At night, the main drag of Chinatown in downtown Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, is filled with the smell of barbecued pork, chicken, squid, and quail eggs.
Up and down 19th Street, people can be seen huddled over grills, enjoying cold beers and marinated skewers. It was here where Anthony Bourdain chose to shoot scenes for his CNN food travel show Parts Unknown in 2013, chatting with a local rock band over grilled tofu and pork tail.
“Many tourists and young people started coming to 19th Street for beer and snacks,” says Lin Soon Xiang, the owner of Shwe Mingalar, which sells barbecue.
Ten years ago, his shop only sold Chinese fried noodles and rice. Lin, who speaks spotty Mandarin at best, is a second-generation Chinese-Burmese immigrant. His father arrived in Myanmar, then known as Burma, in 1947, during the Chinese Civil War, and started selling tea and cereal.
Like most places in Chinatown, Lin adapted his store’s food to local tastes. “Burmese people like their food extra salty, spicy, and sour,” Lin says.
The Chinese make up an estimated 3 percent of the population in Myanmar, according to the CIA Factbook, with most tracing their ancestry to China’s Fujian and Guangdong provinces. Many of them came to Myanmar as traders and artisans.
Although Yangon’s Chinatown today is filled with Taiwanese bubble tea shops and stylish cafes, the Chinese were not always accepted in Myanmar. Anti-Chinese riots in the 1960s forced many business owners to close shop or flee the country.
Jenny Lin, an Australian-educated architect born in Yangon to Chinese parents, recalls hearing stories of her grandparents losing their grocery stores to arson. People would target Chinese families, throwing fire rings, breaking into homes, and stealing possessions.
“They were treated like outcasts because of how they looked,” Lin says.
A law passed in 1963 prohibited non-citizen Chinese from owning land or obtaining business licenses. The most violent riots took place in 1967, when Chinese schools that supported the Cultural Revolution in China came in conflict with the government in Myanmar.
“It’s hard to say how long the oppression lasted. It still lingers.”
After the riots, a new law in 1982 prevented the Chinese from gaining full citizenship (the law also denied full citizenship to the Rohingya, another minority in Myanmar).
Without full citizenship, the Chinese could not attend school for specialized subjects like medicine, engineering, and economics. Some turned to the food industry to survive, while others opened confectionery or fabric shops.
“People fled to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the United States,” says Huang Zhenzhong, the chief librarian at Yangon’s Sino-Burmese library and a second-generation Fujianese immigrant. “It’s hard to say how long the oppression lasted. It still lingers.”
In recent years, Burmese attitudes toward the Chinese have shifted. After a military junta took power in 1988, some restrictions on the Chinese-Burmese were lifted, and they began to dominate industries such as banking, retail, and natural resources.
As construction projects and foreign investment poured into Yangon, people from Yunnan, the Chinese province that borders Myanmar, came to the city to work as translators and contractors. Their compatriots followed to fulfill demand for food from home.
Today, there is a diverse array of offerings in Chinatown, from dim sum restaurants to stylish cafes.
But some of the old stalwarts harken back to a time when the Chinese were not fully accepted in the country.
The Baw Ga Noodle House, which has been open since the 1930s, still serves noodles in a soup made the traditional Chinese way. Chicken or pork is cooked continuously over coals along with bones and fat to create a rich, aromatic broth.
On another street, nondescript food stalls next to a Chinese temple offer congee, noodles, and chicken feet. Many of them are run by descendents of Cantonese immigrants, and they attract many other Cantonese who appreciate authentic and unpretentious food.
The restaurants are an enduring sign of the presence that Chinese immigrants have had in Myanmar for generations. The adaptations they made to their food are also a testament to the way they survived in a country that was not always accepting of them.
“Chinatown is a mix of cuisines and languages,” says Huang. “Our taste buds are accepting of all cultures—Indian, Chinese, Burmese, minorities.”
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.