Seeking out the ‘hidden’ Chinese language classes in Chinatown

03 January 2017
Seeking out the ‘hidden’ Chinese language classes in Chinatown
One classroom of Kheng Hock Keong Chinese language school. Photo: Yizhen Jia

Located in the centre of downtown, Chinatown is one of the busiest areas of Yangon. Walking along Sint Oh Dan Street, there is a four-storey building owned by the Fukienese Association in Myanmar with a doorplate “Fuxing Confucius Classroom of Myanmar-Chinese Language Training Centre”.
Yan Naing Lin, a 13-year-old student in Basic Education High School, No. (1) Latha, has studied Chinese after class in the Fuxing Confucius Classroom of Myanmar for three years. As he said in fluent Chinese, he is a Myanmar-Chinese and his ancestral home is Yunnan, a southwest province of China. “I come here to learn Chinese because I like it,” he said, “My parents also ask me to learn and we often communicate with each other in Chinese at home.”
In addition to Myanmar-Chinese students, there are also many Myanmar and Indians learning Chinese here, Luo Jianping, the president of Fuxing Confucius Classroom of Myanmar said. “Now the number of registered students are up to nearly 600 and there are over 30 classes here,” Luo added, “Not only children but also adults who are working come to learn Chinese.” However, Chinese-language education in Myanmar once experienced a long period of neglect, he said. 
In the 1960s, Ne Win’s government banned Chinese-language education in Myanmar and all schools were nationalized, including Chinese language schools. From then on, only English and Burmese could be taught, which meant that two or three generations’ Chinese was bad,Luo said. Though the situation gradually eased after the 1980s, opening Chinese language schools publicly was not allowed. Even in 2002, when this Chinese language training centre was established with the help of the Fukienese Association in Myanmar and the Office of Chinese Language Council International(Hanban), it was named as “Fuxing Language and Computer School” rather than “Chinese language school”. 
“We applied to the government for the school in the name of teaching computer and languages, but actually we mainly taught Chinese,”Luo said.
Fuxing’s situation is not an isolated case. Back to the 1980s, many Chinese temples established Mandarin classes in the name of “teaching Buddhism”. Kheng Hock Keong Temple is one of them, which is at the end of Sint Oh Dan Street, just about 300 metres away from Fuxing Confucius Classroom of Myanmar. “It was the first Chinese language school in Yangon, which was established in 1986,”said by Kyi Win, the managing director and former principal of Kheng Hock Keong Chinese language school. Win said as one of the Chinese immigrants, he had responsibility to launch such a school to encourage teaching of the Chinese language. “At first we used the Buddhist textbooks from Singapore while now we are using Chinese textbooks presented by the Chinese Embassy,” he added, “All the courses and textbooks are free and we only charge 3,000 Kyats per four months as registry fee.”
There are 13 teachers in Kheng Hock Keong, Kyi Win said, and most of them are Myanmar-Chinese. 
Khin Khin Ayc, who is in her 70s, has been teaching Chinese for nearly 30 years in Kheng Hock Keong. She said she was born in Myanmar and learned Chinese from an early Chinese language school. She has two adult classes every weekday night, teaching basic to advanced classes. She said the adult students usually come to learn Chinese after work, and some of them even have no time to have dinner. “They are all very diligent,” she said. Eleven adult could be observed recently attending her mid-level class, reading aloud and taking notes carefully in a 40 square-metre classroom with 20 tables and benches. Myat Thida Soe Kyaw is another teacher who has been working here for about one year. Different from Khin Khin Ayc, Myat Thida Soe Kyaw was once a student of Kheng Hock Keong and learned Chinese here.She now teaches both children’s classes and adult classes. “It’s like a kind of contribution to my alma mater,” she said.
Unlike teachers in Kheng Hock Keong, most teachers in Fuxing Confucius Classroom of Myanmar are volunteers coming from China. Mu Longzhen is one of eight native Chinese teachers in Fuxing. After graduating from university, she volunteered to teach Chinese in Mongolia for one year, and then she was recommended to teach Chinese in Myanmar from August 2015, Mu said. In addition to basic classes and advanced classes, Mu also teaches Business Chinese classes.She said terms in Business Chinese class were quite professional and students attending this class probably had ambitions to get involved in Sino-Myanmar economic cooperation. “One of my students has a Chinese boss,” she said.
With more and more Chinese companies and Chinese tourists in Myanmar, speaking Chinese is beneficial in getting jobs, Kyi Win said, “Many students become Chinese translators, staff in Chinese companies, tour guides and so on.” President Luo Jianping also said, “If you can only speak Burmese, your monthly salary is about 100,000 Kyat. But if you can also speak Chinese, it is likely your salary will be doubled or even be 400,000 to 500,000 Kyat (per month).”Students of Fuxing also had chance to work in the Chinese Embassy only if they passed the Chinese Proficiency Test (HSK) Level 4, Luo added. After getting more knowledge of China when working in the embassy, many of them would apply for universities in China to further their study. “It is the spring of Chinese education in southern Myanmar,” Mu Longzhen said, there is a huge market for Chinese language education now. 
However, there are also some difficulties. Both Fuxing Confucius Classroom of Myanmar and Kheng Hock Keong Chinese language school face a loss of students. Mu said since Fuxing only charged 5,000 Kyats per month which had charitable nature, many students didn’t have high expectations and motivation to learn continuously. “At the beginning, there were over 30 students in a class while three years later, students reduced by more than 50 percent,” Luo added, “Since students learn Chinese here for interest, we cannot make it compulsory.”Kyi Win also said that there was loss of students in Kheng Hock Keong. A report of Chinese language education in Myanmar indicated that though there are more and more Chinese language training centres, Chinese language education is still excluded from the education system of Myanmar, having some time conflicts with courses in nationalized schools, which might lead to loss of students.
Besides, the report indicated that it was the suspension of Chinese language education decades ago that led to a lack of professional teachers nowadays. Kyi Win said the knowledge of teachers in Kheng Hock Keong was limited and some teachers taught as well as learned by themselves. Though teachers in Fuxing were more professional, they didn’t have enough classrooms, Mu said.