that the euphoria had died down and there was a general idea that perhaps not that much has changed in terms of day-to-day life. For the first two years after the reforms began there was great sense of excitement and energy, but I no longer see that.
Referring to Finding George Orwell in Burma in an essay in 2008 called Being Eric/Being George: Or, What it’s Really Like to Become Someone Else, you wrote, “The book was a non-fiction account of life in Burma, a country ruled by a military dictatorship that is – I have to say it – truly Orwellian.” Have your views changed much since then?
Burma is no longer an Orwellian state – if anything it would be Thailand. When I wrote about Burma there was extreme propaganda, censorship and the distortion of truth – that’s no longer occurring. Wikileaks and whistleblowers such as Snowden demonstrate that there are still pockets of that which is Orwellian all over the world.
Most biographers agree that Eric Blair chose to write under the pen name George Orwell out of a fear of failure. You adopted a pen name for purely practical reasons. Your book has won several awards but has it ever been hard to have to shun any public recognition for your work?
I went to a boarding school in Britain and the headmistress there told me that I would never amount to anything. So yes, I would like her to know! But aside from that, I’m really quite happy with the way things are. I’m not an attention seeker and I prefer to write books rather to turn into the story itself.
Have you ever published books under your own name?
Yes I have. But they were not the kind of books I write as Emma Larkin.
The fact that you have remained anonymous is something of a triumph over military intelligence and testimony to the strength of your network of contacts, inside and outside Myanmar. How do you think you’ve managed to stay under the radar for so long?
I think what likely happened is that whatever local file was being kept on me may have been lost or scattered at around the time the former chief of [Military] Intelligence and then Prime Minister Khin Nyunt was placed under house arrest [in 2004]. There was so much else going on at the time – perhaps that’s why I was able to continue with my research.
You have said your cover was nearly blown several times. Could you describe such an encounter?
I was on a train once and I met a man who at the time I just thought was friendly and charming – he wasn’t in a uniform or anything. But I still took the precaution of getting off a station earlier than him. After checking into the hotel, I realised the man had checked into the room right next door to mine.
Did you immediately check out of the hotel?
I actually left the country. When I encountered these kinds of problems along the way I’d ask my friends what they thought I should do. They told me that as soon as I went to another hotel, the hotel staff would have to inform the police, as that was standard procedure back then, so they’d know exactly where to find me. That made changing hotels pointless – my friends told me to leave Burma, wait a while, and then return.
How long did it take to research your book? Did the fact that you spoke Myanmar arouse suspicions?
It took me three years to research and write it. I did indeed speak Burmese – though not elegantly [laughs] – and yes, I was a lone, white, female solo traveller. So I really stuck out and needed to be careful. But my task was easier in some ways than for journalists, who need to come in and get the information they need quickly. I was able to take things slower to stay under the radar. Burma was a lot cheaper back then so I was able to make the small advance for my book last quite a while longer than it would now…
Did you ever interview Daw Aung San Suu Kyi?
I saw her speaking outside her home but no, I never interviewed her. I would have been automatically blacklisted if I had. But actually, what I really admired at the time was the bravery of the normal people who came out to listen to her.
Do you make anything of the fact that Winston, the name of the main character in Nineteen-Eighty-Four, is a popular name in Myanmar?
I hadn’t thought of that! [Laughs] Yes sure, I have friends called Winston. But I think there are many old-fashioned Christian names in Burma that are still quite popular – Penelope also comes to mind. I think it’s just part of the country having been insolated in a sort of time warp for so many years, rather than there being any sort of connection to Nineteen-Eighty-Four.
In your book, you write, “The only recorded memory of Orwell in Burma dates back to his time in Rangoon and doesn’t show him in the best light.” You then describe a Myanmar lecturer recalling that as a young boy, he and his friends were messing about and accidentally knocked into Eric Blair at Rangoon Railway Station. He retaliated by lifting his cane and almost hitting a child on the head with it, before whacking him on the back at the last minute. Others described him as “every bit the imperial officer.” Do you separate the man from the writer or do you think Orwell’s experience in Myanmar profoundly changed him?
