MONG LA, Burma — The first noticeable thing in this Burmese town that borders China’s Yunnan Province, is that they really like the Chinese character xin. Half of the businesses seem to have that character in their names: Long Xin (long means dragon), Fu Xin (fu means blessing), Xin Hao (hao means grand), Xin Xin. Xin is three copies of jin, which means gold, stacked in a pyramidal configuration. That’s what this place is for many Chinese settlers: a western frontier where fortunes are made.
Mong La is a strange case. Twenty years ago, it was a collection of small huts. But now, its downtown is a cluster of cellphone stores, clothing stores, cheap hair salons, and hardware stores surrounding a center of food stalls that serve seemingly all the various cuisines of China. Every business is owned by someone from China, and most employ Chinese migrant workers rather than local Shan State Burmese. The television channels are from China, not Burma. The only Burmese brand that can be found in grocery stores is Myanmar Beer. The United Nations built the water supply network in 1994, but the town’s electricity comes from China, and the main telecommunications provider is China Mobile. Dial a number for someone who lives or works in Mong La, and you’ll have to use an area code for Xishuangbanna, Yunnan Province.
The town boasts a Drug Elimination Museum and the Burma-China Friendship Pagoda, as well as elephant and crocodile shows, to justify the creation of tour packages in China, allowing tour operators to bus in Chinese citizens who can’t afford more comfortable visits in nearby Southeast Asian countries. Within the museum, one can find a picture of someone named Sai Leun buddying up with Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces) generals as they congratulate themselves for a job well done in ridding the region of opium and heroin. What isn’t stated in the caption is that Sai Leun’s real name is actually Lin Mingxian, the drug lord and king of the hill in Mong La.