I first noticed them in a number of restaurants around Yangon: rusted old tin signs in still-vibrant colors advertising a wealth of different products from whiskey to baby formula. They were evocative of a time and place that I knew very little about.
Some were familiar – advertisements for European imported items the likes of which I had seen in the modern-day shopping malls of Yangon: Staedtler pencils, Nestle coffee, Horlick’s malted milk, while others were for brands that had long since ceased to exist (Ebensen’s Danish butter, Bile Beans, and Sanatogen “brain tonic”). In addition, there were a number of local and Asian brands I recognized from the supermarket, such as the ubiquitous Tiger Balm, and others I didn’t (Tea Pot Brandy, anyone?). Many of the signs appeared in two or three languages (in the case of Tiger Balm, in four: Burmese, Mandarin, English, and Malay), and as such they spoke to a multilingual audience.
I was intrigued, and as I came to study Myanmar’s colonial history, what were initially pieces of quaint décor took on a new and significant meaning for me as some of the only remaining evidence of Burma’s distinctive cosmopolitan past.
At the turn of the nineteenth-century, so the story goes, British Burma was exporting natural resources like rubber, teak and petroleum to the West and importing European manufactured goods. But what few people know is that gradually as the century progressed domestic Burmese manufacturing took on a more important role. Though always smaller than the import trade, Burma did produce new products for the regional market. For instance, Tiger Balm was first created in Burma in 1870, when an apothecary passed on his secret recipe to a pair of Chinese brothers Haw and Par, who began to market the analgesic all along the Straits of Malacca and even further afield to Europe and China. They amassed a great fortune and became philanthropists, building (among other charitable ventures) a memorial hall (still standing) at the Yangon Centre for the Blind, complete with the brand’s logo, a leaping tiger, over the entrance.
A quick internet search turned up a number of other local manufacturers making products for the Burmese market. They were the remnants of a Burmese industrial era gone-by: the Dawood Match Co., Imperial Waters, Burma Enameled Iron Wares Ltd., Bo Ohn Thee Toy Company and the Burma Biscuit Factory to name a few. Moreover, many of them proudly claimed to be “Made in Burma” a slogan that was distinctly hard to come by in the modern-day supermarkets of Yangon. Later on, a glance through the book Twentieth-century Impressions of Burma, published in 1910, revealed several other local companies manufacturing at the time: for instance, in Rangoon alone the Phoenix Coach Works made “dog carts, buggies, gharries and victorias”, Misquith and Co. made pianos and the Diamond Co. made ice and aerated water.
The largest market, however, was still for imported goods and it was in this area that advertising began to play a major role in dictating the Burmese encounter with modernity and the West. In order to create a demand for foreign products, foreign import firms began to try to appeal to the Burmese consumer (at the time, foreign companies rarely had advertising staff, and so they left the marketing of their products up to the local distributors, often Burmese).
In her book Refiguring Women, Colonialism and Modernity in Burma, Chie Ikeya suggests that these firms marketed their products to Burmese consumers using a new rhetoric of “modernity” and “science”. Foreign luxuries could, seemingly instantaneously, transform the Burmese customer into a paragon of good taste and health. To give one example, this advertisement for “Waterbury’s Compound” brand of cough syrup depicts a Burmese family in a spotless home. Mother and father wear the latest fashions, while one child plays with a toy car. The illustrator has even included a radio at the center of the room. The by-line reads: “may every family have a clear conscience when it comes to health”. The message is not only one of domesticity and better living through science, but the ad (with the radio and toy car) also hints at the promise of a new Burmese modernity in which the consumer need only buy the product to participate.
At the same time, the “foreign” was becoming increasingly popular in Burmese advertisements. Foreign English and Scottish products held a certain cache, as suggested by an “Imperial” mineral water sign that boasted its product came from a “trademarked Scottish Company”. In another ad, Burmese consumers were told that in order to keep up with the rest of the world they had to buy Model T cars. In fact, the ad stated, model T’s were already popular in Myanmar, so those without one were behind their neighbors. The desire of some Burmese people to keep up with other countries must have been great and Ikeya tells us that advertisements like these “insinuated…that those not using the advertisers’ products were falling behind the times,” the so-called “modern age” or the khit kala.
But clearly not all Burmese buyers were convinced and advertisers were pushed to market foreign goods in more and more far-fetched ways. Take for example this almost comedic ad for “Peek Frean’s Famous English Rich Fruit Cake” that suggests it is perfect “for offerings to phongyis (monks) and receptions during water festival and new year.” This strange adaptation of a foreign product for the Burmese market was not unusual, but whether or not Burmese consumers would go in for it was an entirely different question (as many modern Western brands new to Asia have discovered, what works in one place may not work in another). At the end of the day, the Burmese consumer also decided on what he or she wanted to buy, thereby dictating Burmese tastes and, ultimately, the path of Burma’s entrance into modernity.
Any visitor to a pagoda or Buddhist shrine in Myanmar today is likely to encounter a sign at the entrance simply stating “Footwearing Prohibited.” Despite what it seems, this is not an injunction to amputate your own limbs, but a warning to remove your shoes before entering the pagoda or monastery compound. It is common in many Asian countries to remove your shoes before entering a building, but in Myanmar this rule extends to the outdoor areas of Buddhist sites as a sign of respect to the Buddha and the legacy of his teachings, the sasana. These signs are near ubiquitous at pagodas throughout the country, and, if you forget to remove your shoes and socks, a friendly caretaker or Pagoda trustee will usually quickly remind you to do so.
