Anti-immigrant.


I found some old note pads from my grandfather’s oil factory with its logo.

I’ve always wondered why all, not one or two, of my Chinese friends whose families come from Vietnam harbor such animosity toward the Vietnamese. They were discriminated against, tortured, and forced to eke out lives as second-class citizens. For me, I would say I’m mixed, Chinese (Hakka and Hokkien) and Bama. Perhaps I’m generalizing, but it struck me today, how the fears of immigrant groups flares up for the same old reasons in every nation.

A few years after my grandfather’s business enterprises, including the Thamahita rice factory and Shwepyisoe peanut oil plant (named after the nationalist novel by U Lat; the plant’s symbol is of the Common iora, a bird of the same name), were nationalized, the anti-Chinese riots struck. According to my father, their family stood out from most people, because they were lighter-skinned than most Bama. My father doesn’t remember what year, but it happened quickly. Bama came knocking door to door in search of Chinese ‘victims’ to torture, humiliate, and kill. A government-incited affair, the anti-Chinese riots occured over the course of several years. Chinese schoolgirls were killed, raped and tortured for wearing Mao Zedong badges. It was pure unruliness.

Luckily, my father’s neighbor, an Indian man, hid the family of seven children and two parents while the searches were ongoing. Nobody in my family likes talking about it; it’s such a painful reminder of the racism they faced. Partly sparked by the government and partly because of animosity some native Bama had with the financial success of many Chinese immigrants, friends and relatives of my family were ruthlessly killed.

Racism is such a terrible thing–I’m sure everyone can agree that we may have racist tendencies or beliefs, but the most important thing is not to act on them.

Well, today, my mother told me another view to the story. She is a tayoke kabya, that is, a Burmese Chinese, who was about eight when the anti-Chinese riots happened. She told me the story of Chinese schoolgirls who were murdered with spokes stabbed from behind. She told me of how the city was in total lockdown, with barbed wire and patrolling soldiers. She told me about how a girl’s school in Latha township was burned to the ground with people incinerated inside (it’s since been rebuilt with homes). At the time, her father owned Union Beauty Products, a manufacturing plant in Pazundaung that produced lipstick, talcum powder, body soap and makeup powder. Because my grandfather had an import-export license, the company exported to Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. At the time, his plant hadn’t been nationalized (it later was, and my grandfather downgraded to a smaller factory producing talcum powder).

My grandmother was Chinese, a very smart woman who knew four Chinese dialects (Meixian Hakka, Yongdi Hakka, Cantonese and Mandarin), as well as Burmese. Her father had been a traditional Chinese doctor, so she was very much in touch with her Chinese heritage. My grandfather was a kabya, a Chinese-Bama hailing from Pathein. However, those times, according to my mother were, were tough. She lived in Lanmadaw township, which was segregated by race. Her side of the street was Chinese and the other side was Bama. But, back then, people were very much tight-knit. For Chinese New Year, my grandmother would cook feasts and go door-to-door and give food to neighbors. That all stopped. My mother remembers her mom telling her to put on thanakha (a paste mostly Bama kids and women put on their faces), something she normally did not do, to appear more Bama.

But the riots faded away, but things were no longer the same. Neighbors became enemies, for the Bama, it was a return to normalcy; for the Chinese, it was a signal that they were no longer wanted (my father’s side immigrated to the U.S. a few years later). And these riots happened in Burma, where the Bama have close kinship with Chinese, and even gave them a nickname, “pauk-phaw,” meaning ‘sibling.’ All because of unwarranted economic “disadvantages” and because of seething tensions.

And it’s amazing how these waves of immigrant hatred happen everywhere. Sometimes I can’t believe some members of my family vote Republican to keep ‘immigrants’ out. Less than half a century ago, they were the victims of the anti-Chinese riots in Burma. Now they want walls built to keep Mexicans out, at a time the United States should be bridging a gap between Americans and its immigrants.

In Burma, the Bama were severely incited by the fact that the Chinese owned most businesses. (The anti-Indian riots also occurred, for fear of Indians taking jobs normally for the Bama). We have these same concerns here, afraid that low-paying factory jobs held by “Americans” will be taken by immigrants. That people are taking advantage of health care and what not. It’s unbelievable that Americans are so concerned about immigrants that they’re willing to build a billion dollar unsightly wall to keep a potential workforce out of this country, especially when the numbers are decreasing, from a flagging economy in the U.S.

