Published in Mizzima Weekly on 22 May 2016
Twenty-eight-year-old Cing Zeel Niang was born in Chin State but left home at an early age to attend boarding school in Pyin Oo Lwin and later studied medicine in Mandalay. Her parents felt that it was in their daughter’s best interests to be educated outside her home state, as standards are lower than in other parts of the country. Chin State lacks a single university – the closest is in neighbouring Sagaing Region – and it is the most underdeveloped nationwide in terms of infrastructure. Cing Zeel Niang, who goes by the nickname ‘Rosy,’ graduated in 2012 and began working at a private hospital, but had long had plans to start a business in a completely different walk of life and one that was closer to her roots – selling Chin textiles online via Facebook.
“I hadn’t seen anyone try do it,” she told Mizzima Weekly.
Rosy explained that selling via Facebook is more practical than setting up a dedicated website, as slow internet speeds would make page loading difficult and frustrate potential customers.
However, Rosy was daunted by her lack of first-hand experience in running a business.
“No one in my family has any business experience and they weren’t at all familiar with online businesses. So I didn’t have any business knowledge passed down to me.”
In 2014, Rosy leapt at the chance to take part in a start-up business course with the social enterprise Project Hub Yangon (PHY). The six-month course was the first to exclusively target female entrepreneurs in Myanmar.
“The incubation programme gave me the skills to refine my business idea. If I didn’t take part in it, I don’t think I would have started my business,” she said.
Like many people in Myanmar, where bank loans are virtually unobtainable without collateral, Rosy lacked funding to back her bright idea. Fortunately, the knowledge she acquired through PHY’s programme helped her to develop creative solutions to counter financial constraints, which is an integral part of start-up business methodology.
While still working at the hospital, Rosy began selling Chin fabrics for a handful of Chin women. She photographed the fabrics and uploaded them to her Facebook page, Rosy’s Chin Fabrics, so that she received orders instead of speculatively purchasing anything.
“I also used my colleagues at the hospital, 99 percent of whom were female, to do market research. They were all interested in Chin fabrics and I got to know the price range they were willing to spend.”
She also quickly discovered that Myanmar women are eager to wear fabrics belongings to a different ethnicity.
“Bamar women have no problem wearing different fabrics. If the price is right, they actually prefer to wear tribal fabrics because it makes them stand out,” she explained.
Once she had a sizeable number of orders, Rosy began travelling to Chin State to source the fabrics.
However Rosy’s parents were dismayed to learn that their daughter planned to launch an online business rather than continuing her work as a medical officer.
“My mother wanted me to have a stable, respected profession. It took me six months to convince her that I wouldn’t give up my medical career entirely and that I could balance it with my online business,” she said.
By day, Rosy runs her online business and at night she works as a medical consultant for a parenting website.
Rosy has been running her business for 18 months now and has her family’s full support. When she gave birth seven months ago, her mother volunteered to travel to Chin State to buy the fabrics.
“My mother works with my second cousin, who belongs to a group of weavers.”
However, although Rosy and her mother know a great deal about the traditions behind Chin weaving, which is considered the most intricate of any ethnicity in Myanmar and requires at least two weeks to complete a single piece, neither know how to weave.
“My mother cannot weave and I also cannot, so it’s unlikely that my daughter will learn either,” said the 28-year-old.
“The number of Chin people who know how to weave is decreasing. Women my age don’t know how to weave – those who do are my grandmother’s age, which makes it almost impossible to pass on the information.”
If the tradition of hand-weaving were to die out altogether, it would be a huge loss to a fascinating tradition. Whilst Chin fabrics have more than an ornamental role, with shawls keeping its bearers warm in one of the coolest areas of tropical Myanmar, many are rich in cultural significance. Shawls are highly specific to each of the dozen sub-groups of the Chin people and are also used to mark significant occasions, such as marriage and death. Special blankets, historically woven by the bride, are presented to a couple to mark their marriage – and cover the corpse upon death.
A red shawl, which incidentally looks very much like Scottish tartan, is given to a male who in earlier times fought and killed an enemy from another village, or killed an animal that threatened the safety of his fellow villagers. The shawl is worn during the celebrations that follow, and other men who previously received the honour also don red shawls.
Women of certain Chin tribes receive a white, green and red shawl when they get married, and wear black and white shawls during periods of mourning. Orange is a popular colour for shawls worn by Chin people (who are also sometimes referred to as Zomi) in India, which borders Chin State. Rosy’s primary market is domestic but she also ships items to the United States, where a sizeable population of Chin people live.
Rosy said that new fabric patterns are created every few months, but added that Chin weaving is becoming increasingly rare due to the lack of livelihood opportunities it offers in modern times.
“My dream and vision is to inspire young women living in villages in Chin State to know that they can still make a living out of weaving,” she said.
While machine-made alternatives exist, Rosy steers well clear of them: every item on offer is produced by a handloom.
“This is a socially responsible business – products made using a machine simply won’t work for me. When everything is done by a machine, there’s no value in it. And machines cannot do the most complex work.”
Rosy is also keen to motivate other women to start their own businesses and follow their passions.
“I have always wanted to inspire other women to start something new and to follow their dreams. Even if there is a lot of pressure and a lack of support, just keep at it and eventually you will succeed – you will get somewhere if you put enough effort in. When I started my business I didn’t get enough sleep: I had to learn online skills and it took a lot of time. But finally it’s paid off,” she said.