The rule is in fact codified in Burmese law under Section 13(1) of the Immigration Act, in which foreigners can be prosecuted for not adhering to Myanmar customs during their stay in-country. The punishments can be quite severe, as in the case of a Russian tourist who, in August of last year, refused to remove her shoes at several religious sites in the ancient capital city of Bagan, despite numerous requests from the authorities to do so. She was arrested and given the choice of a $500 fine or a month in prison. She chose prison and her sentence has since been extended to six months with hard labor for “defaming the sasana.”
But why is Myanmar so strict about footwear in pagoda compounds, especially when its neighbors Thailand and Laos only require visitors to remove their shoes inside of the shrine itself? Many natural tourist destinations in Myanmar such as caves and mountaintops are in fact holy sites and therefore require the visitor to go barefoot. In my travels I have often found myself squelching through mud and betel spit, walking up a mountain on hot gravel, or slip-sliding down a poorly-lit cave all in my bare feet. Why does the rule extend to places like these? And why such high punishments for breaking it?
The answer, of course, lies in the country’s colonial past, and, specifically, in two separate but equally important events: the growth of Buddhism as a religion and the struggle for national independence. When the British arrived in Burma in the late eighteenth-century they were keen to display their country’s power and to entice the Burmese to trade. First, however, they would have to master the Byzantine codes of conduct and elaborate rules of respect of the Burmese court of Ava.
For instance, no envoy was allowed into the Burmese King’s presence without first removing their shoes and then prostrating themselves before the monarch in a deep bow called a shiko. The established narrative has it that the British were terrible at doing this; being uninterested in the local customs, they ignorantly stepped shoe-shod all over Burmese tradition and law.
But this narrative is only partly true. Yes the British were callous, but the reason for their disrespect was not ignorance. As the journals of Henry Burney, an early British envoy to the Court of Ava show, British disregard for local custom was often a strategic power-play to wear down the sovereignty of an Eastern monarch. Traditionally, envoys to the King had been made to remove their shoes “in the dirt or hard gravel of public streets, a hundred paces before you come to the spot where the king may be sitting.” But following the British territorial gains in the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826), Burney had gotten the rule reduced to “the foot of the hall of audience steps” and hoped that with a bit more cajoling “the remaining space between the steps and the hall itself might [be] dispensed with.”
Eventually, the British would take the whole of Mandalay palace for themselves, but this process of wearing down the rules of respect allowed them to apply gradual pressure on Eastern rulers like the Burmese king while at the same time appearing to be the guiltless party. The neighboring Thai king Mongkut (of The King and I fame) was able to circumvent the problem altogether by allowing Europeans to wear shoes in his presence, thereby taking the diplomatic upper-hand and at the same time retaining his sovereignty. But in Burma, the question of wearing shoes would become a stand-in for debates about trade, power, and the deeply-fraught encounter with the West. Later on, the controversy would give the British colonial government in Lower Burma the opportunity to begin separating Buddhist religion from the state and society, thereby further weakening the old regime.
This approach was perhaps so effective in Myanmar because of the deep, enduring ties between religion and the state. In Theravada Buddhist cosmology, the King is the heaven-ordained defender of the sasana and all his subjects are required to prostrate themselves before him as they do before images of the Buddha. In return, he supports the monks and the people as an act of merit-making. In this universal model, there is no society separate from religion or the state: all three are fused.
In Burma, the British quickly identified this blending of state/society/religion as a powerful tool of Burmese resistance and so they attempted to undermine it as best they could. As Alicia Turner has shown in her book Saving Buddhism, when Burma fell to the British in 1885 and King Thibaw went into exile, the colonial government removed direct state support for the monks and pagodas according to a policy of separation of church and state that they imported from India.
But by treating Buddhism in Burma as just another religion alongside Islam and Christianity, they inadvertently sparked a crisis within Burmese Buddhism itself. Without the King, who would feed the monks and who would look after the Buddha’s sasana? Who would pay for the scriptures to be painstakingly copied? Turner says that the crisis that followed saw ordinary Burmese citizens leading the charge alongside the monks to revive the Buddha’s teachings and reclaim control over their moral universe. The mounting anxiety about the decline of the sasana (as referenced in my earlier posts) led to an outpouring of donations, a range of ritual and scriptural reforms, and the growth of Buddhist lay associations and schools all across the country – a Buddhist renaissance of sorts.
Despite this newfound agency, it was the British, not the Burmese, who would set the terms for what constituted proper conduct and respect, and they deemed that each of Burma’s ethnic groups would show respect in the way that was “traditional” to their culture. What was “traditional,” of course, would again be determined by the British. Therefore, Europeans would remove their hats, but not their shoes before entering a building or pagoda compound; Burmese their shoes, but not their hats. Early photographs of Europeans “on tour” at various holy sites in Myanmar show them wearing shoes – a highly disrespectful act in the eyes of Buddhists – as well as hats, highlighting the degree to which the rules were really just a double-standard in favor of Europeans.
The first challenge to this state of affairs actually came from within the Buddhist clergy, or sangha, itself. Turner highlights the case of the Okpo Sayadaw, a highly venerated Buddhist monk, attempting to make a point about the importance of the inner moral life over outer ritual when he mounted the stairs at the Sandawshin Pagoda in Pyay in 1892 wearing sandals.
