Shards of Glass
A Perfect Metaphor for Myanmar
The Nagar Glass Factory was established in Yangon, Myanmar (formerly Rangoon, Burma) in 1948. In 2008 it was totally destroyed by the largest typhoon to hit the country in half a century. In the fate of the factory since its destruction lies a story that reveals much about the challenges and strengths of the people of Myanmar.
A path cuts through knee-high glass objects at the site of the former Nagar Glass Factory in Yangon, Myanmar.
The factory soon became famous for its hand-blown glass. In addition to crafting bottles, bowls, and vases for various restaurants and hotels, it created true works of glass art and sacred objects. For example, the six-foot eyes of the giant Reclining Buddha in Yangon were crafted by the Nagar Glass Factory. At its height, the factory employed scores of workers and filled two giant warehouses with inventory.
Most of the glass objects are in shards, but every once in a while a dedicated treasure hunter can find intact objects. Here’s a display of items that visitors can inspect and buy.
Then the factory received a double whammy from which there was no possibility of recovery.
First the typhoon leveled the factory, destroying the furnaces, kilns, and other equipment, and scattering the fragments of the warehouses over a wooded area the size of two football fields. Then the government announced that not only was it not prepared to give the factory any assistance, it tripled the price of natural gas, the fuel the factory needed to operate the furnaces. The government added insult to injury.
Meet the Master
Myat Kywe, now 77, is a master glassblower and the last surviving son of the family that started the Nagar Glass Factory. His life’s work was literally destroyed on one night in 2008.
Master glassblower Myat Kywe with one of the rare pocket wine flasks that survived the typhoon. The flask is constructed with a pocket that holds ice to cool the contents of the main vessel.
But instead of slinking away, he stayed.
And instead of plotting who he could sue, he meditated.
And instead of bulldozing the field and burying the glass shards in landfill and developing a strip mall, he saw that the glass, as shattered and scattered as it was, might still preserve the value he and his colleagues had literally blown into the pieces.
And instead of feeling sorry for himself, Myat Kywe and his sisters eventually recognized an opportunity to create a new chapter for the Nagar Glass Factory.
The Tourists Kept Coming
In the few years before the glass factory was destroyed, Myanmar had opened up to some tourism and the Nagar Glass Factory found a niche with tourists who liked the tours and the chance to browse the showroom. A number of guide books mentioned the Glass Factory and positive reviews on travel web sites were published.
So it was that a trickle of tourists continued to show up after the Glass Factory was destroyed. At first the tourists were turned away, but soon a few had talked their way into looking around and taking photos of what was a surreal site: a glass-covered field glistening in the sun. And some of the tourists picked up fragments of glass that interested them and asked “How much?”
Anna Beth Payne and John Kador with master glassblower Myat Kywe
So the Nagar Glass Factory evolved to its present incarnation: a showroom for glass fragments with the unique property that the inventory is displayed in piles on the ground. It’s a Mecca for treasure hunters. Visitors walk around and can root around for objects that interest them. It’s wise to have your tetanus inoculations up to date and to wear gloves.
Master glassblower Nyat Kywe shows Anna Beth Payne a magazine spread that described the glass factory in its glory days.
And the variety! Most of the objects are broken, but some of the pieces are colorful and interesting as objects d’art. There’s also some fused glass left over from the furnaces. And if you look carefully enough, there are still plenty of intact items. Chances are low that you can assemble a dinner service for eight, but I found many intact goblets, vases, decanters, bowls, plates, or decorative glass objects among the debris.
You bring your treasures up the front and while his sisters clean the glass and file away the sharp edges, Mr. Kywe tells you stories about the factory. His energy, enthusiasm, and resilience may be the best part of the experience. The sisters present you with a bill for the objects you selected. Just pay whatever is requested. It will be less than you expected. No one with half a heart would bargain with them.
A sign that visitors now encounter at the former Nagar Glass Factory in Yangon.
The ruins of the building that once housed the glass furnace at the Nagar Glass Factory.
I Never Metaphor I Didn’t Like
As for the metaphor I promised at this beginning of this piece, here it is.
Myanmar is a broken glass factory.
Its natural resources, cultural legacy, and the strengths of its people have been overwhelmed by a brutal military regime that usurped democratic rule in 1962 and shattered civic life and every social institution. While the regime has made small but significant steps in liberalizing the country, Myanmar is far from intact.
Until it is, the people of Myanmar will offer the world the shattered remnants of its former glory, waiting for the day when its citizens can once again stand together intact.
Some of the glass treasures that we collected at the Nagar Glass Factory