Meet the Underground Puppeteer of Yangon

Khin Maung Htwe is conducting a one-man crusade to revive a centuries-old form of theater that was once a keystone of the Burmese art scene.

Will Doig

The map appeared in my inbox attached to an email with instructions to arrive at 5 p.m. It was signed, “With best wishes and regards, U Htwe & Aunty OO.”

When I showed the map to my taxi driver he squinted at it skeptically, then let me out on a dirt street far from Yangon’s neon hotels. Stray dogs sheltered in the late-day shadows, and a teenager wrenched on a beat-up Yamaha motorbike. By the side of the road, a young monk tended a smoldering garbage fire.

“You look for puppets?” the monk asked. He pointed to a ramshackle three-story building and told me to pull the blue string. It rang a bell on the balcony, and moments later, Khin Maung Htwe appeared at the door.

The nightly puppet show performed at Htwe’s residence (his name is pronounced “Tway”) is one of the hidden marvels of Myanmar’s raucous capital city.

Here in the nation’s cultural nerve center, the trauma of 52 years of oppression is giving way to a palpable sense of cautious exhilaration.

With human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi emceeing the fledgling democracy’s return to the world stage, an energetic arts scene is finally awakening from a long, totalitarian-induced sleep.

Htwe is an unlikely player in this process.

On Sept. 18, 2001, he was sailing into New York harbor when the Coast Guard intercepted his vessel. Beneath a sky still tinged with the smoke of the 9/11 attacks, for two hours a team of skittish armed agents searched the Siemens container ship on which he worked as an ocean navigator.

Back home in Myanmar, his country was changing just as fast as America, as five decades of senseless brutal military rule sputtered to a messy close.

A year after his Coast Guard encounter, Htwe quit the seafaring job he’d held for 18 years and returned home to help raise his 5-year-old daughter amid the tumult. When he returned, he would also find a new sense of purpose in reviving a centuries-old form of theater that was once a keystone of the Burmese art scene.

He got the idea when he bought a microbus and turned it into a tour van. “While driving tourists, I visited other cities—Mandalay, Bagan—and saw puppetry in these places. But I never saw it in Yangon.”

Htwe thought this would have saddened his mother, who had instilled in him a love of the theater, taking him to all-night performances at the country’s pagoda festivals. “Then I read a book about puppetry and learned it was one of Myanmar’s original performing arts,” he says, “a tradition that dates back hundreds of years.”

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In the 15th century, traditional Burmese puppet theater was performed for the royal families of what was then Southeast Asia’s mighty Taungoo Empire. Years later, when British colonists linked up the country with railroads, puppeteer troupes took their shows on the road, delighting audiences in villages throughout the countryside.

The 500-year-old tradition was curtailed in 1962 when the military seized power in a coup d’état and walled off Myanmar from the outside world.

According to Htwe, the generals were so upset about being called a puppet government that they went so far as to ban the word “puppet” from being printed in newspapers.

After crackdowns on protests rocked the country in 1988, the government shut down Yangon’s biggest pagoda festival, as well as the puppet shows that had long been a part of it.

By the time Htwe returned to Yangon, puppetry had all but vanished from the capital. He set to work bringing it back, renting a theater, hiring puppeteers, and choreographing shows. But the $500-per-month rent and puppeteers’ salaries proved unsustainable.

“I lost a lot of money,” he says. “I sold my car to keep things going.” In 2008, he stumbled upon a free performance space, but it was destroyed later that year—along with all of his puppets—when Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar, claiming 140,000 lives.

“My friends said, ‘You’ll be back on a boat in three years,’” he says. “It was hard. We couldn’t afford to send my daughter to a good school. My mother-in-law told me to go back to sea.”

Instead, Htwe’s wife sold her jewelry so they could construct a new set of puppets. And then, a stroke of good fortune arrived from an unexpected place: the United Arab Emirates.

Flush with money but not much art, the UAE invited Htwe to Dubai, where he put on his puppet show at a festival, in a children’s area called the Amusement Zone.

