Despite his prominence as the author of the first true novel in the Burmese language, too little is known of James Hla Gyaw’s life.
He was born on the 21st June 1866 in Shwegyin in Bago Region to Buddhist parents who died when he was just a child. Adopted by his aunt, he converted to Christianity along with the rest of his family and was sent to Yangon, the new capital of British Burma for his education. Attending St John’s College he studied the English language and literature, two fields that would come to dominate his life. He graduated from the prestigious Government High School at the age of twenty at the same time that Upper Myanmar was annexed by the British Empire. With the fall of the Konbaung Dynasty, James Hla Gyaw travelled to Mandalay, the former royal capital, to work as an interpreter for the occupying British Administration.
He married his wife, the daughter of a gem merchant in Mandalay and had two children, a son and daughter. Returning to Yangon, he found employment in the Translation Department, though no records exist of his work there, and eventually passed his Township Officer examinations allowing him to enter the civil service. Thanks in part to his English language ability he served as the Personal Assistant to the Chief Commissioner in Yangon before being posted to Upper Myanmar and promoted to Extra Assistant Commissioner.
He retired from government service at the age of 37 due to his poor health and returned to Yangon to practice law. It was during this time that he wrote ‘Maung Yin Maung’. On his doctor’s advice he moved to Meiktila in central Myanmar then on to Shwebo, the birthplace of the last Burmese monarchy. Here he wrote a second novel titled ‘Second Husband’ and other works, including a sequel to ‘Maung Yin Maung’, none of which were ever published. In Shwebo he re-converted to the religion he was born into, renovating a pagoda and dying shortly after its completion on 17th November 1919.
His premature death in 1919 came at a time when Burmese literature was on the threshold of a new age, one that explored narrative themes and styles in marked contrast to the preceding centuries of Courtly dramas and poetry. Though cited as an influential figure in the development of a Burmese literature, he never achieved the same status among Burmese as his contemporaries. As they rode a new wave of literature in the 1920’s and became household names, James Hla Gyaw is solely remembered for his single novel, ‘Maung Yin Maung and Ma Me Ma’.