I think it’s important to remember that both Orwell’s maternal and paternal sides had served in the colonies – him doing so was expected and in his blood, you could say. But why he chose to serve in the police force mystifies me to this day. Why not the civil service? What does seem apparent is that his experiences in Burma changed him and enabled him to go back and write books that were critical of colonialism and totalitarianism. As for some of the attitudes he expressed while serving in Burma, well, I think he was a product of his times. For him to have stood out in a significant way from the chit-chatterers at the colonial clubs in Burma, who would complain about this and that, would have been very exceptional indeed. He was part of a very large colonialist system.
Do you think Orwell joined the imperial police to find material for books?
No, I don’t think he did. The great thing about Orwell is that every single thing he ever wrote has been published – even the things he wrote as a young boy. The Complete Works of George Orwell is a 20-volume series: of course ordinary people don’t own it but they can be accessed in libraries. So when I read the things he’d written before he left for Burma, I could see that it’s all there and that his motivations were straightforward and practical. Up until then his writing wasn’t political. It was the experience that changed him.
Your book also reveals that George Orwell, who was born in India in 1903, had Anglo-Burmese cousins. Is there any chance he may have had Burmese blood? Some have hypothesised that there is an autobiographical element to the main character in Burmese Days, Flory, whose birthmark was teasingly referred to as a “having lick of the tar brush” and that he felt a sense of shame about this.
Orwell did have cousins who were Burmese – the birth certificates and marriage certificates have been found. A later biographer discovered a passport of his that had never been seen and it recorded the presence of blue tattoos on his hands that were inked in Burma. But as to whether Orwell had Burmese blood is a far less likely possibility. I’m cautious about reading too much between the lines of his work. But it would be interesting to talk more to his relatives and I hope that more archive material will become available in the future so that we can learn more about him.
You say “Burma” as opposed to “Myanmar” – why is that?
For me it’s not a political issue but a grammatical problem. We don’t say, for example, that a person is “America” and their language is “America” so for me it’s problematic to say “Myanmar people” and “Myanmar language.” So until that’s sorted out I will continue to use Burma.
As Myanmar’s economic and political reforms continue at a steady pace, its indigenous traditional textiles could become commercialised. Myanmar does not yet systematically export its traditional fabrics and there are no official associations to promote the industry. It currently relies largely on tourists for small-scale revenues.
But that could change. Myanmar is unique in the region, because its most renowned ‘silks’ are actually not made from silkworm threads, but from lotus buds. The tourist hot spot of Inle Lake in Shan State is currently the only location in Myanmar where lotus fibre is extracted and used to create textiles on any significant scale. Its soft texture is similar to a mixture of standard silk and linen.
According to Khine Jiu Jiu Lynn, sales manager at Khit Sunn Yinn, a lotus, standard silk and cotton weaving centre at Innpawkohn village, Inle Lake, Shan State, a product made from lotus bud is seven times more expensive than regular silk due to its many qualities, which include being naturally stain resistant, waterproof, soft to the touch, breathable and wrinkle-free.
“A single stick of lotus bud costs Burmese Kyat MMK4,000 (USD4.05) and a single scarf requires…20 days’ work, which is why it costs around USD75 [retail],” she told Twist International.
While about 80% of scarf purchases are made by international tourists, Ms Lynn said the majority of lotus products are currently spun into robes for monks and sent to the cities of Yangon and Mandalay for commercial sale. Although lotus silk is rare and expensive, monks acquire the robes through donations in the Buddhist majority nation.
Myint Thein Htun, the owner of Khit Sunn Yinn, a fourth generation family-run business, said that he is keen to export his products and has the capacity with 120 skilled workers, but fears a lack of quality control could be a problem.
“We can’t export because our products because they’re hand-made. Customers want their textiles to be uniform, and we can’t guarantee that, particularly for the finishing and colours,” he said.
He pointed out small imperfections in scarves, explaining, “A weaver can only use their eyes to see whether a thread has broken. If we were using machines, the machine would automatically stop when a thread breaks. Also, hand-woven mistakes can’t be fixed. Likewise, because we hand-dye the colours, we can’t ensure the colours are uniform.”
Mr Htun added: “We could buy machines but this is a local industry and a lot of people would lose their jobs.”
For the time being, he said he is content to sell to tourists – visiting the beauty-spot Inle Lake in increasing numbers since political reforms began in 2011. His business gained international recognition by winning several awards at the ASEAN Silk Fabric and Fashion Design Contest ASEAN Silk Fabric and Fashion contest, staged in Bangkok in 2010. “No such awards exist in Myanmar,” he lamented.