In Dubai, he met a hotel manager and struck a deal for a six-month profit-sharing residency. When it ended, he returned to Yangon and negotiated a similar arrangement with a lakeside restaurant.

It was just the boost he needed, but still not enough to keep him solvent. And so, he and his family leveraged the one space that was entirely under their control: their apartment in Yangon.

Today, every inch of Htwe’s living room has been converted into a theater. Violet curtains frame a stage opposite rows of chairs elevated onto risers. Spotlights and amplifiers, controlled from behind the curtain, flank the stage.

The space accommodates 10 audience members, some of whom are already seated when I arrive, including two young Filipino men who are here because of Miss Myanmar, who, at this year’s Miss Universe pageant, dressed as a traditional Burmese puppet.

The contestant, a stunning 24-year-old named Htet Htet Htun, walked away with the Best Costume prize, not to mention adoring press coverage for her commitment to her country’s heritage.

Soon the lights dim and the puppets take the stage: Marionettes dangled in front of a black curtain that partially hides the puppeteer pulling the strings. Traditional Burmese puppet shows run from sunset to sunrise; mercifully, Htwe’s show is a 45-minute version of these nocturnal ones.

It’s composed of a series of vignettes drawn from Jataka tales, stories of the Buddha’s previous incarnations. In one vignette, two ogres—one representing evil, the other virtue—battle in the jungle.

In another, a mystical healer plays a flute that cures diseases. Htwe, his wife, and his son and daughter expertly manipulate the marionettes, each of which has 18 strings that move everything from the puppets’ feet to their eyebrows. It’s a truly dexterous performance, and hard not to watch the puppeteers’ fingers as the puppets fight, dance, and fall in love.

At the end of the show, we’re invited backstage. Behind the curtain is a cramped, rundown apartment consisting of two bedrooms and a tiny kitchen. It’s a jarring reminder that this family has given up nearly everything—including half their home—to put on puppet shows for crowds of less than 10 in a neighborhood taxis can’t find.

The notion suddenly seems insane, but Htwe doesn’t see it that way. He’s now been doing this for so long that it’s simply become his life, unorthodox as it may appear. “I cannot go back to sea,” he says. “I’m the director. My wife is the manager. In five years, my daughter will take my place. Five years after that, my son will take her place.”

And if the show becomes financially unsustainable? He looks at the family photos hanging on the walls: his kids playing by a marsh, a portrait of him in his sailor’s uniform. “If we are not successful in five years, then we’ll stop,” he says. “Our visibility is growing. These days, we get an audience nearly every day as word continues to spread online.”

He’s waiting for his show to catch fire, to reignite a passion for traditional puppetry in modern Yangon, a city racing toward the future for the first time in half a century.

How to See the Show

You can contact Htwe through the show’s website, Htwe Oo Myanmar. Performances run 45 minutes and are performed twice nightly at 5 and 6 p.m. Book a day in advance and tell him when you’d like to attend.

Where to Stay

Yangon is a fantastically affordable city to visit in all respects but one—many accommodations seem oddly pricey for what you get. The Willow Inn is a good option that straddles the line between budget and plush.

Don’t be put off by the dank stairway leading to the second-floor lobby. Upon entering, you’ll be transported to colonial-era Burma. Antique radios, leather-bound books, and sepia-tinted photographs line the walls. Breakfast is included but the wifi is spotty, as is the case in most of Myanmar. If night noise bothers you, request a room away from the street.

Where to Eat

Yangon is not a city of posh restaurants, which is just fine—that’s not why you’re here. Instead, tuck into an aromatic bowl of broth at 999 Shan Noodle House. For about $2, you can fill up on slurpable rice noodles and sautéed greens. Afterward, walk off your carbs just a few blocks away in charming Maha Bandula Park.

Will Doig is writing a book about China’s plan to build a high-speed railway through Southeast Asia, to be published by Columbia Global Reports.