Author: Jessica Mudditt

A little bit of Burma in Blacktown

Published in the February 2017 edition of The Point Magazine.

Sunny Myint Aung and his wife Lyn at Sun's Burmese Kitchen
Sunny Myint Aung and his wife Lyn at Sun’s Burmese Kitchen

Sun’s Burmese Kitchen is a homely, understated affair that sits within a line of shops in Blacktown, western Sydney. Its red and yellow walls are dotted with huge photographs of Yangon’s glittering Shwedagon Pagoda, the ancient temples of Bagan and, like any proper Burmese establishment, a portrait of its iconic democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

The restaurant owner Sunny Myint Aungis a quiet man of few words, but the pride he takes in serving up authentic Burmese cuisine five thousand miles away from Myanmar is evident.

“In Burma, there is a very famous dish called dan bauk [the Burmese version of biryani]. I met a Burmese chef in Bangkok who gave me his dan bauk recipe and taught me how to make it. So our dan bauk here is really special.”

Sunny is able to source all the ingredients he needs from a warehouse that supplies products of Myanmar origin, such as lapet thoke, a delicious tea leaf salad that’s used to relieve fatigue.

Sunny was already well-known in western Sydney’s Burmese community before he opened his restaurant in 2012. He was a regular fixture at community events, and cooked for large crowds at the local church.

“The Burmese community comes to the restaurant for meals and sometimes they bring their new friends, so that they can try Burmese food. And they like it, so they come again.”

Sunny opened his first restaurant in 1998, but was ultimately forced to close the business due to being unable to make a decent profit margin in the face of high overheads.

“Rents are so high – there’s a lot of hardships for small businesses,” he said.

He spent a decade working at a bakery before trying his hand at the restaurant business once again. He has set up a team comprising his Filipina wife Lyn, and their 23-year-old son.

Sunny at Sun's Burmese Kitchen
Sunny at Sun’s Burmese Kitchen

“This is a family business – my, wife, son and I are hard-working and we started slowly, slowly,” he explained.

Sunny’s story of leaving Myanmar is unusual for its lack of drama. He left at the age of 30 to work as a sea merchant, rather than fleeing political unrest or persecution as many of his compatriots did during the eighties and following decades. He spent a decade sailing around the world and lived in Hong Kong, Singapore and Papua New Guinea before settling in Australia with his parents and his wife.

Sunny’s preoccupations are the same as any small business owner in Australia: keeping his business healthy. When asked if he follows events in Myanmar, including the historic general elections of 2015 he said, “I’m really out of touch. I’ve only been back twice and I have no family left in my home town of Mawlamyine. My son’s been once and he doesn’t want to go again.”

When I told Sunny that I lived in Myanmar for four-and-a-half years, he didn’t seem particularly curious to hear about it. In that respect, he also struck me as unusual, as most Burmese will fire a volley of questions, wanting to know the parts of the country outside Yangon I’d visited, whether I could speak Burmese and what I made of the country’s politics. It wasn’t until at least 30 minutes into our meeting, when I was busy taking photos of the restaurant, that he turned to me and said, “How is Myanmar these days?”

“Not much different,” I replied.

He paused for a second and said, “It is different. It’s better than before.”

Sunny was right. Myanmar has undoubtedly entered a new era, one where students and monks are no longer shot dead in the streets and people can speak freely about their leader, Aung San Suu Kyi – rather than speaking in whispers due to fear of arrest by military intelligence. I arrived in Myanmar in 2012, two years after Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest, where she’d spent a total of 16 years. Its government in 2012 was quasi-civilian, but many people still lived in fear. When I joined The Myanmar Times, its co-founder Sonny Swe was still serving what would be an eight-year sentence for breaching harsh censorship laws. These same laws were abolished later that year and Sonny was released, along with hundreds of other political prisoners, in a government amnesty in April 2013. I went with a large group of newspaper staff to meet him at Yangon Airport, where he’d been flown from a remote prison in Shan State. It was a joyous, tearful reunion.

