Locating the Chinese in Rangoon: the Sino-Burmese

The People’s Republic of China has loomed large on Burma’s horizon since the defeat of the Kuomintang in 1949 and seems to be drawing increasing attention in contemporary discussions about the fate of Myanmar. The words ‘China’ and ‘Chinese’ and in Burmese language, ‘Tayout’, which stands for both China and Chinese, appear in a wide range of politico-economic and cultural commentary, giving the impression that China and the Chinese are equivalent and equally threatening. In these discourses, strategies of the Chinese state are conflated with the tactics of the Chinese people, simultaneously erasing the diversity among the different populations of Chinese who reside within and outside of China and stripping them of their agency.

This presentation locates a specific population of Chinese people in Rangoon who understand themselves as belonging in Burma. These hybrid Chinese refer to themselves as Bama Tayout in Burmese and if they speak Mandarin, Miandian Huaren, both of which can be translated as Sino-Burmese. They are descendants of Hokkien and Cantonese migrants who have lived through the numerous trials that have beset Burma and identified with China to varying degrees since the colonial era. By examining their ethos, way of living, in Rangoon and changing status in the city, I argue that national identities, whether Chinese or Burmese, have been secondary considerations in the Sino-Burmese conception of self. Although the governments of Burma/Myanmar have largely defined the people of Chinese descent as foreigners, they strive to be accepted as one of the indigenous ethnic nationalities.