This act would spark a series of debates among Burmese Buddhists about whether or not it mattered if other people wore shoes to the pagoda, as long as the worshipper’s heart and mind were orientated towards prayer and doing good deeds. One side advocated intention rather than action; the other argued that wearing shoes at the pagoda was a sin that affected the karma of everyone around and threatened the sasana. This group even went so far as to argue that non-believers should not be allowed in to the pagoda at all, as was the custom with mosques. In the end, the Sayadaw’s stunt had the desired effect. The question of wearing shoes in pagodas had been raised amongst Burmese Buddhists and it would soon become integral not only to the definition of Buddhism as a religion but also to the Burmese struggle for independence from the British.
The “Shoe Question,” as it came to be called, resurfaced again in 1901, taking on a new racial guise. In that year, the Irish-born itinerant Buddhist monk U Dhammaloka challenged an off-duty Indian police officer on the platform at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, demanding that he remove his shoes. Dhammaloka, no doubt, felt that as a Buddhist and a European he could make the Indian officer remove his shoes. Indians traditionally removed their shoes at pagodas, but this man was an employee of the government. The altercation led to a series of reports and a newspaper controversy over the so-called “Shoe Question.”
The authorities immediately asserted that what was implicitly being discussed was the question of Burmese independence, even though the question of shoes in pagodas had been a subject of debate within Burmese Buddhism for some time. Nevertheless, in the following years, more and more Buddhist monks began challenging shoe-shod Europeans on pagoda platforms, and in 1918, the Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA) met to draft a resolution that endorsed removing the dispensation for Europeans at pagodas throughout the country. Pagoda trustees began complying with the YMBA resolution and removed the exemption for Europeans from their signs. The “Shoe Question” had become political. In protest, the government argued that with the First World War raging, the actions of the pagoda trustees would cause sedition. Turner tells us that the two sides went back and forth, and under increasing pressure from the public, the government reluctantly gave in to the pagoda trustees in 1919.
Immediately afterwards the European community went on the defensive and began boycotting the pagodas, but the initial foray had been made, and it would only be a matter of time before the independence movement gained significant support among the Burmese Buddhist population. If the Burmese could change the law regarding footwear in pagodas what else could they change? Perhaps more importantly for our question, the relationship between Buddhism and Burmese nationalism had been cemented for good. From then on, the fight for Burmese independence would be dominated by Buddhist rhetoric and vice versa.
By the turn of the 19th century, Rangoon had become the third largest seaport in British India and was swiftly becoming an important regional manufacturing and distribution centre for rice, teak, and petroleum. Traffic in the port of Rangoon grew exponentially between the years 1900 and 1930, from 425,000 tons of imports in 1908, to 1,479,873 tons in 1927, and nearly twice that in exports. In that same year, the city became the largest immigrant port in the world, with over 480,000 new arrivals, surpassing even New York. These new emigres were mostly south Indian laborers who had come to work in the expanding rice frontier of the Irrawaddy Delta. A large number also settled in Rangoon to work on the city’s docks and in its major industries, and with the control of those industries firmly consolidated in British hands, it had begun by the 1920s to appear like the enormous British investment in colonial Burma would finally pay off.
From an architectural standpoint, the face of Rangoon changed completely in the years between the annexation of Burma in 1886 and the start of the new century. Imposing brick government buildings, law courts, banks, and merchant exchanges flanked its tree-lined promenades, and steel piers, go-downs, docks, goods sheds, and rail-yards blocked the view of the Rangoon River from Strand Road. Indian and Chinese merchants set up shop and built tenements throughout the city and the lower Pazundaung Creek, once a minor tidal inlet, was now lined on both sides with rice and lumber mills. The city could boast a zoo, an electric tram-line, two cathedrals, several luxury hotels and a fine European department store, Rowe and Co., called the “Harrods of the East.” To round out the picture, the shipyards at Dalla and the oil refineries at Syriam turned what was once a sleepy river town into a major industrial hub and Burma’s largest port.
All of this growth, however, had to come from somewhere, and if we look at the historical record, we find that a disproportionate amount of the expertise, materials, and financing for Burma’s economic miracle came from one single city: Glasgow. Long before the rise of Rangoon, the Scots had been the premier merchants of the British Empire. Scottish entrepreneurs from Glasgow had set up some of the first trading firms to supply the teak-logging industry in Lower Burma, starting with D. Shaw and Co. (the forerunner to T.D. Findlay and Sons) in Moulmein in 1839. Later on, they would venture into imperial politics, as the Scottish businessmen that made up the majority of the Rangoon Chamber of Commerce were perhaps the greatest agitators for the Third Anglo-Burmese War. Ultimately, it was a dispute between the Burmese monarchy and a Scottish firm, the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation, that would lead to the war and the defeat of the last Burmese monarch Thibaw in 1885.
When the British conquered Lower Burma in 1853, what was left of the Burmese town of Dagon was destroyed, the streets were levelled, and hundreds of tons of earth were moved to create Rangoon’s colonial “core”. The swamp in the area of Fytche Sq. (now Maha Bandoola Park) was drained and trenches dug for a system of sewers and canals that would carry fresh water to the city and waste water away. From the outset, then, Rangoon was based upon European ideas, but the city quickly grew to accommodate the different ethnic communities that arrived from other regions of the Empire because of Burma’s appealing prospects for trade. European-style town planning combined with South Asian modes of living to create an entirely new kind of environment – the colonial Southeast Asian port city. A Chinatown grew up in the streets around the Hokkien and Cantonese Temples and a Little India in the area of Mogul and Merchant Streets. In addition to the Indian and Chinese communities, there were Armenians, Arabs, Persians, and Jews, all living together in the cosmopolitan mosaic that was Rangoon. These communities were tied to others across the Bay of Bengal and down the straits of Malacca, creating a web of colonial connections that traversed languages and crossed empires.
