Cosmopolitan Rangoon

A largely English administrative class presided over the colonial apparatus; Scots dominated trade.  The big companies of the day…were all in Glaswegian hands.

…In the early twentieth century, Burma enjoyed a higher standard of living than India and was far less densely populated.  And as the economy grew, there was a need for cheap labour as well as entrepreneurial and professional skills.  all this came from India, with movement into Burma unchecked and for a long time positively encouraged.  By the late 1920s Rangoon even exceeded new York as the greatest immigrant port in the world and this influx turned Rangoon into an Indian City, with the Burmese reduced to a minority.  There was a mingling of peoples from every part of the subcontinent, from Bengali schoolteachers and Gujarati bankers, to Sikh policemen and Tamil merchants.  There were Chinese too, and smaller communities of Europeans, Americans and even Latin Americans (the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda lived in Rangoon briefly in the 1920s).  The Cambridge political economist and long-time Burma civil servant J.S. Furnivali invented the term “plural society” to describe Rangoon’s mix of nationalities.  Steamships fastened Rangoon to Calcutta and then, with the start of air travel, Rangoon became a hub for all of Asia…World-class schools and a top-notch university helped create a cosmopolitan and politically active middle class.

That is from the new and interesting book Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, by Thant Myint-U.


This is what comes to my mind about Burma:

I love you J Peterman.

Hmm, another society run by the 1%. Not a great ending, though.

Could've been another success story a la Singapore, perhaps, but the local anticommunists were not as agile as Lee, and the West supported the Chinese Nationalists instead of the local anticommunists.

this influx turned Rangoon into an Indian City,

Burma was a province of India. I still don't see how an Indian moving to Rangoon is counted as an immigrant.

Not in legal terms, but the ethnic, national sense.

"By the late 1920s Rangoon even exceeded new York as the greatest immigrant port in the world and this influx turned Rangoon into an Indian City, with the Burmese reduced to a minority."

Perhaps the Burmese didn't like it.

I've said it before on this blog but it didn't sink in apparently. The Immigration Act of 1924 severely curtailed immigration into the US, therefore accepting more immigrants than NYC in the late 1920's means nothing.

Only formally for administrative purposes the Britishers considered it as a province of British India. May be the author should have said that he meant it in a more loose cultural rather than administrative sense, but isn't that a small issue?

My point is most of India was indeed merely an administrative or legal union, so why single Burma out. There was hardly any ethnic similarity between, say, a Tamil and a Sikh. The cultural delta for a Sikh landing in Rangoon was hardly and more than a Sikh migrating to, say, Madras. The dominant national element for most of India was the fact that it was a British colony. India was (and remains) a highly heterogeneous entity with most regions having no shared heritage, language, customs, cuisines, culture etc.

The only reason commentators are tempted to think of Burma as somewhat more distinct is a quirk of history that Burma seceded into a separate nation later.

AFAIK while those in much of India (except Andaman, Northeast etc.) have differing DNA distributions, they have much more ethnic similarity with each other than with others. For instance there is ethnic similarity between Tamils and Sikhs as according to this nature paper, most Indian groups have between 39% and 71% of "ANI" ancestry, "ANI" standing for "Ancestral North Indian". There is almost no pure "Ancestral South Indian".

The reminants of Rangoon / Yangoon once being a great crossroads are still there. I was there in 2006 and it remains a cosmopolitan city where the cultures of Indians, Chinese, Bengalis live side by side. I am sure you will also find an occasional burmese or indian with some european ancestry.

Today, the merchant class in Yangoon remains dominated by Chinese and indians. The burmese tend to make up the working class.

But they are all worse off under the dictatorial military junta which has lasted for forty years.

A goofy thing about Burma is the banking system. because of the embargos set in place by the EU and USA, western financial institutions generally do not operate within burma. That means finding somewhere to debit your visa or mastercard will be very very difficult. There are a handful of well known merchants in Yangoon who will do so, and literally one or two in the rest of the country that will do so.

Therefore foreign travellers need to arrive in burma with cold hard american cash. The indian jewelry merchants at Bogyoke market will change your dollars into kyat. You will need kyat for daily transactions but will pay for board with dollars. The money changers will give a better rate for $100s and $50s, An ok rate for $20s, and a much less attractive rate for $20s, 10s, 5s, and 1s. However, you also must check before you leave your departing country (in my case, Thailand) that the american cash you are bringing in does not have a serial number the burmese merchants consider suspect. As it turns out, I brought with me a $100 bill with a serial number the burmese merchants considered suspect.

This would have been ok because I had enough American dollars with good serial numbers to get me through my three weeks of travels through Burma but when I made it up to mandalay I decided to stay for another week and i needed to cash the suspect counterfeit $100 bill that I was carrying. While i couldnt find a merchant that would break or cash the $100 bill for less than a ridiculous rate, I did find one merchant in Mandalay who was willing to debit my visa card for a 20% commission, which was less ridiculous. He processed the transaction over the internet through a bank in Singapore and explained to me that financial transactions between burma and the outside world were generally processed through Singapore. However, because foreign banks typically do not have branches in Burma, money makes its way back and forth between the Singaporean bank accounts and Burma via courriers who carry cold hard cash on the daily flights between Singapore and Yangoon or Mandalay. One of these courriers played a role in in debiting $100 from my bank account and had a piece of the 20% commision.

In the early 20th century, tropical, colonial economies was " far less densely populated" an asset or a liability?

By the late 1920s Rangoon even exceeded new York as the greatest immigrant port in the world...

Ah, "late 1920s."

Since the US had extinguished the lamp beside the golden door in 1924, this is not so hard to believe.

Between China and India is a very good book. Anyone interested in Burma, and especially in its relations with China and India should read it. In some respects it is more a travelogue than a typical book on political affairs, so it is an easy read, but it has a lot of otherwise not very well know information packed in.


can you please post a link to this book? Ive searched both google and amazon for this title but cannot find it.

Rahul - Gandhi visited Burma many times and talked about "Indian" immigration in that country (he's quoted in the book), He clearly made a distinction between 'ethnic' Indians (whether Tamil, Bengali, Punjabi etc) in Rangoon and the Burmese.

Mark - The book is here:

So much for immigration.

no mention of the Chettiar bankers of Burma? thats one hell of a story.

This is not an optimistic precedent for Dubai.

Pravin - Chettiyar bankers of Burma are mentioned in this book but are covered in depth in his last book "The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma"

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