I was wandering around the National Gallery of Art the other day and stumbled across the exhibit “Captain Linnaeus Tripe: Photographer of India and Burma, 1852-1860.” Since I was born in Burma was immediately interested. I walked right in without reading any of the preamble and just started looking around. Many of the photographs were from Amarapura, the capital from 1842 to 1859 under King Tharrawaddy which is now part of Mandalay.
After the Anglo-Burmese war of 1852, the British annexed a part of Burma. This was the second of three wars. The third war in 1885 resulted in the British taking over the entire country. In 1855 Lord Dalhausie, the governor general of India, went on a political visit to Burma.
I found this letter in an old scrapbook. My family was living in Rangoon, Burma. The letter is from my mother to a friend in Iowa.
February 15, 1953
I’m sorry not to have written you sooner – I have thought of you so many times. I would like to tell you so much about Burma and our life her, but it is hard to condense all these new experiences and decide which might be the most interesting.
First, I think you might like to know what your home is like. We are fortunate in having a good-sized brick house, which is rented from a Burmese woman. It has 20 ft. ceilings, ceiling fans, concrete floors, and every piece of wood in the whole house from rafters to coffee table is of beautiful teakwood. Due to the high ceiling, fans and brick walls we hope to be as comfortable as is possible here during the humid hot season, which is just now beginning. To help run our household we have a cook who is indispensible, for he does the marketing, acts as interpreter since he speaks excellent English as well as four or five other languages, and he miraculously runs the temperamental kerosene stove! There are very few Burmese who work as house servants and our cook is Indian. He is a Hindu and does not eat beef, but does not object to cooking it for us. Then we have a sweeper who does the cleaning with includes scrubbing the concrete floor and waxing all the furniture at least once a week o prevent mildew. Then since babysitters are unheard of here as such, we have a nanny who lives with us and, besides babysitting, takes care of light laundry, helps me with mending and sewing and is a most pleasant person to have around. She is a young, pretty woman and a good Baptist. I usually take her with me when I drive so that she can interpret for me if the car should break down or if we should become lost (I’ still learning my way around the city).
Now, as Mother keeps asking, you might be wondering what I do with my new “life of leisure”. Well, everything is not perfect and leisurely even with so much help, believe me. Since many people in this part of the world do not have the same ideas of sanitation as we do, I have to constantly check on the kitchen to be sure the water is boiled before placed in the refrigerator for drinking, to remind the dishwasher to use soap, to see that clean dishtowels regularly replace dirty ones, etc. Our help is very fine, and they do everything to make us comfortable, but they often don’t realize how particular we must be to avoid becoming sick. One day I found nanny straining freshly boiled drinking water through a very dirty napkin into a pitcher! Language differences sometimes cause confusion – such as the time Bill asked our cook to get a mess of lime to mark out our new badminton court, and the cook appeared later with 3.5 lbs. of fresh green limes! Needless to say we are still drinking limeade. But, all in all, our household is very pleasant and as much like it would be in America as we can make it under the circumstances. I manage to keep busy – I am trying to learn to speak Burmese, I keep all the household accounts, of course, and do most of the meal planning, attend meetings of several organizations, read as much as possible, go out socially, some, and write letters. It doesn’t sound like much, I guess, but time is passing very quickly.
Our two boys both go to school from 8:30 to noon every day except Thursday and Sunday. Their school is English-speaking, but children rom all nationalities are represented. Some are learning English as they go to school. Our boys have very good friends who are Chinese, French, Dutch, and Burmese – some of whom speak no English at all. But neither race nor language is any barrier to their friendships – an example from which we all might profit.
Rangoon is a most colorful and interesting city with large Chinese and Indian populations as well as the pleasant, friendly Burmese. The city is dominated by one very tall gold-roofed pagoda which is a most interesting place to visit besides being a landmark for Rangoon and one of the outstanding pagodas in this part of the world. One climbs hundreds of steps to the top where there are many statues of Buddha of different sizes, colors and positions. The roof or dome of the pagoda is pure gold leaf and it has many valuable gems sealed inside. We enjoyed the long climb to the top almost as much as the worship center, for the stairs are lined with little shops where everything one can imagine is sold – Burmese, drums, ankle bracelets, cymbals, flowers, lacquer ware, Ivory combs, flutes made of bamboo, brassware, toys, etc, etc. Once Bill and I wanted to buy a delightful-sounding Burmese gong, and since one bargains over the price of most everything here we started bargaining. The merchant asked 15 rupees, we offered 6 and finally after much haggling got it for 8 rupees – very pleased with our bargain. When we got home one of our servants pointed out the price mark written in Burmese – 5 rupees!! But we had had fun anyway, and you can be sure we learned how to read Burmese numbers that very day.