Mr Htun added that a significant number of tourists refrain from purchasing indigenous silk products because, “They see scarves being sold on the streets of Thailand and Cambodia for an absolute fraction of the price that ours sell for – but what they don’t realise is that those products are made from polyester.”
U Kyaw Aye, general manager at Injynn Development Company, a Myanmar trading company selling garments, oil and gas and telecommunications and a former industry ministry technical planning officer said: “None of the traditional forms of textiles are mechanical,” so as regards bulk mass exports, “there’s not much to hope for because it’s so time-consuming and output is low. Unlike commercial textiles, Myanmar’s indigenous textiles are not made by the bale of 30 to 50 yards, but rather in short pieces.”
But he warned, if the industry were to mechanise, “the quality and texture wouldn’t be the same again.”
So the likelihood is that Myanmar fabrics will remain a scarce item, of potential use for luxury apparel brands and manufacturers. As yet that potential has yet to be realised, he said: “It’s unlike Thailand’s silk industry, which makes good money selling items such as neckties – Myanmar’s are more of a novelty item which a few tourists and businesspeople take out.”
Nevertheless, Mr Aye stressed the potential. Production costs in Myanmar are currently low compared to potential competitors in Thailand, India and China.
Furthermore, the diversity of products created in Myanmar is staggering: each of Myanmar’s 135 officially recognised ethnic groups has its own unique patterns and traditions, and powerful customs associated with various textile products.
In Chin State culture, for example, it is customary for a bride to weave a large blanket with homespun cotton and silk, dyed with herbs and woven in a back-strapped loom, maybe containing herbs and leaves. When one partner dies, the blanket is cut in half and wrapped around the body. The other half is stored until the other spouse passes away – it is believed that the blanket serves to unite the spirits in the afterlife.
As for standard silk from silkworms, much of the silk is grown in Mandalay, with key weaving centres in Rakhine state, based in the ancient capital of Mrauk U. Thandar Win works at a silk and cotton shop in downtown’s Yangon’s bustling Bogyoke Market, selling local handicrafts, gems and artwork. She told Twist International: “Burmese silk isn’t as shiny as Thai silk and much of Thailand’s silk products are made with machines. It’s the same in China. The Burmese regard the quality of Chinese silk as inferior to ours, which is why we never sell it, even though it’s cheaper.”
As for traditional cotton weaving, there are also regional craft industry centres such as Kachin state, as well as in Rakhine state.
The patterns of indigenous textiles, whether made from cotton, raw silk, pure raw silk and lotus bud silk, differ greatly from one region to the next. Mandalay is famous for criss-crossed designs, which are washed and dyed before spinning to create a softer fabric. Meanwhile, Inle Lake manufacturers are well known for ‘ikat’ dyeing techniques used to pattern textiles that uses a resist-dyeing process similar to tie-dye textiles, which was initially developed in Indonesia.
As Mr Htun explained, “Before 1932, Myanmar artisans just made plain stripes. My great-grandfather went to Thailand to learn how to make ‘ikat’ – the Thais had previously learnt it from the Indonesians. And it spread from that moment on.”
Nyan Lynn Aung, director of Fine 9, an advisory firm that connects foreign and domestic investors in Myanmar, (most often regarding garments), said he received his first inquiry about importing Myanmar’s indigenous silk products, from a buyer in New York, this month (February 2014).
“Myanmar’s indigenous textiles definitely have potential. Of course, like anything, it depends how you sell it and how it’s set up, but much like free-trade coffee beans, buying ‘Made in Myanmar’ indigenous textiles could be seen as very trendy and ethical,” he told Twist International. Mr Aung suggested that repurposing traditional textiles into bags and belts could become a boom industry.
However he added that “investment – as well as at least some technology – is needed for the sector to properly develop.”
A leading player in Myanmar’s seafood export sector talks to Mizzima Business Weekly about the industry’s future potential – which may only be realised if current constraints can be overcome.
Very few countries in the world can boast that crab is sold a cheap street food snack. Yet whilst Myanmar’s natural abundance of seafood is evident – both in terms of its availability and comparable affordability – the sector remains largely untapped in terms of export volumes. Much has improved since the European Union and United States lifted export sanctions against Myanmar in 2012, however ongoing challenges such as electricity shortages and weak infrastructure continue to hold back the country’s capacity to export enough of its beautiful bounty of seafood.
