Category Archives: Travel

Thirty-one Months Later: Adapting to Life in China

When I first arrived in Beijing in September 2014, I knew almost nothing about the country I’d just moved to. I was embarking on a new life that didn’t seem to have a sell-by date – I had no idea how long I’d stay or even when I would next go home.

While many of my initial questions were answered long ago, the questions never stop arising, and the number seems to grow rather than shrink. The deeper into creating a real life I venture, the greater my curiosity for this vast country grows.

About thirty months ago, a few weeks into my Beijing life, I wrote what was to be my first and only “Beijing Update”. I sent it as an email and posted part of it on my blog, as a list of weird things I’d learned about Beijing.

While I’d like to imagine I’ve shed my China naivety, after almost three years living here, I’m not even sure that’s even possible. At no point have I felt that I could ever stop learning about this monolith of a nation. So to honour that never-stop-learning spirit, here’s an updated look at those weird things I’m still about Beijing:

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Thousands of bikes crowd Beijing’s streets | image from guardian
  1. Health Check. All foreigners must go through a basic health check as part of their visa application. Only selected hospitals provide this all-inclusive test of sight, blood pressure, height, and weight. Patients get a little manhandled as they are passed from doctor to doctor, who take a blood sample, a chest x-ray, a cardiogram and an ultrasound. Standard procedure. Friends of mine speculate it’s all an elaborate ruse to check foreigners for HIV/Aids and other venereal diseases, which could result in a denied visa. I’ve luckily only been through it once, but I’ve got it coming whenever I change job or get a new visa.
  1. IKEA. I avoid Ikea in Beijing like the plague. Yes, it is treated like a social outing. Yes, people go there to sleep. Yes, people go there on dates. No, it is not a fun place to be. I went once and have never yet been back. I’ll just have to ensure I don’t wind up in a less-than-desirably-furnished apartment!
  1. Milk. Fresh milk appeared in my local supermarket a few months after my first frantic search for it. I stopped buying yoghurt and milkshakes by accident, and I only buy cartons of UHT from our closest shop during bouts of laziness.
  1. Long nails. A significant number of men have long nails on their little finger, often just on one hand. It’s a status symbol showing that the hands’ owner doesn’t work with their hands, but most people I see on the subway simply use their pinkie nail to dig that little bit deeper for ear wax.
  1. Public toilets. There are still public toilets all over the place, but only in certain areas. Bars and restaurants in the Hutongs don’t have loos, and will never have them. Some are kept clean, others are not. Most but not all are squatters. Many don’t have cubicles or even dividers. Few have hand-washing facilities and fewer have soap. Never forget to bring your own bog roll.
  1. Bikes. If I thought there were bicycles everywhere in 2014, you can’t move for bikes now. Cycling has become cool again, thanks to Mobike and Ofo, companies that enable you to hire a bike by scanning a QR code. Beginning with student areas like Wudaokou, these bikes have slowly overrun the city and clogged up an already slow-moving two-wheel traffic system. They’re dockless, so the rider can just leave them wherever his or her journey ends. More than once, I’ve seen men unloading 50+ Mobikes onto a single street corner in a busy area late at night. There are stories of burning piles of bikes. There’s less space to lock a bike you actually own, but less likelihood of theft.
  1. Holiday compensation. In 2014 I was surprised that I was required to work on a Saturday and Sunday to compensate for national holiday. I soon learned that this is common practice. Working at weekends (usually doing one or more six-day-week), is considered fair recompense for having consecutive days off. It gets particularly messy when the celebrated holiday falls mid-week. This never becomes normal; working ‘make up’ days in order to earn a holiday never seems fair. But it makes sense, given the size of the country and the familial nature of traditional holidays, to allow the population time to visit their hometowns for celebrations like Qing Ming Jie or Tomb Sweeping Day.

I’ve learned a lot in my thirty-one months in Beijing, and I have enjoyed the incessant challenge this metropolis poses. Although sometimes it feels the smog outweighs the curiosity, I don’t think I’ll ever stop (begrudgingly) raising questions. Which is why Beijing continues to be my home.

 

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Header image from: Uber for Bikes: how ‘dockless’ cycles flooded China – and are heading overseas, Guardian

 

Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw on Developing her own Fashion Brand in Burma (Interview: part 2)

Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw can be found at the British Embassy, working for the Department for International Development (DFID) in Yangon from 9-5, and leading her own dressmaking start-up, Virya Couture, on 39th Street every evening, juggling two completely different careers but pursuing one dream.

Pyone spans sectors while securing rights for her fellow women and financial stability for her family. As the founder and head designer at Virya Couture, Pyone acts as a leader to women in both private and public sectors. Through her dressmaking shop she teaches vocational skills and employs underprivileged women, helping them overcome poverty in a country rife with change.



