Tag Archives: yangon

Father’s Office brings community pub culture to Myanmar

Published in the August 2016 edition of Myanmore

Hnin Yee Htun. Photo credit: Hong Sar
Hnin Yee Htun. Photo credit: Hong Sar

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 Yee Htun in her bar. Photo credit: Hong Sar
Hnin Yee Htun in her bar. Photo credit: Hong Sar

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.

A life less ordinary: Hnin Yee Htun
A life less ordinary – Hnin Yee Htun. Photo credit: Hong Sar

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.

Food fiesta at TinTin

Published in Mizzima on 27 August 2015

TinTin's elotes
TinTin’s elotes

The newly opened TinTin is self styled as a home-made Mexican street food and tequila bar and there’s no doubt that it serves up great Mexican grub in hipster-happy surrounds.

As to be expected from a 57 Below venture – the investment company that brought Yangonites the delights of Union Bar, two Parami Pizza branches and Gekko (the latter of which TinTin is most similar to architecturally) – the décor is top notch. Industrial styled light bulbs suspended from colourful rods give off a warm glow, while the ‘pipeline’ lights keep it cozy upstairs. The view of the glass panelled kitchen below is softened by sheets of metal armoury and the rustic wooden tables and the cheerily coloured seats and cushions achieve a relaxed sense of style. Place mats are made of sheets of brown paper with the odd stamp sporting the restaurant’s name. Perhaps needless to say, the only music lyrics you’ll hear will be in Spanish and the tempo upbeat.

Street food in Mexico is called antojitos (literally “little cravings”) because it is comprised of foods that are typically not eaten during the main meal of the day – corn is one such example. Mexico is widely regarded as having the most extensive variety of street food in Latin America – if not the world. UNESCO respects the cuisine enough to have labelled it an intangible cultural heritage of mankind. Having sampled other Mexican offerings in Yangon – some of which are stranger than others – I’d say that TinTin most definitely takes the cake for authenticity. Full credit to TinTin’s Chef Jorge Bernal, who hails from Mexico City , along with what must surely be his tightly run ship.

I ordered the burrito compadre (US$9), which comprises chorizo chicken, rice, pico de gallo (better known as salsa) and comes with a spoonful of deliciously spicy chipotle mayo. It was filling enough in itself – particularly for lunch, though I didn’t see any reason to stop there. The elotes (a.k.a. corn on the cob) was served with sour cream, two chunks of lime and sprinkled with cilantro (a.k.a. coriander). The mess it leaves on fingers and between the teeth doesn’t make it an ideal date dish – though it’s nothing a quick trip to the bathroom can’t fix. I was seated upstairs and headed to what I thought was the toilet. I saw a ‘staff only’ sign and a set of stairs leading to what looked like a back room, so I backed off and headed down the other set of stairs leading to the entrance. I felt a bit silly when I was then told by one of the smartly dressed staff that the first stairs I’d seen do in fact lead to the toilet (this is a rather long way of saying that a toilet sign would be useful). The stairs to the toilets are steep and the lighting dim – I wouldn’t recommend taking them on after a few tequilas.

TinTin's downstairs dining area
TinTin’s downstairs dining area

And speaking of tequilas – there’s no shortage of ‘em at TinTin. There’s even a coffee flavoured variety for $8, while the costliest (and no doubt loveliest) is the seven-year-old Fuentesca at a whopping $19 a shot. There’s also a host of mezcals on offer, which a Google search defined as a spirit made from the heart of the cactus-like agave plant (and is not be confused with the psychoactive, mescaline producing peyote). Cocktails range from $5 to $8 and include an intriguing ‘beer on the rocks’ with a michelada mix, lime juice, chili and salt.

The use of Spanish throughout TinTin’s menu is a little intimidating if you don’t speak an iota of the language. Substituting a bit more English would better whet a less cultured appetite such as my own, as my ignorance meant I had to automatically exclude ordering several items.

Top marks for presentation - the burrito compadre
Top marks for presentation – the burrito compadre

Friends had warned me that TinTin is pricey. Even the guacamole costs US$5 – and on top of everything ordered is a 10 percent service charge and a 5 percent government charge. Lord knows how expensive it is to run a restaurant in Yangon, but being charged US$7 for a bottle of water and US$4 for a cob of corn that costs K250 (for two!) at the supermarket – even with the delicious condiments on top – didn’t feel like the best value in town. And that says something, as this town isn’t known for being good value.

