Yangon’s thriving Chinatown shows how food can help heal scars of Myanmar’s past

After the anti-Chinese riots in the 1960s and years of discrimination, Chinese immigrants are now celebrating their identity and heritage through food. Yangon Chinatown’s food evolution illustrates the changing times of the country.

Two days after the end of Chinese New Year, Rabbit Bakery is still busy churning out pastries for eager customers.

Inside the cramped room in downtown Yangon, Myanmar, shop owner Aung Kyaw Moe oversees workers making dough for Taiwanese sun cakes.

The tai yang bing, as the cakes are known, are composed of two types of dough, an inner layer with oil and an outer layer with water, that together produce its flaky texture.

The bakers roll the dough into balls, flatten them, stuff maltose sugar filling inside and seal the edges. Then, the baker kneads the ball into a round cake and puts it on a tray to be brushed with egg wash.

After six minutes, 30 sun cakes emerge from the oven, all warm, crumbly and golden brown.

The recipe has travelled a long way. In 1988, Aung Kyaw Moe’s father, Wang Suming, a second-generation Chinese immigrant from Fujian province, went on a holiday from Myanmar to Taiwan. Due to pro-democracy protests at the end of general Ne Win’s regime, he was not able to return to Myanmar until his parents deemed it was safe.

For four months, he learned how to make sun cakes, salted egg yolk pastries and winter melon “wife” cakes. When he returned to Myanmar, he taught the recipes to Rabbit Bakery’s workers, and today, the cakes are their bestsellers.

“There may be others in Yangon, but these are authentic,” Ming says.

Ming’s unplanned bakery lessons in Taiwan are far from the only example of social upheaval reshaping the food landscape in Yangon’s Chinatown. Anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar has sparked riots and oppressive laws in recent decades, forcing restaurant owners to downsize, flee the country or adapt their menu offering.

The anti-Chinese riots in the late 1960s caused thousands of Chinese Burmese to seek opportunities elsewhere, but the recent promise of political and economic reforms encouraged them to repatriate and start businesses. The food landscape evolved from simple stalls to bakeries, dim sum restaurants and bubble tea shops inspired by Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau.

The Enterprise Nationalisation Law passed in 1963 prohibited non-citizen Chinese from owning land or obtaining business licenses. The most violent riots took place during China’s Cultural Revolution in 1967: Chinese schools shut down and Chinese-owned shops were set on fire.

While Aung Kyaw Moe can’t speak to his Chinese customers, he can understand them and answers back in English or Burmese.

After the riots, the 1982 Citizenship Law restricted Burmese Chinese citizenship and limited their education. Those without full citizenship could not study subjects like medicine, engineering and economics. Some turned to the food industry to survive, while others opened confectionery or fabric shops.

“People fled to Taiwan, Hong Kong and the United States. I always wanted to become a Chinese teacher, but I could only tutor because I majored in zoology in [the city of] Taunggyi,” says Huang Zhenzhong, chief librarian of Yangon’s Sino-Burmese library and a second-generation Fujian immigrant.

“It’s hard to say how long the oppression lasted. It still lingers,” Zhenzhong says.

Yangon’s Chinatown is predominantly made up of descendants of China’s Fujian and Guangdong provinces. Guangdong families tend to reside on the upper blocks of the street (the north end of the streets in the city’s grid system).

They are known for being excellent carpenters and mechanics, so there is an image of the god of carpentry Lu Ban at the Cantonese-built Guanyin Gumiao temple.

Lower blocks (on the south end of the streets) are devoted to families from Fujian, long known to be sea traders. They prefer to live near Yangon’s port and pray at Kheng Hock Keong temple. Erected in 1861, the temple is dedicated to sea goddess Mazu, whose statue faces Yangon River to bring prosperity.

On 19th Street, Chinese food’s evolution illustrates the changing times. Here, Myanmar youth and tourists enjoy cold Myanmar beer, barbecue and nightlife. Open since 1999, Shwe Mingalar owner Lin Soon Xiang only began selling barbecue 10 years ago.

“Many tourists and young people started coming to 19th Street for beer and snacks,” says Xiang, who used to sell simple Chinese fried noodle and rice. At the same shop, his father sold tea and cereal when he arrived in 1947 during the Chinese civil war. Xiang was born in 1967 after the riots, and as with other second- or third-generation immigrants, his Mandarin is spotty.

