Hsipaw, Burma, Myanmar

Mr & Mrs in Hsipaw: bizarre Burmese formalities

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By John Oates
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Writing for the new Rough Guide Snapshot Myanmar (Burma), John Oates travelled to the town of Hsipaw – a small settlement, once unfamiliar to the Burmese tourist trail – to discover bizarre traditions in the formalities of names, in which Mr and Mrs are a prefix for everyone. So that’s “Mr John” to you.

It was with a slight sense of disappointment that I learned that Mrs Popcorn was no longer accurately named. A retired teacher whose real name is Khin Myint Htay, she used to make and sell the sweet/salty treat when her husband was alive and the name had stuck even though the popcorn-selling didn’t. It was hard to be disappointed for long, though, as her current venture – Mrs Popcorn’s Garden – turned out to be one of the most laidback spots I’d encountered in Burma.

The garden, where the charming Mrs Popcorn serves fresh juice, home-made snacks and more substantial Burmese meals, is on the northern edge of Hsipaw, a small riverside town, once unfamiliar to the tourist circuit, located between the city of Mandalay and the Chinese border crossing at Muse. It’s a pleasant place to wander around, with numerous cottage industries and home-based workshops making things like cheroots (simple cigars, where tobacco has been rolled in leaves). It’s also the starting point for some great hikes to villages in the hills in which, unusually for Myanmar, foreigners are allowed to spend the night.

Market in Hsipaw, Myanmar, Burma

When I asked Mrs Maureen, an Australian expat and owner of the new Pontoon Coffee in the region, about the practice of fronting names with a ‘Mr’ or ‘Mrs’, she explained that people in Myanmar are formal when they address others: in the local Shan language, even young girls are addressed as Nang, women as Ma and older women as Ba. Shan men are addressed as Sai, sometimes even by their own wives, and when local people take Anglicised names they also often tack on Mr or Mrs. The busiest guesthouse in town, for example, is run by (and named after) Mr Charles, who got his name while at missionary school.

One such person who was not in town when I visited was Mr Donald, the nephew of the last saopha (Shan prince). His uncle had last been seen in 1962, when he was arrested following the military coup by General Ne Win, and in 2005 Mr Donald had himself been arrested on trumped-up charges which included operating as a tour guide without a license.

After four years he had been released but was no longer allowed to speak to foreigners, and so the Shan Palace where he lived had been closed to guests. By the time I visited Hsipaw at the end of 2012, however, he was said to have left town. His wife, Mrs Fern, was receiving guests at the palace – a little less grand than the name suggests, and located quite close to Mrs Popcorn’s Garden – but only during limited hours.

Noodles, Hsipaw, Burma, Myanmar

So this use of Mr and Mrs is quite common where English names are concerned. What is more unusual in Hsipaw is the number of people – like Mrs Popcorn – who are named in English after the service they provide. It isn’t clear just who started it, but almost everyone who is involved with tourism seems to be in on the act. My first meal on arriving in town had been at the Chinese restaurant of Mr Food, and the next morning I had spent quite a while searching for Mrs Noodle in the town’s main market. It didn’t help that there was a small cluster of noodle stalls all in one place with few obvious differences between them (although I had been reliably informed that Mrs Noodle’s fare was the best).

Rather easier to spot, thanks to the large sign and the photos of satisfied foreign customers, was Mr Shake who together with his wife runs a roadside restaurant called Yuan Yuan. And it isn’t just people selling food who have these very literal nicknames: Mr Book, predictably enough, has a small bookstall with a handful of English-language titles.

Other names are slightly harder to decode. There is a guesthouse, for example, known as either the Golden Doll or Mr Kid depending on who you ask. If I understood the owner correctly, they had wanted to name the place after their son (hence ‘Kid’). Tracking down each Mr or Mrs became something of a game to me, and I look forward to returning to find the ones who got away. The guide Mr Bean, for example, wasn’t around when I visited. I suspect that his name comes from his sideline selling beans and not, sadly, a penchant for mime.

Practicalities

Hsipaw is around five hours from Mandalay by bus or shared taxi. A slower but more scenic option is to take the train – the line runs along the stunning Goteik viaduct. The Chinese border crossing at Muse only recently opened to independent travellers and rules for using it are subject to change.

Explore more of Myanmar (Burma) with the Rough Guide Snapshot Myanmar (Burma).