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Taiwan's 'Little Burma'

 
 

A short five-minute walk from the Taipei metro terminal station of Nanshijiao lies Huaxin Street. It is here, nestled away in the concrete jungle that makes up Zhonghe District — one of the most densely populated parts of the planet — that Taiwan’s Burmese population has settled over the past several decades. The roughly 40,000 Burmese immigrants that now call Huaxin Street and the surrounding area home constitute one of Taiwan’s largest immigrant populations.

Huaxin Street is undoubtedly the center of this bustling Burmese community. Here, the sight of Burmese language signs on almost every shop façade and elderly gentlemen sipping tea at the side of the road bring a distinctly Burmese feel to an otherwise featureless neighborhood. Restaurants and small eateries line Huaxin Street selling everything from rich Burmese curries to Indian cakes and bowls of cheap but delicious noodles. Local grocers sell Southeast Asian staples such as banana stem, an essential ingredient in monhinga soup, considered by many to be Burma’s national dish.

Huaxin Street, or “Little Burma,” has its origins in the Chinese Civil War. With the war drawing to a conclusion in the late 1940s, many Kuomintang troops fighting the guerrilla Communists were forced to flee over the border to neighboring Burma (known today as Myanmar), then still part of British India. When the Civil War ended and Chiang Kai-shek was forced to flee across the strait to Taiwan, many KMT troops were thus left behind in Burma, pending instructions to re-take the mainland. Those instructions never came, and these men were subsequently trapped in Burma.

When it became obvious that a KMT invasion of the mainland was a distant pipe dream, those left in Burma were repatriated to Taiwan. By 1954, estimates suggest that around 7,000 soldiers and dependents were given residency and evacuated to Taiwan. Those evacuated to Taiwan also included overseas Burmese-Chinese who had roots in Burma for decades prior to the Chinese Civil War. Whilst most chose Taiwan as their new home, other options were available, and subsequently some moved to Hong Kong and Macau. Other even moved as far away as Brazil. In the decades that followed, thousands more were to make the move to Taiwan.

Moving to Taiwan, then deeply impoverished, presented quite the shock to these migrants. Chen Mei Zhu from the local KMT Party office told The Diplomat that she and her family “cried almost every day” when they first arrived, and were made to do without basic provisions. “There was no coffee or toilet paper,” she said — both plentiful commodities in 1950s Burma, which at that time was far more prosperous than Taiwan. Furthermore, Burmese migrants often had trouble fitting into local Taiwanese life, which in the 1950s meant learning the Taiwanese dialect alongside Mandarin and Burmese.

Recent economic and political reforms in Myanmar have presented a number of opportunities to Taiwan’s Burmese community. Import and export companies have been hastily set up to cash in on favorable business conditions in Myanmar and more than 200 Taiwanese companies now operate in the country. Taiwan’s national carrier, China Airlines, now offers five to seven flights per week to Yangon International Airport, with 32,000 ROC citizens making the trip to Myanmar in 2015.

With President Tsai Ing-wen’s “New Southbound Policy” looking to revive Taiwan’s flagging economy, it seems inevitable that links between the two will only deepen. Taipei’s own “Little Burma” could be at the heart of those new connections.

David Prentice is a freelance journalist currently based in Taipei, Taiwan.

Taiwan's 'Little Burma'
Apart from restaurants, Huaxin Street is home to tea shops, mechanics, and even a barber specializing in Burmese-style cuts.
Image Credit: David Prentice
Taiwan's 'Little Burma'
An elderly gentleman rests outside a traditional Burmese snack and tea shop in Huaxin Street, Zhonghe District, Taipei.
Image Credit: David Prentice
Taiwan's 'Little Burma'
Burmese script sits alongside Chinese on the shop facades of Huaxin Street’s restaurants and cafes.
Image Credit: David Prentice
Taiwan's 'Little Burma'
Burmese language weekly newspapers are sold in a number of Huaxin Street’s convenience stores.
Image Credit: David Prentice
Taiwan's 'Little Burma'
The same shops sell laminated pictures of Burma’s national father, Aung San, current leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s father. Aung San was assassinated in 1947.
Image Credit: David Prentice
Taiwan's 'Little Burma'
Grocery shops sell dozens of types of tea, such an important part of everyday Burmese life.
Image Credit: David Prentice
Taiwan's 'Little Burma'
A local notice board in Burmese advertises smart phone services, job opportunities, and an upcoming speech by a Buddhist monk.
Image Credit: David Prentice
Taiwan's 'Little Burma'
Huaxin Street is home to a local KMT Party Office, where locals can come to engage with local level and national level politicians. The headquarters also serve as a social hub for locals, with the office boasting a top-of-the-line karaoke machine.
Image Credit: David Prentice
Taiwan's 'Little Burma'
With the Burmese community's historical connection to the KMT, the party has a strong presence in the area. However, the last presidential election in 2016 saw the KMT lose their seat to the DPP, with a 7 percent decline in those voting blue.
Image Credit: David Prentice
Taiwan's 'Little Burma'
Dishes like this coconut noodle broth typify the fare served in Huaxin Street. Most dishes cost around US$1, making it an affordable place to eat for many.
Image Credit: David Prentice
Taiwan's 'Little Burma'
Little Burma is one of the few places in and around Taipei where it is easy to find halal food. Here, a vendor sells simple halal noodle dishes.
Image Credit: David Prentice
Taiwan's 'Little Burma'
Little Burma is also home to other immigrants from around East Asia, with this Hong Kong dim sum restaurant being a particular favorite among locals.
Image Credit: David Prentice
Taiwan's 'Little Burma'
Men chat over a cup of strong Burmese tea and snacks at a traditional tea shop.
Image Credit: David Prentice
Taiwan's 'Little Burma'
A local tea vendor prepares tea with condensed milk while three kettles boil constantly in front of him.
Image Credit: David Prentice
Taiwan's 'Little Burma'
The elaborate pouring of the tea from a height results in more bubbles and air in the tea, creating a lighter flavor.
Image Credit: David Prentice
Taiwan's 'Little Burma'
With the opening of the Burmese economy to Taiwanese businesses, companies like this specialize in shipping goods to and from Burma, today known as Myanmar.
Image Credit: David Prentice
Taiwan's 'Little Burma'
Small Buddhist shrines like this one adorn almost every shop and restaurant in Huaxin Street.
Image Credit: David Prentice
Taiwan's 'Little Burma'
A former diamond dealer, Mr. He moved to Taiwan at the age of ten. Fluent in six languages, he spends his days singing karaoke in the local KMT party office.
Image Credit: David Prentice
Taiwan's 'Little Burma'
In front of the flags of both Taiwan and Myanmar and the KMT flag, Mr. He breaks into a rendition of “More Than I Can Say” by Leo Sayer.
Image Credit: David Prentice
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