Rangoon's Ruined Glass Palace

By Simon Roughneen 16 September 2013

RANGOON—As Cyclone Nargis lashed the outskirts of Rangoon in early May 2008, the family of glass-workers in the north of the city were already out of time. “We only knew there was a cyclone coming because a driver working for the UN came to warn us that evening,” says Myat Kywe. “We heard no news about such a bad storm coming beforehand,” recalls the 70-year-old glassmaker.

The tip-off came just a couple of hours before the wind and rain hit, time enough to do little more than stay awake and keep their wits about them as the storm rose during the night. It was way too late, however, to take precautions such as cutting the fruit trees growing around the furnaces and storerooms at the Nagar Glass Factory.

“The wind grew strong about nine [o’clock], and the storm reached its worst about five in the morning. Then the trees came down, smashing through everything,” says Soe Soe Win, Myat Kywe’s sister and his junior by a decade.

Before the storm, the towering foliage had a purpose. “The trees helped clean the air and counter the heat of the ovens,” says Myat Kywe. “The shade was nice too as Myanmar is already hot enough without the hot furnaces!” he laughs. But the trees that gave shelter and fruit before the storm turned nature’s executioner when the cyclone hit—chopping through timber factory buildings like axes wielded by a frenzied headsman.

Not all the trees were felled, and, down a snaking, rain-sodden and potholed lane, the remnants of the Nagar Glass Factory are soundproofed from the city’s din by the mango, orange, jackfruit, fig and starfruit trees. And by the spattering rain that rattles and drops off the foliage—green and dense and overarching enough to hide the smashed wooden factory like a fairytale den in a forest.

And glass. All around the downed and shattered buildings are thousands upon thousands of clear and green and blue bottles and bowls and statues. Some are piled among rain-soaked shrubs—refracting and reflecting and bouncing the greens of the leaves above like a watery jungle kaleidoscope. These mounds of glassware were the last to come out of the ovens before the factory was destroyed in 2008.

He won’t say so directly, but there’s a sense that Myat Kywe thinks the disaster was coming to the factory. Karmic allusions pepper his conversation—a resigned black humor as he reminisces about his old job and the characters encountered over the years. “If I made a figure and the nose was not right, sometimes I worry that my own nose will get broken,” he laughs.

But the family fared a lot better than the 140,000 or so people killed as the storm smashed through the Irrawaddy Delta south of Rangoon, and better than the millions from farming families left homeless and destitute once the storm passed. “We were lucky,” says Myat Kywe. “We can never thank that driver enough for warning us.”

Now, five years after the storm, the pulverized timber walls and dangling bits of galvanized roof are but a memorial to a near 70-year-old business that earned the family renown in Burma and beyond.

Aung San Suu Kyi was a visitor and customer. “Her mother and our mother were good friends,” says Soe Soe Win, one of a family of nine siblings who make up the second generation of the family’s glass-makers and merchants.

On the table is a black and white photo of a smiling Westerner, proudly cradling a freshly-blown glass bowl. Myat Kywe holds up the old picture, saying, “he wasn’t an ordinary man, you know. His brain was supernatural.”

Supernatural? “He blew a perfect bowl. It was his first ever try. Nobody gets it right like that with their first blow,” whispers Myat Kywe, still in awe a half-century later.

The smiling Westerner is John Glenn, an American astronaut who won fame as the first man to orbit Earth. The image was captured during Glenn’s visit to the Nagar Glass Factory in 1966, the same year Burma’s then-President Ne Win met Lyndon B. Johnson in the White House, the last such visit until President Thein Sein’s stateside meeting with President Barack Obama in May this year.

Back in the day, the Nagar Glass Factory supplied a variety of glassware to factories, restaurants, and embassies. While some wanted fine-cut statues or pristine bowls or ornate glasses, Soe Soe Win recalls that kerosene lamps were the factory’s main earner. “We also made simple glass cylinders for use in machines and in factories, to cover moving parts so operators could see the machinery inside,” she says.

But the best-known piece of work to come out of the factory are the five feet by two-and-a-half feet glass eyes peering out of the head of the massive Chauk Htat Gyi reclining Buddha, a Rangoon landmark housed near the city’s Kandawgyi Lake.

And that job too has a story of its own. “The monk from the pagoda came to me in 1973 to ask me to make the eyes,” recounts Myat Kywe. “I wasn’t sure at first, I didn’t have the experience, and I had to bring in the help of a Chinese craftsman to color the glass, and an Indian man to help with the carving.”

Then the dreams started. “I dreamt that the eyes had been chipped at the corners, and when I woke, I checked the work, and there was some damage that I had not seen before,” Myat Kywe recalls.

The nighttime visions went on. “I dreamt that we would have summer rain,” Myat Kywe continues, and sure enough, the rain came down during the night—out of season. The factory team had not made provision for the unexpected rain, so the unsealed oven started to steam up, resulting in bubbles in the glass inside. “We had to start again,” laughs Myat Kywe.

Self-doubt crept in, so Myat Kywe spoke to the monk who commissioned the job. Rather than admonishing him, as he expected, or cancelling the contract, as he feared, the monk gave counsel that was both spiritual and dietary. “He told me not to eat after noontime and to be more devoted to the Buddha,” says Myat Kywe. It seems the regimen worked. “I got the eyes finished and they were put in the statue,” beams Myat Kywe.

But there were more reveries—nightmares really. “I dreamt the monk passed on,” recalls Myat Kywe, in what turned out to be a morbid prophecy. With the eyes commissioned and crafted and mounted, the monk’s job was done, says the glassmaker. “He died, within one month of the eyes being finished.”

That was four decades ago, and much has happened in the meantime, not least the destruction of the factory in 2008. But Myat Kywe hasn’t dreamt about restarting operations. “We don’t know if we can ever make glass here again,” he says, and neither he nor Soe Soe Win, who goes by the nickname ‘Betty,’ know how much it would cost to get the place going again. “Oh quite a bit, I am sure,” Soe Soe Win says.

For now however, the family hopes that the coming end of the wet season and likely tourist influx to a newly-opened Burma will bring customers for the uncounted thousands of intact and sellable glasswork piled around the premises, all rinsed and glistening after the lunchtime rain.

That prospect is tinged with a yearning for days past, however. “We cannot show the visitors the glass being made or give them a chance to blow some glass,” says Myat Kywe.

Standing in a clearing down a winding, glass-walled path 40 meters from the main reception area, Soe Soe Win points, tutting, to a now-overgrown furnace she says was built just a year before Nargis, in 2007.“We didn’t have insurance, we were stubborn,” winces Myat Kywe.

A lull in the conversation ensues as Soe Soe Win and Myat Kywe survey the wreckage all around. Breaking the silence, the sister whispers a loud whisper. “We should go back now,” she says, jarringly, as if spooked under the rustling canopy by her brother’s morosely-humorous anecdotes.

“We should go,” Soe Soe Win repeats, sterner, but laughing, while slapping a hand on the join of her neck and shoulder. “Too many mosquitoes, and I am out of repellent.”