Other noticeable changes included making SIM cards affordable, giving people access to mobile phones and the internet for the first time. In 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, took part in by-elections (and won their seats by a landslide). However the real test for Myanmar came in November 2015, when general elections were scheduled to take place. If held successfully, they would end half a century of military rule.

At the time I was working as senior consultant editor for the state-run newspaper, The Global New Light of Myanmar. The opportunity arose when a two-year partnership between it and Japan’s Kyodo News came to an end and they were seeking to keep a couple of foreign editors on the news desk. After a 20-minute explanation of the newspaper’s desire to become more “people focused” and being quizzed about my background for less than 10 minutes, I was asked if I could start work that same evening.

The former offices of the Global New Light of Myanmar in Yangon
The former offices of the Global New Light of Myanmar in Yangon

The newspaper had recently become a joint venture between the Ministry of Information and a little-known investor and was trying hard to improve its image. During the decades of junta rule it was a truly nasty rag. Aung San Suu Kyi was never mentioned by name, but crude sexual cartoons of her appeared regularly – she was depicted as being a whorish puppet of the West. The newspaper had drastically toned down its propaganda while maintaining something of a stranglehold on breaking news, because it received military and government announcements first via the state-run Myanmar News Agency. In the lead up to the election, Aung San Suu Kyi had said she would privatize Myanmar’s state-owned media – a promise she failed to keep.

I got a lot of flak from my fellow journalists when I started working for a newspaper that was nicknamed ‘The Dim Light of Myanmar’ and ‘The New Lies of Myanmar’. Some were a little more encouraging – as the editor of Democratic Voice of Burma wryly remarked on my Facebook wall, “Maybe they’ll publish today’s weather instead of yesterday’s.”

One of my colleagues was a highly intelligent, politically-minded, father-of-one, who’d worked there for more than a decade. When I asked him how he felt about having to translate the really nasty editorials and propaganda, he said, “I also teach English and I know that most teachers used the New Light as supplementary materials. There were other books and things in the market but they were expensive. I’d say to them, ‘Don’t listen to the content – just take the language.”

In the lead up to the election, the whisperings of my colleagues started to worry me. Some were adamant that a coup was looming while others had theories about the government trying to provoke the public to take to the streets so as to be able to indefinitely postpone the elections. They were justifiably untrusting; the most recent multiparty elections were held back in 1990, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s landslide victory had been overturned by the military.

When I entered the newsroom that historic Sunday after the vote had taken place, colleagues proudly showed me their ink-stained pinkies and told me they’d lined up to cast their votes as early as 4am – just to ensure that they wouldn’t miss the chance to vote if lines were long. For many it was the first time in their lives they’d ever voted.

We rushed over to the newsroom’s TV to watch vote cards being counted, with cheers emerging onscreen and off when a vote went to the new government. It was clear that a landslide was taking place. We cracked open a bottle of Mandalay Rum and toasted the NLD’s emblem. “To the peacock!” we cheered. It seemed as though Myanmar had finally begun a brighter chapter as I penned the next day’s headline, ‘Dawn of a new era.’

In March, it will be a year since the NLD took office. However, progress in making reforms has been slow. Aung San Suu Kyi, who is constitutionally barred from being president but is the nation’s de facto leader, has kept the media at arm’s length and according to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2017, the human rights situation in Myanmar hasn’t seen significant improvement, and in some ways is even worse.

With a colleague at the Global New Light of Myanmar
With a colleague at the Global New Light of Myanmar

The NLD released 200 political prisoners when it first entered office, however issues of concern to HRW include the lack of protection of free speech and the worsening situation for Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State. There has also been heightened conflict between the Burma Army and several ethnic armed groups, despite the signing of a nationwide ceasefire agreement in October 2015.

