Aurora Markets in Yangon, Myanmar
I walk out into the night to an outdoor corner restaurant which pops up at dusk and disappears by dawn. The night is dark but filled with red and white lights from cars and the few remaining open shops. The table they cook from juts out into the street nearly into traffic while plastic tables and chairs occupy the space between it and the sidewalk. As I approach two old men wave me to their table. I join them and they offer me coffee and a cigarette. They speak only a few words of English and I speak even less Burmese. Somehow, over coffee, tea and cigarettes we manage to communicate. I gather he owns the corner store and his son is there working it. He gathers that I am a photographer staying in the nearby hotel. Occasionally I smile at the girl working the table. She beams back. I venture a photo of the scene and she ducks out of sight. So we sip and smoke, the two old men and I, and smile together. The mix of curry, smoke and gasoline whisper around the glow of flames and headlights. The grey haired man calls a small boy over to refill the teapot and I switch from coffee to tea. We sip. I notice that I am the only foreigner to be seen. Eventually it is time for the men to go. They pay, insisting despite my protestations on paying for me as well, and I bid them goodnight.
Before they are two steps away a teenage boy at a table with 3 others beckons me over. I smile and join them, bringing my cup of tea and cigarettes with me. The boy who called me over speaks some English but the other three do not. He asks me questions and I ask him some. Where am I from? What am I doing here? He translates the questions from the other boys as well and I answer as simply as I can. Language barriers persist but we are all patient. I take a photo of the group. One of them hides from the camera but the others enjoy it. We smoke and they are impressed with my pack of Dunhills. I start asking how to say things in Burmese. The boy notices me typing them out on my phone and takes over giving far too many suggestions for me to memorize, but they're written down so it's ok, I can refer to them later and it will be far more useful than the silly phrases in the backs of most tour books.
Every night after the relatively few tourists who visit this city disappear into their hotels, makeshift restaurants like this pop up all over the city. They exist for the residents rather than for the tourists and represent the microcosm of that neighborhood. Comprised of regulars most of them live within a few blocks and they all know each other. With the sun set the streets have finally cooled down, the work is done for the day and it is time to relax, talk, drink tea, smoke and laugh. The people who run these work hard all night and sleep in the day. One could almost say that there are two cities. Yangon by day and Yangon by night. But now, according to an article in The Myanmar Times the city wants to shut this world down. The article was published November 17th 2016 with implementation as soon as November 24th or 25th, with fines imposed for those who don’t comply. Considering this hasn’t gotten very much coverage and many of the vendors are illiterate, a week between announcement and implementation seems unreasonable, and nearly all of these vendors cannot weather a fine for noncompliance.
They say they will create a new night market where vendors can rent space by the year plus daily water and cleaning fees. This market is isolated to one part of the city, an area dominated by tourism, and will serve about 1600 out of the estimated 6000 vendors in Yangon. The remainder will have to vacate major roads and move to smaller side streets. Many of these side streets are already crowded with vendors leaving little space for the newcomers.
The problem extends beyond the increased expenses it will cause for some and the increased competition it will create for the rest of the vendors. It also destroys the sense of community these spaces provide for those who live nearby. Those who frequent this world will not travel down to Strand in order to have some tea with friends. They may simply not go out at all. It will quite simply destroy one of the more unique cultural aspects of the city.
I have searched for the reason the city is doing this but cannot find a good one, either from the department who has announced this or by any logic. The amount of income generated for the city by this new market will likely not even cover the cost of its’ existence, or perhaps will barely but will certainly not increase revenue. The vendors are not interrupting other forms of commerce, present no danger to anyone and while they fill a communal niche not provided elsewhere are not really in any way. One guess could be that they are attempting to make the city more palatable to tourism but if that is the case I implore them to understand that the uniqueness of this city, the mix of old and new, colonial architecture, cultural history, religion, and modernization all mixed together is the draw for the tourists who come here now and as you change I would ask you to not walk away from that which makes you attractive today. The only thing I can see it doing is making life more difficult for one of the most vulnerable groups of residents who have few other options than what they do now, while destroying one of the more unique and lesser known aspects of Yangon.