Publishing on the Edge of Myanmar

Printing presses are rarely a source of interest in Britain, unless you somehow find yourself in possession of an original press owned by perhaps Gutenburg or Claxton.  Publishing houses, yes.  Especially those historical ones passed down through familial generations …

In Myanmar, it is different.  Publishing houses tend to go hand in hand, the printer was also the publisher, at least during the colonial administration (and still today with the likes if Seikku Cho Cho).  And some of these presses/publishers have taken on an extraordinary aura.  Take the original press, the first press in Myanmar, shipped over from Serampore in India by Baptist missionaries and used, after 1816, by the Judson missionary family to print the first books in Myanmar, in both the Myanmar script, and then later in Mawlamyine, in the Sgaw Karen script. 

Non-religious presses followed, most notably, the Hanthawaddy Press and Printing Works, the brainchild of an Englishman, born in Myanmar, and who, in the late 19th Century, built the largest and most productive printing publishing house in the country, based at the four storey building that is now occupied by the Central Fire station on Sule Pagoda Road. 

Others include the Victoria Press, the British Burma Press, Sun Press, the Central Government Press and the American Baptist Mission Press.  This last, a religious press used to print and distribute bibles and psalms in regional languages plus biographies of missionaries was the forerunner of other presses, located beyond Yangon in the communities where the missionaries were active.

This is the birth of the Hanson Press in Myitkyina, the capital town of Myanmar’s most northern state, Kachin.

Named after the famed Swedish missionary who, though not the first to try, devised a script for the Kachin majority language in the early 20th Century.

Run under the control of the Kachin Baptist Convention, the Hanson Press, was, until very recently, the only press capable of printing and binding, book length publications in Kachin State.

As a religious press, naturally, all of their in-house publications are in some way connected to the Christian faith, but as a business, they will also print secular books. 

The history of the press is a bit murky; no one seems to be certain exactly when the first hand-cranked press made its way north from Yangon.  It could have been before World War 2, though the earliest memories date it towards the mid 1950’s.

The Original Hanson Press Building

As a religious press, they were, in some ways, exempt from the onerous censorship regime which followed the Ne Win coup in 1962, which allowed those presses which existed before independence to publish books without having to go through the censor board.

A wonderful story, which, despite my hopes, is probably not true, is that some time in the 1970’s or 1980’s, the original pre-war press had broken down.  With the age of the press, the political isolation, the ongoing civil war and the remoteness of the city, it was impossible for the management of the press to obtain spare parts.  If they had tried to purchase a new press, this would have negated the advantage they held by using a pre-independence press.  So, the management procured a new press from China, deconstructed it to small parts, tied the parts on the back of mules and walked it across the hill-borders before reassembling in in the city and carried on as if it were the original press.

Either way, the current press is now a multiple sheet fed, offset press housed in a three-story concrete building just yards away from the original, low slung wooden house where the press lived from at least the 1950’s and probably earlier.

Hanson Press deserves it place among the renowned of Myanmar, both for its historical significance and its purpose today in providing the only opportunity for Kachin writers to be published by a Kachin publisher in Kachinland.