U Myat Aung Nyunt is the Managing Director of Ocean Harvest (Myanmar) Limited, a seafood cold storage, processing and ice plant factory in Yangon, which he set up more than two decades ago. He is also the joint secretary of the Myanmar Fishery Products Processors and Exporters Association, which was established in 2004 and aims to forge investment links between exporters and importers, as well as disseminating information about best practices in the industry.
“Myanmar’s potential to increase seafood exports is huge – but we need to set up prawn farms to obtain higher quantities to export. At the moment there’s only one prawn farm in the entire country,” U Myat Aung Nyunt told Mizzima Business Weekly.
However prawn farming is a highly skilled and labour intensive endeavour, and at this stage Myanmar is yet to even establish a seafood processing training centre. This means that Ocean Harvest’s 200-odd workers – had to be taught several different skill sets on the job.
While reports have recently surfaced in neighbouring Thailand about an illegal fishing industry that relies on slave labour and trafficked workers, U Myat Aung Nyunt said he’s never heard of fishery workers being ill-treated in Myanmar.
“I provide my staff with three meals a day as well as free healthcare and accommodation. My unmarried workers live in a dormitory at the back of the factory, while housing is provided for 20 families in North Dagon. I treat my staff as my family, because without them, how can I do this business?”
Although some of U Myat Aung Nyunt’s workers (most of whom are female – he says because they’re harder working) have been with the company since it was first set up back in 1993, he said that the demand for skilled workers has resulted in rife poaching among competitors. As Myanmar does not yet have a seafood processing training centre, each of his 200 factory workers were trained on site.
“I do everything I can to retain my staff, but there are several Chinese companies in Myanmar who have bigger budgets and operate with a local proxy. It’s causing a lot of problems for players in the local industry,” he said.
Although Myanmar’s seafood stocks have declined over the past five years, U Myat Aung Nyunt said that conditions in Thailand are far worse and that Myanmar’s industry could easily be sustainable if the right measures are put in place. In the meantime, quantities could be exponentially multiplied if prawn farming took off. At present, just one prawn farm exists in Myanmar. This is part due to the high overheads of operating the farming equipment (particularly if diesel generators are required as a back-up power source) and the complexities of round-the-clock maintenance and care.
Therefore, the overwhelming majority of prawns – which fetches some of the highest prices – are caught in the wild. U Myat Aung Nyunt explained that a net is used to seal off a sizeable population of prawns, who remain confined for two or three months and scavenge around for whatever food they can find. Once the prawns have grown bigger, the haul is seized and brought to various markets in Yangon, including Anawar Fishery, VMP Jetty, Anawar Hlwam Jetty, Shwe Zin Yaw Hein Jetty (the latter of which has been approved by the European Union). Other methods include small boats with trawlers, however in both cases, U Myat Aung Nyunt said that road conditions need to be improved so that travel times from Rakhine State and Ayeyarwady Region, which are the source of prawns and other seafood, can be reduced. This is particularly important because the boats lack refrigeration facilities, relying instead on ice to keep the produce fresh.
“Although there’s definitely a demand for prawns without their heads removed, most fishermen tend to cut off the head because it’s too easy for bacteria to spread from the head to the body,” he explained.
Despite ongoing infrastructural challenges, Myanmar’s Fishery Department is serious about ensuring that Myanmar’s sea produce meets international standards. Factory checks are carried out by department officials every month to ensure that exporters are complying with processing laws, which include stringent hygiene regulations.
In early June, the Ministry of Livestock Breeding, Fisheries and Rural Development announced that it will grant K1.5 billion (US$1.5 million) to livestock breeders and fish farmers to help boost capacity and export revenues, which in the last 10 months of the 2013-14 fiscal year fell by US$76 million.
Ocean Harvest is also registered with the FTA in the United States – which is important, because 80 percent of the 400 tonnes it exports annually (which includes shrimp, squid and fish) usually end up in restaurants in Los Angeles or Los Vegas.
“Until the sanctions were lifted, we mostly exported to Japan. However Japanese buyers tend to buy smaller quantities of a particular size or species. The US is a constant buyer, and often in bulk,” he said.
