August 19, 2016

The origins of a rattan empire

Ya Ma Htar Rattan House turns your wildest woven foliage dreams into a reality

There’s only one place in the world where you can light your home with lamps made of rattan frog figurines purchased from an online community populated by foreigners who think they know everything—that’s Yangon. But while the city’s progression into a hub for creative energy is widely applauded, its rustic charms tend to be more subtle.
For instance, it’s easy to glance past a tasteful rattan toilet paper holder in the bathroom in the lobby of the Sule Shangri-La Hotel, even though it has a history that involves people from many corners of the country.
Nyan Lin Htun, the owner of Ya Ma Htar Rattan House, shared some of that history with The Global New Light of Myanmar.
Ya Ma Htar, a shop on Bagaya Street facing Dagon Centre in Yangon, consists of a small ground-floor room crammed with rattan handicrafts of all shapes and sizes. The shop first opened around the corner on U Wisara Road in 1994, before moving to its current location two years later.
Nyan Lin Htun and his family didn’t set out to run a rattan showroom.
“We got the idea when my wife and mother-in-law were looking for rattan decorations for our home,” he said.
This was before the concept of rattan accessories was in vogue in Myanmar. Rattan craftspeople in the early 1990s tended to produce utility items — primarily baskets — for farmers and shopkeepers. But these women saw a particular beauty in the material and sought to diversify the range of rattan products available.
The family visited a rattan factory to find out if they could procure some decorative rattan items, the meagre variety of which was generally reserved for export. Seeing the potential for a domestic market for rattan, the factory owners asked Nyan Lin Htun and his family if they would store some decorative rattan goods in their ground-floor apartment in Dagon Township and see how they would sell.
“Our first batch sold out in a week,” he said.

The interior of the shop. Photo: Jacob Goldberg
The interior of the shop. Photo: Jacob Goldberg

Realising that rattan goods were a viable commodity in Yangon, particularly among expatriates, Nyan Lin Htun converted his apartment into a rattan showroom and got in touch with craftspeople who specialise in rattan—rice farmers in Ayeyawady Region who weave rattan during their free time.
“Most of our merchandise is produced by women from Ayeyawady. The furniture is made by men,” he said.
In the early days, the designs were simple. Nyan Lin Htun sold place mats and baskets, but as customers poured in and shared ideas for new designs, he passed the ideas along to his suppliers, whose rattan-weaving skills were more than equal to the task of diversifying.
Today, Ya Ma Htar sells office accessories, lamps, chairs, tables and the famous frog-shaped containers, which were created at the initiative of a single family in Shwepyitha Township, Yangon Region, and now serve as hampers, desk ornaments and even lamps.
These items often sell by the batch. The shop supplies rattan goods to the well-known restaurant chain YKKO and the luxurious Sule Shangri-La Hotel. It even sells one item—some sort of secret cheese tray—exclusively to the restaurant Sharky’s; the two signed a contract prohibiting Ya Ma Htar from selling the item anywhere else. The most expensive item produced by Ya Ma Htar is an ornate, collapsible room divider, which sells for K120,000 (US$93), while the cheapest is a small chinlone, or caneball, which sells for K500 ($0.39).
Nyan Lin Htun used to have to travel to Ayeyawady Region several times each month to share new design ideas with his suppliers, who make about the equivalent of 25 percent of the retail price of each item they produce. But with telecommunications technology taking off in Myanmar, he can now send photos of design ideas and measurements via Viber to families in the delta. The final products are delivered several times each week to Aung Mingalar Bus Terminal in northern Yangon. Nyan Lin Htun said that these days he only needs to visit the rattan-weaving families once every three months.

A coat of varnish on a collapsible rattan divider makes it more durable, and more valuable. Photo: Jacob Goldberg
A coat of varnish on a collapsible rattan divider makes it more durable, and more valuable. Photo: Jacob Goldberg

Ya Ma Thar doesn’t just serve as a depot for fine rattan goods; it also has a hand in maximising their aesthetic appeal. When the woven rattan accessories and furniture arrive at the bus terminal, they are blank and bland.
“They wouldn’t sell,” Nyan Lin Htun said.
So he and his staff varnish, polish and paint the items, making them more durable and attractive to those looking to beautify their surroundings.
“We only accept handmade rattan, palm and bamboo items—no plastic,” the shopkeeper said.
And this definitely appeals to his customers, as does the durability and aesthetics of the materials. He said that his best customers are expat teachers at private schools in Yangon; namely the International Language and Business Centre (ILBC) and Yangon International School (YIS).
To a certain degree, rattan-sellers in Yangon are keeping the industry alive. According to Nyan Lin Htun, younger members of families who supply his merchandise aren’t interested in learning the technique of crafting rattan into the amazing array of shapes available in his store. But the few who choose to master it are kept afloat by rattan’s popularity among Ya Ma Htar’s international clientele.
In the 21 years since the store first opened, it has subsumed the lives of Nyan Lin Htun and his family. The ground floor of his apartment remains a showroom, while the second floor serves as a storage facility for surplus rattan baubles. His wife and mother-in-law, whose idea it was to explore the rattan universe in the first place, now live on the third floor of the building—the highest room in the tallest tower of this family’s rattan-strewn urban castle.


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