At the same time, Glasgow was experiencing a similar boom in manufacturing and industry to that of Rangoon, not least because of its links to other ports around the world. With the advent of steam power in the 1830s, the city had become one of the shipbuilding capitals of the world, seated as it was above the great iron ore deposits of Lanarkshire, and by 1870 more than half of all British shipbuilding was based on the banks of the River Clyde. The population of the city quickly surpassed that of Edinburgh, and contemporary growth of the pig-iron, railroad, textile, and ceramics industries meant that Glasgow could, by the turn-of-the-century, lay claim to the title of “second city of the Empire.”
The connection between the port of Glasgow and Britain’s imperial conquests accounted for the greater part of this wealth, as natural resources from the colonies like oil, foodstuffs, and rubber landed on its wharves, and Scottish manufactured goods like plates, sewing machines, and motor cars were loaded onto its ships for export. It was an imperial city with imperial ambitions, evident in the grandiose Gothic and neo-Classical architecture of its banks, insurance companies, and merchant exchanges.
Many of these buildings were designed and built by the same architects (and for the same companies) that built offices in Rangoon, resulting in an uncanny architectural resemblance between the two cities. For instance, the Scottish firms Bulloch Brothers, J. and F. Graham and Co., Finlay, Fleming and Co., and the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, all had their headquarters in Glasgow with offices in Rangoon.
(The buildings of 19th century Glasgow bear a striking resemblance in style to those of colonial Rangoon; clockwise from top left: Burmah Oil Co. Offices, West George St. Glasgow; Irrawaddy Flotilla Co. Head Office, Bothwell St. Glasgow; Burmah Oil Co. offices, Merchant Road, Rangoon; Irrawaddy Flotilla Company Chambers, Pansodan (Phayre) St., Rangoon).
In its early days, Rangoon was laid out by a Scotsman, Captain Alexander Fraser, along a grid system similar to that of Glasgow, and often the offices of the trading firms occupied similar positions within the grid, near to the quays that provided both cities with the material wealth and ease of transport that enabled them to grow. More concretely, many of the building materials that were used in the construction of the Rangoon offices of Scottish firms were imported direct from Glasgow, from the iron for their elaborate porticoes and spiral staircases, to the elevators, doors, doorknobs, and even the keys themselves.
The imperial connection between Scotland and Burma was perhaps most evident in the transportation and industrial sectors, where whole locomotives, mill machinery, and ships were produced in Glasgow and then shipped to Rangoon. In the rice industry, the steam-powered engines that separated the rice grain from the husk were built in the iron foundries of Lanarkshire and then distributed throughout Burma by Scottish firms. The blog International Steam has located and documented many of these amazing machines, a surprising number of which are still in use today.
Likewise, many of the locomotives that steamed along Burma’s nearly 2,000 miles of track were built at Duns and Co. in Glasgow. The Burmese market required Glaswegian industries to adapt their technologies to suit the local environment. To give just two examples, service on the tidal Irrawaddy required a steamboat with a much shallower draught than was common in Europe, and Burma’s narrower meter-gauge track led to the development of an entirely new kind of locomotive. Other industries such as ceramics adapted themselves to the tastes of their would-be Burmese clients (or, at least, to what they thought the Burmese might like) by including “Oriental” patterns featuring dragons, pagodas, and elephants. John Bell’s Pottery in Glasgow was well known for exporting such ceramic ware to India, Burma, and Malaya, under names like “Burmania”, “Pegu”, and “Bhamo.”
In the realm of shipping, most of the 600-strong fleet of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Co. steamships that prowled Burma’s rivers and waterways were built at Denny’s Shipyard on the Clyde. In Rangoon, the managers at the Irrawaddy shipyard at Dalla were largely from Denny’s and so too were the skippers and engineers of the boats. The travel writer V.C. Scott O’Connor wrote of these men that, considering the difficulty of navigating Burma’s rivers he expected them to be “imperious,” but when he boarded an Irrawaddy steamer he found the captain “a plain man, very simple in his habits and ways…to say nothing of the Clydesmen who rule the throbbing engines, and say even less than the skipper.” Thousands of young Scots (mostly men) were lured by the prospects for advancement in the Burma trade, as well as the allure of “adventure” in the “exotic” East. These men created an elitist imperial culture centred around the Club and the Polo ground, but they were also often escaping the choking restraints of the rigid class hierarchy back home.
Moreover, under the auspices of the British empire, the lines between “home” and “abroad” were rapidly blurring. By the 1920s, the Bibby and Henderson cruise lines ran a regular service between Glasgow and Rangoon, linking the two cities across space, while the advent of the imperial telegraph network in 1902, the All Red Line, linked them across time. Consumer goods, literature, films and information passed back and forth between Burma, Glasgow, and the other nodes of empire – creating a global imperial culture.