My favourite thing about being a woman in Myanmar today is that you can wear very vibrant colours. I think for men there are much more limited options out there. For women it is very vibrant. You can be very fashionable, and very colourful.



 

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Handmade clothing on the racks at Virya Couture, Yangon, Burma, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

How do your fashion choices reflect who you are as a woman? 

At DFID, I quite enjoy representing my country in a foreign organization. I work in a UK aid department trying to end extreme poverty, where we deal with many different organisations and partners. Whenever we go to Naypyitaw (the capital) dealing with the government agencies, or parliament, or the election commission, then I like to wear Burmese traditional dress. That feels somehow more acceptable and proper.

For the office I wear casual western style dresses and I make all my clothes myself. I am quite petite, so I like wearing soft colours because it makes me feel like I have a little bit more volume. I tend to avoid black or any dark colours, which make me feel tinier. During the daytime, I prefer cream or white colours, which are better for our weather. And it has to be locally made cotton. The sunlight is really strong here.

For daily wear, still I like the traditional cotton, but in a freer, looser style, not flared though. I think flared dresses make you look younger, and with Asian genes you already look younger than you are. At thirty-five, I don’t want to look younger anymore.

I think I am a bit more professional, I want to wear more professional style dresses. Maybe when I was younger I would be open to wearing quite short styles. Whereas now, it has a lot to do with age as well, my taste is quite different from in my twenties.

How does wearing traditional dress change the way you feel?

Oh, it makes you feel a lot more proper. And, how do you say it, a bit more timid – is that the word? You behave more like a proper traditional lady. Whereas if I wear a more Western style, then I feel a bit more free. It definitely changes your mood and your professional feeling.

My favourite thing about being a woman in Myanmar today is that you can actually wear those very vibrant colours, you know. I think for men, there are much more limited options out there. For women it is very vibrant. You can be very fashionable, very colourful.

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Everything is handmade by Pyone and her staff of three at Virya Couture, Yangon, Burma, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

What’s the best thing to have happened to you in the past year?

Personally, in the past year, it was my decision to go ahead launching this business. I kind of thought that because of my full time job, and having to run this shop, I thought I might lose my balance. But actually it turns out that I really love this job and because it is my passion, I really never get tired. It’s now been four months, so ask me in another one or two years! For now, though, I really love it and I don’t get tired of it.



We make Burmese dresses, in several different non-traditional styles. When internationals wore my dresses, the locals began to see alternative ways of wearing Burmese clothing. So some Burmese women who have seen the dresses come to have something made too.



How did you discover the gap in the market for your designs?

There are quite a few designers already doing the same thing, but in a sense they were too creative. Some people are doing haute couture shows in big cities like Bangkok, so they tend to make big gowns and showy things. But I design for daily life. It’s all about more casual and semi-casual garments, so people really like to wear them.

At the beginning I made everything for myself. I wore things to work, people started to notice and want them too. Seeing people react to the dresses I made was my market research.

I want to imagine that the business is not personal to me. Yes, I made it in such a way that people come to the shop thinking, “oh, I want to have one of Pyone’s dresses”, but I really want to change that. I want the business to be able to run even without me. So I want to build the brand beyond me, so that it goes on without me.

What challenges do you face when you’re designing for a specific person?

Traditionally in dressmaking, you do the design first and then look for fabrics, but we’re doing it the other way around. Because we’re more about using traditional fabrics, we start with fabrics and turn them into a wearable design.

Depending on the type of fabrics and patterns, we often have to negotiate on the design. For example, with strong colours we may have to tone it down a bit, or if the customer really likes a colour, but it doesn’t suit her, I may have to convince her that an alternative might be better. So we come to a compromise, then we measure and then make the dress.

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Local handmade jewellery displayed at Virya Couture, Yangon, Burma, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland


I feel passion and adrenaline, and it is having a positive impact on my day job at DFID. It is actually true that if employers let their employees do what they are really passionate about, then they bring that energy to the day job. I feel very positive about my life and where I am now.



How does the tourist industry affect your business?

The majority of people who like my style are internationals. When internationals wear them, the locals began to see alternative ways of wearing Burmese clothing. We make Burmese dresses, in several different non-traditional styles. So I have now a few Burmese people who have seen the dresses and they come to have something made.

I think with tourists it is different. They want things quick, and they’ll usually just come one time. But there have been a few occasions when foreign tourists came in and then recommended us to a friend who was coming in, but that’s just one scenario.

We do have customers coming back constantly and recommending one person, then another person. We don’t do active marketing. Our marketing strategy now is all word of mouth. So, we had a few customers, friends of friends, family members, and the customer base is gradually building.

Did DFID have any doubts about you taking on this opportunity?