At Shwe Mingalar, dishes like fried fish, prawn in garlic sauce and Chinese broccoli are offered on a trilingual menu. But most patrons opt for barbecue, and fill a basket from the piles of skewered marinated pork, chicken, squid, quail eggs, okra and lotus root.

In 2013, Anthony Bourdain shot scenes for his CNN show Parts Unknown on 19th Street, further popularising the area as a tourist destination. Over grilled tofu and pork tail, he chats with rock band Side Effect about censoring their lyrics. Media censorship was lifted in 2012, but during the interview, Side Effect’s lead singer Darko said the band still needed to be careful with word choice.

Shwe Mingalar, like most places in Chinatown, has adapted its food to local tastes. “Burmese people like their food extra salty, spicy and sour,” says Xiang.

One street over, nondescript Cantonese food stalls stand under umbrellas to shield their fare from the hot sun next to Guanyin temple. Shwe Hintha’s menu offers congee, three types of noodles (egg, vermicelli and kway teow), rice with vegetables, red braised pork and chicken feet.

Lin Yueying runs the stall with her brothers. Their grandparents migrated from Taishan in Guangdong province to Yangon, settling on 20th Street in 1986. While all of their relatives have moved to places like Vancouver, London and Hong Kong for better education and jobs, Ying stayed behind. Their eldest brother won the green card lottery to work in the US.

She enjoys her humble life. Shwe Hintha attracts Cantonese who also appreciate authentic and unpretentious food.

Among the restaurants, perhaps the oldest is Baw Ga Noodle House. Open since the 1930s, the small shop serves si chat noodles 24 hours a day.

The soup stock of meat (usually chicken and pork), bones and fat are cooked continuously over coals the traditional Chinese way – it’s called “superior stock,” or gao tang. The result is braised, melt-in-your-mouth spareribs and a rich, aromatic broth paired with flour noodles and topped with scallion.

Baw Ga is an institution that has not changed much over the decades; its noodle soup and sticky rice dumplings endured the anti-Chinese violence.

In recent years, the Burmese attitudes toward Chinese have shifted. After the 1988 State Law and Order Restoration Council came to power, Chinese Burmese had fewer restrictions and began to dominate industries such as banking, retail and natural resources.

The arrival of Taiwanese bubble tea shops and the stylish Chinatown cafes are further signs of modernisation. As the city’s boom in construction and foreign investment attracts Yunnanese immigrants, from southwest China, as translators and contractors, their compatriots followed to fulfil demand for food from home.

Lin Young Ming, known for his fried chicken shop Uncle Fat, believes Chinese Burmese are successful in business because they were “super hardworking” to protect themselves in times of oppression.

As the younger generations have access to better opportunities, they tend to look down on blue-collar work. “We are migrants. Work is what got us this far. I always tell the young people to respect the street cleaners,” says Ming.

Jenny Lin, 23, is one young person that is grateful for her parents’ struggle to survive the discrimination. Born in Yangon to Hokkien-Hakka parents, the Australia-educated architect grew up in Chinatown and speaks Mandarin, Burmese and English.

“My favourite part of Chinatown is the food,” she says. “It’s heart-warming to see shops like Baw Ga running after so many generations.”

Lin’s family was not as lucky as Baw Ga. Growing up, her parents experienced discrimination in their village in the Ayeyarwady region. Grandparents on both sides of her family lost their grocery stores to arson; people on the other side of the riverbank would target Chinese families, throwing fire rings, breaking into homes and stealing the villagers’ possessions.

“They were treated like outcasts because of how they looked,” Lin says. Though Lin’s family have endured many obstacles, her father now owns a confectionery shop and her uncles run a coconut oil business in Yangon. Settled in the heart of Chinatown, they are proud of Lin’s success as an architect.

“Chinatown is a mix of cuisines and languages. We eat it all. Our taste buds are accepting of all cultures – Indian, Chinese, Burmese, minorities,” says Zhenzhong, the librarian. Though he never had the opportunity to leave Myanmar, he has access to flavours from all over Asia in downtown Yangon.


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