A hotel owner in Los Angeles was so delighted with Ocean Harvest’s produce and delivery service (which involves ice-trays of seafood travelling for 40 days on a container ship from Yangon via Singapore or Malaysia in refrigerated temperatures of at least -18 degrees Celsius) that U Myat Aung Nyunt’s entire family was invited for an all expenses paid holiday last year.
Indonesia and Australia are other popular export destinations, U Myat Aung Nyunt said.
“The Australians are clever – they sell the best of their seafood to Japan and then import for domestic consumption,” he said with a laugh.
The European Union is a less appealing destination, as it offers significantly lower prices than the US.
“I’m not sure why that is – it could be that buyers in the EU are sourcing seafood from markets elsewhere that are cheaper,” U Myat Aung Nyunt said.
After being cheated out of payment for an order of freshwater fish valued at US$200,000 last year, Ocean Harvest will no longer supply to any company based in the Middle East.
“I’m not sure whether it was the agent in Yangon or the company in the Middle East who was responsible for not paying me. After a few containers were released from the cargo, the company had told me they had a cash shortfall and asked if I could release the entire order – and that I’d be paid the following week. If I’d said no, I would have had to have paid extra storage costs until the entire amount came through. We had a gentleman’s agreement,” he said ruefully.
The company in the Middle East refused to even acknowledge U Myat Aung Nyunt’s demands for payment and his attempts to sue the local agent were unsuccessful because the agent lacks assets (“Not even a car!” he said).
“Many exporters in Myanmar have lost money to Middle Eastern companies. Sometimes even their banks operate dishonestly – such as by allowing containers to be released before money has been deposited. And often it’s all done through brokers and we don’t know who the company at the end of the line is. When we supplied to Iraq, for example, our goods would be dropped in Kuwait and taken to Iraq by a separate transport company. We can’t exactly go to Iraq to find out what happened to an outstanding payment,” he explained.
Nonetheless, U Myat Aung Nyunt is upbeat about his future prospects and in June, his 26-year-old daughter Myint Myat opened a restaurant in Parami called – you guessed it – Crustacean.
“I supply all the seafood to my daughter’s restaurant – she worked at Ocean Harvest for five years and after getting an MBA, she decided she wanted to run her own business.”
In addition to Crustacean, Ocean Harvest sells to a German company that operates flights for VIPs.
“But we stick to exporting simply because the prices are better for us,” he said.
Published in Tobacco Journal International 2014 edition
The market liberalisation of Burma is enticing global tobacco companies such as British American Tobacco (BAT) to sell and manufacture cigarettes in Myanmar – however rampant smuggling of duty-free cigarettes into the country and the dominance of low-end local brands pose a challenge to legitimate business ventures.
BAT returned to Myanmar this year following a decade’s absence. The British government requested BAT to leave Myanmar in 2003 following an investigation by Burma Campaign UK establishing that it had links to the military-backed Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEHL).
The editor-in-chief of Myanma Freedom Daily, Thiha Saw, who is also deputy chief of the Myanmar Journalists Association, said that the introduction of political reforms in Myanmar over the past two years has provided opportunities for new players to emerge in the tobacco industry.
He said, “Before 2010 it wasn’t possible to manufacture cigarettes without having links to the military, because there were two military owned companies that had a monopoly over beer and tobacco. That’s changed now, but there’s still a huge black market in smuggling duty-free cigarettes.”
A Yangon tobacco retailer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that he buys duty-free cigarettes from pilots and cabin crew. He said the practice is widespread and also involves major supermarkets.
The retailer said that major cigarette brands such as Marlboro Light – the most popular in terms of sales – are brought in from Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia, but that Myanmar people prefer those imported from Singapore because “People don’t want to buy a packet with a graphic warning about the effects of smoking.”
He also said that Chinese tobacco companies are keen to enter the market but are unlikely to succeed due to widespread concerns about the quality of Chinese products.
Fighting back against illicit trade
The government of Myanmar has stepped up efforts to counter illicit trade in a bid to attract more foreign investment. In late October, a team from the Ministry of Commerce raided a warehouse owned by one of Myanmar’s leading food and beverage distributors, Quarto Products. Quarto has since been shut down because it was unable to produce import declaration documentation, government officials said.
Rehan Baig, BAT’s managing director in Myanmar told Tobacco Journal International, “BAT is willing to work closely with the government and industry stakeholders… to counter illicit trade by raising awareness and providing information as well as experience in this area. At our own end, we take steps to ensure product stewardship, such as using track and trace technology to monitor the movement of our products within the supply chain.”
