Reshmi Banerjee reviews Jayde Lin Roberts’ book on the Sino-Burmese in Yangon.
The meaning of a new place, as defined by an immigrant ethnic community, is often shaped by daily interactions with the local population, evolving circumstances that make one resourceful, and the yearning for an adopted ‘home’ away from home. Identities get created, questioned and re-shaped vis-à-vis a place, offering chances to explore the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, charting new spaces for fruitful engagement. Jayde Lin Roberts attempts to reflect upon the Sino-Burmese in Yangon and their efforts to be both Chinese and Burmese at the same time; their pragmatic recognition of the desirable interdependence which becomes necessarily instrumental for their negotiation of and survival in Myanmar. They have tried to retrieve their cultural heritage as a way of living to make a place for themselves in Yangon. Although they have struggled with their changing fortunes in Myanmar, their pursuit of economic stability and cultural belonging has helped them to overcome difficult times. Through spatial ethnography, Roberts describes the Sino-Burmese with a focus on the Hokkien Chinese in Yangon, analyzing various aspects of their lives and kinship networks through the study of their temples, schools, commerce, public spaces and festivals. In doing so, she simultaneously outlines the phases of insecurity found in Sino-Burmese history- insecurity created by the regimes: China, which was indifferent to the Sino-Burmese population, and Myanmar, which actively marginalized them.
Roberts begins with the rigid rectilinear grid of city planning and the spatial–legal structure of the colonial city which, in Rangoon, was a construct of the British that brought with it a social order unfamiliar to local residents. The Chinese migrants managed to fit themselves into this urban framework – a fact evidenced by the establishment of the China Wharf – setting up of family and clan-based businesses which focused on rice trade profit, the rise of active Chinese middlemen interested in luxury goods import, the rise of clan and native place associations, and the emergence of secret societies and rich Hokkien mansions, the latter having connections with the Baba-Nyonya culture and Peranakan practices in Penang. Today, Nineteenth Street and the Mahabandula night market in Rangoon are an inseparable part of the Chinese neighbourhood. They are also interesting and embracing zones of identity-formation and new cultural contact.
The Hokkien Chinese community has tried to provide security and a sense of belonging to their existence in Myanmar through the spiritual worship centre of the Hokkien Kuanyin Temple. It is here that the interconnections between generations are encouraged, traditions are cherished and the ancestral village is re-constructed in memories through the reverence for regional deities. It also serves as a supportive community centre for the elderly and the destitute. The temple has become a place where the young and the old share their past and present, linking them in a strong social network. Just like the temples, the Chinese medium schools have become a rallying point to draw the Hokkien, the Cantonese or the Yunnanese into distinct but overlapping communities of learning. The Sino-Burmese have steered clear of politics and moved inwards towards forming ties of dialect and native place. The schools have faced innumerable challenges operating in an ever-changing environment, like balancing the need to retain Chinese culture with the relentless attempts at Burmanization, suppression of anything Chinese during the Socialist period marked by temporary school closures, the conflict of ideology between mainland China and Myanmar and finally, communal riots in the 1960s. The silence of the community, as observed by the author, during the period from 1967 to 1988 speaks volumes to the difficult times that they have faced. This resulted in firstly making the community practical, displayed by their urge to make money as a safety net and secondly, it made them tactical, evident by their desire to promote Chinese literacy without promoting Chinese patriotism – thus charting out a utilitarian path from being a Chinese into a Sino-Burmese.
This was evident in the realm of commerce too as Jayde Roberts discusses the calculated risks taken by the Sino-Burmese merchants. She traces their position during the colonial times vis-à-vis the Indian community, the Confucian principles combined with commercial acumen, their peripheral economic role in the overseas Chinese network and their reliance on domestic market matched with intimate economy, the latter reinstating their belief in family ties. As compared to the Indians, they were less wealthy which meant fewer backlashes from the locals and their easy mingling with the local Buddhist society revealed their commonsensical approach. The book takes us through changing times of the 1990s when rapid changes of more foreign investment and open border trade were seized by the community- the growth of City Mart in Yangon being a case in point of new successful business ventures and retail experimentation.
The Sino-Burmese are also seen enthusiastically financing Chinese New Year celebrations with cultural performances like lion and dragon dancing. Old customs, like having zodiac decorations and pre-packaged traditional sweets, are being combined with contemporary practices like the use of decorated floats, which is also a traditional part of the Burmese New Year Thingyan. Introduction of martial arts such as lion dancing on posts is making Chinese festivals more attractive for the locals too. The Sino-Burmese are seen as adapting to the local Burmese context while retaining the Chinese essence of the festival. Even the custom of placating ghosts has been changed to suit local practices.
Identity is always in relation to the other. The book displays how the Sino-Burmese have re-invented themselves to suit unforeseeable situations and unfamiliar audiences. They have been flexible and stoic, connected to their roots yet ready to mould themselves in a new terrain. They have felt excluded from the mainstream in Myanmar but their economic prowess and enterprising spirit has been acknowledged over the years. They see their future linked to a country where they have faced hardships but used their resilience and community-networks to build their lives. Alienation and ownership co-exists just as traditional Chinese norms and modern opportunities mix. Jayde Roberts is successful in weaving this absorbing narrative of space, place and history of a community, thus helping us to grasp their responses to socio-economic up-rootedness and uneasy political shifts in Myanmar.