The migration to Singapore and subsequent intermixing of various peoples from around the world results in a vibrant and colorful society. Yet many of those who arrive in the city-state affirm a connection with their homeland, a characteristic often manifested through the choice of cosmetic.
Even young Singaporeans, though not necessarily emblematic of historical culture, can frequently be singled out today by the tattoos on their shoulders, necks or legs. And the Burmese in Singapore are no exception either, easily identifiable in their choice of skin application – Thanaka – which unmistakably links them with their motherland.
The use of Thanaka, a paste derived from tree bark, far predates the divisiveness which has come to characterize modern Burmese society, dating as far back as prior to the arrival of the Pyu in the first century B.C. and the founding of the first Burmese kingdoms.
Yet Burmese ladies, whilst working in today's hyper-modern city of Singapore, often still prefer to wear Thanaka instead of contemporary cosmetics as a daily make-up and skin conditioner. This is true even though many young Burmese women are still grateful for the odd gift of a tube of lipstick or case of eyeliner to complement their Thanaka – as foreign cosmetics are a rare luxury for many in this demographic group.
Burmese women and girls can be espied at bus or MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) train stations around the island occasionally applying the Thanaka by using a leaf template to make an elegant stencil on the cheeks or a carefully drawn square. However it is most common to simply smear the cream over faces and bodies, which results in the human form appearing quite ghostly at night under the artificial lights of Singapore, especially if those in question are also wearing lipstick.
Ma Hla Mon, 32, a professional photographer, says she has been using Thanaka since she was young, regardless of cosmetic prices. Ten years ago she even imported a special kyauk pyin from Burma to compliment her Thanaka preparations. Sometimes I mix the Thanaka with cream, she says, adding that she doesn't really care about people noticing that something is applied to her face when she goes out in public. After a while, continues Ma Hla Mon, people get used to seeing me with my Thanaka.
From its origins over two millennia ago to the present day, Burmese women vouch that Thanaka helps remove acne, promote smooth skin and act as a sun block, antiseptic, anti-fungal ointment and toner. As a result, for many Burmese women the paste is an essential part of their beauty routine.
Thanaka paste is made from the branches of the trees, which have a light aroma similar to sandalwood and must reach an age of at least 35 years to be deemed fit enough for Thanaka production.
In order to make the paste, the logs and branches of the tree are ground vertically on a special, flat and circular whetstone, known as a kyauk pyin, which, with the addition of a few drops of water produces a milky yellow liquid which can then be applied to the skin.
While wet, Thanaka is virtually translucent. Only after the Thanaka dries, typically in less than an hours time, does it take on its familiar form of a rich, yellow crust upon the skin. Traditionally, it is applied in a strict routine: first to the ears, then to the throat, the face, and lastly the rest of the body.
Today, one of the most striking features of Burmese women, girls and boys among the skyscrapers of Singapore is the ubiquitous yellowish-white "rouge" often found on their cheeks, noses, foreheads and arms.
Imported Thanaka from Burma can be purchased at Singapore's Peninsula Plaza – an area of the city-state popularized by the local Burmese population. It is sold in many forms; including as small and highly prized raw sticks ten to 18 centimeters in length. This sought after form of Thanaka comes from regions around Mandalay, including from the town of Sagaing on the banks of the Irrawaddy, which is purported to produce the highest quality logs.
And today, Thanaka has even gone global; with online retailers offering only the finest Thanaka from central Burma for consumers, Burmese and non-Burmese alike, anywhere in the world.
As for the casual Burmese shopper in Singapore, even if a purchase is not made at one of the many stalls, the sight and smell of the Thanaka and the unique glimpse of yellow-painted faces ushers back fond memories of Burma and the warmth of the people left behind.