Some people actually warned me, like, “maybe you should not mention it explicitly”. But they do know that I am the founder and lead designer here. I decided to be frank and open about what I do and what I like doing. So I’m not a profit maximising person, you know, this is not to make a big profit or anything like that. I’m not doing this for money, I can actually survive without this income. So for me, this is about what I really want to do, a passion, and a hobby in a job. So there were a few people who, although they had good intentions, warned me not to tell anyone, not to tell the boss, but I did. And it is going really well so far.

I feel passion and adrenaline, and it is having a positive impact on my day job at DFID. So, I think when I read tips for entrepreneurs and things like that, I kind of thought, it might not be true. But it is actually true that if employers let people do what they are really passionate about, outside of the job, then that really makes them feel happy. And you bring that energy to the day job, which is really good. I feel very positive about my life and where I am now. That’s really great.

Is the organisation supportive of you?

Yes, very encouraging. Specifically at DFID, they really want the local staff to succeed in what they do. They look beyond their service in DFID, so if someone is really keen to become a politician, they will help them to build that capacity. It’s a really helpful way of capacity building. In the end, DFID, as an agency, will have to leave the country, and then the skill set that they give to local staff and local people, will remain in the country.

What are your wildest dreams for the coming few years?

My wildest dream is the most peaceful thing I can imagine. I always wanted to have a little compound. Well, not little, just enough for me to have a green and flower-filled garden, and an ecological wooden house and just be there. It would either be in Hsi-Paw (Shan state), Kalaw (Shan state), Putao (Kachin state), or Dawei (Tanintharyi region).

 

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Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw on Leading the Ethical Fashion Trend in Burma (Interview: Part 1)

Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw on Leading the Ethical Fashion Trend in Burma (Interview: Part 1)



If you have vocational skills, even when you don’t have education, you have a choice. That, for me, is a real takeaway from my life. I really want to help young women who are struggling against poverty.



Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw can be found at the British Embassy, working for the Department for International Development (DFID) in Yangon from 9-5, and leading her own dressmaking start-up, Virya Couture, on 39th Street every evening, juggling two completely different careers but pursuing one dream.

Pyone spans sectors while securing rights for her fellow women and financial stability for her family. As the founder and head designer at Virya Couture, Pyone acts as a leader to women in both private and public sectors. Through her dressmaking shop she teaches vocational skills and employs underprivileged women, helping them overcome poverty in a country rife with change.

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Minimal clutter in Pyone’s workspace at Virya Couture, Yangon, Burma, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

Ethical fashion is all about using locally produced organic fabrics. Pyone’s vision is classy, yet contemporary: reinventing dresses from traditional fabrics representing Myanmar’s diverse ethnicities and cultural regions. The vibrantly coloured fabrics she adores line the shop walls, while her handmade clothes hang in the window. This is what couture now means in Yangon, thanks to the spirit and sensibilities of Pyone’s brand, Virya Couture.

Pyone has been making her own clothes for years. When we first met in 2016, she dreamed of seeing her designs worn by other people. A year later she invited me to her shop, where she’s been running a dressmaking business that was burgeoning by the three-month mark. Not only is her business thriving, but she’s sticking to her guns and promoting the ethics she believes in.

Fashion, like almost everything else, is gendered. The everyday realities of this haven’t escaped Pyone’s attention: “I love traditional style dresses, but the real traditional style is actually limiting the way real women behave.” Wearing traditional dress, Pyone says, makes her feel “timid. You behave more like a proper traditional lady.” But that won’t stop her empowering young women, supporting the local ethical textile businesses across the country, and challenging ideas about women’s fashion in Myanmar.

Almost symbolic of the transparency of their business model, Pyone’s shop opens right onto the busy downtown street from which passers-by will pop in for a chat with Pyone and her growing staff as they work. Pyone spoke to me in January 2017 about style, supporting local industry, and how fashion meets gender in contemporary Myanmar.



Why did you decide to start Virya Couture now?

I describe myself as somebody who always needs to be on the go. Whenever I feel like I have free time I freak out a little bit and start to question things: “am I really productive? What am I doing with my time?” I was doing the DFID job for a few years before I found it a little bit repetitive. I found the work interesting, especially with the elections, but after that I questioned myself. I wondered what I would like to do in the next five to ten years, after the international aid agenda.

All the international aid organisations will eventually leave because our country will develop. The business and politics is already getting better. So I started Virya Couture, which has been what I really wanted to do since I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen – all my life really.

 

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Handmade clothing on the racks at Virya Couture, Yangon, Burma, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

How can Virya Couture improve things for people in Myanmar?

The business is about the promotion of ethical fashion in Myanmar, at a very start-up level. There is a boom in the fashion industry here, which means there is a big risk of exploitation. There is a huge need for local organisations working for being ethical in the fashion industry. This is where we come in, not only in sourcing ethical fabrics and materials, but also training young women from disadvantaged backgrounds who really want to come into this field.

