LETTERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
Shrimp Shelling and Tuna Canning in Mahachai, Thailand, Part One
A few years ago I visited Bangkok, Thailand for an academic conference about Burma (now called Myanmar) in the ASEAN (Association of South Eastern Asian Nations). With its military government, notorious for its human rights abuses, Burma is the pariah of South Eastern Asia. In 1988, after suppressing the pro-democracy movement in Burma, the junta changed its own name to SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) and the name of the country to “Myanmar.” It also changed the names of all the streets, towns, cities, and organizations within the country. Foreign commentators still see this as an attempt to hoodwink the world. As if to say: We’re called something else now; we know nothing of what’s happening in the country that you all are talking about!
As a dissident I worked for three years in international radio, and another three with The Burma Fund (affiliated with the Burmese Democratic Government in Exile, formally known as the NCGUB-National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma) — I stick to the name Burma, unless I wish to be snide or am quoting something critical of the SLORC (now itself renamed SPDC-State Peace and Restoration Council).
Nothing is more Orwellian than this “War is Peace.” In fact, by one estimate, if one were to tot up the conflict years between 1946 and 2003, when all the various groups have been in conflict (some armed conflicts) with the central government, one would come up with a grand total of 232 years, making Burma the most conflict ridden country in South Eastern Asia. In contrast, North Vietnam scored sixty conflict years, Cambodia and South Vietnam both thirty-six, and Thailand — the least conflict prone-thirty-five years.
On the morning I was about to leave Bangkok, Ingjin, a Burmese dissident, who had shown me around Bangkok, brought along a young man friend of hers to help me with my luggage. As a refugee, I cannot go back but once I am so close to Burma (Burma shares its longest border with Thailand to the east, and Thailand is full of Burmese refugees and migrant workers) I tend to buy crafts and textiles that remind me of my homeland. I also buy books on Burma and South Eastern Asia that I cannot get in the United States.
As we sat at the gate Ingjin decided to take a picture of me and her friend. We looked bedraggled, like true hangdog refugees as we waited near the business school’s gate for the taxi. At seven am, the temperature was already in the nineties. The tarmac and pavement were starting to radiate heat, making it the ideal climate for the floppy flowered pink and white euphorbia (a thorny plant called “Kiss me Quick!”) and night blooming cacti in ceramic pots in front of the shop houses.
The Burmese man who sold paratha, or fried Indian bread stuffed with ground meat off a greasy griddle on a cart, was already doing a brisk business for the droves of passing students and office goers. Part of the reason I keep going back to this place is the fetid smell of the drains, reminiscent of Burma, and these street side vendors. But after a few days or weeks, my world seems to have shrunk. I start missing the sound of English, I miss Borders bookstores, Starbucks coffee, and my own intellectual and personal space.
As Ingjin commanded “Smile” the young man, Zarni (not the well-known Dr. Zarni, but another Zarni, based in Thailand), suddenly told me sotto voce, “Teacher, there’s a place across the river from here called Mahachai. All the farms and orchards are over there. They all use Burmese migrant laborers.”
“Yes?” I blinked at him. I wished I could say, “Let’s go there right now.”
But I could not postpone my flight at so late an hour, and it wasn’t easy to go across the Chao Phra River to Thonburi. Just a few days before, Ingjin and another of her friends had taken me to Wat Arun, or the Temple of the Dawn. We went on the Chao Phra Express, or ferry, a kind of water taxi. Although Ingjin knew some Thai (all the Burmese in Thailand tended to say “kaik kaik” — which apparently means “close to” — kaik kaik this and kaik kaik that — to the taxi drivers), going on the ferry to even a touristy spot like Wat Arun had been quite a challenge. Ingjin had made our day trip across the river more memorable by relating how the passengers had died in a ferry accident a few years ago. I could see for myself on all my trips to Thailand, that the Thai were not that environmentally or safety conscious. It seemed to me things in Thailand were only slightly better than in Burma, despite its relative economic prosperity.
