Antique Furniture Enjoys a Rangoon Renaissance

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 19 March 2015

RANGOON — More than 20 years ago, Kyaw Kyaw wandered the streets of Rangoon asking people if they had any old, disused housewares to sell. His purchases would run the gamut, from taxidermic stag heads and grandfather clocks to furniture shoved into cobwebbed corners in their neglectful owners’ attics.

He then supplied what he had bought to local curio shops and worked as a broker to a handful of dealers who took great interest in old teak furniture, often adorned with ornate and intricate carvings.

“As a broker, I earned little. Sometimes they failed to pay me the price they had promised. That forced me to learn more about the trade and set up my own business,” the 60-year-old recalled recently. Named after Kyaw Kyaw’s son Aung Aung, who is also the store’s manager, today that business is doing an increasingly brisk trade as more and more customers both at home and abroad seek out his retro wares.

Since Burma reconnected with the outside world four years ago, Kyaw Kyaw has seen a surge in business, as have other antique furniture dealers scattered across town.

With more foreigners in residence as well as a shifting interest to old furniture among a modest but growing number of Burmese, many of these pieces are enjoying a popular revival.

“They are all still usable with a few minor repairs,” Aung Aung told The Irrawaddy. “Foreigners buy them not just as souvenirs but for their everyday use.”

“For local people who are trying to open hotels or start companies, they are eyeing old furniture to decorate offices because this old stuff can give a more varied and unique ambiance than modern furniture,” he added.

Aung Aung’s Furniture Shop is well stocked to meet its customers’ needs. On a recent afternoon, a cluster of re-polished easy chairs with designs dating back to Burma’s pre-independence era sat outside the shop to dry in the sun. Dining tables from the 1960s stood in one corner, while post-colonial black wooden wardrobes with intricate Burmese traditional carving patterns were packed into the entrance of the shop. Some already bore labels reading, ‘Sold Out.’

“If you compare with the last 10 years, nowadays we have a stream of customers every day. In the past, I hardly sold a single item in a week,” said Kyaw Kyaw.

With their ornate craftsmanship and the use of teak, a valuable hardwood known for its durability and rich color, Burmese furniture and artifacts crafted more some 50 to 100 years ago have caught the attention of antique collectors from all over the world.

In the Thai-Burmese border town of Mae Sot, a riverside market is scattered with kitsch shops that sell old furniture along with ancient Buddha statues and other handicrafts smuggled from Burma. In Chiang Mai’s Ban Thawai, a tourist destination famous for wood carvings and furniture, an easy chair from Burma’s colonial era sells for around US$1,300 while it costs only about $200 in its native country.

Kyaw Kyaw said cross-border sales hubs are a legacy of a thriving trade in smuggled antique goods that saw its heyday about 15 to 20 years ago, when Burma was cut off from the outside world because of its then-ruling military government.

“At that time, dealers here smuggled everything via Myawaddy—ranging from a bust of Buddha statue to old clocks to chairs—that might be in the interest of prospective buyers from Thailand,” he recalled. Myawaddy is a Burmese town just across the Moei River from Thailand’s Mae Sot.

“I’m not sure whether the dealers I supplied at the time were involved or not. But the situation today is a lot better because we can deal with our customers directly,” he added.

Wah Wah, a Burmese interior designer for 7 Mile Highland Residence and Montage Café in Rangoon, said she decorated the residence and restaurant with refurbished furniture because she likes the aesthetic qualities of bygone eras in Burma.

“They look elegant and royal. Modern furniture is beautiful, of course,” she said, “but these look fancy.”

But for Kyaw Kyaw, hunting for old furniture scattered across the country is not an easy job. He used to scour every township in the Irrawaddy Delta in search of disused furniture. Once he was even robbed at knifepoint by a group of thugs, after they lured him by claiming to have antiques that he might be interested in purchasing.

“Nowadays I no longer travel. I now have brokers,” he said.

In spite of a growing interest in old furniture among local people, nearly 70 percent of customers at his shop are foreigners, Kyaw Kyaw said.

“Maybe partly because of their superstition. For example, many Burmese rarely buy an old bed as they think someone may have died on it, so using an old bed is quite inauspicious. Most [Burmese] wouldn’t take it even if you gave it to them free of charge,” he explained.

“But it depends on the eyes of beholder. If you love old stuff, it would be alright. Otherwise, it’s just a piece of old wood just as well used to fuel a fire.”