(SPECIAL FEATURE) A December afternoon in Rangoon is still as hot as the summertime. Under the scorching sun, overloaded buses running along 16th Street in Chinatown look like they’re on their last legs. Small pinwheels spin lazily on the overhanging balconies.
Li Piaoxing, dressed in a traditional Burmese longyi, was lying on a sling chair in the dusty antique lobby that serves as a base for the Burma Overseas Young Chinese League. Like many other similar communities launched by Burmese-Chinese (that is, Chinese people born in Burma), the MOYCL faces the distinct possibility of withering away. Mr. Li, the Chief Secretary of the League and the only member in the lobby at that time, explained his worries about the future: “We haven’t recruited any new members in a long time. The new generation is not interested in the Chinese community or our culture.”
Several blocks away, Fzazin Chen, a Burmese-Chinese medical student, is going to a Chinese school to attend her traditional Chinese dancing class. Fzazin says there are no student unions or activities in her university. The Chinese school gives her a stage to show her talent not only in language, but also in traditional arts. Although the Chinese schools in Burma—calling themselves “training classes”—are not acknowledged by the government, they provide a chance for young Chinese in Rangoon to learn Mandarin and Chinese culture.
Contrary to what Mr. Li worries about, increasing numbers of young Burmese-Chinese attend Chinese language classes, showing their interest for Chinese culture and a language which most of their parents do not understand. On the other hand, they do not like to form organizations as readily as their parents and grandparents did. The Burmese-Chinese new generation is arguably a community in flux, albeit slowly and often imperceptibly.
Since Chinese first migrated into present-day Burma during the Song and Ming Dynasties of centuries ago, Chinese now officially make up more than three percent of the population and have undoubtedly made great contributions to the economic development of the country over the years.
But there is a so-called “40-year fault-line” in the Chinese communities in Burma, one which differentiates between the new and old generations of Burmese-Chinese.
Mr. Shen says he concealed his Chinese identity for decades. Just a couple of years ago, he was still afraid of speaking Chinese in public, sometimes even in his home. “I did not teach my children Chinese. None of them can speak Chinese,” he said.
Mr. Shen’s behavior is understandable in a generation which had experienced the violent anti-Chinese riots starting in 1962 when Gen. Ne Win, who is also a Burmese-Chinese, took power by force, establishing the Revolutionary Council under his “Burmese Way to Socialism.”
Then, to divert public attention from the uncontrollable inflation, scarcity of consumer items and rising prices of rice, Ne Win’s government successfully kindled some racial animosity and ethnic conflicts against the Chinese, especially during the Cultural Revolution in China, beginning in 1966.
Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law further restricted citizenship for Burmese-Chinese and severely limited them attending tertiary education, including medical, engineering, agriculture and economics colleges.
“Many Chinese shops were set on fire and destroyed,” said Mr. Shen. “All the schools were nationalized and the government didn’t allow the teaching of Chinese in any schools, even now. We dared not teach our children Chinese for fear of getting into trouble. I only spoke Burmese at home and asked my children to talk and to behave like Bamars [Burmans]. They know they are Chinese, but they don’t know what it means.”
However, things have changed with this new generation.
As the Burmese economy has tight bonds with Chinese investment, Chinese business connections have become increasingly important to the young generation. Living in an age far removed from the period of anti-Chinese riots, they work from dawn to dusk and beyond and still manage the time to squeeze in Mandarin lessons.
“Chinese companies prefer those who can speak Chinese,” said Fzazin. “Learning Chinese helps me find a better job and make a better life.”
Jiang Qiying, the deputy director of Fuxing Confucius Classroom which is sponsored by the Chinese government, said, “We have more than 200 Chinese teachers registered. Almost all of them are Burmese-Chinese. I believe the actual figure of Chinese teachers is much higher. You know, the demand for Chinese lessons has been increasing dramatically.”
The majority of Chinese schools in Rangoon, however, are public ones sponsored by older Chinese.
“We should serve our culture!” said Wu Rongjie, a member of a Confucian temple council in Chinatown. “All the classes here are free of charge. We council members raise funds all by ourselves and the temple owns the classrooms and teaching instruments.”
He calls the Burmans “outsiders” and says, “We are living in the outsiders’ country and our generation has no choice. But we should carry forward our Chinese culture to the next generation.”
But to the generation of Thin Thin, the past is just the past.
Unlike most of her Burman peers, 20-year-old Thin Thin Phou Han Sein dresses in jeans and T-shirts without thanakha—a traditional white cosmetic—on her cheeks. Sitting in a Korean beverage outlet, she looks like an ordinary girl from a Chinese city like Kunming. On her Facebook page, she says she likes Justin Bieber and Harry Porter, and says she knows Burmese, English and Chinese.
“When I was in elementary school, one day during a class discussion, a Bamar classmate shouted at me: ‘Go back to your China!’ But it did not hurt me because we were very young. But that’s the only case like this in my life,” said Thin Thin. “I have never seen any major conflict between Bamars and Chinese. We live together in peace.”
Speaking Burmese more often than Chinese with her friends, Thin Thin also admits that she prefers making friends with Burmese-Chinese, “They [Bamars] have different values from ours. I cannot figure it out but I can feel it.”
Kuo Meiyuan, a 20-year-old Chinese teacher, said, “I don’t like to talk about politics with Bamars. If we have different opinions, Bamars will say ‘you Chinese’. That makes me uncomfortable.”
If there is a tradition that the new generation preserves best, it is in keeping a distance from politics. In the Chinese neighborhoods, politics have remained a taboo subject for a long time, several Chinatown locals say.
“We do business; they play the game of politics. We often pay the ‘tea money’ to the authorities just to keep us out of the spotlight,” says Wu Rongjie who owns a trading firm in Rangoon. He says the recent reforms in Burma have not made any difference to the Chinese community.
Thin Thin recalls that in 2007 when the Saffron Revolution was happening, she missed an exam because her mother did not allow her to go out. “What my parents emphasized most is ‘mind your own business.’ They don’t like to get involved in conflicts,” she said. “If you are Chinese and involved with politics, no one will help you when you get into trouble.”
Sometimes Thin Thin talks about Aung San Suu Kyi with her Bamar friends. “But it’s just when we come across a newspaper with her picture and we say ‘Hey, she did this. Great!’ We don’t further the topic.”
A few members of parliament are believed to be Burmese-Chinese, but they have never admitted their Chinese identity.
Chinese have been struggling between the cracks for decades in Burma. Therefore, they are naturally cautious while the current reforms are taking place.
“I don’t see any changes,” said Mr. Wu. “On the contrary, business is getting harder because of unstable policies.”
But Thin Thin sees a big change in recent years. “SIM cards are more affordable,” she says. “In the past a card costs millions of kyat but now it only costs hundreds of thousands. The Internet has become more accessible and cars are much cheaper.”
Thin Thin has been to Beijing, the capital of China, once on a summer camp sponsored by the Chinese government. She says when she was in China, she realized she was a Burmese, but in Burma, she recognizes herself as a Chinese.
“It’s complicated. To put it precisely, I’m a Chinese born in Burma,” she concedes.
“Some of my Bamar friends say I have a Chinese accent when I speak Burmese, even though I was born in Burma,” said Thin Thin. “Maybe that’s just the Chinese part of me coming through.”