BAT has implemented the technology in Russia, Poland, Ukraine and Belarus and is aiming to cover 42 international markets by the end of 2016.
BAT now has a majority stake in a joint venture with local partner IMU enterprise, which is a unit of Sein Wut Hmon Group. BAT will invest US$50 million over five years in a production factory in Shwe Than Lwin Industrial Zone in Yangon to produce its London brand of cigarettes, which were extremely popular in Myanmar but have since been overtaken by the similarly priced local brand Red Ruby.
Advertising ban and penetration rates
Local tobacco companies attempt to circumvent the ban on the advertising of tobacco products by providing tea shops and pubs with branded, complimentary napkin holders, ashtrays and sometimes even handing out free lighters and cigarettes to patrons. When asked whether BAT will use such tactics to regain consumer loyalty, Rehan Baig said, “We are a legitimate company selling a legal product and we conduct our business in a responsible way – abiding by the laws in all the countries we operate in. Furthermore, we also have voluntary international marketing principles in place, some of which are stricter than local laws.”
He added that BAT will “cater to any requests or requirements such as [providing] lighters and ashtrays from our trade partners by providing unbranded material where deemed necessary.”
Myanmar Survey Research conducted a survey of smoking penetration rates in Myanmar’s biggest cities, Yangon and Mandalay in December 2012. The survey found that 30 percent of urban males are occasional or regular smokers, while 1-2 percent of women are in the same category. Another 15 percent of urban males smoke hand-rolled cheroots [traditional cigars] and 1-2 percent of urban females also smoke cheroots on a regular basis.
Marita Schimpl, head of marketing research at MSR said, “In rural areas, which are where 70 percent of Myanmar’s population resides, betel-chewing is more widespread than conventional cigarettes. Due to being cheaper, cheroots are also more popular than cigarettes in rural areas.”
She added that penetration rates of factory made cigarettes in Myanmar is relatively low. Therefore, in theory at least, there is a large amount of room for growth in Myanmar’s tobacco industry.
Published in the February 2014 edition of Mann Yatanarpon Airlines Inflight Magazine
Few restaurants have mastered the ability to cater to hundreds of people in as intimate a manner as Yangon’s Padonmar Restaurant. On a Sunday evening, with 200 diners present in the outdoor garden alone, restaurant owner Sonny Aung Khin leisurely makes his way from one table to the next, chatting to diners and fine-tuning the arrangements of his staff (many of whom sport headpieces), and even stopping to breathe in the scent of an idle pot of coconut infused rice. He is tall, dressed in an immaculate suit, laughs heartily and speaks in a baritone.
Despite the fact that Sonny spends day and night with tourists in Myanmar – who at this time of the peak tourist season, are largely from Western countries, as well as a busload of Thais – Sonny doesn’t hesitate in admitting that he’s not one to take a vacation himself.
“I’m not a holiday person,” he shrugs. “But I like work-related travel.”
In the cooler months of October to February, when it’s possible to sit outside at any time of day in Padonmar’s lush surrounds, the restaurant can serve 300 people at a time during lunch and 400 in the evening. Yet it doesn’t feel crowded because there’s such an array of tropical vegetation (and even the odd squirrel) that divides the driveway of this 80-year-old mansion into separate dining sections. Some of the vines were planted by Sonny five years ago after his restaurant moved from Inya Road to this larger establishment, and he continues to tend to them even now, he said.
The largest outdoor section is spread across the lawn, which is softly lit up at night with red and purple lamps. Inside, there is the annexed Padonmar Hall, which can seat up to 140 people simultaneously, and its walls are adorned with a mural depicting – you guessed it – nature at its loveliest. There’s also a “hall of fame” – which are framed and autographed photographs of some of Sonny’s most high profile guests.
“US Senator John McCain came alone the first time but returned for another meal with three senators,” he said with a smile. Singer Cliff Richard, US Ambassador Derek Mitchell and a chance meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi on a plane are just a few of at least a dozen other portraits on display.
The restaurant is also popular among businesspeople – who have been coming to Myanmar in ever increasing numbers since the country embarked on a range of democratic reforms in 2011.
