The Legendary Book of Kalay

The first time I saw it, the pages had already yellowed with age.  The olive-green cover had faded and the binding had gone, the pages held together with sticky tape.  She pulled it from a packet sleeve, kept in a cupboard in a back room …

An historic Shan town, built at the foot of the Northern Chin hills and the last town before the Tamu/Moreh border with India, Kalay had seen few foreign visitors before the transition.  With both the border and the Chin Hills closed to those without permits, Kalay itself was essentially closed off to travellers.  With no public transport available from Yangon, those that did come arrived via the WW2 era airport and most found their way to Ma Tin Tin.  

A graduate in English Literature from Mandalay University, Ma Tin Tin has run the Thein Shwe beer station since the late 1980’s.  A small space, narrow but long, the 8 tables are wood, smooth from years of use.  Aged posters from Myanmar Beer, and Grand Royal whisky peel off the walls.  Two ceiling fans dangle unused in the winter chill.

The first time I met Ma Tin Tin was probably in 2012 or 2013, I can’t quite remember the year.  That was when she first showed me the book.  It’s not old, certainly not legendary in the sense that centuries of myth and reverence has elevated to national importance.  But it does have its place in Myanmar’s literary history.

For since Ma Tin Tin opened the beer station, she has asked all foreign visitors to sign her book, with their name, their country of origin and their job, for nearly 3 decades.  The book is a time capsule, a repository of who and why they came to this out-of-the-normal-way town. 

And it’s utterly fascinating.

First Page of the Legendary Book of Kalay

Flipping through the pages, starting from the beginning, you can see the changing evolution of foreign involvement, not just in Kalay but, shadowing that which was happening in the country as a whole.  The earliest entries, from 1990, show a preponderance of Americans and French: navigators and helicopters pilots for international mining, oil and gas companies.  From 1998 onwards, there is an increase in European aid workers, previously thin on the ground until Myanmar’s first attempt of an ‘opening’ in 1996 and 1997.  In the early 2000’s the American’s returned:  Church groups mostly, as Kalay is populated with churches and Christian Chins.  There are tourists’ names here and there.  Before 2011, many names are dated the same, a tour group, as only these mass tours could get the necessary permits to enter Kalay.  After 2011, there is a rise of independent tourists, not many, but growing in number from 2012 to 2016, and then they drop, to almost nothing in 2018, a consequence of the Rohingya crisis.  

The book is legendary, not just for its ability to document Myanmar’s engagement with the outside world during decades of isolation, but also for its survival. 

One day, many years ago, the beer-station caught fire.  Though the building remained standing everything in it had gone to ash, including the book.  Or so Ma Tin Tin thought.  It was months later, when she re-opened with new furniture and new stock that a neighbour came round to return a book Ma Tin Tin had given her, just before the fire struck.  Ma Tin Tin has no memory of why she gave the book to her neighbour, there would have been no reason to do so.

But while everything else was lost in the fire, the book survived.  And still does.

* Thein Shwe beer station can be found on Bogyoke Road (Airport Road).  Come out of the airport and head right.  Walk for around 10 minutes, past the bend and then straight.  Eventually you will see a set of traffic lights.  Before the traffic lights, on the left, set into a bank of two storey buildings, is Thein Shwe.  She is open from 9 am to 10 pm at night.  Ma Tin Tin gets regulars, but it is rarely busy.  Ask for anything you want, if Ma Tin Tin has it in the kitchen, she will make it for you – and then ask you to sign her legendary book.

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