Pansuriya opened as a photograph gallery in 2016. It was the latest project founded by Aung Soe Min, well known in Yangon as the owner and creator of the galleries Pansodan Gallery and Pansodan Scene. Despite the array of bewitching photographs from Burma’s past, due to light footfall Pansuriya was reborn a few months later as a restaurant serving cheap and tasty Burmese and Shan food - it soon became a firm favourite of many Yangonites. Many of the photographs remain on the walls.
Today Pansuriya is undergoing a second transformation as it begins to focus on bringing the Yangon community together through a cultural hub hosting exhibitions and events.
Sampan Travel sat down with Axiao, manager of Pansuriya, and the creative force driving the space’s evolving character. He tells us about the burgeoning culinary scene in Yangon, and why the spread of art is important for Myanmar.
Tell us a little about what you do and how you ended up at Pansuriya
I do a little bit of everything. After I finished high school I studied two years of English. My parents worked in ruby mining and I started worked in the industry myself, in Mogok and Mai Hsu. That was where I started working, and originally I was thinking about going abroad but I didn't get a chance.
What were you doing at the ruby mines?
Operations and management - not actually mining! After four and half years I moved to Yangon. My family have a small hotel and because I did all the renovation myself, that led me to the renovation business. I had a small team of my own and I began doing renovation for clients and things like that. Two years ago, because of that, I renovated and opened a bar called Fahrenheit with my friends.
Fahrenheit including myself had three business partners, it started because we wanted the first LGBT friendly bar in Yangon in a way to promote the LGBT movement.
The location was a bit far out but it was once a popular place running for about 2 years, until so many other restaurants and bars opened in more popular neighborhoods. It was a sustainable business but when you have three partners financially it was not worthwhile for all three of us to spend time on such a small bar. That’s why it closed.
I knew Aung Soe Min as a friend for many years. After I came back from the mines we did many things together and he was the person that inspired me a lot and brought me into the cultural and art communities. I didn’t know anything about art until I met him in 2010. Without him there is no Pansuriya!
Because of that, and with the combination of the food industry and renovation, this place [Pansuriya] happened. This and because of what I learnt at Pansodan Gallery, and my appreciation of art and community.
Tell us a little bit about Pansuriya.
My partner Aung Soe Min rented this space but there was not enough traffic at first. It was running really bad, in the sense of bad marketing strategy, and not many people were coming. This was a shame, and so I came up with this whole business plan.
It was your idea to turn it into a restaurant?
Yes. Aung Soe Min didn’t have any restaurant business before. The idea has been there since we met but it had never really happened. But after my experience with Fahrenheit and renovation, and preserving old heritage buildings, he agreed, and we started doing this. Now, basically, I am taking care of Pansuriya. He is a business partner, but he is more like a mentor, a backbone, like a very solid partner. He provides the cultural and art connections at Pansuriya; it is me who is seeing how it goes day to day.
Can you introduce Pansuriya to those who have not heard of it before?
Our first idea of Pansuriya was of a community hub. This is why we have so many events. Afterwards we thought it would be better to have more of a focus on cultural activities. So gradually we turned it into more of a cultural centre where people can get inspired, bit by bit. That's why we have many other things here. It is not just a restaurant.
But a lot of people still do see it as just a very good restaurant.
Some come back just for the food, but we never spend too much time on the food. Myself, I spend a lot of time on the cultural activities, making sure these things happen. We have room to grow for food. If we spent more time, it could be even better. But today we focus more on how to bring people together.
The menu has not changed much, it has never been modified. I think about tourists too, and offering new food and flavours, ethnic cuisines. We are thinking of having one page of just ethnic cuisines; one dish from each ethnic group. That is on our agenda, but as you can see, we focus more on events. It is more important to have cultural activities than the food.
Why are these cultural events so important to you?
We are trying to be a cultural centre. Pansuriya is one of the first places trying to do this. Maybe you can say it is a pilot project.
Next we hope to be in Shan State, but first we need to build up people's trust so they know what we are doing. Our intention is to promote the culture, so in Shan State we will follow a similar concept, but focusing more on Shan ethnic history and culture. Maybe it will be successful and maybe not. We are still trying to work it out. If it is successful we will take it to Chin State.
