Mandalay’s Handmade Gold Leaf Industry Under Threat

By Zarni Mann 26 August 2014

MANDALAY — Myat Par Yat, an area in Burma’s second biggest city, is always busy with the rhythmic hammering sounds. Half-naked men in more than 20 gold leaf workshops sweat heavily as they pound pieces of the metal into the thinnest delicate foil—an essential product for Buddhist life.

Beside the row of hammerers is a small room where women transfer the delicate gold foil onto pieces of paper, producing ready-to-use packages for sale—each includes 100 sheets of gold leaf, weighing about 1 gram.

Mandalay is the birthplace of gold leaf in Burma. The product of Myat Par Yat has long traveled across the country to glitter the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, Phaung Daw Oo’s images of the Buddha at Inle Lake, the Mahamyatmuni image in Mandalay, and hundreds of pagodas and Buddha statues in Bagan, Pegu and elsewhere. It is also used to decorate lacquerware, in Burmese traditional medicine and in cosmetics.

But as the country’s economy opens up, people in the local gold leaf industry are concerned that an influx of imported gold leaf—which is machine-made and apparently of lower quality—is threatening their business.

Recently, a local merchant won an auction to sell machine-made gold leaf to the Shwedagon Pagoda, and those in the Mandalay industry believe imported foil is now being used on Burma’s most important Buddhist site.

The claim could not be independently verified, but traders claim that in the past Thai and Chinese businessmen visited their workshops to see how gold leaf is made, and are now copying their techniques to make gold leaf that is being imported to Burma.

“The pagoda trustees said the machine-made gold foil is much cheaper than handmade, and this is the reason the [merchant’s] bid won,” said Chaw Su, the owner of one of Myat Par Yat’s workshops.

Local handmade gold leaf costs 32,000 kyat (about US$32) for a pack of 100 sheets, while the machine-made alternative costs only 25,000 kyat. Mandalay’s gold-leaf makers say the price reflects the purity of their product and the labor that goes into it—hours of hammering and extremely careful handling of the foil. The paper that carries the foil to the consumer is also handmade, adding more time to the production process.

“We’ve seen machine-made foil but it is not thin enough like ours, and the quality of gold is not comparable with our product. And the paper that holds their foil is not convenient in the glittering process. The gold foil does not come off easily when you apply it on a pagoda or Buddha image,” Chaw Su explained.

She said that trustees of the Shwedagon Pagoda have even asked Mandalay’s gold leaf makers to transfer the machine-made gold leaf onto local handmade paper to make it easier to transfer.

“Since the paper-changing process also has some cost, and the foil is not good enough like local products, what is the point in choosing this cheap product?” Chaw Su asked.

A spokesperson for Shwedagon Pagoda’s trustee committee told The Irrawaddy that the machine-made gold leaf it buys—from the unnamed trader—is comparable in quality to handmade foil.

“We already inspected the quality and it is good quality. We look at the price and the machine-made leaf was cheaper, so that they won the bid,” said the spokesperson, who requested anonymity because members of the committee have been barred from speaking with the media.

“We do not have information about whether this foil was imported from foreign countries.”

In recent years, Buddhist pilgrims from Thailand and China have brought their own gold leaf to offer at the country’s famous pagodas and images, but have regularly been blocked by some pagoda authorities from adding imported foil to Burmese places of worship.

“If we allowed such action, every foreigner will bring imported foils,” said a spokesperson for the Mahamyatmuni Pagoda in Mandalay, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.

“We cannot know if their leaf is pure gold or fake gold, or bronze or silver. If we allowed it, some would bring fake gold and bronze foil, which will cause future damage to the image and pagoda if applied in a large quantity.”

Whether the competing product is imported or not, the Mandalay handmade gold-leaf makers say their business is under threat.

“Actually, our industry mainly depends on pagodas and pagoda trustees, and gold leaf merchants across the country are also our loyal customers. What if the other customers follow in the footsteps of the Shwedagon Pagoda?” said Kyaw Ngwe, another gold-leaf producer.

“If the merchants and the trustee committees want machine-made foil, our handmade workshops will no longer exist and only belong to history. If that day arrives, more than 20 workshops and more than 100,000 workers [in the entire gold leaf industry] will become jobless.”