On May 1, 2018, a new shop, Matika, opened in the middle block of Yangon’s 37th Street, replacing a restaurant that had been offering traditional Myanmar food. 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 from the country’s colonial period. Besides old books on Burma, magazines, film posters, and badges from the socialist period, the visitor can see and buy modern paintings hung on the walls, also clothes, and silver or bronze jewelry – all made in Myanmar and designed by the owner Aung Soe Min, as the article states. A visitor to the new shop some time later could 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. At an early age he was interested in poetry, painting and especially writing. During the socialist era many families in Burma, including Aung Soe Min’s, were struggling. This was due to the country’s economic depression which peaked in 1987, that resulted partly from the planned economic system enforced by the socialist government. In addition to that, the youth of that time did not have many educational opportunities. This 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, booksellers and intellectuals, and started to read and collect books himself . This was not an easy thing to do due to the socialist government’s restrictive censorship policies prohibiting a wide variety of books and forms of art.
While he was still studying, the student movement of 1988 arose 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 with information 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.
At first he wasn’t sure whether or not he would ever be allowed to go back to study after his involvement in the protests. When he was, he had to pause in studying several times, because the school was closed due to different strikes and governmental counter measures,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 had some small jobs as an engineer to earn some money. More importantly he started his career as an entrepreneur in the field of bookshops 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. There Aung Soe Min helped found 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. According to his own account, this method of starting a cultural business has been employed some 30 times since then.
The method includes having an idea, the knowledge to implement it, establishing a social network and in some cases one to provide the money needed 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 founded and co-founded range from bookshops and libraries to hairdressers 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 must leave the country and renew her Visa every three months, since it is not possible for a foreigner to become a citizen of Myanmar. She is able to speak Burmese and other ethnic languages of the country, such 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 and Nance moved into an old downtown flat on the eighth floor – without an elevator –in Seikkantha Street. From the beginning, the place was partly living space and partly treasure trove for everyone interested in Burmese history and culture. The flat hosted a huge and varied archive, with 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.
alIn 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 traditional 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 – albeit not in a leading role – 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).