Having a quick yarn
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.
U Tin Oo and his toolbox.
Old street knitter U Tin Oo shows his artwork of General Aung San.