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Myanmar’s urban hub thrives on ‘repat power’

Hnin Yee Htun’s decision to return to Myanmar in 2015 was impulsive, but she has come to see it as propitious. Hnin was born in 1988, two days before a nationwide uprising plunged the country, then known as Burma, into anarchy and thrust Aung San Suu Kyi into the political spotlight. Hnin fled with her family to a refugee camp across the border in Thailand soon after, and settled in Australia in 2002.

Against that background, it seems auspicious that Hnin’s bar in Yangon began trading a month after Suu Kyi’s party swept Myanmar’s 2015 elections, the tumult of the past and the hopes of the present bookending her departure and return — and before the country’s recent tragic Rohingya refugee exodus cast a pall over the national mood. Yet, while Myanmar is once again at the heart of international uproar, a youthful momentum has taken hold in recent years that cannot be easily stopped.

Father’s Office, Hnin’s modish yet unassuming nightspot, set back from a leafy downtown street, nods to Myanmar’s storied modern history. The bar is named for the Secretariat building across the road, where Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, was gunned down 70 years ago, in the closing days of the colonial era. It is now undergoing a transformation, though it remains the epicenter of a secular myth built around the independence leader.

The interior of Father’s Office, however, is more a testament to Hnin’s personal biography. She and I share Melbourne as an adoptive hometown, and the nightlife that drew me there in my youth has been an obvious source of inspiration for her own endeavors — notably the small bars that form the cultural backbone of the city’s more fashionable neighborhoods.

Alongside the burger menu customarily found in its antipodean cousins, Hnin’s bar serves her own take on Burmese tapas, a legacy of her mother’s work as a chef in the Southeast Asian migrant communities of Melbourne’s suburbs.

For Yangon’s embryonic middle classes, along with a fast-growing and well-heeled expatriate community, a boom in the food and beverage sector has made life in an often-stifling city much more bearable. While the restaurant business remains volatile — predicting imminent closures of struggling establishments has become something of a parlor game among foreigners — high-end reimaginings of street food staples and western fast-food chains have found a dedicated fan base.

Clamor for staff

Returning members of Myanmar’s diaspora like Hnin are at the forefront of this trade. Their language skills and ability to navigate a labyrinthine bureaucracy, along with the know-how to capitalize on a growth market, have helped them thrive where others have failed. Those who spent their formative years in the West are finding ample opportunities in many booming sectors as companies clamor for staff in a labor market largely devoid of professional skills.

Myanmar has yet to extend official overtures to its prodigal children, and for now the decision to return remains the preserve of an adventurous and patient few. Returnees who forfeited their citizenship after heading abroad are offered little incentive. They remain subject to the same rigid visa rules as other foreigners. “Repatriate” business owners can be frequently heard venting their frustrations over an unreliable power supply, encounters with rampant graft, and competition for slim reserves of local talent.

Yet those who came back to make their fortune are making their presence known. Just as the returning Viet Kieu flocked to urban Vietnam decades ago to lead a renaissance in business and civic life, Myanmar’s commercial capital now seems on the cusp of a similar transformation. Father’s Office was the first downtown bar to offer an on-tap selection from Burbrit, a new craft beer venture founded by returnees from Singapore. They are now competing in a brewery market that until recently was largely monopolized by a military holding company.

Many of Hnin’s eclectic and predominantly young clientele, a mix of local hipsters and white-collar workers, are female — a striking counterpoint to prevailing taboos that make women a rare sight at the city’s more austere beer stations.

Hnin is now planning to expand into the commercial kitchen business. “It was a struggle at the start, but I was born here,” she said with a smile. “I miss my family, I miss my friends, but now … I meet so many people, that’s the greatest thing. I don’t think I’d ever have that opportunity back in Melbourne.”

Source : Nikkei Asian Review

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