On May 1, 2018 a new shop opened in Yangon’s 37th Street’s middle block replacing a restaurant that had been offering traditional Myanmar food there before: Matika. The new shop offered a “window in the past” as the Myanmar Times titled an article about the new establishment from which the above picture is taken.1 The title, however, covers only a part of what was displayed in the small shop in an old building constructed in the country’s colonial period. Besides old books on Burma, magazines, posters advertising films, badges from the socialist period the visitor can see and buy modern paintings hung up on the walls, clothes and silver and bronze jewelry – all made in Myanmar and designed by the owner Aung Soe Min, the article states. A visitor of the new shop some time later can see a craftsman working on a bracelet in a room behind the shop.
Aung Soe Min was born as one of three brothers in November 1970 during the socialist era in Kyaukpadaung a small city close to Mount Popa, where he stayed in school until 1986. Already around that time Aung Soe Min was certain that he wanted to become an artist. In his early age he was interested in poetry, painting and especially writing. During the socialist era many families in Burma including Aung Soe Mins struggled due to the country’s economic depression which peaked in 1987 resulting partly from the planned economy system enforced by the socialist government. In addition to that, the youth of that time didn’t have many educational opportunities which is why Aung Soe Min studied engineering in 1987 at the Government Technical Institute of Chauk, a centre of Burma’s oil industry close to Kyaukpadaung. To continue pursuing his goal of becoming an artist, Aung Soe Min started to befriend several artists, book sellers and intellectuals and started to read and collect books himself which wasn’t an easy thing to do due to the restrictive censorship policies of the socialist government prohibiting a wide variety of books and forms of art.
While still in his studies, the student movement of 1988 aroused and students, as well as monks, started to demonstrate not only in Yangon but all over the country. Even in Kyaukpadaung several political groups were formed. Aung Soe Min and his brothers participated in producing „underground“ pamphlets and papers informing about the bad ways of the socialist government and how to oppose it. They took part in several strikes and demonstrations as well. On the “Four 8 Day”, 8.8.88, young Aung Soe Min spent one night in a cell at the local police station.
Even though at first he wasn’t sure whether or not he would ever be allowed to go back to school after his involvements in the protests, when he was he had to pause studying several times because the school was closed due to different strikes and governmental counter measures as like the closures of schools after the 8888 uprising. Finally, he finished his studies in 1992. Afterwards Aung Soe Min moved to Yangon in 1993 where he did some petty jobs as an engineer to earn some money but more than that started his career as an entrepreneur in the field of book shops and publishing. Besides getting involved with several bookshops and libraries he started writing and publishing himself.
In 1995 Aung Soe Min was called to go back to Kyaukpadaung to support his family that was still struggling with money problems related to the current political situation. Back there, Aung Soe Min helped founding the first bookshop and the first library Kyaukpadaung had had in over 30 years. Both are still being run by Aung Soe Min’s co-founders. By his own account, this method of starting a cultural business has been employed some 30 times since then.
The method includes to have an idea, the knowledge to implement it, establishing a social network and in some cases to provide the money one needs to get a small business going. This happened not only in Kyaukpadaung but also in Yangon and other regions of the country later. The businesses he mostly founded and co-founded range from book shops and libraries to hair dressers and even the production of LED lamps.
While staying in Kyaukpadaung Aung Soe Min also met his future wife Nance Cunningham, a Canadian who was working on public health projects in Burma at that time. Nance has migrated to Myanmar permanently but still has to fly out and renew her Visa every three months since it is not possible for a foreigner to become a Myanmar citizen. She is able to speak Burmese and other ethnic languages of the country as Shan and also speaks Thai, French and even some German. Because of her openly voiced criticism of Myanmar’s military government, the authorities put her name on the “black list“. As a consequence, she could not enter Myanmar for some years and lived in Chiang Mai. There, she managed an art gallery plus café. Apart from her work in Yangon with Aung Soe Min, Nance is involved with several international projects in the public health sector. In 2018 for example she lived in Pakistan for nine months, working on a project supported by the Canadian government.
Shortly after Aung Soe Min went back to Yangon in 1999, he moved in with Nance into an old down-town flat – no elevator – at the 8th floor in Seikkantha Street. From the beginning, the place was partly a living space and partly a treasure trove for everyone interested in Burmese history and culture. The flat hosted a huge archive of almost everything – stamps, coins, books, paintings and other pieces of art, postcards, newspapers, books, historical films, colonial files and even some archaeological pieces. From that point on the two of them started to invent cultural projects and to invest in them. Many of these pieces are still at the couple’s flat, many others have been moved to other places – some of them in 2018 to the Matika shop.
The somewhat chaotic archive was a first step to becoming prominent in Yangon’s emerging lively and diverse history, culture and art scene. Besides being a collector, Aung Soe Min is an artist (painting and Music), film maker, writer and publisher.
In August 2008, the couple opened the Pansodan Art Gallery “in order to provide a possibility to Myanmar artists to present their works both to the local and international scene” as Aung Soe Min worded it. This so called art space holds paintings of over 200 Myanmar artists, many of them are contemporary but due to the hand in hand development of archive and gallery one can also find many older and rare pieces of artists like Khin Maung Yin or Bagyi Aung Soe. The thought behind initiating the gallery was to provide a space for any kind of Myanmar painter to show his or her art and providing an opportunity to sell it.