As my taxi pulled up, and all three of us piled in, Zarni said, “You know, Teacher, all the agriculturalists in Mahachai use fertilizers and pesticides like crazy. They only care for a saleable product.”
I remembered how the long-time Burmese dictator, General Ne Win, was said to have derided the Burmese Department of Agriculture because it “didn’t know how to grow big guavas like the Thai do.” I’d once written that this was because the Burmese were not allowed to have any private enterprises, unlike the Thai. Now the question was, who would speak for workers’ rights in a country with a prosperous private sector like Thailand?
As if reading my thoughts, Zarni said, “The migrant workers are given nothing like gloves. They handle the pesticides and fertilizer with their bare hands. Some are suffering from skin diseases.” His young-old face, with its pale skin, settled back into what I thought must be his normal expression of sadness. He could not be more than twenty-six years old.
Our taxi hurtled along the superhighways towards the airport at about sixty mph. Through the taxi’s dusty, closed window all the highways, overpasses, and underpasses looked exactly like those in America. If it were not for the language difficulty, the heat, and the street side vendors (some as young as ten or eleven) selling Indian style malai or jasmine garlands, we could be in America.
Our taxi went by the toll way, as directed by Ingjin. In a couple of hours I was in the air, on the first leg of my long journey home.
Back in the U.S. the situation of the migrant workers in Mahachai nagged at me for the next couple of years. I left my job and started a writing and artistic career. It was only this July that I had the chance to visit Bangkok again. Luckily I was able to arrange with an area university’s researcher team to visit Mahachai and study Burmese migrant workers. I carpooled with a Thai university minivan at the downtown campus as they went out there every Friday.
The twelve or so students were led by a staff member who was the only team member used to speaking English. I thought they would come armed with questionnaires and notebooks, as we had done in Burma in the seventies, but it didn’t seem as if they had something specific to do.
As the minivan went back south east of Bangkok, on the highway and over the bridge which I knew led to Kanchanaburi and the River Kwai, the theme song from the movie played perkily in my head. The area was less rural than I thought. All I saw from the road was a betel palm orchard with the slim betel palms, their red and green nuts hanging in bunches near the tops. Did the Thai, like the Burmese, still chew betel nuts with betel vine leaves, intermittently spewing out red spittle? I did not remember seeing anyone chewing betel in Bangkok, Ayuthia, or Chiangma. Maybe it was exported to Burma over the border.
The rest of the roadside landscape looked like an area being rapidly developed as a sort of industrial park. After about an hour, the minivan pulled in at an official looking place in the town of Samut Sakhon. A big wat, or monastery, that had tiered roofs in a very Burmese style, was under construction a few yards from where we were parked. I stepped out of the van when the driver came around and opened the back door for me. A strong smell of fermented or rotting fish, just like the ubiquitous salted fish paste called ngapi in Burmese and kapi in Thai, wafted through the air. The students around me sniffed, smiling. “Everywhere here it smell like this,” the group leader told me.
The building, with signboards in Thai, looked exactly like a Thai immigration office in the Golden Triangle area, and turned out to be a Thai government labor protection agency. That day all the Thai in the country seemed to be dressed in golden yellow T-shirts. King Bhumipol had fallen in the Grand Palace hurting his back, and was scheduled to have an operation that day. Everyone was wearing the gold color because the King was born on a Monday and gold was the Monday color. I was born on a Monday too, but in Burmese culture you only have animals, though I would say, in general Burmese and Thai are equally superstitious.
Very soon, a woman from the labor department, about forty-five years old and in a gold colored T-shirt, climbed into one of the two vans belonging to the university, and we set off for a shrimp shelling factory nearby. This turned out to be on one side of a narrow street, with a big shop facing it on the other side. I later found out this big three- story building also belonged to the owners of the shrimp processing plant.
The factory did not smell as I thought it would. In fact, I did not notice any offensive smells at all, and the concrete paved entrance yard was quite neat and clean, with the de riguer small shrine to the nat, or spirit of the place, tucked into a corner near the gate. Fresh flowers and artificial gold colored garlands had been placed on the whitewashed shrine.
