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Burma’s Chinatown of Sin
by Josh Gordon

The notice posted over the bridge in the Burmese border town of Meng La draws a large crowd, so I elbow in for a look. Written in perfect Chinese, the poster declares the local government’s intention to close several casinos. The word on the street is that some Chinese government officials took public funds to Meng La’s casinos and gambled them away. Someone was having too much fun, on the people’s money, so Beijing is pulling strings to put the squeeze on the fun pipe. A town that has long fed at the trough of the vice trade might now have to gear up for lean times. Would the Burmese government really make good on its threat to shut down the casinos upon which Meng La’s fortunes are built? Or will authorities to the north take pity on their Meng La brethren and rescind their request for the casinos to be shuttered.

It doesn’t take much to attract a crowd in China, but this isn’t exactly China. This small enclave is known as Burma’s Chinatown of Sin, Meng La Special District 4, a sliver of territory along the Chinese border in the eastern reaches of Burma’s Shan state. It is one of a confusing jumble of mini-states on the Burmese side of the Sino-Burmese border. Everyone on its streets, from shopkeepers to the leaders of local ethnic militias, has a Chinese name and speaks Mandarin. Even its storefront signs and political propaganda are written in Chinese.

At the Thai border crossing at Taicheck, I hear tales of Myanmar government atrocities in the hills. Locals report that “it is very different in Meng La—they have electricity all the time. They even have the Internet.” Amenities include accommodations with running water, air conditioning (and the power to run it), and Chinese satellite television for ¥30 (US$4) per night.

Meng La is far more Chinese than Burmese. Electric power comes from China, and is stable. Internet access is also via China, and at ¥2 (25 cents) an hour, is reasonably cheap. The usual Chinese restrictions apply: Don’t plan on conducting any extensive research on Falungong from a Meng La Internet terminal. A postcard from the Meng La post office mailed to Beijing is charged as Chinese domestic mail. The currency in Meng La, the Myanmar khat, is more useful as comic relief than anything else. Everything is paid for with Chinese people’s currency, the renminbi (RMB).

But the true proof of Meng La’s integration with its northern neighbor comes when I turn on my Beijing cell phone, silent since I left China, and see a welcome message from China Mobile’s Yunnan Province provider. This makes perfect sense. A steady supply of money from Chinese tourists keeps the big restaurants and hotels (and massage parlors and red light districts) of Meng La humming, so this provides incentive for a deal between the Burmese government and China Mobile to keep all parties happy.

Meng La may be partly understood in contrast to its more typically Burmese neighboring town to the south, Kengteng. Known as the capital of the Golden Triangle, Kengteng is governed by the government in Rangoon, though the status of its surrounding countryside is debatable. Traveling around Kengteng is like walking through Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The town is built around a serene lake and dominated by an enormous gilded Buddha. Colonial-era buildings crumble beside the sprawling, government-owned Kengteng Hotel, which boasts an air-conditioning unit in every room but lacks the power to run them. At night, the town goes dark, except for the lights of private residences wealthy enough to afford private generators, which emit the distinctive whir that in this town says money. Most of these homes, however, bear telltale Chinese Door God placards revealing the origins of their owners.

Meng La is an oasis of prosperity, thanks to its Chinese connection. But as with any town whose basis of economic prosperity is sin, there are bound to be problems, and that is what the notice on the arch is about.

Sex, Drugs, and Museums
In the center of town is the Farmer’s Market, a square-shaped building surrounding a vast courtyard covered by a high, open-sided, corrugated roof. During the day, it is a typical Southeast Asian agricultural market. At night, it transforms into the center of Meng La’s red light district as the vendors go home and the exterior buildings blaze to life in a flurry of neon pink and red. Even if the casinos close, Meng La has its sex industry to fall back on. Though as an outgrowth of Chinese gambling-related tourism, this is likely to suffer from any long-term casino closures.

The bars have no drinks and no music, but “girls” are present in profusion. Most of the time they sit around and watch TV and play cards. Most have an “agent” of some sort who beckons passersby and calls the girls to line up on the roadside each time a potential customer drives, saunters, or stumbles by. “Laoban (“Big Boss” in Chinese), how about a girl tonight? We have the prettiest.” Prostitution is technically illegal, and bar girls are supposed to get a monthly health-check certificate, without which they are not supposed to be able to register as guests in the local hotels. In the only bar that appears to have customers I convince the Laoban Niang (“Mrs. Boss”) to get me a beer from the nearest store—her “bar” offers no liquid refreshments.

Business has been bad due to some sort of clampdown on the Chinese side of the border. The working girls might have to lineup on the curbside 40 times in one night and then might not even “get sold.” Some seem to think this is related to SARS, but most feel this is a Chinese attempt to stop the hemorrhage of public funds that is pouring into Meng La’s casinos and other entertainments.

The town also has a museum dedicated to the struggle against drug production and trafficking. When asked what might happen in Meng La if the casino closure proves permanent, the most common answer is that the town will return to drug production: either heroin or methamphetamine, which is increasingly popular here.

Meng La is a special place, a border town with a degree of formal political autonomy. Its people have made the best of their autonomy, and used it to learn a collective trade—even if that trade is debauchery. Kengteng, with its shoddy electrical power and lack of just about anything modern, is a fairly typical Burmese town. While still part of Burma, Meng La looks and feels like a Chinese city. The contrast between the two could not be more stark. It is a contrast that points to the fact that the Myanmar Junta (the State Development and Restoration Council—SDRC) isn’t too concerned about development, at least not at the level that might make a difference in the lives of ordinary people. While one may grouse about the Chinese system, at least Chinese people—and their brethren in the little enclave of Meng La—have electricity, and aren’t shut off from the outside world.

That the electricity is used to power the red lights of a mini “sin city” is just part of the mixed blessing of life on the border of two cultures in transition.

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