Sunday, December 29, 2013

Little Myanmar in Malaysia

Jeff has a very simple food stall on a sidewalk right across the street from Pudu Plaza, together with his wife. Fried dishes, basically.

He is from Tanintharyi, one of the two southernmost divisions of Myanmar, where access for foreigners until recently was very restricted unless you paid a good deal of money. He is ethnically Burmese. I have known him for a few years now. He has a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) card, just like his wife.

He comes from a peasant background and used to live in a very small village, not far from the sea. He has shown me Internet snapshots of the incredibly beautiful and mostly unexplored beaches not far from his home. Tanintharyi is also dotted with islands along its long coast. Had it been anywhere else, it would have become a major tourist destination by now.

I have met before Myanmar refugees trying to make a living by running small food stalls. Of course, they invariably sublet from local restaurants. And in Jalan Alor, Bukit Bintang, where there is a good deal of bustle, such food stalls can be patronised by quite a few people.

In this case, I am told that the owners of the restaurants usually raise the rent as soon as they notice the stall holder has many clients. The problem is that then the stall holder often cannot make much of a profit as he or she usually caters to very low income customers, often from Myanmar itself.

At Jalan Alor, for instance, the food stalls run by Mon, Shan and other Myanmar ethnic groups usually offer a limited range of simple Myanmar fare at moderate prices. The food is not to my taste as the ingredients are obviously cheap and too much oil is used when cooking them. The taste is often too sour.

I do enjoy having Shan noodles, however, in Jalan Alor, in spite of their more than slightly sour taste. The stalls are interesting because they are an attempt on the part of Myanmar residents of Pudu and Bukit Bintang to break away from a circle of dependence on low-paid work.

A Shan friend - one of the largest Buddhist minorities in Myanmar - Roger, has attempted to run a food stall in Jalan Alor. He is from a small town next to the famous Inle Lake (a major tourist destination in the country). He came to grief.

He had two employees and five tables. He offered less than half a dozen dishes, however, one of them being the famous lepehthou salad, a Myanmar specialty, made of tealeaf and grains with oil and tomatoes added, as well as spices. It goes down very well with beer (Roger's business also offered two different kinds of beer).

The salad can also be bought at Myanmar shops (in the vicinity of Masjid India, for instance, there are some very big stores catering to Myanmar residents), including in the form of a packet to be prepared at home (you just have to add the oil and your favourite vegetables and mix everything).

A one-man show

The reason Roger came to grief was not his lack of success in attracting clients. It just did not pay to run his own business. For example, he had to buy pork in bulk, whereas he would only use comparatively small quantities. Storage was also a problem.

At the end of the day, there were so many issues that he simply gave up, and managed to be reinstated in his job as a waiter at a night venue in Bukit Bintang. Roger is now back in Myanmar running his own business in his hometown, catering to tourists.

Fred run his own food stall - a one-man show - for some time in Klang. He said however that as he was successful, locals simply pulled the carpet from under his feet. They managed to steal his clients, he told me.

My impression from talking to some people who tried to become small entrepreneurs - and sometimes succeeded in doing so - is that they work almost as hard or even harder than if they had remained as mere employees.

Also, the issue of ownership of their businesses is an open one. They cannot open a business on their own for lack of capital and lack of a proper permit.

I once met a Chinese Burmese who run a large shop in Pudu. He had good ties with the police, he told me. Some officers had in fact become his personal friends. He added that he had no complaints about Malaysia.

His clients are almost invariably other people from Myanmar (though usually not Chinese). His business is reasonably large and well-heeled. It is also well-located.

Meanwhile, Jeff's business in Pudu seems to be the exact opposite, though it is not located very far from the shop of his Chinese Burmese compatriot. Namely, it is very modestly funded, and I have no doubt that he makes little money out of it.

I can see his young, petite wife, is worried. She tells me they have been running the food stall now for three months. She entreats me to come back and have a meal. They did not seem to be busy at all.

Interestingly, the mix of clients in this case clearly includes locals. I find Jeff's business quite well located, even though it is modest, as it is next to Pudu Plaza and a busy intersection as well.

I find these men and women from Myanmar, perhaps not including the Chinese Burmese shop owner, quite admirable. They are running a business with little capital and a good deal of uncertainty, especially as they are invariably dependent on locals.

It is my impression that they cannot really compete with locals, even if they had wanted to (not even in the case of the Chinese Burmese). Instead, they cater mostly or even exclusively to the various Myanmar communities in town.

In this sense, both Pudu and Bukit Bintang are perhaps ideal areas to open a small business because of the very large number of Myanmar residents. People, of course, patronise businesses run by an ethnic group other than one's own.

I have seen therefore Chins becoming the main clients of a shop run by a Christian Karen; going to a karaoke venue with music in Burmese and English run by Burmese; eating at the Mon food stalls in Jalan Alor, etc.

Too working class

It is very interesting to think that all this bustling activity is mostly found in Kuala Lumpur. Malacca, for instance, seems to have only two Myanmar shops, one of them very small. Seremban, I am told, has none.

All of this goes under the radar as far as many Malaysians and foreigners are concerned, as the businesses are often very simple and therefore inconspicuous. They also usually cater only to people from Myanmar, though there are exceptions, as in the case of Fred's food stall in Klang and Roger's and his wife's in Pudu.

I have also discovered there are two Chin shops, both of them Mizo, in Pudu. One of them is simply called 'Mizo Dawr' (i.e., Mizo Shop). They seem to cater almost exclusively to Chins in general and Mizo (a sub-group within the larger group of Chins) in particular.

It is a pity many of the businesses cannot cater to locals and foreigners. The ambiance is too working class, for one thing, and far too male and young. Many people would no doubt feel put off by both facts. In the case of the Chin, women are not supposed to go to such shops except to buy something and leave quickly afterwards.

If they sit down, then they have to be with a close relative or their fiancé. Also, it is better that they do not drink any alcohol. Besides, they should never become regulars under pain of being talked about.

The result is that the shops, even when partly run or serviced by women, do not necessarily have a very pleasant ambiance, as there is an excess of testosterone in the air, so to speak. The women who work there must also be prepared to try and stop any fights that may break out (sic).

Interestingly, from what I have seen so far, women seem to have a good deal of clout in such situations, especially if they are outspoken and somewhat older than their often very young clients (the demographics of the various Myanmar communities in town is of course very skewed, with a preponderance of young males).

None of this of course happens in an ethnic enclave as such. Even the areas near Pudu Plaza where so many Chins live (the UNHCR office is nearby) cannot be called proper ethnic neighbourhoods (say, a Little Chin Hills). Locals still abound on the streets, though not inside some tenements.

It is therefore very intriguing to notice that, rather than a separate ethnoscape, the various Myanmar groups in town in fact weave themselves into the seamier parts of the urban fabric (especially as they hardly have any choice in this regard), without becoming largely separate communities as such.

They remain therefore at the end of the day part and parcel of Malaysia's complex cosmopolitan society, even though they are seldom acknowledged as such. - mkini