At the end of the day what we want to do is ‘cultural sharing projects’. For me this is very important for the country, for people to understand each other. We want people to understand each other by bringing people together with cultural activities. And yes, food! Food is one way to understand each other faster.
What we are trying to do is to motivate people to do all these creative things. From my generation I feel that creativity, thinking outside of the box, is something that we need in Myanmar. Often I feel that people don’t have options because they don't know enough. And so this is a way that we try to show people that things can be done differently. People can come here and get inspired and do something different. This is what we hope. This is our objective.
How is the art scene in Myanmar?
The art community is definitely changing, but it is not yet for everybody. This is why we have so much art hanging on the walls in Pansuriya, to make everyone feel casual and relaxed around the art, so that the art is just ... there!
For me growing up, I didn’t know anything about art. And my friends too, all my generation, they don’t know any artists at all. All my Burmese friends they don't appreciate art, and also their parents never tried to teach them what art is all about. That creativity they don’t have. So in terms of the art scene, if you look at it as a small industry, small community, it is growing, but it is not enough to spread the message, it is not growing on everybody. Even the staff at Pansuriya, they don’t care about art, they don't understand it ... It is not in the tradition, not in society. They have worked here for 14, 15, 16 months and we do all these events but they don't care, they don't understand.
I wanna get all those young people involved but that is not enough. That message will not be there yet. It is very important for these people to understand the art. It is difficult for us to target them, because they have never seen this, never experienced this, so we need more people like artists, so it is better known, and the people understand that it is a thing. Otherwise if is just here it will be something unique, something special. But it should not be like that, it should be something more, something for everybody.
Art is also very expensive. For all those people to get it, to appreciate it, it should be affordable as well.
Do you have a particular demographic in mind when you put on these cultural events?
When I do events it has to be related to Burmese culture. Everything that I do is related to the culture that is developing in Myanmar. I am not doing something that Burmese people could not relate to. So I am thinking about them, but it is hard to target them.
It takes time to build up the momentum. It is not going to happen tomorrow, you need to get their trust first. But this takes time, it takes years. Today more Burmese people know about us and they come and they engage with the activities that we are trying to do now. But to make it work, if the Burmese people don’t always come, we have to make sure that we are financially sustainable, so we are targeting expats and tourists as well.
How do you rate the culinary landscape in Yangon?
It is definitely growing. Back in in 2014 there were only a handful of bars and restaurants, and people didn't really go out. Now there are so many different options. For Burmese, there are so many Thai shops opening up. It is a good thing it is changing. Of course, some people don’t know what they are doing, maybe they have 500 different items on the menu and it is very random. And some are trying to be a high class place but at the same time don’t know what they are doing.
It’s definitely a good thing that people are trying to increase the traffic and invite more people to come out and eat. It takes time for those new business owners but they learn from all the failures and then do something that is better.
But this market is also not big enough for all these new businesses. Now you have so many options people only choose to go somewhere that works, or that they can relate to. There is this new place called Cuba Bar in Sanchaung, and it is packed. And next to it is a Japanese restaurant and it is completely empty! People need to relate to the atmosphere and the message. Some businesses know how to do this. They know who they are targeting. But many people do not know what they are doing.
Tourism in Myanmar is expected to grow dramatically over the next few years. For a society that is still getting used to being open to the world once more, how do you view this expected boom of international visitors?
I think at this moment this country needs income, so I think we definitely want more tourists to come here. And there is the potential for them all to enjoy their journey, to enjoy their trip. I hope there are more coming, and through this the food industry can improve quite a bit. People need the money to upgrade whatever it is they are trying to do.
Some people complain, ‘Why are all those Inthar [the fishermen of Inle Lake] trying really hard to get up before dawn, dress up in the traditional costume and then waiting on the lake for all the tourist to take a picture?’ People complain that it is a disgrace they are selling the culture, or that the tourist has made them adapt in a bad way. But at the same time they earn money, they can provide income for the family, and for their kids to go to school. Maybe the kids won’t have to work in a teashop to survive. There is good and bad. But at the moment, Myanmar people need job opportunities, so we need tourists.