The fate of these two cities was so entwined during the period, that Glasgow and Rangoon could be called “co-constituted landscapes”. I have borrowed the term from Andrew Friedman’s path-making book on American imperialism, Covert Capital (University of California Press, 2015). In it Friedman suggests that two places can be “co-constituted”, that is, shaped and molded by the same geopolitical forces, with the same actors moving through them, building the same sorts of structures according to the same imperial logics, and thereby linking the two sites via a world of cultural, military, and economic imperial connections.
In a chapter on the CIA and the Vietnam War, Friedman suggests that the CIA headquarters in Northern Virginia and Vietnam war-era Saigon were “co-constituted landscapes,” that is, they met “in the vortex of the U.S. imperial project, a physical instance of the way that, through the movements of imperialism, ‘the domestic and the foreign mutually constitute one another,’” (20). War-era Saigon and Virginia were not cousins, then, but sisters, consciously constructed by the same agents for the same purposes, and reflecting those intentions in everything from their architecture, to their urban planning, to their interior design.
But where Friedman refers to Virginia as a “landscape of denial” of American imperialism, the buildings of Rangoon and Glasgow could not have declared the goals of British imperialism more loudly or more clearly. Friedman’s “co-consitution” theory, then, is particularly well suited to discovering the hidden connections with Rangoon that might be lurking under the surface of the urban environment in Glasgow. Such an approach has already been taken for London by the historian Jonathan Schneer, whose book London: 1900 chronicles the ways in which empire was made and adapted on the home front, and how London as the metropole (mother city) was continually shaped by her colonies.
The same might be done for Glasgow. In Scotland, the Burmese had been visiting at least as far back as 1871 when the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce hosted a dinner for the Kinwun Mingyi, King Thibaw’s emissary to the West. Events in Glasgow often had a ripple effect in Rangoon, as when City of Glasgow Bank collapsed in 1878 leading to the closure of several firms in Burma. Burmese students traveled to Britain for education, though the first Burmese students did not enroll at the University of Glasgow until 1913-14 (they were Moung Soe Minn from Rangoon and Maung Kyaw Htin from Bassein, studying medicine and botany, respectively). Like their compatriots elsewhere, these young Burmese men would have been exposed to new ideas about what constituted “modernity”, while at the same time having to come face to face with racial discrimination in their new home.
Aside from direct contact with Burmese people, which admittedly would have been rare, Scottish citizens may have been familiar with Burma through advertisements glorifying Burma among the many dominions of the British Empire (such as those found on Player’s cigarette cards). Exhibitions at the city’s art museums and singular events like the 1938 British Empire Exhibition would have further familiarized Glaswegians with Burmese culture.
Like the 1924 Exhibition at Wembley, the 1938 Glasgow Empire Exhibition included a Burmese Pavilion where the art, architecture, and natural resources of Burma were put on display for the consumption of fee-paying Britons. The placement of the Burmese exhibit in a separate pavilion at both Wembley and Glasgow no doubt signified the Province’s increasing importance within the Empire (and especially to the prosperity of Glasgow). This exhibition was the crowning achievement of a city that claimed to have connections around the world. Further research is required to determine the extent of Glasgow’s imperial connections, especially with respect to Burma, but a cursory comparison between the colonial cityscapes of Glasgow and Rangoon suggests that such a project would be rewarded with many fascinating new discoveries.
Recently, I was re-reading George Orwell’s 1933 novel, Burmese Days, which the author based on his experiences as an imperial policeman in lower Burma in the 1920s, when I came upon a passage that reminded me of an entirely different dimension to the evolution of Burmese dress, that is, the way in which clothing came to symbolize the debates over Burmese nationalism at the beginning of the twentieth-century. I include the relevant passage below:
They were about to climb the steps when a slim youth of twenty, damnably dressed in a longyi, blue cricket blazer and bright yellow shoes, with his hair parted and greased ‘Ingaleik fashion’, detached himself from the crowd and came after them. He greeted Flory with a small awkward movement as though restraining himself from shikoing…
The passage goes on to say that the Burmese youth is delivering a letter to the European Flory from his spurned Burmese mistress Ma Hla May who is “blackmailing” him. Flory quickly sends the man away and then he (Flory), and the newly-arrived Englishwoman, Elizabeth, continue into the store whose “European look…piled with Lancashire-made cotton shirts and almost incredibly cheap German clocks” comforts Elizabeth after “the barbarity of the bazaar.”
The passage is short, but hints at a greater meaning. The Burmese man wears a hybrid of Eastern and Western clothing known as khit san or “modern” dress. He greases his hair Ingaleik or “English” style, and declines to perform the traditional shiko or full bow to one’s superior that an interaction between a Burmese man and a European would have otherwise have dictated. By describing him in this way, Orwell is singling him out as a type, and one that would have been immediately recognizable to his colonial readers as the “modern” Burmese young man.
The political context of the book reveals a lot about the Burmese young man. In the 1920s, a new national identity was being forged among young people throughout Burma. The wunthanu athins or “own race associations” were spreading nationalist beliefs throughout the countryside, while in the city, the YMBA or Young Men’s Buddhist Association, was becoming a centre for disillusioned Burmese civil servants who found themselves the objects of discrimination within the racist hierarchy of the Indian Civil Service (ICS).
This state of affairs would culminate in the formation of the Rangoon Student’s Union in 1931 and, more violently, in the Sayar San Rebellion of 1930 (echoed in the somewhat comical siege on the European club at the end of Orwell’s book), which took the British authorities two years to put down and cost a great deal of Burmese and Indian lives. By this point, anxiety about “Burmanization” – the term given to any sort of accommodation to Burmese political rights – had reached a fever pitch amongst British colonial officials. Needless to say, the situation was tense.
