Chinese Photo Studios in Yangon: The Myanmar Photo Archive

Billet de Marine Cabos-Brullé (CCJ-CECMC) paru sur son site, Photography of China.

Chinese Photo Studios in Yangon: The Myanmar Photo Archive

Photographers with a Chinese background have worked in Myanmar for at least 70 years. The numbers certainly increased after Myanmar’s independence in 1948. The absence of foreign run studios, that were mostly abandoned before the war broke out, left a vacuum that was gradually filled with Burmese and Chinese photographers.

The Chinese or Sino-Burmese photographers had the great advantage of being able to access published information and technology in Chinese language. In Burmese there were no such materials available and photographers were forced to access English information. One of Yangon’s most active studios among the ethnic Chinese population was Central Studio (it closed in the 90s).

On 02 March 1962, Ne Win staged a coup d’état, the consequences of which were very quickly felt throughout the country. He established his vision of the Burmese Way of Socialism and isolated the country from the outside world. This did not bode well either for photography. In particular, Sino-Burmese who did not have citizenship had their property expropriated and lost their business concessions. Around 100,000 of them left the country at that time.

A general ban on Chinese schools and the use of Chinese languages also manifests itself clearly in the archive photos. Studios changed their names from Chinese or English to Burmese. Government contracts with photo studios were given only to ethnic Burmese photographers.

At the same time, access to photo studios became more and more the norm for the general population. The former elite clientele disappeared and ever more frequent sittings with a professional photographer were definitely affordable for middle-class citizens. Taking photographs for identification was certainly the primary reason to go to a studio but many young people exchanged their image amongst friends with messages written on the back.

Due to the political situation, marriages of Sino-Burmese in the 60s and 70s often took place only within the family environment. However, even in these circles, a visit to the photo studio was common. A large part of income and profit of Chinese-run studios came from wedding photography. Bellay Studio, Central Studio and Liew Chin in Yangon were especially active in these decades. In fact most of the wedding photographs in the Mynamar Photo Archive were taken by Chinese-run studios in Yangon.

The Myanmar Photo Archive (MPA) was initiated in 2013 by Lukas Birk, based on the fundamental idea of creating an archive dedicated to Myanmar photographers. The collection now comprises approximately 20,000 photographs, negatives and photographic objects from 1890 to 1995. Through exhibitions, an online presence and a publication programme, MPA is trying to spread awareness of Myanmar’s rich photographic culture, both locally and internationally.

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Monique Abud

Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine, EHESS, Paris, France

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Monique Abud

Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine, EHESS, Paris, France

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