After years of isolation, Burma is still somewhat of an enigma to outsiders. Thanks to their resourcefulness, the opposite is true for the Burmese. They have an insatiable thirst for knowledge from outside their borders. Miniskirts and modern cars, new to the eyes in Yangon, will soon dominate the landscape. The city is modernizing at the fastest rate seen in the last few decades. As globalization sets the pace, traditions will have a difficult time keeping up. One such man struggling with this balance is Min Naing.
Min Naing lives in Pathein, a seemingly unremarkable river town, four hours from Yangon. The few foreign travelers who stop here quickly move on to the beaches on the Andaman coast. It’s not a place I would normally recommend to visit if it weren’t for the four to five streets that make up the ‘umbrella’ quarter. The Shwe Sar workshop is where Min Naing and his family work their magic.
Their story begins more than a century ago. In 1885, the British troops invade Mandalay. Min Naing’s great-great-great-grandfather is forced to flee the city. He escapes in a boat and sails down the Ayeyarwady until he finds himself in Pathein. Only the colonial British buildings now date back to that time. In those days, greenery very much had the upper hand. To Min Naing’s grandfather it seems a safe haven. He decides to settle here; a decision greatly influenced by a certain charming local farmer’s daughter. Together, they start making parasols. He builds the wooden frames; she makes the canopy out of bamboo paper. They follow both the Mandalay and Bagan traditions of making and decorating the parasols, which the founder picked up during his travels to Pathein.
To keep the peace with the British, they also start making parasols with bamboo cotton, instead of the traditional paper. Next come the Japanese and with them silk fabric is added to the catalogue. Ten years ago, they started making decorative parasols for hotels, restaurants and celebrations. Now they also create custom pieces and little umbrella-lampshades. Through adversity the business has grown slowly, but surely. Adapting as they go, while staying true to their patrimony. Each umbrella is individually handcrafted from locally sourced materials.
Today, Min Naing is the head of the family workshop and represents the fifth generation. Around 25 people work here, all family, year round. He learned everything there is to know about these umbrellas since he was a small boy. This is where he grew up. Every day he would be in the workshop: watching, playing, eating, sleeping and listening to the stories his grandfather told. Min Naing was the first generation to go to school. But instead of playing soccer with this friends afterwards, he would go back to the workshop. And happily so, he adds. He cares for the family and the workshop. When I ask him if he has children, Min Naing, 35 years old, glances at his mother. She is almost 80 and suffering from diabetes. The whole family takes care of her. Throughout the day I always see someone tending to her, brushing her hair or just being near, keeping an eye out. In Min’s eyes I see the respect for her and his family. Our eyes meet and he laughs. These umbrellas, they are his babies. It’s an Asian thing, he says. He serves his family. They need his full attention. Having his own family would distract him from that, so as head of the family, he can never marry. I watch six-year old Aung Thu play in his great-grandmother’s wheelchair. He’s always smiling and learning. Aung Thu, or one of his nephews, will grow up to lead the next generation.
But times change, Min Naing tells me. Perhaps the next generation will marry. Ten years ago, there would only be one TV in the village. Now almost each household has a TV from China. And he’s opened up his workshop to teach local people how to make parasols. He is open to teaching anyone who wants work and who wants to learn, not just family. Min Naing is proud of his heritage. He loves the modern styles too, but his heart is in Myanmar he says. It’s odd to him that foreigners are the ones who love the traditional umbrellas the most. When I ask him what his hope is for the future, he says he hopes that with this, branching out to new products and adding export venues, they can keep their tradition alive. He pauses a while, thinks and then adds softly, “I hope also my fellow countrymen appreciate more the traditional. They will return and recognize the rich heritage. Maybe instead of buying a cheaper plastic umbrella each year, go back to one that lasts longer than plastic and metal”.
After our interview, Min Naing takes me to his family’s Buddha shrine upstairs to show me photographs of his forefathers. My hope is also that he, and generations to come, can stay true to their art, while keeping the knowledge and traditions alive. They have made it so far.