Maybe I just can’t emphatize with these Americans, but I feel that if they’re that worried that their factory jobs will be overtaken or outsourced, they ought to retrain themselves in skills that are actually suitable to the employment climate here. It’s embarassing to think that my nation, a nation of immigrants, seeks to deport people who want nothing more than a stable life. Illegal immigration won’t stop until the United States becomes a third-world nation. Even Mexico gets more than its fair share of illegal immigrants from Guatemala and other poor countries.

It’s just ridiculous. I’ve probably gone on several tangents because it’s already 3:04 am, but the stories my mother told me tonight about the anti-Chinese riots really inspired me to do anything more than just absorb it. I remember one of my close friends, a Chinese born in Vietnam, say that “those Viets never wanted my family there. We were stepped on, my dad wasn’t allowed to go to school.” This world isn’t as simple as I thought it was. At the time, I just said “It’s the past and shouldn’t you you leave it behind to embrace your home country?” But world isn’t this simple.

Sometimes it’s to make sure that things of this sort don’t happen again.

3 thoughts on “Anti-immigrant.

  1. Hla Oo says:

    I am an ethnic Burmese now living in Australia. When I was in my school year 6 in 1967, I witnessed a most atrocious act committed by a Burmese mob in Rangoon’s Chinatown during the race riots you mentioned.

    I am still traumatized by what I’d witnessed and If you like I would like to share my experience and would also like to know more about the personal experiences of your family members as a therapy for my PTSD.

  2. Aung Kyaw says:

    Sure, but I don’t know too much about my family’s experiences during these tragic times, because they’re reluctant to talk about this.

    For my father’s side, they moved from around Bago to Yangon after nationalization (Pyithu paing thein) of my grandfather’s businesses. During the time of the Anti-Chinese riots, my father’s family lived in Sule Paya Road, which was targeted by Burmese mobs because it was a major arterial. Because it was known among the neighbors that they were Chinese (even though my grandpa can pass as Burmese), one of my father’s neighbors, an elderly Indian man, let them hide in his house during the searches. Luckily nothing happened to any of them. They immigrated to the US a few years later, because they realized that Burma wasn’t welcoming of the Chinese even if it was their homeland.

    For my mom’s side, my mom was probably 8 (year 3) when it happened, so she can’t recall much. But she remembers my grandparents forcing her to wear thanakha and Bama eingyi (the Bama women’s garment) so they wouldn’t be suspected. I suspect that my grandfather’s connections as a businessman helped ward off any attacks or harassment, because my mom went to Bishop Home elementary school (where you need to get connections to military/business people to get in). Luckily nobody in my immediate family was killed or severely affected, but many family friends were.

  3. Hla Oo says:

    Thanks for the reply. Here is what I witnessed that I couldn’t forget even after forty long years. I was only 11 year old then.

    Our house was on the Dalhousie road -now called Mahabandoola Road- near Signal Pagoda Road right next to the Chinatown in Rangoon. On that particular day in 1967, the riots were already a day or two old and the whole Chinatown was covered with smoke from burning houses and burning furniture on the streets.

    The schools were then closed and we kids had nothing to do except follow the mob wandering around. The main road was closed by the barbed-wire barricades manned by the soldiers with bayoneted .303 rifles, right at the Theingyi Bazaar. But they still let rioting Burmese into burning Chinatown for some reason.

    Chinese were already running away to the countryside or hiding. But that day the mob found a Chinese family trapped in a top floor apartment in one of the small side streets, 18th or 19th or 20th street I don’t remember now. Not that far from Latha Street. The Burmese mob burned the floors downstairs and the young Chinese woman with a baby finally ended up on the roof just above their flat.

    For some reason she had a Chinese red flag with her. She wasn’t afraid and she was sort of waving the flag. It kind of made the crowd real mad and they climbed up to get her from the roof. But she didn’t let them grab her and jumped four floors down onto the tarred street together with the baby in her arms.

    It was horrible. Really horrible. Sometimes I had nightmares of that scene and I couldn’t sleep again whole night.

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