Burmese Lacquerware Loses Its Shine
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Burmese Lacquerware Loses Its Shine

By KYI WAI / RANGOON Monday, January 19, 2009

Waiting for the tourists—Burmese lacquerware finds few buyers these days in the deserted markets of Bagan. A slump in Burma tourism and sharply rising costs are driving lacquerware manufacturers out of business. (Photo: Kyi Wai/ The Irrawaddy)

Burma’s famous lacquerware is losing its shine. Less than one third of the more than 200 lacquerware factories and small workshops operating in the early 1990s in Pagan, one of the country’s major tourist destinations, are still in business.

Chan Aye’s family-run lacquerware business is the latest to go to the wall. The small factory, in Myin Kabar village, outside Pagan, was doing well when Chan Aye took it over from his father in 2000.

Since 2005, however, rising production costs and falling numbers of visiting tourists took their toll. Chan Aye finally gave up the struggle to keep afloat the business that had supported at least two generations of his family since colonial times. “It’s a hard blow,” he said.

The closure of Chan Aye’s factory adds one more statistic to the rising number of business failures in Pagan. Last year, the city and nearby villages had just 11 lacquerware factories and 60 smaller plants, compared to the more than 200 manufacturers supported by a buoyant tourist trade in the early 1990s.

About 70 percent of the city’s workforce is employed in the industry. Virtually every family in Chan Aye’s village depends on the trade in lacquerware.

More than 90 percent of the lacquerware produced in Pagan is sold to visiting tourists and the slump in tourism to Burma in recent years has dealt a crippling blow to the industry. Exports to China and Japan have plummeted.

Rising prices of raw materials, particularly resin, have also taken their toll.

"A tin of resin (approximately 15.3 kilograms) that sold 15 years ago for 5,000 kyat now costs 200,000 kyat,” said lacquerware manufacturer Sein Win. “Small businesses are being forced out of the market or are becoming sub-contractors to big industry."

Lacquerware has been produced in Pagan for centuries, perhaps as far back as at the time of the city’s foundation 1,000 years ago. Techniques were passed from one generation to the next, and the family manufacturing tradition is still carried on today.

Foreign interest in Pagan lacquerware grew rapidly over the past 45 years and contributed to a steady growth in the size and success of the industry—until the recent tourism crisis, which saw the numbers of foreign visitors arriving at Rangoon and Mandalay airports drop from 260,000 in 2006 to 177,000 in 2008.

Closures of lacquerware factories increase in direct proportion to the fall in tourist arrivals. As factories and workshops close, young people are turning their backs on the age-old craft and looking for alternative work in Pagan and other cities—and some are predicting that Burmese lacquerware may eventually be consigned to museum showcases.

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