In Pathein, Old Parasol Craft Struggles With Rising Demand

By Salai Thant Zin 23 April 2015

PATHEIN, Irrawaddy Delta — Aung Naing’s family has been making Pathein parasols for generations and in recent years he has reverted back to the original crafting techniques used since the time of Burma’s last monarch, King Thibaw.

“We’re re-using the techniques of craftsmen from over 100 years ago, from the time of my grandfather. Parasols are handmade and 100 percent made of natural raw materials,” said Aung Naing, who runs Shwe Sar Pathein Parasol Workshop.

An icon of Burmese culture named after the Irrawaddy Delta town where it is made, the parasol, called Pathein htee in Burmese, has become increasingly popular with both domestic consumers and Burma’s rising number of tourist visitors after producers began reintroducing old techniques.

Its rising popularity is, however, presenting the Pathein producers with a problem as demand is outstripping production capacity, while traditional natural raw materials are in increasingly short supply.

In the time of King Thibaw, the last monarch of Konbaung Dynasty who was ousted by the British some 150 years ago, ordinary citizens were only allowed to use parasols made of oil paper. The use of superior cotton or silk-canopy parasols was an exclusive right for the king and royal family.

After his fall, royal parasols producers left Mandalay and some resettled in Lower Burma in Pathein, where the craft lived on and the parasols were produced as gifts for Buddhist monks and nuns. These days, the parasol is a popular decorative item.

Producers make parasols following a Bagan period design, a Mandalay design (called ein taw yar) and a modern design. They are priced at between 2,000 kyats (US$2) to 100,000 kyats, depending on quality, design and size.

Old Craft Brings Popularity, Pressures

Until old techniques were reintroduced, the parasols were made of paper, but now the canopy is made of either cotton, silk or satin and glued to the frame with glue made from grinded tapioca powder dissolved in water. Juices from wild fruits, called sitsee, are used to water-proof the parasols for a period of up to two years, Aung Naing said.

The parasol’s main shaft, he explained, is made of a wood known in Burmese as ma u shwe war, while the ribs and stretchers are made from a type of bamboo called taragu, which grows around Pathein. The production process is labor-intensive and the old methods of preparing raw materials take time: taragu bamboo needs to be kept under mud for nearly three years so that it will not be eaten by worms.

“For parasols to be made in 2017, we have to buy bamboo and prepare now. We just can’t cut down the bamboo and use it immediately for parasols. Otherwise, they will be of poor quality,” said Aung Naing.

Pressures on the environment around Pathein are also a problem.

“Taragu bamboo has become rare because of deforestation. Even if you have money, it is now not easy to stockpile it. We now have to buy it anywhere it is available. We should afforest bamboo systematically,” said Ni Ni Htay, who owns Nay Nat Thar Parasol Workshop.

Aung Naing said rising domestic and overseas demand was overwhelming Pathein’s three main workshops and the dozens of smaller family businesses that produce the parasols.

“Once we received an order for a container [of parasols] from abroad. They gave us three months. Even if all Pathein parasol workshops in the entire Irrawaddy Division produce together, we would not fulfill the order,” he said, adding that producers could only meet about 20 percent of demand.

“In recent years, we mainly distribute parasols domestically because local demand is unusually high,” added Ni Ni Htay.

Parasol producers said they are eager to scale up production, but, in addition to a lack of raw materials, they also face a lack of capital—a situation they said that should be remedied by the government.

“We lack capital to produce quickly and in large numbers… all of us run [workshops] on a manageable scale as a family business. So, we are not in a position to fulfill the demand,” said Aung Naing.

Producers said they have approached the government for small and medium enterprises (SME) loans and requested allotment of land to cultivate taragu bamboo, but they have received no response so far.

“If the government provided low-interest, long-term loans Pathein parasols could well become an export item that can generate foreign currency,” said Aung Naing.

He said government could follow the example of Thailand, where hundreds of Pathein-style parasol producers in Chiang Mai have received a tax exemption and various forms of government support in order to boost their industry. Organized in a “parasol village,” the craft workshops have become a tourist attraction.

The Pathein-style parasols reached Chiang Mai some 100 years ago when a Burmese layman donated a parasol to a Thai Buddhist monk, who then asked his disciples to copy the production technique.

“A Thai government official who visited my workshop told me that the [Thai] government established a village for parasol craftsmen in Chiang Mai… I quite envy them,” said Aung Naing.

“The craftsmen here will try as much as they can to make sure their ancestral Pathein parasol industry does not disappear. If they give up their business because of financial restraints, Myanmar’s valuable arts and crafts will gradually become extinct.”