We were met by the young, Chinese-looking owner of the factory and his brother. They both looked as if they could star in a kung fu flick. We were all taken into an air-conditioned meeting room, served ice water, and then the owner gave us a presentation from his laptop. The group leader translated for me infrequently, and I noticed he did not introduce me to the owners at this or the next factory we visited.
When the lengthy presentation finished we stepped out into the yard. There we were shown the living quarters of the workers. No one mentioned that I was originally from Burma and spoke Burmese.
The workers’ living spaces turned out to be small ten by ten foot buildings (or shacks) with corrugated iron roofs, set against and facing an earthen walkway along the back wall of the factory compound. I lagged at the end of our group, and talked to the workers. They were relaxing for the moment, sitting out by the walkway on small platforms, taking the air, or on woven grass mats on the floor in their rooms, where I could see Buddha images and fresh flowers on shrine shelves and calendars hanging on the walls. Calendars with color photographs of famous pagodas or films stars are a favorite form of interior decoration for many Burmese.
They smiled happily to see me, and two men who looked to be foremen, came up and talked to me. They said they were happy, and wanted me to take pictures of their living spaces.
I asked if they could move about easily within Thailand and leave this job if they found a better one. Both the men said that they could. They said the owner, the rich man, or tha htay, was very good to them; he did not take money for their use of water or electricity and took care of them when they were sick.
We came out again into the sunny front yard, where more workers were around — the women getting suited up in white Wellington boots, white caps, and aprons, walking through six inch deep pools of water put there for sanitation at the entranceway of the toilet.
Everyone I saw seemed to be between the ages of fifteen and fifty. I did not see anyone very young or very old, and they all looked in very good health. The members of the research team took photos, as they did later inside the factory. No one stopped us. Obviously, this was one of the better work places, with progressive owners, but I would find out later that the work was grueling and involved standing long hours.
In the presentation room, one of the university students had asked if the workers could have chairs to sit down sometimes. The foreman told me chairs could not be allowed because pieces of wood chips might get in the shrimp. I gather this must have been the official line, as if all chairs are made of wood. But the shrimp shelling is so ruled by speed and the piece rate, the workers probably could not sit, even if they wished to.
For now, the workers were all standing around the front yard, asking each other if pazun yauk pyi lar? Had the shrimp arrived? The iced shrimp came from another factory, were shelled here, and sent on somewhere else. As a big truck backed into the compound and its back was opened, I knew the shrimp had arrived. There was an excited running around and getting ready, and as we, observers, tried to stay out of the way a fork lift driver expertly unloaded the blue plastic drums of shrimp packed in ice flakes. The translucent ice flakes were the size and thickness of small pieces of slate. A student gingerly held up a cold shrimp, about three to six inches long, and we all took pictures of his hand holding the shrimp.
Inside the work area, the women had started shelling the shrimp, even before all the drums were unloaded. Their fingers flew impossibly fast. They each had a metal tube with a pointed tip on their left thumbs, and held small sharp pointed knives, usually in the left hand. Their gloves have become stained rust-red, betel spit-red, as we would say in Burma. I never realized before there were so many ways of shelling, beheading, and deveining shrimp. I took pictures of the two charts on the walls illustrating how to do it, carefully labeled in hand-written Burmese-butterflyed across the back, split with the tail on, etc. etc. The familiar round letters of the Burmese alphabet tugged at me, like small black holes.
I asked the young man who continued to talk to me, what the uniform-black T-shirts with dark green at the shoulders — meant. “Oh,” he said, “the others are piece rate. We are salaried workers.” He said he had worked there twelve years and that most of the workers found this job through friends. According to Thai labor laws, they were all now registered workers.
The floor of the factory was perpetually wet and slippery but not dirty. We were not allowed to go in among the shrimp peelers, but stood and watched from three feet away. The shrimp peelers’ lives were measured out by small ten by eight inch plastic baskets, each about six inches deep. This is the unit for the piece rates. The smaller shrimp, which take longer to peel, command better per pound rates for the peelers.
I asked how long each shift was, and was told, “As long as the shrimp keep coming.” That could be thirteen to eighteen hours, the foreman told me.
