Thursday, October 28, 2021

Ear cleaners, roadside clerks: antiquated jobs thrive in Yangon


YANGON: Ear cleaners, roadside plumbers and typewriters for hire: just a sample of the antiquated jobs found on the pavements of Yangon’s Pansodan Street, where old-world businesses still find customers.

For years, tourists have been fascinated by odd trades in Yangon, from cycle trishaws swerving through traffic to roadside clerks going clickety-clack on typewriters.

Some professions have become victims of the political and economic reforms that started in earnest in 2011.

Iced water sellers melted away as improved power supplies made fridges viable; bus conductors lost out in the revamp of the city’s transportation network; and landline phone stalls are a relic in the mobile era.

But Pansodan, the beating heart of Myanmar’s biggest city, remains home to obscure professions and evokes nostalgia among those who have plied their trade for decades along the potholed pavements below ageing colonial architecture.

“This is the street for the books, for the writers, for the poets. Everyone comes, everyone learns here,” Aung Soe Min, a long-time gallery owner on Pansodan, tells AFP.

“Everything you need to know, you can come to Pansodan.”

Built by the British and once called Phayre Street, the downtown artery runs south from the train station to the river, where traders arrive by morning ferry.

– Monsoons, manicures –

Yangon’s growth — statistics show the population has nearly doubled since 1983 to reach 7.3 million — has left city services struggling to catch up.

The annual monsoon season clogs decades-old plumbing networks and that is when Min Aung is busiest.

Sitting among plungers, pipes and a spare toilet lid serving as an advertisement for his services, the 58-year-old is a veteran of Yangon’s small army of streetside plumbers who still find work in the rapidly modernising commercial capital.

“As long as there are toilets, there is work for us,” Min Aung tells AFP, puffing a cheroot as morning traffic whooshes by.

Close by is Khin Ohn Myint, 47, who provides quick manicures, fixes ingrown toenails and syringes ears to remove wax build-up.

“I didn’t have money to invest in other businesses, so I did this for a living,” she says, smiling.

Earning around $10 a day, she has put her children through university so they can pursue other careers.

She says she enjoys helping relieve people’s suffering and has even had to remove the occasional cockroach from a customer’s ear.

“Pansodan is a historic street for us,” she says as she digs out a piece of dirt from under a customer’s toenail.

– ‘Pansodan University’ –

The street is also famous for its pavement booksellers whose offerings include everything from 19th-century literary classics to tomes on Myanmar’s real estate laws and taboo subjects like the Rohingya crisis.

Its reputation as a place to read and access ideas gave it the nickname Pansodan University.

Tin Than has sold books here since 1980, but most of his competitors have shut shop.

“Now I only have around two or three customers each month,” he says.

The prime location has given him a front-row seat to historic events such as the 2007 “Saffron Revolution” when Buddhist monks staged a rare protest against the junta.

“When others started packing their books and closing their shops, I also had to close and run away. The riots happened right before my eyes.”

Aung Min was trained to use a typewriter in the military.

But he retired in 1980 and the 72-year-old has been working on Pansodan ever since.

“Computers were not so popular in the old days, so people had to rely on typewriters,” he said.

Based outside the High Court, Aung Min specialises in legal documents, from marriage certificates to notarised letters.

Although living costs have increased in the intervening years, he struggles to make more than 5,000 kyat ($3) a day — a sign that Myanmar’s transition is passing some people by.

He intends to keep working until he is 80 at least.

“There were two or three typewriters on this street; we had our own customers,” he said.

“I am the only typewriter left here nowadays.”

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