We are at the moment thoroughly enjoying our Iowa news since the monthly ship from New York came in this week. We got about a month supply of newspapers. We get all our letters in about 10 days, but the magazines and papers take about 6 weeks.
We really like it here in Rangoon and are so glad we had the opportunity to come. It is a joy to find that these people halfway around the world are just as human as Americans are, and that it is as easy to become good friends with Asians as it is with Iowans. This is one thing that gives me a renewed faith in the world.
A friend of mine is married to a chef. He was recently invited to do a cooking presentation in Rangoon, Burma (Myanmar). I would love to know what he is preparing for them. Perhaps it includes coconut.
The Origin of the Coconut
Many hundreds of years ago a raft with three people on it reached a city on the Burmese coast. The three strangers were taken before the king. In answer to the king’s questions, the strangers said that they had been set adrift on a raft on the orders of the king of their own country across the sea, because they were found guilty of certain crimes. One of the strangers was a thief, another a witch, and the third a mischief-maker who harmed people by his tittle-tattle.
The king gave a house and one thousand silver coins to the thief, and allowed him to settle in Burma. “He was a thief only because he was poor,” explained the king, “and now that he is no longer poor, he will make a good subject.” To the witch also the king gave a house and a thousand silver coins and allowed her to settle in Burma. “She bewitched people merely out of jealousy,” explained the king, “and she was jealous of others only because she was poor and unhappy. Now that she is rich, she will no longer be jealous of other people’s happiness.” But the king ordered the mischief-maker to be executed at once. “For,” said the king, “once a mischief-maker, always a mischief-maker.” So the mischief-maker was taken to the place of execution, and his head was cut off.
The next day one of the king’s officers passed by the place, and to his surprise he found the head of the mischief-maker rolling about on the ground. He was the more surprised when the head of the mischief-maker opened its mouth and said repeatedly, “Tell your king to come and kneel to me here. Otherwise I will come and knock off his head.” The officer ran back to the palace and reported the matter. But nobody believed him and the king was angry, thinking that the officer was trying to make fun of him. “Your Majesty can send another person along with me,” suggested the officer, “and he will surely bear me out.” So another officer was sent along with the first officer to the place of execution.
When they reached there, however, the head lay still and remained silent. The second officer made his repot, and the king in anger ordered the first officer to be excutied at once as a teller of lies. So the unfortunate officer was taken to the place of execution, and his head was cut off in the presence of his fellow officers. When the execution was over, the head of the mischief-maker opened its mouth and said, “Ha,ha, I can still make mischief by my tittle-tattle, although I am dead.” The officers, realizing that a gross injustice has been done to the dead officer, reported what they had seen and heard and the king was full of grief an remorse.
The king, realizing that the head of the mischief-maker would make further mischief by his tittle-tattle if it was to remain unburied, ordered that a deep pit be dug and the head buried inside it. His orders were obeyed and the head was duly buried. But the next morning, a strange tree was seen growing from the place where the head had been buried. The strange tree had even stranger fruit, for the latter resembled the head of the mischief-maker. The tree is the coconut tree. It was originally call ‘gon-bin’, which in Burmese means ‘Mischief-maker tree’, but during the course of centuries, the pronunciation of the name has deteriorated, and it is now called ‘on-bin’ or ‘coconut tree’. And, if you shake a coconut and then put it against your ear, you will hear a gurgling noise for, you see, although now a fruit, the head of the mischief-maker still wants to make tittle-tattle.
Maung Htin Aung was born on 18 May 1909. He was the great grandson of a military officer who fought in the first war against the British in 1826. There were two more wars against the British and eventually Burma was completely overtaken in 1885.
Maung Htin Aung was part of an aristocratic family and received a Bachelor of Laws from Cambridge Univiersity, a Bachelor of Civil Law from Oxford University, a Master of Laws from the University of London and doctorates in Anthropology and Literature from Trinity College, Dublin.
He wrote books on Burmese history and culture. The above is an excerpt from his book Selections from Burmese Folk-Tales published in 1952 by Oxford University Press.