A word of warning: TinTin is small and popular. Do not, as I did, turn up on a Saturday night without a booking, as you’ll likely be turned away or asked to return for the second sitting at 8pm. I’m certainly glad I didn’t give up after my first attempt to have a bite of Mexican in Yangon a la TinTin style.

Tin Tin Bogalazay is located on 116-188 Bogalazay Street (middle block) in Bohtataung Township, Yangon

Phone: (01) 245 904

Visit Tin Tin’s Facebook page for more information

Myanmar’s book trade on the up but challenges persist: publisher

Published in Mizzima Weekly on 18 May 2015

Dr Thant Thaw Kaung, CEO of Myanmar Book Center Ltd
Dr Thant Thaw Kaung, CEO of Myanmar Book Center Ltd

Dr Thant Thaw Kaung is the CEO of Myanmar Book Centre Co., Ltd and has more than two decades of experience in Myanmar’s book trade. He talks to Mizzima Weekly’s Jessica Mudditt about the problems facing the industry and why he remains optimistic about its future.

Until strict censorship laws were abolished in 2012, every title imported to Myanmar required the approval of the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division. Many were banned, such as the biographies of Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama – and of course, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Are book sales benefitting from a new era of liberalisation?

Certainly – sales are on the up. When my wife and I started our business in 1995, censorship was extremely strict, so we were so happy when the situation changed and we no longer had to obtain permission to import every single title.

Nowadays, political works which wouldn’t have seen the light of day are best sellers. There’s been an emergence of new writers, particularly in the Myanmar language, and many are the memoirs of former political prisoners. Ma Thangei and Ma Thida come to mind – and they’re very talented writers. Just last night I read an excellent book in Myanmar by Kyaw Zwa Moe, the editor of The Irrawaddy, which is titled You Need to Apologise to the People. He recounts a wide range of fascinating interviews he carried out – including an unnamed person who attempted to assassinate the former head of Military Intelligence, Khin Nyunt, as well as monks who were imprisoned for many, many years. I hope it will be translated so that English readers can also enjoy it.

Do you feel that writers practice self-censorship in any way?

No, I don’t. In fact what I would say is that things are completely different now than they were before 2010, but of course, not everyone is completely satisfied with the speed of progress. I think that some people may be expecting too much too soon, and that change needs to be gradual –Myanmar will eventually become fully democratic. Some feel that after living under oppression for so many years, now is the time to speak up – whenever they like, and sometimes in an extreme way. It’s usually in the form of personal attacks or hate speech – the former of which I read in the media and the latter, on Facebook. I think it’s a very big problem, but it’s not one I’ve found in books.

What types of books dominate Myanmar’s book trade?

If you think of it as a pie chart, books on English Language Teaching (ELT) take the biggest chunk. Myanmar Book Centre is the official representatives of the ‘Big Four’ – Oxford University Press, MacMillan, Pearson and Sage, the titles of which we print locally. Second to that are education titles for basic and higher education – it’s quite big business here. The reason why is because there is a huge appetite to learn English – just look at the British Council, which is always full. Our society’s aptitude for English is generational – those who are over 70 speak excellent English as many attended convent or missionary schools, while those born following 1960 lived in Ne Win’s era and cannot speak English well because the language was deliberately suppressed and everything was Burmanised. The young generation – and their parents – understand the value of learning English. But the problem is that there is a lack of skilled teachers in public schools, as they come from the previous generation. It’s a big problem, but the benefits of the government’s new policy towards the teaching of English will be seen in four or five years.

Another genre that’s doing very well are English language books that relate to Myanmar – whether it be guide books, historical fiction or biographies, as well as the political works as I mentioned. This is largely driven by the recent influx of tourists.

Pondering a vast second-hand collection
Pondering a vast second-hand collection

Is there are a shortage of quality translators as a result of past education policies?

Yes, there is most definitely a shortage of translators, which means that many talented Myanmar writers are unknown in the West, while many contemporary classics are inaccessible to Myanmar readers. There are so few reputable translators that they are overloaded and we sometimes have to wait a few months before they can take on a project.

There are also some inherent difficulties in translating Myanmar to English – the languages are totally different. Translating from Myanmar to English is more difficult, because the translator must be very good at English and be highly familiar with the subject matter. Many translators write well in English, but often their style is more like news reporting than literary.