At the same time, conservative Burmese men, especially of an older generation, were concerned about what they perceived to be the impending loss of a traditional Burmese culture. Many cited a decline in morality and the authority of the sangha or Buddhist clergy and expressed anxiety over the future of their children in a rapidly modernizing society.
The historians Alicia Turner, Chie Ikeya, and Carol Ann Boshier have all highlighted the importance of these arguments to the growth of Burmese nationalism, and Ikeya in particular has explored the relationship between khit san fashionand the construction of a Burmese nationalist identity. She has focused on the “modern girl,” who drank, smoked cigarettes, and drove cars, as the lightning rod for debates about the effects of Western consumerism and individualism on Burmese culture. These debates, she argues, were really an outlet for Burmese men to vent their own nationalist frustrations, misogyny, and paranoia about women’s newfound roles in society.
But what of the “modern” Burmese man? Later on in the book, Orwell makes the somewhat tongue-in-cheek remark about a group of Burmese youths that they were “Nationalists, like all schoolboys.” But what did the nationalists wear? In her article, Ikeya says that the Burmese nationalists or thakins chose to wear slippers and longyi instead of Western dress out of an interest in reviving traditional Burmese culture as an antidote to the negative effects of colonialism (in the same way that Gandhi’s supporters advocated khaddar or homespun cloth as part of a general boycott of British goods). But the picture of Orwell’s messenger is more complex than that; he is dressed in khit san, rather than the “traditional” clothing of paso (full sarong) and ingyi (short jacket), but he also declines to shiko in front of Flory, a gesture which sets him apart as holding nationalistic beliefs.
The shiko – or full bow – had by this time become a point of anti-colonial resistance to the British government. Young Burmese argued that the shiko ought to be reserved for peya (images of the Buddha) and that it was demeaning and servile for Burmese men to shiko before their British superiors (as it involved knocking one’s forehead against the floor). Some students even went so far as to stage protests against shikoing to their secular teachers in 1903. These arguments were part of a larger movement for Buddhist nationalism that, as Alicia Turner has shown, sought to revive the teachings of the Buddha as a potent political ideology for the twentieth-century.
Another point of contention between young and old was the so-called “English” hair cut or bou ke. Since the arrival of the British in 1853, young, urban Burmese men had begun to cut their top-knots and close-crop their hair in the English way. This was a sore spot for conservatives who deplored the tendency of the young to adapt and re-purpose Western culture for their own purposes. 30 years later, the author Maung Htin Aung would recall disparagingly the typical Burmese boy who entered the monastery as a novice only to give himself an “excuse to wear his hair in the new European style after it had grown again on his shaved head.” For Htin Aung, this generation of young Western-educated Burmese clerks were dissolute; drinking whiskey, gambling, and openly denouncing Buddhism. According to him, the threat to Buddhism from this class of men was especially felt as those who had been educated in English schools knew little of the Buddha or his teachings and entered the monastery only for social reasons.
At the same time, the Cambridge-educated barrister U May Oung observed around 1910 that such men hindered their own prospects for advancement in the ICS. In an article written for Twentieth Century Impressions of Burma, a collection meant to showcase the economic and cultural might of the Province, May Oung remarked that older men were seen wearing the traditional top-knot for official government ceremonies while “the new generation, which has taken to close-cropping [their hair]…finds it impossible to comply.” May Oung was part of this older generation of Burmese men who sought to revitalize Burmese culture and to win greater representation for Burma within the British Empire (at the time in was ruled as a province of India). These men were also keenly aware of the cultural mixing going on in Burma’s growing port cities like Rangoon, Akyab, and Moulmein and perceived a “threat” to Burmese culture from this mixing of Indian, European, and Burmese styles.
Moreover, they were not alone in voicing their opinions on what constituted “traditional” Burmese culture and dress. Many Europeans felt that, as the ruling class, they too should weigh in. A prime example are the writings of Sir James George Scott, at one time Superintendent of the Southern Shan States. In his book Burma: A Handbook of Practical Information (1906), he writes of Burmese women’s dress “a detestable modern fashion has introduced kirtles or farthingales of velvet or velveteen, and all of one dead colour, instead of the butterfly hues, but the Burmese coquette may soon be trusted to find out the mistake.” What Scott means by “kirtles…all of one dead colour” I haven’t a clue (perhaps it is the sheer blouse described in an earlier post), but his contrast of such “modern” fashions with the “butterfly hues” of what he sees as traditional Burmese dress places him firmly within an orientalizing tradition – one that saw Burmese culture as a static, ancient entity that must be protected from the onslaught of the modern world. In addition, Scott’s assertion that the “Burmese coquette may soon be trusted to find out the mistake,” echoes the condescension of the popular Burmese language press that frequently disparaged young women for wearing hybrid fashions, driving cars, and taking employment.
Meanwhile, the Burmese man in Western dress was an object of frequent satire on the part of Europeans. May Oung alludes to this tendency when he says “at one time there was a strong prejudice against the Burman in boots, but it is now happily almost extinct.” A story recounted by Burma’s first president U Ba U in his autobiography, however, demonstrates that such prejudices were manifestly not extinct. In 1907, Ba U and two of his friends boarded a steamer bound for university in England wearing new sets of European clothes made for them by an Indian tailor in Rangoon. But when the ship’s surgeon saw them in their ill-fitting suits and tiny hats, he burst out laughing. Ba U never forgot the slight, nor the many other incidents of racism he was made to endure in his time in England, and they no doubt fueled his desire to see Burma become independent after WWII.