After ten to fifteen minutes of observing the shrimp peelers, we were taken across the road to the big, white three-story building. Here, I bought a cold drink and a packet of dried bananas. I did not know if all the workers did all their shopping there; it seemed to me more like a convenience store. Among the items on sale were cheroots from Burma, packets of lehpet, or pickled tea, bottles of honey placed among the liquor bottles, and “pea pills” or oral contraceptives. I did not see any condoms, but they might have been hidden somewhere.
Thai and Burmese cultures are rather similar in their modesty, while there is a dark underside — Burma is in the midst of a severe AIDS epidemic, and according to Dr. Chris Beyrer of Johns Hopkins University, a new variant of HIV/AIDS has appeared in Burma. In a recent talk at American University in Washington D.C., he described how diseases like elephantiasis have evolved in the severely run down social and economic conditions of Burma, where the internally displaced population is estimated at one million in a total population of fifty-four million.
I wondered why I was seeing just the young and healthy that could do this grueling work. I wish I had asked about their average weekly incomes.
The woman who “manned” the convenience store, also looked like a Thai of Chinese descent. She and I communicated in sign language. When she needed coins, I stuck a handful out at her, and she took the correct amount. I went upstairs to the ordination hall. Burmese and Thai are Theravada Buddhists and all men are ordained as monks at least once in their lifetime, in halls such as this one.
The floors upstairs were of wood and highly polished. Two Thai women were sitting on the floor, preparing packets intended for a special ceremony with monks. It was around the full moon of waso (wesak) — the beginning of the Buddhist lent. Traditionally, Buddhists give feasts for the monks and donate food and other items at this time.
On this second floor, there was an image of Shin Mogallana (Ashin Mauk Gallan in Burmese), Gautama Buddha’s main disciple, who always accompanies the Buddha, on his right hand side (let ya yann in Burmese). I could tell he was Shin Mogallana from the way he was seated, with his head tilted slightly to his left, his upper torso leaning on his right arm. The gentle expressions on the faces of the statues of the two disciples are always ones of deep respect and veneration.
The image I saw in the shrimp factory’s ordination hall was particularly fine — carved out of a soft Burmese marble or sagyin kyauk. The eyes, the black eyebrows, and the red mouth had been painted on. I wondered how the owners of the shrimp factory had acquired this fine statue, and how thoughtful of them to have a Burmese image for their Burmese workers.
Another floor up was an even finer ordination hall, this time with an image of the Buddha himself. Thai, as well as Burmese reserve the highest places for the most exalted persons or things. In the same way, these two cultures consider the head, for instance, holier than the feet. In the uppermost hall, there was a small photograph tied with a lavish gold colored bow of the Thai royal family apparently taken in the sixties.
The Thai researchers went in to see the monk, who was resident in a small room off the second floor ordination hall, but the room was crowded, and I would not have understood the conversation anyway, so I started downstairs and sat on the steps, where a shopkeeper brought me a chair.
Kyi May Kaung, born in Burma, has a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in Political Economy. She came to America on a Fulbright in 1982 and applied for asylum after the junta’s clampdown on the pro-democracy movement started in 1988. Kyi won the William Carlos Williams Award of the Academy of American Poets in 1993 and a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Award for her play “Shaman” in 1996. She has been a Pew finalist twice. Her poem “Eskimo Paradise” will be in the upcoming Norton Anthology of S.E. Asian Poetry. She has two poetry chapbooks — Pelted with Petals: The Burmese Poems and Tibetan Tanka. Other poems have appeared in Meridian Bound, Rattapallax, CrossConnect, Poets’ Attic, Mosaic, and Passport Magazine. After working in international radio and with the Burmese democratic government in exile, Kyi is now working on a novel. Kyi is also a visual artist and has had two one-woman art shows since 2001.
Works by Kyi May Kaung
Free to be Wild: Artist Elsa Gebreysus from Eritrea
Shrimp Shelling & Tuna Canning in Mahachai, Thailand
Fiction: The Lovers