Grate the flesh of 3 coconuts. Pour some hot water and squeeze the milk through thin muslin. Repeat till all the milk is extracted. Wash rice thoroughly. Put rice into pot. Add this milk until it stands ¾ inch above the rice. Peel, quarter and wash the onions. Add to the rice, oil, sugar, salt and onions. Stir till well mixed. Cook till the milk is evaporated and the rice tender.
That year we took a trip up the Irrawaddy River on a boat that had a small cabin area, but was mostly open-air, with people packed onto it like sardines. We travelled to an elephant camp on Lake Indawgy, about 120 miles southwest of Myitkyna near the Chinese border. The boat stopped occasionally so people could get on and off which gave us a chance to visit a village or buy something from peddlers. We quickly decided exiting the vessel wasn’t worth the trouble because we had to either wade off the boat or try our luck on a treacherous plank.
There were six people in our group and everybody dined with the British captain in his private dining room except me because I was too young to be allowed to sit with the adults. All I remember eating were vanilla wafers and Lipton’s dried tomato soup. Yum.
At elephant camp, we stayed in tents and slept on cots with mosquito nets. I remember it was miles to the outhouse – at night we had to go with a flashlight down a rutted mud road—very scary for a five year old! We watched timber being cut by workers and then hauled by the elephants into the river where it flowed downstream. The elephants all wore wooden bells that were hand-made and had a unique melody. At night the elephants were left to wander the forest, and in the morning the handlers could find their elephants from the sound of the bells.
While kids in the States were probably learning to ride their tricycles, one afternoon I learned to ride an elephant. In order to get up onto its back, we climbed onto its knee and then to its shoulder and up its neck, behind the ears. We were supposed to go down the same way. My mother was impatient and decided it would be quicker to slide down the back, instead of waiting her turn for the elephant’s knee. You should have seen the look on her face. Elephants have long, stiff hair that stung her as she slid down. The highlight of the trip was one of the elephants had just given birth to twins and we spent hours watching them play.
Jim Thompson was an American expat living in Thailand. During World War II he worked for Office of Strategic Services (OSS). He was a spy. He arrived in Bangkok shortly after the end of the war to organize and open the OSS office there. In Bangkok he worked with Kenneth Landon who was first a missionary in Thailand and then was hired to work for the OSS. Kenneth’s wife, Margaret, lived with him in Thailand and wrote the book “Anna and the King of Siam” which was also made into the musical, “The King and I”.
By 1948, Jim Thompson had left the OSS and become interested in Thai silk. He formed the Thai Silk Company and his goal was to revitalize the industry. In 1951 designer Irene Sheraff was designing costumes for the Rogers and Hammerstein musical “The King and I” and decided to use silk from Thompson’s Thai Silk Company. That was what he needed. He was a success! Jim Thompson’s company and the Thai silk industry is thriving to this day.
At one point he thought it would be a good idea to go into Burma and try to revitalize their silk industry as well. He did not have much luck but there he discovered the royal Kalagas. These were heavily embroidered tapestries made for the royal palaces of Burma. The last King of Burma, Thibaw Min, was persuaded to abdicate by the British when they took over the country in 1885. Some of the tapestries have been around for 150 years.
Jim Thompson had several of the Kalagas copied and sold them in his shop. During this time, the late 1950’s, my family was living in Burma and knew all about of Mr Thompson and his silk shop. They purchased one of these tapestries and it hangs in my parents’ living room to this day. It is beautiful.
In 1967 Thompson took a trip to the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia on holiday and mysteriously disappeared. There was an extensive search made but nothing was found. Nobody knows what happened to him or why. There is much speculation around him and his disappearance.
He left a house he had designed full of art and antiques from Southeast Asia. It is now a museum open to the public.
Back in March I wrote about a cookbook my mother had worked on when we lived in Burma in the post, The Lady. The Rangoon International Cook Book is dated 1954.
Aung San Suu Kyi is much in the news now as being the “unofficial” leader of her country. She stood by her beliefs and suffered for many years under house arrest because she longed to see Burma free. She comes by it naturally. Her father was the founder of the Burmese army and negotiated independence from the British Empire. Burma was the first country to leave the Empire. He was assassinated the same year they gained independence. Her mother, Daw Khin Kyi, became Chairman of the Social Planning Commission for the Union of Burma under the newly formed Burmese government and later was sent to India and Nepal as the Burmese ambassador.
Daw Khin Kyi also found time to donate some of her recipes to my mother’s cookbook.
