Stepping inside the abandoned clan houses of Chinatown
Yangon’s Chinatown is a traveller’s hotspot. Every evening 19th Street turns into a jovial street food bazaar where backpackers feast on beer and barbequed skewers and you find plenty of cheap and cheerful hostels with free breakfast and cosy rooftop bars. The whole neighbourhood has a distinct Chinese character and festive feel with red lanterns, colourful temples and mooncakes galore. But it wasn’t always like that, under the military rule life wasn’t easy for the Chinese people of Yangon. Many fled the country, those who stayed, kept a low profile and blended in. Now under the new regime, Chinese life is no longer confined behind closed doors but can once again spill out on the streets. Character signboards appear on shopfronts, people start learning Chinese, dim sum recipes resurface and every year the Chinese New Year celebrations grow bigger. We meet the Wong family to find out more about the mysterious abandoned clan houses of Chinatown.
“This clan house is over 100 years old,” says house keeper Wong Guai Yin as he gives an informal tour of the building. “We come here to hang out, eat food together and gather for celebrations like Chinese New Year.”
Most Chinese families in Chinatown belong to an ’association’ or a ‘clan’. The clan house doubles as a community space where people gather to play mahjong, pray or just hang out and drink tea. Now you can spot the clan buildings on the streets of Chinatown with their elaborate gold-plated character plaques, but in the old days there were more hidden. Very often the ground floor of the building – which is usually the most sacred part of a clan house – would be rented out as shops, particularly electronics of hardware shops, a pragmatic choice to help preserve the future of the association. Wong Guai Yin shrugs “perhaps it means we’ve adjusted to the Burmese influence, they put the most important things high up.”.
The Wong family clan house is one of the best kept on Bo Ywe Street, with the family name featuring prominently on the intricate balconies. But not all clan houses in Chinatown are so well kept, many are empty, after their families moved away, dilapidated even. Yet, their associations have no intention of selling these properties, quite the opposite, they receive regular donations to polish the furniture ready for the annual Chinese New Year family gathering.
The Wong family association house with golden plaques on the elaborate balconies
Sliding Chinese doors with intricate woodcarvings filter the sunlight
The upstairs communal hall with the Wong ancestral portraits and Chinese script hangings
Seventy-one-year old Wong Guai Yin points out the many Chinese script wall hangings that line the entire perimeter of the structure upstairs in the communal hall. “The interior decoration was all made by our ancestors. We didn’t renovate it at all. This door is from mainland [China]. It’s all antique.” Anyone can join the Wong Family Association; a membership is 500 kyat ($0.50). Many of the Wong family members now live in Hong Kong but still visit often.
Every wooden chain inside has the neat engraving of Wong Family Association and the communal hall is decorated with celebration flags and old photographs that hint at the golden years for the community when many celebrations were large scale events at the Association with live bands, singers and dancing. Wong Guai Yin follows a strict routine of rising with the sun, Burmese traditional mohingya catfish soup or kao soi coconut noodles then he oversees the clan house until midday before retiring for a snooze.
He says there have been a lot of changes over the years in Chinatown and adds that most people speak Burmese now rather than Chinese on the streets of Yangon. However, Wong Guai Yin still buys one of the only Chinese newspapers that still exists, the Golden Phoenix. While most members are Chinese people, many have different surnames and have heritage reaching back to different provinces across China. Most are Huang Zhou, Hakka, Fujianese but Wong Guai Yin adds, “anyone is welcome to come in.”
The interior decoration was done by our ancestors. We didn’t renovate it at all. This door is from mainland China. It’s all antique.
The handcrafted wooden doors and golden characters have all been brought from mainland China
Chinese script wall hangings line the entire perimeter of communal hall
Clan house keeper Wong Guai Yin (left) makes sure the property is in mint condition for when family members visit from Hong Kong.
Want to find the spirit of Chinatown?
Ready to explore the streets of Chinatown? There’s plenty more to see. Get your hands on the iDiscover Yangon Guide with 4 handcrafted itineraries that bring you the honest and authentic in the city’s most historic neighbourhoods: Chinatown, Indian Quarter, Pansodan and around the Secretariat. Comes with a free navigational app so you can get lost without getting lost. Feel more like a guided tour? Check out Yangon Heritage Trust, they’re the best.
Find Chinatown’s hidden gems and insider secrets with the iDiscover App&Map
Words and photography by Libby Hogan
Libby is a freelance journalist who has documented the changes across Myanmar’s many ethnic states in the past three years after Aung San Suu Kyi won elections. Her passion is looking at youth culture and stagleaping to isolated regions to hear untold stories from those who never had access to media or the opportunity to speak freely. Check out her website.
Libby’s favourite spot in Yangon: watching the sun set behind Shwedagon Pagoda when walking the boardwalk at Kandagyi Park.
Interviews by Tiffany Tang
Tiffany Tang is iDiscover’s community manager. Hong Kong born free-spirited and adventurous urban traveller Tiffany has a passion for culture and cities. Born in Hong Kong, she speaks Cantonese, Mandarin and English and even a bit of Tai Shan (Southern Guang Dong province) which came in handy during the interviews. She has fallen in love with Myanmar for its friendliness and relaxing creative environment.
Favourite spot in Yangon: Central Train Station, on my way to a new destination in this beautiful country
Translation & facilitation by Thurein Tint
Thurein (or just call him Tim) is 19 years old graphic designer and recent graduate from the prestigious Pre-Collegiate Programme in Yangon. He loves the city where he was born and raised, but dreams of going overseas one day to explore new adventures. Find him at @timmmdraws
Favourite spot in Yangon: they do a really good mohinga breakfast at 11th street in Chinatown
Map design by Mekong Kyaw Swar
Mekong is an art director and illustrator who handcrafts minimalistic elegant works of Burmese heritage and sunny landscapes out of his hometown Yangon. Find him at @mdesignygn
Favourite spot in Yangon: BBQ with beer on 19th street in Chinatown