SAGAING, Mandalay Division — Sagaing, known as the cultural sister city of Mandalay, is a popular tourist destination in central Burma, where visitors can climb the famous Sagaing Hill and see traditional arts such pottery and papier mâché toys.
The top of Sagaing Hill offers scenic views of pagodas and monasteries, while those who prefer to wander the shady streets of the city below can observe the workings of earthen pot studios, silversmith workshops and other craft centers.
The city appears peaceful, thanks to the Buddhist religious buildings surrounding it, but the struggles of local residents, especially the craftsmen, remain largely hidden from tourists.
The main road to Kaung Mu Daw Pagoda is lined with earthen pots, ranging from containers for drinking water to flower pots. A rhythmic rolling sound from pottery wheels can be heard from one hut along the road, a manufacturing center famous for its “Sagaing Pot,” which is said to have a cooling effect on water. Tourist cars are parked outside.
Inside, potters begin to make the earthen pots by stepping over a mud mixture to create smooth dough. Nearby, women are busy molding a semi-dried pot into proper shape, lining the inside with wet sand and creating patterns on the exterior. Once fully shaped, the pots will dry under the shade and will later be transferred to the oven for baking.
Despite the pots’ renowned natural cooling power, these potters in Sagaing say they struggle to sell their wares at markets in big cities because shoppers are increasingly opting for refrigerators or electric water coolers. Some potters have given up their craft to make more money by opening grocery stores or looking for jobs as migrant workers abroad.
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“We still receive orders from remote areas and small villages,” says potter Khine Yin Mon. “But even so, we only earn between 800 kyats and 6,000 kyats ($0.80 to $6) during tourist season,” says potter Khine Yin Mon. “Sometimes we depend on tips from tourists. There are no more than a dozen potters left in the city because so many have left the business.”
Not far from the pottery hut, a small silversmith workshop sits behind a showroom. Inside, about 10 young men use small hammers to carve Buddhist mythical images onto a silver bowl. In another corner, two men sweat heavily as they mold raw silver near a fireplace.
“It will take about seven months because we need to create the details, and it will cost about 20 million kyats,” said the chief silversmith, Min Naing, of the silver bowl.
With no modern machinery, the silversmiths in Sagaing create intricate jewelery, souvenirs and even decorative table lamps. The creations are labor intensive, but wealthy Burmese buyers are willing to pay a high cost for ornate silverware that can be showcased at special religious ceremonies and weddings.
The silverware shops are always busy with local and foreign tourists. But a shortage of skilled laborers is a challenge for the future of business.
“A skilled labourer earns 5,000 kyats per day at minimum, but it’s really hard to find them these days because youngsters are less interested in this industry and more interested in working at a company or going abroad,” Min Naing says.
“We don’t know how long we will last. We have fewer local buyers because of the high cost and we are becoming more dependent on foreign buyers. We believe we can manage if we stick to traditional methods, but we don’t know what will happen if eventually we can’t find more skilled laborers. We hope that day never comes.”
Meanwhile, papier mâché toymakers in town are facing too much foreign competition.
A traditional Burmese toy known as the Tumbling Kelly as well as animal figures are mainly produced in Sagaing, but the toy market has become increasingly dominated by imported plastic toys and stuffed animals.
“Children nowadays prefer foreign toys and rarely play with these paper toys. Only few parents, who refer to them as ‘ancient Burmese toys,’ buy them for their children,” says Tin Myint Yee as she makes a Tumbling Kelly.
There are only about five or six papier mâché toymakers left in Sagaing, and many worry they will not be able to sustain their business throughout the year, as most orders are placed once annually for pagoda festivals at the end of Buddhist lent.
“Many traditional craftsmen have changed their profession. We were also hit by the poor market, but we’ve managed to stand up again, like the Tumbling Kelly,” Tin Myint Yee says, referring to the rounded-toy with a woman’s face painted on the front, with a flattened bottom to keep it standing.
“We also need to run a grocery store to survive, but we will continue this business, which we still love, even if there is no-one to buy our creations.”