HOUSE OF THE WEEKmore
A symbol of Chin identity fades away
(Volume 26, No. 515)
Daw Ma Laing, 88, is from the last generation of Chin women with face tattoos. Pic: Christopher Davy
DAW Ma Laing is just one of thousands of people who migrated to Yangon from a rural area last year, leaving one of her daughters to look after the small family farm in Rakhine State.
Yet she stands out from most migrants in two ways. She is 88 years old, and she wears the distinctive facial tattoos of Chin women.
From Natshin Chaung village in Minbya township, Daw Ma Laing came to Yangon to live with one of her daughters, who had recently retired from her job as a teacher.
“To stay in Yangon is not difficult for me. I like my native land but I made up my mind to come along with my daughter to Yangon,” she said.
It is her second time in Yangon; in 1990 she visited Shwedagon Pagoda and “some other interesting places” on a brief trip to Myanmar’s then-capital.
“Now I’m far from my culture, and I miss it,” she said. “This is a very different situation from the first time I came to Yangon, when I was just visiting. Now I live here in Shwe Paukkan township, I arrived in Yangon last April.”
“The difference between rural and urban is that rural areas are full of mountain range and green scenery. In the city, we have high buildings, wide roads and many cars.”
Her facial tattoos are a visible reminder of how far she is from the Chin Hills.
“On the way to Yangon, many people stared at me with wonder; it was the same the first time I came here. Then I was ashamed when people stared at me when I went to Shwedagon Pagoda. Now it is not so bad.”
In Myanmar, Chin women with facial tattoos are rarely found outside remote areas of Chin State, Sagaing Division and Rakhine State.
Daw Ma Laing says she knew of only two other Chin women in Yangon – a city of approximately five million people – who also had facial tattoos. The two women – Som Nu Leek and Ma Kway – have both recently passed away.
Ma Kway’s daughter, Daw Khin Htwe, 50, still lives in North Okkalapa township.
“My mother and mother-in-law [Som Nu Leek] both had the facial tattoos. But it is rare among my generation to have them, and no one of the generation below me has the tattoos,” said Daw Khin Htwe.
“We need to record this old tradition. Within five or 10 years, you will hardly see any women with this trait, which is a sign of the Chin culture … these people are a rare treasure for our ‘national races’ because they have almost completely disappeared.”
It is perhaps a case of what critics of globalisation cite as its tendency to alter, erode and, in some cases, destroy, local culture. Better transport links lead to increased migration, while improved com-munication and the construction of national boundaries means, in the case of the Chin women, ‘national races’ are more likely to intermarry than steal each other’s women.
Daw Khin Htwe says tattoos are also partly about self-identification, and the bearers are left in no doubt as to their ‘national’ or cultural background. She says, for example, that she has never heard of a tattooed Chin woman marrying a non-Chin man.
“Take my mother and mother-in-law. They lived in Yangon but until the day they died, they never stopped wearing the traditional Chin clothes: black, handwoven and made of natural fibres. They never wore the Myanmar longyi and blouse, even while everyone else around them did.”
There is, however, an argument to be made against facial tattoos. Neither woman described the act of tattooing as barbaric or cruel. Daw Ma Laing says she made the choice to undergo the tattooing “because it is part of our traditional culture – and my friends all had them”.
“At that time, it was very common for women to do it once they reached about 15 or 20 years of age. When it finished it was so painful, I couldn’t eat for about seven days,” she said. “Then I gave the men five kyats and a pot of chin toddy (an alcoholic drink known locally as kaung yee) to cover the tattooing charges.”