Since setting up a publishing wing five years ago, Myanmar Book Centre has published ten books translated into Myanmar, including Dr Thant Myint U’s River of Lost Footsteps and Where China Meets India. We’re selective about the books we choose – only titles which will work here in Myanmar in that they speak to a local audience.

Is piracy a problem?

It’s a huge problem – particularly for us, as our main line of business is in imports and distribution. In Myanmar, only books published which are published locally are protected by the Copyright Law of 1914. These pirate guys are clever – they don’t bother pirating local language books because they know it’s against the law – plus the prices of such books are so cheap that it wouldn’t be profitable. I heard recently of a local publisher who published a map that was pirated by a foreign company. The local publisher tried to sue the company but he couldn’t – they simply ignored him because they know there’s no legal remedy.

Piracy is divided into two sectors – the first is books on Myanmar aimed at the tourist market, and the other is English Language Teaching (ELT) and education books. As I mentioned, education is a big industry, so our business really suffers.

We’re literally losing money every day. There’s a guy who owns his own shop and comes to Myanmar Book Centre on a daily basis to buy single copies of our best-selling education books. Then, about two weeks later, we see those titles being sold for 20 percent less than ours. There are a number of people doing this – I know them well but we can’t take action against them because there’s no law against it. It’s terrible.

Could you not refuse to sell books to this person?

There’s no point – it would be too easy for him to just send someone else and I can’t refuse a customer.

With so much undermining the profitability of your business, how does Myanmar Book Centre manage to retain its viability?

We’ve developed close relationships with many private and international schools, such as Yangon International School and Myanmar International School. These institutions strongly support original books, so we import books on their behalf. We also work hard to provide excellent customer service at the retail level, such as by providing catalogues and free samples.

I’d also say that the mentality towards piracy is changing – of course there are still those who just want cheap books – but many now want quality. Fortunately there is a growing middle class who feel this way. We also work hard to offer the most reasonable prices we can. In this regard we’re very lucky, because as we’ve been in the book trade for many years, we’re fully supported by international publishers and they provide us with good discounts. We also source a lot of books from India as the prices there are very reasonable prices – we work with over 50 different publishers in India.

Browsing on 38th Street can be sweaty work!
Browsing on 38th Street can be sweaty work…

Are you confident that if the Intellectual Property Law is passed, it will put an end to piracy in Myanmar’s book trade?

I’m very confident in the draft law because it really supports investors and importers. It will be drive our local publishing industry to new heights and it’s expected to come into effect in 2016. I have given input into the draft during regular meetings with a committee which is led by the Ministry of Science and Technology, which is involved in design and trademark aspects. The Ministry of Information is handling the copyright side.

Do you think there will be any practical challenges in terms of the law actually being enforced?

Well, it will of course be the responsibility of the government to enforce it. But luckily for our industry, the pirating of books is done by small-scale players who own shops downtown. This is unlike the pirating of music, which is done on a mass scale and is linked to members of the military.

But when the law is passed, we will have to take action, whether we like it or not, because we are the official representative of various publishers and they will pressure us to do so. Many of the people involved in piracy are my friends – I’ve already spoken to Bagan Book House to ask them to reduce the number of pirated books. I offered to supply them with our imported books to avoid prosecution. However they didn’t really listen to me, because the law isn’t yet in force.

Are local writers and publishers familiar with contractual rights?

In general, knowledge is very low on both sides. My authors, such as Dr Thant Myint-U don’t need anything explained to them – in fact he himself secured personal copyright for each of his books, which was a very clever move.

But in the majority of cases, authors simply trust their publishers and don’t even discuss who will own the copyright – so the publisher takes everything. Nor are digital rights discussed, though they should be, because eventually e-versions will appear and the rights to them should belong to the author.

Is Myanmar ready for an e-book market?

It’s not the right time to introduce e-version of books. This is because they are already available online, free of charge. As soon as a book becomes popular or famous it is scanned and appears on one of a variety of sites in the Myanmar language. No one can take action against this, so as a business model it wouldn’t be viable. The people who are uploading scanned books aren’t doing it to make money and they don’t see any problem with ‘sharing’ free content – so a lot of education is needed to change such attitudes. The maximum number of copies of any single title published is just 1,000 because there is no demand, no market for more when a book can be downloaded for free. As a result, the writers are dying and the publishers are bleeding a lot. We cannot survive if it continues.