These same racist, colonialist tendencies are present in Orwell’s description of the young Burmese “lad”. Where modern scholars see creative hybridity, Orwell was only able to see slavish imitation or worse, undesirable miscegenation. Burmese Days is often taught as an dark critique of British imperialism, where all the characters who do the really dirty work of imperialism, namely Flory and the corrupt Burmese official U Po Kyin, meet a tragic end, while the benefactors of British rule, Elizabeth and the British lieutenant Verrall, survive. It is often read in conjunction with his short stories The Hanging and Shooting the Elephant, the message being that Orwell disliked imperialism because he thought it was unjust. These stories, when coupled with his coverage of the Spanish Civil War, are supposed to have laid the groundwork for the anti-totalitarian beliefs he expressed in Animal Farm and 1984.
But on second glance, it appears that Orwell disliked imperialism not only because it was unjust, but because he thought it diluted European values and produced undesirable cultural amalgamations like our young Burmese man with an English hair-cut. In Orwell’s words, this man is “damnably” dressed and his shoes are a bright yellow that no Englishman would wear. Moreover, both the young man and the storefront are defined by their deviation from what Elizabeth perceives to be the local norms – in the case of the shop, from the “barbarity of bazaar,” in the case of the Burmese man, from the attire and deferential attitude of Flory’s Burmese servant, Ko S’la.
It is immediately apparent that Orwell’s book is written through an orientalizing lens. In the same way that early European photographers set their Burmese subjects against ‘Oriental’ backdrops, wearing costumes and holding props completely alien to the Burmese environment, Orwell sets his story about the decline and death of a British logging agent against the backdrop of a generalized “Eastern” land. He seems to have a clear idea of how things should be in Burma and so he deems any adaptation of European culture an undesirable side-effect of colonialism (as undesirable as the many illegitimate children born to Englishmen and Burmese women), and therefore fated to end badly (just like Flory’s relationship with Ma Hla May). In fact, there is not a single likable Burmese character in the whole book, except for perhaps Ko S’la, who is at best a caricature of the archetypal Burmese manservant.
BurmeseDays, therefore, gives us an interesting insight into hybrid colonial culture and dress, but leaves a bad taste in our mouths. Ikeya, Turner, and Boshier have all shown that the same kind of anxiety about cultural mixing that Orwell expressed helped fuel the fire of Burmese nationalism (and anti-Indian violence) in the years leading up to World War II. Later on, it would give birth to the xenophobic policies that have kept Myanmar isolated from the rest of the world since the 1960s. At the same time, dress was only one component of a larger phenomenon of modernization and cosmopolitanism that Su Lin Lewis has identified in the culture of port cities throughout Southeast Asia at the time. In Burma, this process was occurring at all levels of society and not just in the ports, but in the many smaller inland cities and towns, where the new technologies of the railroad, the telegraph, and the new multi-lingual print culture, were all enabling young Burmese to look outwards and re-appropriate the foreign as their own. This cosmopolitan world prefigured our own globalized world of today. And all this we can read in a pair of clothes.
Chie Ikeya, “The Modern Burmese Woman and the Politics of Fashion in Colonial Burma” in The Journal of Asian Studies (Vol. 67, No. 4; 2008), pp. 1277-1308.
Maung Htin Aung. Burmese Monk’s Tales (New York, 1966).
Wright, Cartwright, and O. Breakspear. Twentieth Century Impressions of Burma: Its History, People, Commerce, Industries and Resources (London, 1910).
James George Scott. Burma: A Handbook of Practical Information (London, 1906).
George Orwell. Burmese Days (1934. accessed online: ebooks.adelaide.edu.au).
Su Lin Lewis. Cities in Motion: Urban Life and Cosmopolitanism in Southeast Asia, 1920-1940 (Cambridge, 2017).
Carol Ann Boshier. Mapping Cultural Nationalism: the Scholars of the Burma Research Society, 1910-1935 (Copenhagen, 2018).
Thant Myint-U. The River of Lost Footsteps (New York, 2006).
Alicia Turner. Saving Buddhism: the Impermanence of Religion in Colonial Burma (Honolulu, 2014).
One of the most obvious features of Burmese culture, and one that will immediately catch the eye of any visitor to Myanmar today, is the colorful longyi or Burmese sarong. Before my arrival in Yangon in 2016 I had heard tell of this quintessential feature of “traditional” Burmese dress, but upon meeting the crowd awaiting their loved ones in the arrivals hall at Mingaladon Airport I was amazed to encounter its ubiquity. Positively everyone was wearing it!
While other Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Vietnam have largely adopted Western dress, the longyi is still the dominant article of clothing for both sexes in Myanmar (for women it is called htamein and for men paso). It is worn by everyone from politicians to day laborers, and comes in a dizzying array of colors, checks, stripes and fabrics. It is a cylindrical piece of cloth around 6 feet long that is wrapped around the waist and tied in a voluminous knot or tucked in at the side (in the case of the women’s htamein). It is not the most secure of garments (one of the principle gags of Burmese comedy is someone’s longyi falling down when they get angry), but it is very functional and quite flattering.