“Myanmar has been flooded with tourists since 2011 and we’re now seeing a huge increase in the numbers of businesspeople. I don’t know how successful they are during their visits, but they do need to eat!” he said with a laugh.
Inside the mansion itself are four rooms, which can be hired exclusively for dinner parties of 10 to 28 people.Padonmar also hosts wedding receptions for around 80-100 people in its gardens. Buffet dinners are also an option and traditional musicians provide nightly entertainment. There’s some very eye-catching art on display – both photography and paintings (such as the Naga warrior tribe mid-flight with spears) however Sonny said, “I didn’t want to exhibit so much art that it gives the impression of being a gallery. The art on display for sale, which is done to support local artists,” he said.
Surprisingly, whilst the setting is grand, the prices here at Padonmar are very, very reasonable – particularly considering the quality and care that goes into preparing the food. Mains are around US$4 and cocktails are around $3.50.
Padonmar promotes local wines such as Red Mountain and Aythaya, as well as keeping a well stocked cellar of foreign wines. Unless you’d prefer to opt for a freshly squeezed juice over an alcoholic refreshment, trying the rediscovered Pegu Club cocktail – which dates back to 1920 – is a must for any diner at Padonmar.
The menu itself literally weighs a kilogram (in part due to the red leather binding) and it has more vegetarian options than most vegetarian restaurants – and there’s an even split between Burmese and Thai fare.
“We have separate kitchens for the Thai and Burmese chefs because the cuisines are so different from one another,” he said. Sonny said that Burmese food is closer to Indian than any other he knows of, yet many visitors assume it will share the qualities of its ASEAN neighbours.
Sonny spent 16 years living in Bangkok and grew fond of its healthy cuisine, which he said is extremely popular among his local guests in particular.
“Myanmar people come here to eat Thai because they can have local food any night of the week at home,” he said.
“And often tourists tell me that they’re glad to eat Thai because they’ve spent the last 10 days straight eating Myanmar food!” he said with a chuckle.
Nonetheless, the refreshing difference about eating Burmese food here is that while maintaining the traditional flavours, it’s light on oil and free of MSG and cholesterol.
“We use sunflower oil which contains no cholesterol,” he added by way of explanation.
According to traditional Myanmar values, the more oil that is added to a dish, the more welcome a guest is and the wealthier the host is – however this notion is slowly beginning to change as people become more health conscious. The widespread use of MSG, however, remains a problem, particularly at street stalls in Myanmar. It was introduced relatively recently as (an unnecessary) flavour enhancer and people such as Sonny, who is also Vice-Chairman of the Myanmar Restaurants’ Association, is one of a handful of the prominent members of the local hospitality industry trying to send a message about MSG’s harmful health effects.
The restaurant’s signature dish is the hilsa fish, which is a medium sized fish that can also be found in the Chittagong region of neighbouring Bangladesh. The fish is cooked so slowly that the bones simply melt into the juices.
“We used to cook the fish in a traditional oven for eight hours, but nowadays we use a pressure cooker and it takes a bit less time,” he said casually.
The grilled aubergine salad – “everybody’s favourite” – as he describes it, which was accompanied by very finely sliced tomatoes with just a touch of dressing, was the perfect accompaniment to the pork and mango curry and mutton and potato curry (both of which are traditional Burmese dishes). Often at restaurants that cater to tourists, too much of the usual spice is left out on the assumption that a foreign palate would prefer it that way. Thankfully, this is not the case at Padonmar – while undoubtedly being less spicy than home-cooked meals, there’s still a delicious kick to every dish.
I was encouraged to sprinkle the “cheese of the region” over the dishes, which is dried shrimp flakes, although I fell short in courage of being as generous with the dried chilli flakes, which are also hugely popular in Myanmar.
As an entree I had the clear, traditional Karen fish soup, which Sonny said isn’t something found in many restaurants in Myanmar – unless of course, you’re visiting Karen State.
We finished off with banana fritters, which are cooked in a light batter and served with natural honey.
Somehow Padonmar Restaurant is able to serve up authentic meals that don’t take a couple of hours to serve and devour (in fact, you could be there less than an hour if necessary, the service is that good). This makes it the perfect spot for a tourist or businessperson on the go in Myanmar.
Padmonmar Restaurant is located at No. 105/107 Kha-Yae-Bin Road, Dagon Township, Yangon, Myanmar.