The skills that I got from my grandmother when I was young are very useful. My parents don’t come from well-off families, we [my parents and I] were not well-off, so I had to earn my own pocket money. Having sewing skills and a talent for dressmaking really helped me. Having vocational skills means you don’t have to rely on other people and you don’t risk getting into more dangerous professions. If young women don’t have money, they don’t have much choice and often end up as sex workers.

If you have vocational skills, even when you don’t have education, you have a choice. That, for me, is a real takeaway from my life. I really want to help young women who are struggling against poverty.

 



I love traditional style dresses, but the real traditional style is actually limiting the way real women behave. You can’t actually bend fully, and you have to act really feminine.



How do you choose the fabrics you wear and work with?

My favourite thing to wear is organically dyed fabric or something locally made. Whenever I travel, I look for local suppliers and local fabric. Local fabrics inspire to me, because and you know that the profits actually go to the local communities who made them. In Myanmar specifically, I tend to look for fabrics made by local women. It is always a good sign that it is directly profiting them if you see them weaving.

I have to say I like Rakhine fabrics best. Historically, there were all these Rakhine fabrics that were considered outdated, and no-one wanted to wear them. The patterns were beautiful, but the materials they used were not very good. Even Rakhine people did not wear them for some time. But with the booming fabrics industry here, it is really coming to life. Now the fabrics are very vibrant, full of symbols, meaning and cultural identity. I am half Rakhine, so I am a little bit biased. I also like Kachin fabric. It is quality cotton, the patterns are really lovely, and the ethnic sense is strong in Kachin.

I really like the dynamic, vibrant fabrics made in the ethnic regions. They are full of meanings and symbols. Each fabric has meaning tied to cultural identity and the region they live. The colours are really lovely. We turn them into classy, modern dresses. I love them.

 

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Everything is handmade by Pyone and her staff of three at Virya Couture, Yangon, Burma, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

How do you handle running Virya Couture while working for DFID?

At this stage it is manageable. We don’t want to do a lot of orders, just enough to get the business going. We’re not making a huge profit, but we’re not losing money. We’re making enough to run the shop and pay the staff sufficient salary.

We only have a small team – myself and three colleagues, and someone who will come in on Friday and Saturday. We have three machines. It is very basic, so we can’t really handle a lot of orders. [Pyone laughs] I’m not in it for the money!

I tend to work on designs and patterns in the evenings, so things are ready for the team to complete the next day. I work half days on Fridays and I’m in the shop at the weekends too. To be honest, the only way I can do both and keep a clear head is by leaving my mobile phone downstairs in the shop when I go up to bed at night. Otherwise I’d never sleep!

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Two women wearing longyis walk through downtown Yangon, Burma, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

How does clothing compound gender norms in Myanmar? Do you think traditional Longyis influence the way women are seen?

I would say that Longyis are actually good for the weather. They are quite airy, and it really suits the hot weather in Myanmar. I think that is how this style developed: the longyi for men and the longyi for women are both quite free and flowing. But in terms of the top, women’s tops tend to be a bit tighter.

Traditionally, it is supposed to be short – it should come in just under the waist. Both the tightness and the length, make you feel… awkward. And traditionally, it is not appropriate to show the skin around your belly or waist. Although in the fifties, very thin, see-through fabrics were popular. During that period it was common to see a woman’s bra through her shirt. That was seen okay during the forties and fifties. But now, it is not okay to show that skin.

In contemporary fashion, the skirt is quite tight around the bum, thighs, and hips. The normal Burmese women’s longyi is not supposed to be tight around there. It is mainly the top that is tight and restricting.

In terms of the way women behave, that top limits the way women move, and behave, and act. I feel conflicted. Yes, I love traditional style dresses, but the real traditional style is actually limiting the way real women behave. You can’t actually bend fully, and you have to act really feminine.



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Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw on Developing her own Fashion Brand in Burma (Interview: part 2)

Betelnut

Betel nut is Burma (Myanmar)’s most common addiction. Little parcels of tobacco and Areca nuts wrapped in lime-coated betel leaves are passed around and chewed. 

Coating leaves in lime, Yangon, Burma, Jan 2017 © Cas Sutherland

Betel is commonly chewed by cab drivers who use the drug concoction to stay awake for long hours on the road (5pm-9am is a common cab driver’s shift). The parcels are made and sold at street-side stalls like in these photos. 

Wrapping betel nut parcels, Yangon, Burma, Jan 2017 © Cas Sutherland

But the strangest sight is the road-running vendors who approach cars in traffic with bottled water and plastic packets of 4 parcels for sale for a couple of hundred Kyat. 

Betel chewers tend to have red stained teeth, gums, and lips. They spit excess liquid onto streets, out of car doors, and into hallway corners, leaving blood-red stains all over the city.