Hav­ing a quick yarn

The Myanmar Times - Weekend - - Weekend | Profile - NYO ME

MER­CHANT Road is a bustling thor­ough­fare lined with the grand build­ings of yore that held gen­er­a­tions of the road’s name­sake – cap­tains of in­dus­try, ship­ping clerks, bankers, spec­u­la­tors, in­sur­ance ad­justers and other rud­dy­cheeked im­pe­ri­al­ists who streamed up and down the prom­e­nade in their sum­mer suits and so­lar topees seek­ing rounds of gin and gos­sip. To­day, those tow­er­ing places of busi­ness stand empty, save for some for­got­ten ledgers and the pi­geons, but you can still lo­cate in­trepid peo­ple milling about on the cracked pave­ment, ready to do some in­ter­est­ing busi­ness with a sly eye and a warm hand­shake.

U Tin Oo, bet­ter known to lo­cals by his father’s name, Sa­yar Hlaing, of­ten sits at the same place ev­ery day on that dusty road with noth­ing more than a small box of his equip­ment. His busi­ness: knit­ting cus­tom art pieces by com­mis­sion. U Tin Oo is mid­dle aged, some place in his 50s, with the warm creases and a lit­tle white hair com­ing through that makes him ap­proach­able. One can find him usu­ally knit­ting near the cor­ner of Pan­so­dan and Mer­chant Road, some­times with a cig­a­rette care­lessly hang­ing from his lips as he con­cen­trates on his work and en­joys a cup of tea.

He says his pe­cu­liar prac­tice comes from his father, who was an avid and pi­o­neer­ing knit­ter. The story goes that Sa­yar Hlaing, work­ing his pro­fes­sional black­smith busi­ness, one day re­ceived an or­der for knit­ting nee­dles from a Chi­nese cus­tomer who com­plained that the nee­dles could not be sourced eas­ily in Myan­mar. Sa­yar Hlaing saw an op­por­tu­nity and started pro­duc­ing many knit­ting nee­dles, be­liev­ing he could fill a gap in the mar­ket. To help sell his idea, he learned knit­ting from this cus­tomer so he could demon­strate the prac­ti­cal­ity of his prod­uct. He sold some nee­dles, but it was ac­tu­ally the act of cre­at­ing items through knit­ting that stuck with him from that time on.

U Tin Oo’s own pas­sion in youth would turn out to be ink­ing tat­toos. It wasn’t un­til his 30s that he took up the knit­ting nee­dle in­stead, mak­ing the change from cre­at­ing pic­tures on hu­man skin to cloth. Up un­til that time, U Tin Oo was on the fes­ti­val cir­cuit, ink­ing cus­tomers as they came by, but as he got older and gained a wife and son, the life seemed less ap­peal­ing.

“We would some­times have to sleep on the plat­form at a fes­ti­val space, not safely at home,” he said.

There was also the is­sue of deal­ing with drunks at fes­ti­vals, the hours it re­quired, travel and the ir­reg­u­lar­ity of profit. To­day, U Tin Oo says, he deals with friendly peo­ple at a time and a place of his choos­ing.

The typ­i­cal place to set up the knit­ting ‘meet­ing place’, for lack of a bet­ter word, is nearby the Sar­pay Beik­man book­store be­cause, “peo­ple who like to be close to lit­er­a­ture show more of an in­ter­est in art”.

A tal­ent show once asked U Tin Oo to com­plete a knit­ting act for them, say­ing that he would need to per­form it in three min­utes. Shocked, the or­gan­is­ers learned that a sin­gle com­mis­sion can take days to com­plete. Good Busi­ness? He has been sell­ing knit­ting ac­ces­sories (he made his knit­ting nee­dle by iron and steel by the tal­ent in­herit from his father) and knit­ted pic­ture of Burmese fig­ures around USD10 and fa­mous peo­ple por­trait at least with USD 20 and above.

The busi­ness model to­day is sell­ing knit­ting ac­ces­sories, which U Tin Oo made him­self with a lit­tle of his dad’s know-how and tak­ing com­mis­sions for por­traits of fa­mous peo­ple, fam­ily mem­bers or girl­friends and boyfriends knit­ted us­ing wool. The busi­ness nets U Tin Oo around K5,000 per day, which is mod­est, but he says at this stage in life, he doesn’t need to be earn­ing too much to get by.

“I have treated my chil­dren and they are all ed­u­cated. They’re off earn­ing their own liv­ings, so I only re­ally have to take care of my­self,” he said with a laugh.

Be­ing an empty nester and ba­si­cally re­tired, get­ting out on the street to ply his art also takes the bore­dom out of life for U Tin Oo, who is a well known and a liked face on Mer­chant Street.

“Here I have friends – there’s the young men who sells things be­sides where I work. When I feel like a tea, I ask him to help me out,”

At the end of the day, all the knit­ting ma­te­ri­als go back into the box and are kept by a busi­ness very near to where U Tin Oo sits un­til he re­turns the next morn­ing and picks right up again. With a stretch, he pre­pares to take the bus back to Tharkayta town­ship to see his grand­chil­dren.

Pho­tos: Nyo Me

U Tin Oo and his tool­box.

Old street knit­ter U Tin Oo shows his art­work of Gen­eral Aung San.

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