In June 2013, another enterprise was opened in the middle block of Pansodan Street – Pansodan Scene. In another colonial building, public events take place and people are invited to enjoy the paintings on the walls and having a chat over a coffee or a soft drink. Later, around 2016 the restaurant Anya Atha was opened in 37th Street, offering traditional food from central Myanmar where Aung Soe Mins is from, was opened, different to some of his other places this restaurant was frequented by many Myanmar people enjoying the excellent tradition and yet cheap food. This restaurant was than in 2018 converted into the (book) shop Matika.
Social and cultural entrepreneurship
Being born in the socialist era, participating in the country’s popular revolution of 1988 and seeing the country being drawn into yet another military dictatorship, Aung Soe Min developed his ideas to contribute to an animated political culture supporting a democratic government fin in a bottom-up manner. In his view, a stable society of the country has to rest upon the awareness of the country’s history in its manifold forms instead of the respective government’s propaganda. Aung Soe Min knows that this is a rather ambitious program that seems impossible to achieve in Myanmar – still this idea set the spark for building up a collection that by now might be the countries biggest private archive that is meant to serve the public interest.
According to Aung Soe Min, the idea behind his above described model of entrepreneurship is and was to carry out a certain kind of development work mainly for friends and family but also for people that just consulted him with their problems and ideas. As soon as a project idea had grown and become stable enough to stand on its own feet and other people were confident to carry on themselves, Aung Soe Min would retreat from the business. It seems that this concept worked out not because he was able to provide the money one would need, he mentions that he started some businesses with not much more than 500 kyats, but because Aung Soe Min was brave enough to try things out.
However, some basic enterprises like the two Pansodan places are still directly supervised by him and Nance. Art galleries have a long tradition in Burma but due to censorship restrictions the art shown there was purely traditional in the past and exhibitions showing “modern art” were almost impossible for a long time. All works exhibited had to be checked by a government official. That resulted in the prohibition of displaying any piece of work that according to the government’s ideology was regarded as nonconformist and displaying “western” culture. Pansodan Gallery opened in 2008 shortly after the censorship restrictions had been eased and was one of the first galleries in Myanmar to show works by a wide range of contemporary Myanmar artists.
Aung Soe Min says, that through both the gallery and the archive he tries to continue his own interpretation of the 8888 uprisings idea of freedom of art and freedom and expression and tries to support and contribute to building and engaging an intellectual and creative society. He himself is also still engaged in painting, sculpture making, poetry writing, screen writing, making and producing music and shooting feature length movies.
Besides his many selfless activities, Aung Soe Min and his wife obviously have a hand for entrepreneurship. They managed to build up a small empire and a much bigger network within and outside of Yangon. He doesn’t like to talk about money and about how all his ideas are being financed but one can assume that some money comes in from all the different ventures he has founded and in some cases abandoned later. Aung Soe Min can probably be seen as both an important collector and artist that with his ideas has and will contribute to an uprising scene of culture and intellectuals in Yangon and Myanmar and as a clever Myanmar businessman that knows how to use the unique opportunities that old Burma and current Myanmar offer.
By now, Pansodan Gallery has developed to become a meeting space for Myanmar artists and intellectuals as well as for foreigners, both tourists and expats. One reason for this development were the weekly Tuesday night parties hosted by Nance and Aung Soe Min. Here foreigners and Burmese met and had the opportunity to chat and drink. Very quickly, this jour fixe became very well known all over Yangon. In 2018 however this tradition was terminated, another sign of the mobility of the “project designer”
The two “Pansodan places” offer special ways of cultural exchange that Aung Soe Min and Nance Cunningham have established. People who are attending the events offered here via Facebook and other media can get explanations and information on Myanmar’s history, current issues and – of course – the artists. Many prominent western scientists doing research on Myanmar gave talks at Pansodan Scene. In addition to that Nance and Aung Soe Min published an English-Burmese dictionary that holds a separate chapter on how to pronounce every single Burmese word featured. In addition, weekly meetings to practice Burmese language are offered, initiated by Nance who participates herself when she is in town. These meetings however took place at the Pansuriya, another cultural establishment founded with Aung Soe Min’s assistance in Bo Galay Zay Street near the Secretariat building offering food, art and historical pictures hanging at the walls that is much frequented by foreigners. Another evidence of the flexibility of the enterprises under the guidance of the artist cum entrepreneur cum cultural cum social activist is the transformation of the Pansodan Scene into an Art Café offering food and drinks as well in early 2019. Chairs and tables have been moved from the restaurant in 37 Street that is now the art and book shop Matika.
To assess Aung Soe Min’s impact is not yet possible, simply because it is absolutely not finished yet. Like many Burmese, he is a man of many talents and a man who exhibits the highest Buddhist virtue of giving (dāna) in his own way – and without calling himself a devote Buddhist.
The biography is based on many talks with Aung Soe Min during the internship of the author in the Pansodan Gallery and Pansodan Scene in late 2016 and early 2017 and on information provided by people who know him.
For more sources see Wikipedia.
1https://www.mmtimes.com/news/something-everyone-myanmar-matika.html (accessed 25.2.2019).