The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
A Visit to Chinatown

Chinese influence is growing in Rangoon, but not everyone is happy about it

“I’m not choosy, so long as the food is okay,” said Theingi when asked if she preferred Burmese or Chinese restaurants. Hungrily tucking into some grilled pork ribs at a sidewalk food stall, she said she hadn’t really thought about whether she had any anti-Chinese feelings, adding that she came with her colleagues to eat in Rangoon’s Chinatown several times a month.

Rangoon’s bustling Chinatown attracts many Burmese, but also worries some who see it as a sign of growing Chinese influence.
Chinatown—which translates as “Tayote Tan” in Burmese—is attracting people like Theingi, because, as in most cities where the Chinese have built a distinctive quarter, it offers a refreshing contrast to local culture.

First created by the British when they expanded the city in the 1850s, Rangoon’s Chinatown is bounded by Mahabandoola and Shwedagon Pagoda Road to the north and east, and Strand Road and Shwedaungdan Street to the south and west, respectively. Occupying about a fifth of the city’s downtown area, the crowded streets are packed with restaurants, gold and jewelry stores, game centers, cyber cafés, fashion shops, mini-marts, food stalls and fruit vendors.

Though not officially called Tayote Tan, the area is known as such by those who throng its vibrant street life. For the present it seems to matter little to most people what, if any, anti-Chinese sentiment there may be. For them, Chinatown is a place to go.

“I started this street-side restaurant with two tables 30 years ago, but my business has grown and grown,” said a Chinese woman in her early 50s as she prepared lunch for her customers. Today she owns five sidewalk food stalls and two fruit shops, and with the money earned she has bought two apartments for her children in Chinatown and one in Hlaing Tharyar, on the outskirts of the city.

The boom in business and rising property values has made Chinatown a center for Chinese migrants, but in a teashop nearby a group of Burman men saw the increasingly prosperous quarter as a threat to the former capital.

“We should keep in mind that they’re going to swallow us up sooner or later,” said an elderly Burmese man, warning that Rangoon’s residents should consider how the face of Mandalay, the country’s second largest city, has changed.

The last bastion of the Burmese kings before the entire country fell to Britain in 1885, Mandalay has fallen sway to a new wave of outsiders—Chinese migrants. The growing Chinese community in Mandalay continues to attract migrants from Yunnan Province in southwestern China, who are now deeply involved in many sectors of the local economy. Chinese-owned hotels, guesthouses, restaurants and small businesses have sprung up, and Chinese festivals are firmly embedded in the city’s cultural calendar.
The men agreed that the influx of Chinese migrants and their growing influence was probably unstoppable.

“Rangoon will be no exception,” one of them said. “There is no reason to stop the Chinese coming and no way to stem their increasing influence. They have settled all over the country, and it would be impossible to root them out. Rangoon’s 6.4 million Burmese are bound to fall under their influence.”

Another man thought the situation was made worse by the military government, which has no quota for Chinese migrants entering the country.

“The junta doesn’t want to do anything to upset the Chinese Communist government, which shields them from international pressure,” he said.

While many blame the military government for allowing the Chinese to come in such numbers, the oldest in the group said it was up to the Burmese not to let outsiders get too much influence.

“There are many Chinese in other countries who live harmoniously with their hosts,” he said. “We just have to work harder to make sure we keep control of what matters and preserve our culture.

“I enjoy going to Tayote Tan every now and then, but I wouldn’t want every town in Burma to look so Chinese,” the old Burman said.

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group |