Chicken Curry (Burmese)
2 chickens 65 ticals (2.5 lbs each)
0.5 cup vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic
3 small onions
1 tsp salt
1 tsp curry powder
1 tablespoon Chinese soy sauce
5 cups water
pinch of saffron powder
3 bay leaves
1 stick cinnamon
Have chickens cleaned and drawn. Cut into suitable sizes. (I bought a cut up chicken.)
Mix saffron powder, curry powder, and Chinese sauce, and rub into the chicken.
Grind chillies, garlic and onions till a paste is formed. (Use red chilies if you can find them. )
Fry in cooked oil till brown. Add spiced meat and cook till it sizzles.
Add 5 cups water. Throw in 3 bay leaves and stick of cinnamon. Simmer till tender, when the water should be reduced to half.
When I was little I lived in Burma and had an Indian nanny. She was a Catholic and her name was Mary. She spoiled me. One of my favorite foods was dahl soup. I could eat it every day. When the rest of the family was eating something I didn’t like, she make me dahl soup. I have no idea what her recipe was but here is mine.
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, diced
Put a tablespoon of oil into a pot and add onion and garlic
Cut up half a potato, skinned and add to the pot (or you can use a carrot)
Once the onion is soft add
4 cups broth
1.5 cups dahl (lentils)
Add 1 tsp diced fresh ginger
2 tsp curry powder
1 tsp cumin
Bring to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes
Allow to cool a bit and pour soup into a blender or use a hand blender until smooth
Return to the pot and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to taste
When I was four years old my family was assigned to a post in Burma. We drove to Iowa to see relatives before embarking on our trip. Our route was to fly from Omaha, Nebraska to Los Angeles, California, with a stop in Denver, Colorado. We were going to spend a few days in Los Angeles with relatives and then travel on to Manila and Rangoon. In the 1960’s, air travel was nothing like it is today. The planes were relatively small and jet engines were a new development.
We boarded the plane in Omaha for Los Angeles, and as our United Airlines DC-8 approached Denver, the pilot, Captain John Grosso, came over the loud speaker to say we were having some problems and our landing might be a little rough. I was sitting by the window with my father next to me. My mother was across the aisle and my brothers, nearby. My father took out his briefcase from under the seat, removed his glasses and put them in his pocket. I thought that was a little strange and I wondered what was going on.
It turned out we had lost all of our landing-gear fluid so the plane came down smack! – hard on the tarmac, no bouncing involved. The pilot immediately lost control of the plane and we skidded into a truck, killing the driver instantly. We then swerved haphazardly down the runway, finally careening off onto the grass where the engines burst into flames.
There were no overhead compartments, just open shelves. Hats, bags, and books sailed through the plane crashing down on people and seats. As soon as the plane stopped, my father scooped me up and headed for the exit. My immediate concern was for my favorite doll abandoned under the seat and being left behind. My mother was ahead of us and my brothers Tom (13) and Tim (15) were behind us.
We reached the emergency exit and stepped out onto the wing. My mother jumped to the tarmac below us, breaking her ankle in her high-heeled shoes. We could see her leaning on another passenger and limping away from the plane. My father and I stood on one side of the wing feeling the intense heat bursting from the engines on the other side. We turned to make sure my brothers were behind us and my father froze; they were not there. Several other people came out, but we didn’t budge as my father nervously craned his neck searching for Tom and Tim. Finally, they emerged and we immediately hit the ground and ran to the other side of the runway to join my mother.
My father went into severe shock. He was holding me so tightly that the shock passed to me and I began screaming in terror. He would not let me go even though my mother pleaded with him to put me down.
I remember looking over towards the buildings and seeing several fire trucks waiting patiently as the plane continued to burn. There was some construction impasse and the fire trucks could not enter the runway. Necessary ramps were missing. After what seemed to be hours, we were herded into a large hanger where we were sorted out. Each passenger had to tell the airline authorities who they were and what luggage they had. We were then sent off to a hotel in town. My parents told us that the airline would replace everything that was lost and I had to ask if that included my toothbrush. I was particularly sad to lose my babydoll, Meredith Ann Diane, because she really could never be replaced which I knew, even at four years old.
Seventeen people died in the crash and many more were severely burned. My father and brothers had minor burns and my mother had a broken ankle and we were all traumatized. One of the reasons airlines now have the long safety speech at the beginning of flights is because of that day in Denver in 1961. The crew was not properly trained and people did not know what to do in case of an emergency. Travel in those days was unpredictable, and could be fatal. In an instant I lost my favorite doll and learned a valuable lesson. Life could be terrifying but we were lucky people.