On a cool morning along a section of Pyay Road, leading into central Yangon, a street vendor in a bright pink blouse rearranges her wares. Her goods aren’t religious ornaments, or even the city’s illustrious street food, but plastic toys. These displays of gaudy, mass-produced curios, awaiting excitable young buyers, are replayed throughout the city – from shops in the glitzy new Myanmar Plaza to pavement sellers on bustling Anawrahta Road.
An increasingly common sight throughout South-East Asia, these toys are proof of Myanmar’s embrace of globalisation. Mostly imported from neighbouring China, these newfangled playthings might represent progress, but they also pose a threat to local culture.
For generations, traditional papier-mâché gifts like the pyit taing htaung (an egg-shaped face weighted at the bottom), zee kyut (golden owls) and nwar yote (painted oxen) have been a rite of passage for young children across Myanmar. Usually sold at stalls near pagoda entrances, they are crafted by hand, with strips of glue-soaked newspaper plastered around a wooden mould and left to bake in the sun. Each toy is a labour of love, taking between three and five days to complete. Unfortunately, the future of these trinkets is increasingly being threatened by the cheap, factory-made plastic gizmos flooding Myanmar.
Khim Mg Tham has sold traditional toys for 60 years at his stall at the south entrance to Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda. “The village people and tourists like the traditional toys, while the city people want plastic,” he tells me.
Si Thu Mar, who runs Thein Yga Nar at the pagoda’s east entrance, shares Tham’s sentiments. In addition to chintzy artwork and Buddhist iconography, his store sells numerous papier-mâché creations. “Foreigners like the handmade pieces,” he explains. “But for local children, the price has to be cheap. That’s why we sell the plastic toys.”
While the prospects for these toys may seem bleak, all is not lost. Craft shops like Yangoods (in Bogyoke Market), Pomelo and Hla Day still sell pricier, prettier versions of the traditional toys to a mostly foreign clientele. If it continues to grow, this fledgling demand from overseas visitors might just be what ensures the future of these traditional Burmese toys and their tireless makers.
This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine.