I find Dan Feng on a sofa in the corner of the hotel lobby. The place is slowly filling up, men in their longyis, a couple of women in traditional ethnic dress, a mother holding her baby close to her chest. While we wait for the volunteer from the conference Dan and I catch up on our news since we last saw each other, at the Link the Worlds translation festival here in Yangon in 2016, organised with support from Writers’ Centre Norwich and Dan’s organisation, the Select Centre in Singapore.
Suddenly everyone stands up and we are summoned to the bus outside. It turns out we have been sitting among writers from all over Myanmar, come to Yangon for the literature conference, courtesy of PEN Myanmar. Dan and I are the only foreigners are taking part, and all the information we’ve seen has been in Burmese, so we’re not entirely sure what’s going on.
On the bus we talk to Thara Won, who lives north of Yangon and writes short stories and articles for a local paper. He’s written 35 books, and when Dan looks him up on google we find that he’s also translated a book about the Dalai Lama. ‘This is the first literature conference in Myanmar since 1962,’ he tells us. The last conference was held under General Ne Win, with the aim of persuading writers to adopt the Burmese Way to Socialism. The military coup put a stop to most literary activity in Myanmar for decades – public literary activity, that is.
It’s a long journey into the city centre. We’re staying at the Hotel Yangon, at 8 Mile Junction, which means that it’s 8 miles to the Sule Pagoda, next to the City Hall, where our opening is to take place. When we arrive, our host, San Mon Aung, emerges from behind several stacks of chairs in front of an empty stage, looking relatively relaxed for the secretary of the central committee organising the conference. He ushers us into City Hall. As we walk up the grand staircase Aung tells us that over 1,000 writers have registered for the conference, around 200 from outside Yangon.
We are led along the corridor to a waiting room, and let loose to explore, as we’re early for the ceremony. The City Hall looks like a typical British colonial building, but above us is a portrait of the architect, U Tin. The other side of the corridor looks out onto a garden with brightly painted murals and a small child playing on one of the lawns. Some of us wander into a meeting room with maps on the walls, mostly of Yangon and the district. One of them is a world map in English, dating from when Russia was the USSR, Myanmar was Burma and Yangon Rangoon, with stickers to bring it up to date.
The ceremony is delayed as the sun is still too high in the sky. We sit in the antechamber to another grand meeting room, in golden upholstered chairs of Burmese teak, drinking coffee from gold-rimmed cups, peeking through the gold-curtained carved wooden doorway at the painting of the City Hall and a row of portraits hanging over a stately oval of chairs. As we sit there, we witness a series of audiences in the inner chamber, some with politicans who look around the same age as us, others with writers, the more elderly escorted in on the respectful arms of younger women.
While we wait, Dan looks up the Minister of Information, Pe Myint, who is supporting the conference. When he was appointed, he made the headlines for the fact that he’s a poet. He has also translated Chekhov, and a number of self help books. We recognise him from the photo when he walks past into the chamber.
Dan tells me that Chinese writing from Burma from the 1930s to the 1950s was the most vibrant of the SE Asian Chinese diaspora, also known as the Southern Seas Chinese. Pre-Independence Rangoon was a cosmopolitan place, with a particularly large population from India. The three main British ports were Rangoon, Calcutta and Singapore. We are interrupted by Ma Thida, a writer and former political prisoner who was the first president of PEN Myanmar and worked with us on Link the Worlds. She has recently returned from Japan and wants to include Japanese in the next translation festival in 2019. Of course, we nod.
I wander off in search of the washroom, past a couple of offices that are less ornate, furnished with a desk, piles of paper, flasks of tea, and portraits of the Buddha. A woman sitting reading behind a desk smiles as I go past. I decide to take a photo of the gated lift, decorated with mirrors and more Burmese teak. A guard steps forward, I assume to stop me, but he simply opens the gate across the lift so that I get a better view.
Finally we are summoned and all troop downstairs into the afternoon sun. The road has been blocked off and the stacks have become rows of chairs in front of a blue stage adorned with baskets of flowers, one from each of the eleven organisations involved in the conference. Through the melee of journalists and photographers we are escorted to seats in the front row, facing the City Hall. The sun is now behind Sule Pagoda so the street is finally in shadow; on the other side of us is the church, its bells chiming the hour, and close by is the mosque. We are in the heart of Yangon.
The MC invites four men in formal longyis up to the stage to place their hands on a glass globe, which starts spinning and reveals the words ‘literature conference’ in electric blue. At the same time, a huge conference banner falls across the front of City Hall. The speeches begin with a message of congratulation from Aung San Suu Kyi, followed by Pe Myint, the Minister of Information, and the Chief Minister of Yangon. The man sitting next to me takes notes as they speak.
Finally my neighbour is invited to the stage to speak. Like the others he speaks in Burmese, which I don’t understand, but I can hear that he is passionate about whatever he’s talking about. Towards the end I catch a couple of phrases I recognise: Myanmar, freedom of expression, democracy.
During this final speech we are given white balloons to hold, which we release at the end. As we watch them float off into the sky Dan mutters something about the environment, but still, it’s a moving sight. Then everyone evaporates, and Dan and I hang around the stage, watching various people, including monks, being photographed at the podium. A cartoonist has drawn on some of his balloons; his wife gives me one, in return for a message and autograph for their baby, who is not best pleased by this exchange.
Eventually we notice that everyone has gone across the road to another stage, where there’s traditional music and banter, the audience surrounded by stalls selling books, many of them for children. Under the Sule Pagoda there’s an exhibition of portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi. At one table, cartoonists are drawing caricatures for anyone who’ll pay them 5000 kyat. In the park, where the statue of Queen Victoria has been replaced by a monument to independence, there are plinths dedicated to Myanmar writers, their biographies in Burmese, for locals not tourists. Everyone is sitting around enjoying themselves in the early evening cool.
‘Can you think of another city where the centre would be turned over like this for such a public celebration of literature?’ Dan asks me. I can’t, but silently resolve that the next Worlds festival should open with speeches in front of Norwich City Hall, projections on the Castle, and the market taken over by books.
As we leave the park, a toddler wearing only a t-shirt tugs my frock insistently. At first I think he’s begging and try to ignore him, but then I realise that he’s after my balloon. He waits impatiently as I untie it from my bag, and when I hand it to him he takes it triumphantly. Seeing an older child heading in his direction, he runs off across the grass. Then he stops, waves to me, and blows a kiss.