Fans and pots, plastic and paper – Myanmar’s changing homeware traditions
24 Oct 2020 - Source: Myanmar Times - A large earthen pot sits on a stand in the corner of the kitchen in Daw Ni Ni Win's house.Every night she boils water and stores it in the pot. As a functional ornament, the container has a special place in the 66-year old's house.
She never tires of handling, filling up and pouring water from the pot. Her family has been using the same pot since she was a young girl – making earthenware container older than she is.
"A class of water from the loam pot cools naturally, and feels good on the stomach – unlike water from a plastic bottle from the fridge," said Daw Ni Ni Win.
She remembers her grandmother using similar earthen pots to cook in, heating them over an open flame. To her palate, the flavours always seemed more satisfying if they were stewed in the earthen pot.
Though Daw Ni Ni Win cooks with a range of modern pots and pans, she still enjoys using the loam pot for her drinking water. Even though lifestyles have changed in Yangon since she was young, it's still possible to see earthen pots outside shops and houses on the streets.
"I never thought that people would buy water in small bottles. It's so surprising to see all the different varieties too. They seem to be really trendy," said Daw Devi Thant Sin.
Daw Devi Thant Sin is a direct descendant of Myanmar's last monarchs King Thibaw and Queen Supayalat, and is an avid environmentalist. Since the abdication of her royal ancestors, the country has seen an industrial (however small) and now consumer revolution.
These changes have seen people move away from eco-friendly homewares, such as earthen pots, wooden containers and furniture. Earthenware pots might be heavier and more difficult to handle, they are also sturdier and aesthetically pleasing.
In many parts of the country it is still common for people to place earthen pots on shelves perched on the branches of leafy trees, providing water for thirsty passersby.
These pots are a reflection of the residents' generosity towards strangers. But despite the long-held tradition, it's a practice that's dying out. Many people are substituting the street's supply of water with plastic bottles.
Though plastic bottles provide people with a convenient way to transport and access water, Yangon's streets are not the same without these large earthen pots.But it's not just water that's disappeared.
Daw Devi Thant Sin used to buy her favourite fruit drinks from vendors in the streets, and now says that most people simply buy Ve Ve tamarind juice in plastic bottles. So too the old-style Mot Lat Saung (cendol), an iced sweet dessert with coconut milk, has also started to disappear from the streets.
Ma May Poe Wah, a resident of Tarmwe township, still remembers her grandmother filling up a glass bottle with cooking oil at the grocery store. The seller would pour oil into her glass bottle. The availability of plastic bottles has changed the use of glass containers for storage."The glass bottle was covered with grease, because we used it all the time. But I felt nauseous thinking of using a plastic bottle full of oil. The glass bottles always seemed to be easier to clean, and they also save on waste," said Ma May Poe Wah.
Like an earthen drinking pot at the corner of Daw Ni Ni Win's kitchen, many other traditional homewares have started to disappear from the houses of modern Yangonites. One such relic is the handmade fan, now being replaced by the electric fan and modern air-conditioning unit.
In Myanmar, handmade fans are not simply functional. They have considerable social, religious and even political importance. For example, decorated paper-folded fans are offered to guests at weddings, donation ceremonies and funerals. This practice is slowly changing, with paper fans being replaced with plastic ones.
Dr Tint Swe, a physician who served as the Minister for Information from 2009 to 2012, lived in India for 24 years. New Delhi is hotter than Mandalay, Monywa, Myingyan, Pekkoku, and Magway in summer.
"In summer if the electricity was out, I had to use a fan. But I never liked using the local ones, which were made from bamboo. I always wanted a traditional paper fan from Myanmar," Dr Tin Swe said.
Dr Tint Swe was born in Minywa village, Pale. In his childhood, fans named Khar Taw Hmi were widely used in Monywa. Paper fans were made based on bamboo and sago was used as glue.
"They are made with fingers. All ingredients are natural and organic," he said.
He said back then paper fans were widely used in different ceremonies. They were also offered at beginning and end of lent, during the Kahtein festival and for anniversaries.
For donation ceremonies, the names of donors were printed on the fans; and wedding fans had the name of the bride and groom printed on the front; and for funerals, the deceased person's name and details were written on the fan too.
In the 1990 elections, Dr Tin Swe was elected as the Pyithu Hluttaw MP for Constituency No 2 in Pale township, Sagaing Division. He won a majority (61 percent) of the votes, but was not allowed to assume his seat.
"The MPs who won in the 1990 elections were arrested and interrogated. Some were tortured, and many died in prison. When the first MP died, the military declared cancer as the cause. But during the funeral, family and friends printed fans with the encrypted message: 'Was it cancer that killed him? Let's defeat this cancer'," Dr Tint Swe said.
The paper fans are part of Myanmar's cultural history. But they also tell very personal and political histories – of weddings, of merit-making, of those who die, marry and reproduce. For generations they have embodied the culture and history of Myanmar people.
In Yangon, fans offerings are still practiced at funerals. But those fans are made of plastic.
"If I went to a funeral, people will receive a plastic fan. In my house, I have gathered over 20 fans. My friends have too. They're scattered throughout my house, and I feel too guilty to throw them away," said Ma May Poe Wah.
Compared with paper and bamboo fans, some people believe that plastic fans radiate more heat.
"Plastic fans feel still in the hand. Bamboo or paper fans fall into decay when they get old, so it's easier to throw them away," she said.
Though paper fans are quite rare in Yangon, they are still used in Mandalay. Those working in shops may make bamboo fans by first slicing the bamboo trunk, then gluing and trimming the leaves.
"But it's much easier to make plastic fans, and quicker too. If people think it will rain, or they're in a rush to conduct the wedding ceremony or funeral service, they will just order lots of plastic fans," said Daw San San Myint, a paper fan maker. Her husband's parents have been making paper fans for 50 years in Myingyan, Mandalay Region.
"In Mandalay, elderly people prefer paper fans. They think paper fans are more beautiful. The images and words on paper fans survive as long as the fans survive but prints on plastic fans fade really easily," said U Win Nyunt, owner of Sein Taw Wun invitation cards and fans in Mandalay.