 The printing press at The Global New Light of Myanmar

The printing press at The Global New Light of Myanmar

However while the government’s performance has been weaker than expected, Sunny was right in appreciating the changes that have taken place, and that people, including myself, may be too quick to forget how far Myanmar has come. It’s also difficult not to be optimistic about the future when one thinks about the people of Myanmar. Before leaving Sun’s Burmese Kitchen, I ordered dan bauk for my husband and my absolute favourite Burmese dish, Shan tomato salad, as take-away for that evening’s dinner. When Sunny smilingly gave me the food parcels and insisted they were a gift, I was again reminded how kind, warm and generous the Burmese are. Virtually every day that I lived in Myanmar, I was touched by an act of kindness, whether by a taxi driver or someone I knew. It came as no surprise to me when the 2016 Giving Index again ranked Myanmar the world’s most generous country (with Australia coming in at third). It’s hard not to feel optimistic about a nation of people so inclined to kindness, despite the many obstacles that remain.

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The Kitchen opens in Parramatta

The Kitchen's team (that's Rex in the middle, who is in charge of front-of-house).
The Kitchen’s team (that’s Rex in the middle, who is in charge of front-of-house).

I went to the opening of a new restaurant in Parramatta last week called The Kitchen, which is run by a Filipino-Indian duo called Rex Manaay and Sree Mohanan. The pair have worked together for many years and actually made two attempts to buy the premises, which was formerly Sangria. Needless to say it was a happy night, with cold beer and crisp wine flowing and creative canapes served up by smiling young staff, like this super cool toffee tomato:

It was my first launch party in Sydney and I was impressed by how organised it was. Admittedly I used to live in Myanmar and it’s kind of hard to get things to go as planned there, for reasons too complicated for me to go into in this little blog post. Anyway, I arrived a few minutes past five after scrambling there from my office on Church Street and things had already started. A priest was in the middle of reciting a few verses and then he walked around with what appeared to be a pump spray of holy water. We were given name badges to wear, everyone had a glass in hand and something to eat and the gentlemen at Mode Media who did the organising introduced themselves to me while the staff had some group staff shots taken by a photographer. It was all very smooth.

I’d actually also had lunch there that same day with the ‘Parramatta Foodie’ (she has ten thousand followers on Instagram!!). I won’t disclose Sarah’s surname as that’s kind of under wraps (I was eager for a selfie but she declined – modest or what!), but I can tell you that she’s charming (how many people are friendly enough to agree to have lunch with someone who stalked them on Insta?!) and I can show you what she ate:

The Kitchen Salad with added grilled chicken
The Kitchen Salad with added grilled chicken

I had a halloumi wrap, which was tasty and came with a decent serve of chips that I worked hard not to finish. The lunch menu has healthy options like quinoa salad and grilled salmon as well as what I call ‘man-food’ – burgers, wedges and so on. You can check out the menu here. Sree, who is head of the (actual) kitchen described the fare as “modern Australian.”

“It has a bit of everything. Which is modern Australian, really.”

The Kitchen's kitchen.
The Kitchen’s kitchen.

It has a hint of an industrial feel but keeps things cheerful with lots of light and an open plan, plus potted plants on the wall and whimsical font that says stuff like “I’m sorry for what I said when I was hungry.”

The Kitchen is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and Rex said that they are “smashing it” at breakfast and lunch, which is pretty impressive considering it had only opened its doors a week earlier. Rex did say that business slows down at dinner – he thinks because people assume it’s a café from its appearance and therefore not open late, but hopefully guests at the Park Royal opposite will make like a kangaroo and hop across the road (ha ha). Parramatta is known as Sydney’s “second CBD” and it has a huge office population and a great dining scene. But I daresay things are quieter in the evening when the offices empty out (I myself had only stuck around till dusk this one time). Time will tell. Sree and Rex must be optimistic though, because they’re already on the lookout for second and third venues to open more ‘Kitchens.’

The Kitchen has upstairs and downstairs dining and you'll be able to sit outside and eat when the council grants the permit...
The Kitchen has upstairs and downstairs dining and you’ll be able to sit outside and eat when the council grants the permit…

Rex used to work at a posh golf course in Manila and one day while he was working, someone came up to him out of the blue and asked if he wanted to be sponsored to come and work in Australia. Rex said no because he loved his life in The Philippines, but then gave it some thought and decided that his daughters would get a better education here. They started off on the Gold Coast but moved to Sydney so that his eldest daughter, who is contemplating being an engineer, has the chance to study at one of Sydney’s top-notch universities.

“I can’t believe I own a restaurant in one of the world’s greatest cities,” he said with a big grin as his family ate happily at a booth behind him.

It seems you never know your luck in a big city, and I wish The Kitchen the very best of luck.

The Kitchen is on 14/55 Phillip Street, Parramatta, 2150

Ph: 8628 7686

Reap what you sew

Published in Red Bull Amaphiko on 24 October 2016

hla-day

In a country such as Myanmar where two-thirds of the population live below the poverty line, income-generating activities are much needed but in desperately short supply. The social enterprise Hla Day, which is a play on the Burmese phrase for ‘beautiful,’ is helping hundreds of people gain a livelihood by producing crafts.

According to an impact study carried out by Hla Day in 2015, 70 percent of its 450-odd producers are women, and 76 percent are the family’s breadwinners. The majority are from marginalised groups, such as people living with HIV, which limits their ability to find work due to the stigma they face in society.

Hla Day works with 40 producer groups and the level of support it provides varies according to specific needs. Some producers undergo product design training while others “already have a great product and the support given is to connect them to the marketplace and enable them to earn a fair wage,” said Hla Day’s Designer and Communications Trainer, Randi Wagner.

Action For Public (AFP) has been one of Hla Day’s producer groups since 2012 and its aim is to support vulnerable communities in cyclone-affected areas and people living with HIV/AIDS.

AFP’s founder Daw Kyi Pyar said that Hla Day has helped its members to “become financially stable and develop a new sense of self-esteem through their sewing skills. They have become the breadwinners in their families and can support their children’s education expenses.”

Hla Day also provides a rare opportunity to earn a living through creative pursuits. Artistic expression was curtailed for decades under the Myanmar’s brutal military regime, and the country has only two universities that teach art, with both placing a heavy emphasis on traditional practices.

“Due to heavy censorship of artistic works in public exhibitions, a practice which ended only in 2013, Myanmar artists have had limited opportunities to display their many talents. It’s important for local and international organisations to create outlets for contemporary artists and artisans,” said the Yangon-based art historian and curator Nathalie Johnston, executive director of Myanm/art and the Myanmar Art Resource Center and Archive (MARCA).

“The training Hla Day provides doesn’t always come easily – students in classrooms are dictated to and free thinking and critical thought isn’t encouraged,” said Randi.

However she was quick to add that Myanmar has a large talent pool to dip into.

“Finding people who can make amazing and beautiful things and need an income can definitely be done – there’s no shortage of producers in Myanmar.”

Hla Day’s store in an airy colonial building in downtown Yangon features a beautifully arranged and eclectic mix of crafts that includes everything from jewelry, kids’ clothing, cushion covers and paper mâché dogs with elongated tails used as toilet roll holders.

Some of its craft items have taken on an iconic status in the years since the original store first opened in 2012.

“It’s like a rite of passage when an expat moves to Yangon and gets a dog toilet roll holder,” said Randi with a laugh.

Producers from Hla Day are paid per item and are also paid for the time they spend training or when helping to develop a new prototype.

“It’s important to us to pay for training because we don’t want it to be like a factory where people are just pumping stuff out,” said Randi.

Sales have risen dramatically since Hla Day was reformed and moved premises in April, and they’ve even started getting inquiries from international buyers.

“We’d like to sell online, but at the moment the infrastructure doesn’t exist. The postal service is unreliable and it’s very expensive to ship small quantities. But we’re ready to go when things change.”

Randi said that expansion plans will be carefully considered.

“We’re making craft – we’re not mass producing. If we grow, we want it to be sustainable – it will require a lot of thought.”