14 Oct Transforming the Streets of Yangon Chinatown
Jenny Lin knows where to get the best pork rib noodles in Yangon. A third-generation Chinese who grew up in Myanmar’s biggest Chinatown, Jenny journeyed to Australia to study architecture. Now, she has returned to her roots and is set to transform her beloved streets of Chinatown, one step at a time. We spoke to Jenny about her hopes and dreams for Yangon Chinatown and its heritage buildings, her favourite places around town, fond childhood memories and family.
BUT FIRST, A BIT OF HISTORY
With its bustling streets adorned with festive red lanterns, colourful temples and cheap and cheerful hostels, Yangon Chinatown is a traveller’s hotspot. Every evening, 19th Street turns into a lively street food bazaar where backpackers feast on barbequed skewers and cold beer. As of today, it’s a jovial, fun and distinctively Chinese neighbourhood, but it wasn’t always like that. Under the military rule, Chinatown’s streets were quiet, with Chinese libraries and noodle joints tucked away behind Burmese shophouse facades. In the 1960s and 70s, people of Chinese heritage didn’t have it easy in Yangon, facing widespread discrimination and persecution. The 1967 anti-Chinese riots — caused by the spread of China’s cultural revolution ideology amongst Chinese expats in Burma — precipitated a deterioration in Sino-Burmese relations, which only normalised well into the 1970s. Many Chinese fled the country, but those who stayed kept a low-profile and made an effort to blend in with the native population.
PORK RIB NOODLES
“My earliest memory is eating pork rib soup with my dad at the corner noodle stall of Lanmadaw and Mahabandoola road. It’s the best,” Jenny recounts with a smile. “It’s still there; you should go try it!”
Born in Yangon, Jenny was raised differently compared to most of her 78 classmates — who all had Chinese backgrounds — at the local public school. “Unlike the rest of my friends, my parents didn’t pressure me to go to medical school,” she explains. “My dad just told me: ‘I don’t care if you don’t get rich, as long as you’re modest and respectful’.” Jenny decided to set off to Australia to study Architecture at the University of Technology in Sydney.
Jenny is grateful to her parents for allowing her to study abroad and encouraging her to develop an international perspective. She puts their open mindset down as a product of their humble beginnings: farming and selling produce in the Irrawaddy region. As Jenny’s parents belonged to a minority group, their childhood wasn’t an easy one. Jenny remembers her mother’s stories of how Chinese houses were set on fire and how the government prohibited foreigners from owning land.
During the military crackdown on students protesting and calling for democracy, Jenny’s parents decided to move to Yangon to study at the university there. Despite the uncertainty at the time, they never failed to look on the bright side of life. “My parents remember the fun times they’ve had,” says Jenny. “Such as meeting one another and hanging out in the student compound of the university.”
PRESERVING CHINESE HERITAGE AND COMMUNITY
At first, Jenny was set on becoming a designer, but she was quick to realise that architecture was her calling instead. She now works with Doh Eain (Burmese for “Our Home”) a social enterprise that renovates heritage homes in Yangon, improves public spaces and organises social and cultural activities that connect people to places. “Yangon is rapidly developing. There’s a lot of new infrastructure being built, which is why we don’t have enough space for children to play anymore” Jenny argues, who oversees Doh Eain’s back alleyway project. Together with the Yangon regional authorities, the project is dedicated to cleaning up some of Yangon’s notorious ‘trash alleys’ by getting rid of the rubbish, fixing drainages, building an urban garden with a playground, as well as adorning the streets with murals.
Jenny’s dream is for historical buildings in Yangon Chinatown to be preserved and restored. According to Jenny, many of the elders in the neighbourhood do not see why these traditional structures are special, but she believes that her generation and the next one will be advocates for heritage preservation. “I think this is something young people are interested in,” she states while helping local school children to paint a new mural. High ceilings, a wide doorway with shutters and two small windows on both sides of the door are some of the features that mark traditional Chinese homes in Chinatown. Jenny believes that a retrofit approach — keeping the exterior features and repurposing the space on the inside — could bring new life to some of these homes.
THE FUTURE OF YANGON CHINATOWN
“My favourite building is the Chinese medicine shop near Latha Street. I find it fascinating to look at how this old structure has been constructed, with its high ceiling and wooden benches,” Jenny explains while walking around Chinatown. The traditional shuttered homes on Strand Road are also among her favourite structures in the neighbourhood. Retracing the steps she usually takes with her family on Chinese New Year, Jenny concludes: “My hope for Chinatown is that the open-plan Chinese houses will be preserved. They’re really precious to me. Every building itself is a collection of memories, as well as a testimony of the Chinese heritage and culture in Yangon.”
Want to explore Yangon Chinatown yourself?
Get your hands on the iDiscover Yangon City Guide! It comes with 6 designer maps of Yangon’s most captivating neighbourhoods — Chinatown, Downtown, Indian Quarter, Secretariat, Yangon Good Guide and Circular Train — so you can get lost without getting lost. Our guide comes with a free storytelling app with 100% offline GPS navigation, little known secrets and insider tips, as well as a traveller’s checklist to challenge you to make the most out of your local culture travel experience! Do you feel like having more of a guided tour? Check out Yangon Heritage Trust; they’re the best.
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 stag leaping 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 sunset 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. 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 a 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 @mini_mekong
Favourite spot in Yangon: BBQ with beer on 19th street in Chinatown