Animosity in a Burmese Hub Deepens as Chinese Get Richer

MANDALAY, Myanmar — From damp and drizzly London, the siren of British imperialism, Rudyard Kipling, wrote a poem that captured the palm trees, pagodas and temple bells of Burma during colonial rule.

The romance of that verse, “Mandalay,” became a refrain for the exotic East, and of this city, in particular, once a royal capital with a stunning palace. Written in 1890, it has resonated ever since:

On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’ fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ’crost the Bay!

Kipling never visited Mandalay, having imagined it from a brief sojourn in a city called Moulmein, now Mawlamyine, several hundred miles to the south.

But perhaps if he arrived in Mandalay today, he would find its charms faded — buried under the demands of Chinese commerce, and the hustle of Chinese businessmen scooping up jade and timber for the market back home.

Residents view them as interlopers who take advantage of Mandalay’s location close to India and Bangladesh, Laos and Thailand, as well as a large swath of southern China. And some of the Chinese view the Burmese as beneath them, slow at business and making money.

At the open-air jade market, Chinese businessmen haggle with Burmese traders selling rough green slabs of the gemstone, freshly dug from mines in remote areas to the north. Deals have slowed. Prices are down in China, flattened by the slowing economy and a fierce anticorruption campaign.

On a recent morning, the mood was surly along the rows of wooden stalls where the Chinese inspect the jade for quality and color.

“It’s dirty and chaotic, and sometimes dangerous,” said Zhu Xuefei, a jade buyer from Guangdong Province in China. Myanmar, the name now used for Burma, was too poor to install the closed circuit television cameras that are ubiquitous in China to help prevent robberies, he complained.

Chinese traders have been coming to Mandalay since before the mid-19th century, when the city was created on the banks of the Irrawaddy River as the royal redoubt. Records show a Chinese temple from 1773. Some sailed down the river; others rode south from Yunnan Province in mule caravans ferrying silver and silk. The Chinese had a light touch.

Now the Chinese dominate the economy, their mansions lining the streets of an enclave called New Town, symbols of the wealth accrued in the underground drug, timber and mineral trades in the northern Shan and Wa States of Myanmar.

The city has become a sprawl of about one million people on a scorched, dusty plain. George Orwell, who lived here briefly in the 1920s, dismissed it as having just five features: pagodas, pariahs, pigs, priests and prostitutes. The old pagodas, many covered with gilded paint, still exist, though the most notable recent one has a pale jade exterior, a testament to the city’s new money.

The timber buildings of Orwell’s era either burned down or were demolished to make way for crude concrete buildings that now dominate the downtown area.

In the early hours, the sun lights up the red brick fortress walls of the palace, and the moat glistens with soft light. But soon the sun’s hot glare drums down on everything, and by midday the streets mostly empty out.

Much of the activity moves to the teahouses. They are open sided, with ceiling fans moving listlessly in the heat. Waiters carry large metal teapots, their flip-flops making a swishing sound on the concrete floors as they fill customers’ cups and plop down platters of curry.

To soothe raw feelings between Chinese and Burmese customers, some teahouses display a photograph of the recent meeting in Beijing between the leader of Myanmar, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and China’s president, Xi Jinping.

The barely disguised contempt of the Chinese toward the Burmese — “We only need to pay $2.50 a day for labor,” said Mr. Zhu, the jade buyer — is returned with resentment that ebbs and flows according to the political and economic climate.

“The new Chinese try to influence our culture by donating to temples and religious associations,” said U Kyaw Zan Hla, 69, the former editor of a defunct leftist newspaper, The People. “They don’t understand the Burmese tradition of respect to elders, teachers and monks.”

When remnants of China’s Nationalist Army fled to northern Burma after the Communist victory in 1949, they settled in Mandalay with their large families. By then, the royal palace — wooden pavilions with gabled roofs and richly painted pillars — had been burned to the ground by Japanese bombardment in 1942.

A replica was built in 1989 by the junta, which handed the vast sward of green that surrounds the palace to the military for use as a headquarters. (The last king and queen of Burma fled to India in 1885, pushed out by the conquering British four years before Kipling composed his poem.)

After World War II, Mandalay was a backwater — a place where the new Chinese settlers made themselves at home, took Burmese names and learned the language.

The children of the Nationalist Army veterans are now in their 60s. Some practice tai chi in the soft dawn hours on a walkway near the palace walls. U Shwe, an enthusiastic man dressed in shorts and sneakers, made his tai chi moves with a red Chinese fan fully opened in one hand and a silver sword in the other. Chinese music boomed from a portable tape deck.

But even here, a condescending attitude toward the Burmese is prevalent. “We hire a lot of them,” said Mrs. Xu, 65, who owns a metal factory and gave only her last name. “The Burmese are very easygoing. They believe everything is predetermined, so they accept everything that happens in life.”

In the 1980s, after the Chinese government stopped its support of the Communist Party of Burma, a new wave of entrepreneurs from China’s then-fledgling market economy flooded over the border.

They found lucrative deals trading in drugs and gems in the restive northern provinces, and bought identity cards and citizenship papers from corrupt officials of the military government, said Mr. Kyaw Zan Hla, the former editor, as he sat in his library filled with old newspapers, magazines and first edition books, including a yellowed copy of Orwell’s “Burmese Days.”

In 1984, when a fire swept through downtown Mandalay, burning the mostly wooden structures to the ground, the Chinese acted.

“The Burmese people had no money, and the Chinese bought the land which only they could afford,” he said. “Naturally, there are tensions between the newcomers and the Burmese — the Burmese look at the Chinese with hatred because they are very haughty.”

The Chinese know that many Burmese are offended by their flashier lifestyle. They are fearful of reprisals, or of a repetition of anti-Chinese riots here in the 1960s.

When violence broke out between Buddhists and Muslims in Mandalay several years ago, Chinese residents took extra measures to protect themselves, said Zhang Xucheng, a businessman.

The Chinese are curbing excessive shows of wealth. “In the Chinese schools, they are telling the children not to be confrontational, not to live extravagantly,” Mr. Zhang said. “There is no Blue Label whiskey, only Red Label and Black Label. We limit the number of cars for a wedding. There used to be 40 or 50. Now they have only 16 cars.”

Source: The New York Times

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