After a bit of research, I was even more surprised to discover that the longyi itself was not originally Burmese, but rather, the result of an influx of Indian immigration to the country during British colonization in the second half of the nineteenth-century. Moreover, the names that the Burmese ascribed to the different types of longyi, paso and htamein, were actually the names used for earlier and more ceremonial garments worn during the Konbaung Dynasty (1752-1885); that is, they were vestiges of an even earlier form of Burmese dress.
This intrigued me. In the 1920s, alongside Indians, thousands of Chinese, Middle-Easterners and Europeans flowed into colonial Rangoon, bringing with them their religions, cultures, and preconceived notions of “propriety” and good taste. The paso which was comprised of a single piece of voluminous cloth 30 ft. long was unsuited to an urban working environment and the htamein was deemed improper by censorious Europeans as it opened in the front below the knee, so both were relegated to the back drawer of ceremonial dress (though they can still be found today in Burmese opera). Longyi, especially longyi made out of the new cheap Manchester cloth, became the dominant style for both men and women alike, and it was soon combined with other elements of foreign clothing to create a new hybrid style of Burmese dress.
Dress was a smaller subsection of a larger, more far-reaching movement in Burmese society towards khit-san “progress” or “modernization”. In the 1920s, young urban Burmese and Indian men and women adopted khit san fashion, pairing longyi with cricket blazers, belts, and shoes, and htamein with wristwatches, perms, and European lingerie. Western styles proliferated, and well-heeled men on the streets of Rangoon could be seen in three-piece tweed suits (in the heat!) and bowler hats, as well as sandals and sarongs. In fact, the modern-day outfit of sheer cotton blouse or ingyi, lace undershirt, longyi and high heel sandals for women, and white collarless shirt, short cotton jacket, and longyi for men, is a hybrid Chinese/Indian/Burmese style that developed during this time period.
In the 1950s, Western dress was still worn for formal occasions, but with nationalization in 1963 and the military dictatorship’s twin policies of Burmanization and isolation, Western dress became more and more uncommon. By the 1960s, Burmese dress had solidified; once a hybrid style, the longyi became “traditional” clothing, and like similarly invented traditions, from the Christmas tree to Tartan cloth, was given the imprimatur of the ruling class. Nowadays, young Myanmar men and women are just as likely to wear this “traditional” style of clothing, as they are to wear Western rock t-shirts and jeans. Moreover, there are innovators who are combining the two (see for instance the “pocket-longyi” offered by CiCi Boutique), and it is likely that in the twenty-first century Myanmar dress will continue to show the amazing degree of flexibility and hybridity it has shown for the past two hundred years.
Last Sunday I attended the exhibition Burmese Photographers (Myanma dat-poun seyamya)hosted by the Goethe Institute at the newly renovated Secretariat building in Yangon. The exhibition is the first of its kind anywhere in the world. The photographs have been collected over the past five years by the photographer Lukas Birk, and they span the period 1890-1995, representing nearly the whole of Myanmar’s photographic history. The emphasis of the collection quickly moves away from scenes of Myanmar taken by Europeans in the late 19th-century to focus on the groundswell of Myanmar photographers that emerged around 1910, forging a uniquely Burmese photographic culture.
What is perhaps most interesting about the collection is how tastes changed over time, while other elements such as genre and the photographic process stayed the same. For instance, the earliest photos in the collection show a propensity for European-style painted backgrounds and hybrid Eastern/Western styles of dress. We see young men in rowing blazers with longyi (the Burmese sarong) and leather Oxford shoes and women wearing htamein (the female version of the longyi), but accessorizing it with American wristwatches and English books. The exhibit includes the postcard collection of the Minus family, whose scion runs the fantastic blog Chasing Chinthes, many of which are hand-colored scenes of village life produced for the European market. These more sensationalist views contrast nicely with the humble and straightforward family portraits and personal mementos found on the other side of the room.
By the 1950s, however, Western dress becomes common for studio portraits, and backgrounds shift from ornate columns and curtains to simple compositions often including some article of the sitter’s trade (such as the pest exterminator pictured below). Outdoor scenes become more popular, it seems, but portraiture remains the norm, spurred on by the need for identification cards in the new Union of Burma. During the period, photography studios are increasingly run by ethnic Burmese, a trend affecting nearly all trades following General Ne Win’s coup d’etat and the expulsion of foreigners in 1963.
Moving into the 1960s, the decrease in the cost and ease of the photographic process gives rise to memento cards, stencilled frames, and photo albums that democratize photography, bringing it to a whole new class of Burmese. By the 1970s, according to Birk, the photo studio has become an escape for young people suffering under the weight of the military dictatorship; a place where they can come and don fashionable Western clothes while enacting scenes of a modern lifestyle largely unavailable to them in their present economic state. Strangely enough, the methods of Burmese photography remain constant throughout the period, with black and white or hand-coloring widespread up until the 1990s and the arrival of a few new color photo machines from Singapore.
The 1980’s bring, on the one hand, the tumultuous events of the 8888 demonstrations and their horrific aftermath (in this case caught in historicizing black and white), and on the other, high-gloss images of famous actors in blue jeans and baseball caps with boomboxes slung over their shoulders. The message is clear: Myanmar photography (and in many ways the country’s history as a whole) has always been a hodge-podge, an inter-meshing of styles and influences, in short, a blurry, ever-moving picture.