Published in the August 2016 edition of Myanmore
Hnin Yee Htun opened up a bar in downtown Yangon a little over six months ago and has already had her fair share of ups and downs in starting a new business. However she’s well-placed to face the vicissitudes of life with a smile on her face, because the 27-year-old is no stranger to drama.
Hnin was born in Mawlamyine, Mon State, two days before the 1988 Uprising, the series of nationwide demonstrations and civil unrest against Myanmar’s military dictatorship. When she was 48 days old, her father, who was a prominent member of the opposition group, the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front ABSDF, had to flee the country to escape imprisonment. Her mother left Myanmar a year later to search for her husband, leaving Hnin in the care of her maternal grandmother. She wouldn’t see her parents again until she was a teenager.
“Until I was 12, I’d only spoken to my mother about three times on the phone. I saw my parents’ wedding photo. That was it,” she told InDepth.
Her parents lived in Thailand, both in Bangkok and a refugee camp, where Hnin’s younger sister was born.
“It didn’t occur to me that I was in a strange situation. My grandma took care of me as if she were my mother and father. I had a great time as a kid but obviously now when I look back I think, ‘My god.’”
Hnin’s grandmother was extremely protective of her granddaughter and refused to allow her to be reunited with her parents, who were engaged in the dangerous pursuit of achieving democracy in Myanmar from the other side of the border.
When Hnin’s grandmother died, her parents were able to start making arrangements for Hnin, who was then 14, to travel overland to Thailand.
She began the journey with her uncle, who knew part of the route and had local contacts to help them stay safe along the way.
“I had to cut my hair short and dress like a boy because there was a chance that I could have been raped. It was scary.”
Hnin and her uncle spent one night sleeping at a stranger’s house, and another two nights on a floating bamboo raft. She was then transferred into the custody of a detective who had been paid to help her make the final part of the journey. Hnin was excited about being reunited with her family, but also apprehensive as they were virtual strangers.
“I hadn’t seen my parents for 14 years – I didn’t even really know what they looked like,” she said.
Hnin arrived at the refugee camp and heard her father’s name being called.
“My father had long hair but I recognised him from the wedding photos. Mum rushed towards me and a little girl came along with them – that was my sister.”
“There was a spiky security fence between us. My dad simply lent over and picked me up and put me on their side. Mum told me not to feel weird, that we’re family, and she started crying.”
The next six months were spent in a refugee camp which was relatively comfortable. However the government of Thailand shut down the camp because there were too few people and they were relocated to a refugee camp closer to the Burmese border.
“The conditions there were really bad. At least in the first camp we had electricity, our own family room and concrete walls. The shelter in the second camp waas made of bamboo and palm leaves. We got a certain amount of rice, oil and salt and that was it,” Hnin recalled.
Hnin’s aunt was living in the United States and wired money to the family so that they could buy clean water and food. Hnin and her sister did not go to school and she couldn’t speak Thai.
“At the time I was just focused on what I would eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” she said.
Then in 2001, government officials informed Hnin’s father that he had to leave Thailand. The family elected to go to the United States as refugees, but their plans were scuppered when the 9/11 terrorist attack took place and the US temporarily stopped accepting refugees.
Hnin’s family arrived in Melbourne in 2002. Hnin had missed two years of schooling and didn’t speak a word of English, but she was grateful to be living in a fully furnished house provided by the Australian government.
The ever adaptable Hnin said she didn’t experience culture shock in her new home.
“I just remember that it was cold and that my mum made Burmese curry with kangaroo meat!” she said.
The family moved into an area with a large Burmese community and they began attending six months of English language classes.
“I listened to a lot of music and watched the news and movies to help me learn as well. When I started going to school I was the only Burmese student there so I had to just suck it up,” she said.
Hnin’s new school was multicultural: “Half of my girlfriends were Asian. I couldn’t speak English properly but I’d just sit with a group of girls at lunch time and listen to them talking. I think I shut my Burmese side down during that time so that I could absorb everything.”
She was also an active member of the Burmese community in Melbourne, helping her mother run a food catering business for parties, temple donation ceremonies and the like.
Fast forward to 2011, when Hnin made her visit back to her homeland. She couldn’t stay with her relatives because it was illegal for foreign passport holders to stay anywhere but in a hotel. Hnin returned to the home she grew up in Mawlamyine, but found herself too overwhelmed with emotion to even go up the stairs.
Hnin made two more trips back to Myanmar before deciding to return permanently.
“My aunt and uncle had just come back from a holiday in Europe and had fallen in love with the small cafes in laneways in Paris. They said they wanted to invest in a bar – there weren’t many in Yangon back then. I saw it as an opportunity for me to run my own business but said I’d go home and think about it.”
Hnin was nervous about telling her parents that she wanted to move back to Myanmar.
“I thought they wouldn’t support me but it turned out to be the opposite. They told me to go for it.”
Hnin left her job as a retail store manager in Melbourne to return to Yangon in August 2015 and spent the next two months renovating a former mobile phone store on Bo Aung Kyaw Street.
“The father of the nation Bogyoke Aung San used to work in the secretariat opposite – that’s how I came up with the name,” she explained.
Her vision was to create a neighbourhood pub with a “community vibe” – the bar hosts bimonthly trivia nights and the monthly Myanmar Foreign Correspondents’ Club drinks. She prides herself on knowing the preferred drinks of her regular customers, who she knows by name.
“We don’t have a lot on the menu – it’s just one A4 page. It’s about quality not quantity.”
Hnin’s background in customer service shines through in her friendly approach to both patrons and staff, although in the case of the latter, this can be somewhat problematic.
“Burmese people work as either the employee or employer – that’s the only relationship they’re accustomed to. But here we are all equal. That I also clean the toilets is quite shocking to my staff. They can’t accept that everyone is working towards the same goal. Some of my staff quit because they couldn’t accept that system of working – they wanted the hierarchy.”
However Hnin is determined to persist and is currently in the process of hiring fresh crew.
“I’m not going to change my approach – I don’t care if I have to keep hiring people. In Australia, people work side by side. It’s a good system and I don’t see why it can’t work here. But what you typically see at tea shops is one guy sitting in a chair giving orders.”
Hnin said she’s pleasantly surprised by how quickly Yangon’s nightlife scene has evolved.
“When I first came back in 2011 there was only 50th Street Bar, but when I came back in 2015 I could see things were starting to build up. I can’t believe how many bars and restaurants have popped up,” she said.
When Father’s Office first opened, 90 percent of its clientele were expats. The ratio is now 70:30 and Hnin hopes that it will eventually be a 50:50 split.
She’s also noticed that young women are frequenting bars, but that a certain reservation still exists among local patrons.
“The culture of not going out at night if you’re a woman is changing, and I like that. But meeting new people is a different story – people are still too shy. It’s not like in Melbourne where you just start talking to people you haven’t met before.”
Hnin said that regardless of the hurdles and hazards she’s faced in opening a new bar, including complex drinking laws and coming very close to being electrocuted when Father’s Office flooded on the first day of the monsoon season, she “wouldn’t change a thing.”
“It’s like solving a maths puzzle every day. It’s rewarding because I learn a lot by having to deal with so many different situations.”
Hnin plans on continuing to grow her business and said her dream is to eventually bring her mother back to Myanmar and for them to open a Burmese restaurant together. For a family torn apart by the events of 1988, there could surely be no happier ending.