Mandalay, Myanmar – Myanmar’s last royal capital harbored the most learned Buddhist monks and exquisite artists, citizens speaking the most refined Burmese and cooks who prepared the best curries in the land. Mandalay was rhapsodized as the nation’s cultural core.
Today, along the grand moat of the former royal palace, Chinese music rings out as people perform tai chi exercises, a sign of an uneasy transformation taking place in Myanmar’s second-largest city. This once quintessential Burmese metropolis, residents say, is losing its traditions as a massive influx of Chinese migrants reshapes it in their own likeness.
“I feel that I am no longer a resident of Mandalay,” says Nyi Nyi Zaw, a 30-year-old journalist, adding that problems between Burmese and Chinese caused by the changing dynamics have become a staple of his reporting. “They (Chinese people) look like the residents. They have money, so they have the power.”
This makeover of Mandalay – located about 300 kilometers (185 miles) from China’s Yunnan province and at the crossroads of trade, transport and smuggling routes – reflects a Chinese footprint across Southeast Asia that has grown alongside Beijing’s economic and military clout. And it is one that is expected to widen as China pushes forward with its One Belt, One Road initiative to link Eurasian nations via land and sea routes.
Propelled by Beijing’s policy of encouraging Chinese enterprises to expand abroad as well as official Chinese government investment in its neighbors’ infrastructure, the influx has sparked a measure of prosperity in some impoverished Southeast Asian regions. But along with it has come local resentment, sometimes anger, at perceived Chinese aggressiveness, cultural insensitivity and environmental damage.
Chinese have been drawn to Southeast Asia for centuries, with waves of migrants fleeing war, revolution and starvation in the first half of the 20th century. While most of them came with little more than the shirts on their backs, many of the latest migrants are arriving with cash and savvy.
“Out of the 10 top entrepreneurs in Mandalay, seven are Chinese,” says Win Htay, vice president of the Mandalay Region Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He says Chinese in the city own everything from small noodle shops to expensive commercial buildings.
He estimates some 60 percent of Mandalay’s economy, including the key industries, is now in Chinese hands.
Next to Laos’ capital, Vientiane, Chinese are building a virtually new city on more than 300 hectares (741 acres) of government-provided land that is expected to cater to an influx of migrants coming to work on Chinese-backed infrastructure projects reshaping the once sleepy town on the banks of the Mekong River.
Residents of Sihanoukville are calling Cambodia’s only seaport “China Town” as more Chinese corner real estate and settle in a country that has turned from the West toward Beijing, now its key political and economic supporter.
Spearheaded by a surge of Chinese tourists, condominiums and second homes marketed to mainlanders are sprouting in the northern Thailand hub of Chiang Mai, along with both legal and illegal businesses catering to their needs. A tourist with no knowledge of Thai or English can now hire an unlicensed Chinese taxi driver or even a bodyguard.
Chinese investment has increased sharply in Malaysia, sparking concerns over sovereignty. In addition to mega ventures including a $100 billion property development project, Chinese state-linked firms have also bought assets linked to the indebted 1MDB state fund, which was set up by Prime Minister Najib Razak and is being investigated by the U.S and other countries for embezzlement and money laundering. Opposition leaders have used the influx of Chinese money as an issue in the May 9 general election, warning that the government is selling off the country – a claim dismissed by Najib.
In Mandalay, anti-Chinese jibes have become a staple of workaday conversation. Cartoons, comedy routines and literature label the country the “Chinese Republic of the Union of Myanmar” and the city as “Mandalay, Yunnan.” A popular song – “The Death of Mandalay” – laments what Mandalay has become: “The city where I was born is no longer there/Who are these people in the city?”
While a Chinese community has long existed in Mandalay, a new wave flocked to snap up swaths of cheap vacant land following massive fires that tore through the city’s core in the 1980s. As isolationist Myanmar opened up in the 1990s, Chinese entrepreneurs also took advantage of low interest rates at home and high ones in Myanmar to invest in real estate. Others are involved in shadier areas such as the jade trade and narcotics trafficking.
Since foreigners are not allowed to own land or enjoy other privileges, a large but unknown number of Chinese have obtained Burmese citizenship through bribes to Myanmar immigration officials or outright forgery of documents, Burmese businessmen and local journalists say.
The result has been soaring real estate values that have forced many locals to move to the city’s outskirts.
“If we can’t enact laws and take effective action on immigration, we will see a continuation of the Chinese influx because this area is good for them,” says Win Htay, who also heads a large sugar company.
The ease with which Chinese are able to illegally obtain citizenship contrasts with the plight of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group at the heart of an ongoing refugee crisis who despite having lived in Myanmar for generations are denied citizenship.
Some take a balanced view of the Chinese presence in Mandalay, frequently reported as high as 50 percent of the city’s 1.2 million inhabitants, although estimates are unreliable given the undocumented status of many and depending on how assimilated ethnic Chinese are counted.
“As a native I am not so concerned about Mandalay changing because of the Chinese. The world is becoming a global village,” said Tin Maung, managing director of the Royal Tun Thitsar Company. “Races mix all the time, but it is important that all are loyal to the country.”
The Chinese presence in Mandalay and Myanmar is simply a natural outcome of intensified and positive relations with Southeast Asia, said Zhu Xianghui, associate professor at the Institute of Myanmar Studies of Yunnan University.
He said concerns by Burmese nationalists that their country is under threat of Chinese expansionism is “an overreaction from a poor country.”
In response to questions about illegal immigration, the Foreign Affairs Office of Yunnan in China said it “always urged those going overseas to abide by local laws and customs.”
While some of the regional migration is driven by Chinese government-backed policies, other migrants are aided by the age-old “guanxi,” the informal networks through which Chinese from a particular locality or clan have moved abroad. These networks aid and ease the entry of those following them into a foreign environment.
Some simply come on their own, seeking a better, freer life outside China.
Dai Qing, a prominent author and environmental activist who now calls Chiang Mai home, says she enjoys the absence of an internet firewall in Thailand, clean food and water, and being among “nice, peaceful people,” some of whom she helps through charities.
Living in a rural area outside the city, Dai says she has not yet encountered Thais averse to her countrymen.
“But when I travel here and there, I do see the impolite, following-no-rules, arrogant Chinese and I feel ashamed for that,” she says. “We have a long way to go before China’s true modernization is complete.”
Now that China has urged its citizens to go out into the world, it’s only natural that many will choose to “follow their dreams,” says Aranya Siriphon, an anthropologist at Chiang Mai University.
“That’s what we humans do,” she says. “But we have to be able to manage the negative aspects of these dreams.”
Associated Press researcher Yu Bing in Beijing and reporters Sopheng Cheang in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, contributed to this report.