Overseas Chinese Library and the struggle to preserve Chinese culture in Myanmar

22 January 2019
Overseas Chinese Library and the struggle to preserve Chinese culture in Myanmar

“We Chinese people in Myanmar are behaving ourselves. We are not active in politics. We don’t work in the government,” said Huang Zhenzhong, 69, the curator of the Overseas Chinese Library in Yangon. “Law-abiding citizens” is the phrase Huang chose to describe the role of Chinese people in the country. 

What Huang and other senior generations of overseas Chinese in Myanmar still insist on today is their Chinese identity and cultural belonging, which is gradually disappearing among the younger generation. The Overseas Chinese Library become their rendezvous, as well as a witness to the Chinese people’s fortune in Myanmar.

Established in 1947, the 71-year-old Chinese library has a history even longer than the People’s Republic of China. Located on the busy Maha Bandula Road, also known as “Canton Road” by the Chinese, the library is two blocks away from the Hokkien Kuan Yin Temple, the landmark of Yangon Chinatown. With a small yellow sign written in both Chinese and Burmese language, the entrance is hidden by a pharmacy and a clothing store. 

The library is on the second floor. The sunlight filtered through the window at 2 o’clock in the afternoon when I visited. A TV was showing Hong Kong’s Chinese news programme loudly. Noise also came from the cars and buses passing by outside. A photo of current top Chinese officials, and maps of China and Myanmar could be found on the wall, indicating the overseas Chinese people’s multiple identities.

The calligraphy work of Guo Moruo, a poet and government official was exhibited in the library. Guo wrote it in 1962, the year of Sino-Burmese friendship, when he visited Burma with Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of China and Marshal Chen Yi. Huang highlighted the piece as the treasure of the library.

The 16,000-volume library is more like a chamber for the Yangon’s Chinese community to gather. Approximately five readers were sitting at a long table in front of the TV. Their grey and white hair showed their age. Some of them are reading Chinese or Burmese newspapers or watching TV while some were nodding off. An electric ceiling fan was rotated above their heads.

People borrow books by using paper library cards since there is no digital library system. Books were not well catalogued while no labels or numbers can be found on any of a book’s spine. The filled-to-the-brim bookshelves were covered with dust, hinting they had not been touched for a long time. 

Although the Overseas Chinese Library is not a professional or an academic one, it has some rare copies of Chinese books, such as the old illustrated edition of “Legends of the Condor Heroes” by Louis Cha. What made Huang frustrated was that he caught visitors from mainland China stealing books from the library several times. 

“Finally we had to let them go,” Huang said, “We just couldn’t send them to the police for that, could we?”

Although he was born in Myanmar and has lived here for his whole life, Huang speaks Mandarin Chinese slowly and softly with a strong Hokkien accent, influenced by the dialect of China’s southern Fujian province, his mother tongue. At the same time, Huang wears a longyi as a way to fit in with  Burmese tradition.

Sitting behind the loan desk at the corner, Huang did not receive any borrowing request the whole afternoon I spent in the library. 

“As time goes by, fewer people come to the library”, Huang sighed.

According to Huang’s memories and description, the situation was totally different when the library was in its golden era decades ago. In the 1950s, after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, many overseas Chinese people in Myanmar were patriotic and enthusiastic about learning the Chinese language. 

As a junior high student, Huang was a regular in the Chinese library with a dream of becoming a Chinese teacher. “In the past, it was hard to find an empty seat here in the library,” he said, “Sometimes, people had to sit outside to read and learn.”

His dream of the career, however, paused suddenly and unexpectedly. In 1964, after the military took over Burma and all private Chinese schools were nationalised, including Huang’s alma mater Yangon Overseas Chinese High School, he was forced to focus on the Burmese language and attend a Burmese university thereafter.  

Chinese language education as a consequence has been paused for decades in Burma, which had a huge impact on the generations younger than Huang — many of them are assimilated to Burmese and lacking the opportunity to receive Chinese education. 

With the passage of time, a new crisis occurred in the library. In 2014, the landlord of the library decided to raise the rent. The library was nearly forced off the property until it was settled by the meditation of the Chinese community and the Chinese embassy. 

The expenditure of the library is now covered by donations from Chinese enthusiasts and clans in Yangon, because of which the life of the library continues.

Huang’s dream was realized to a certain extent after the former curator Ye Keqin’s retirement in 2017 and he took over.

He was also glad to see the young blood of the Chinese library emerge. In the late afternoon, several Burmese Chinese boys and girls in their early twenties showed up, who were called by Huang jokingly as the “heirs” of the library.

They are all students learning Chinese or Burmese in Yangon during their holidays. One of them was to return a Lao She classic novel “Camel Xiangzi”. Two boys were playing Chinese chess with an elder. One girl said the library is a good place to borrow books and experience Chinese culture, but too noisy for them to sit down and read.

Numerous Chinese language schools have opened in Yangon lately, so young Chinese people are able to get access to learn their mother language. By reading Chinese novels, watching Chinese TV dramas and listening to Chinese pop songs, their interest in the Chinese language has increased significantly. “So I believe the future of the library will be better,” Huang said, “Young people are willing to come here now.”

The library closes at 5:00 p.m. every day. As Huang and his assistant shut and locked the gate and departed, the sun was still strong in the sky.