A man sits in a plastic chair in front of a bare desk, propping a monitor and speakers on top and hiding a bird’s nest of wires below. He’s broadcasting a new music video by Burmese rock sensation Lay Phyu. Draped over the back of the monitor is a sign that reads, in rainbow-hued type, “Dream Word Computer Media: mp3, mp4, phone ringtone”.
This is no Internet cafe; it’s an entertainment center. Camped in front of Yangon’s downtown movie theaters, these merchants fill grow- ing demand for content on mobile phones. Most residents don’t own computers, so sidewalk vendors fill their phones with pirated content—albums, movies, apps, videos—charging customers for transfers via microSD card. 1,000 kyat (USD 1.10) for one Android game or four CDs worth of music.
For street curators of culture, business depends on predicting tastes. Failure to download and advertise desirable content loses earnings. The English section of this collector’s songbook is stocked with the past few decades of American pop staples: Backstreet Boys, Eminem, Rihanna, 98 Degrees, Lady Gaga, and Michael Jackson.
Their target market is usually well-heeled enough to afford both a mobile phone and a movie ticket—cornerstones of middle- class achievement where SIM cards not too long ago cost over USD 1,500. Now, reforms and investment flourish. Until recently, the Orwellian-sounding Press Scrutiny Board strictly censored all media. While restrictions on print media have lightened, films are still subject to censorship.
At the Myoma Theater behind him, moviegoers wait for friends, queue for tickets, and hail taxis. These moments are appropriate to use one’s mobile—to check the time, text a tardy friend, or download content from Dream World. The music video has ended, and Dream World’s proprietor boots up a flashy game on his computer, grabbing the attention of passersby.
The parasitic relationship between these vendors and movie theaters is not incidental. But the fact that dealers can enable customers to watch any film at any time poses a threat to the theaters they rely on—a familiar trend in markets with pervasive Internet access.
Dream World pays 45,000 kyat (USD 45) a month to the Yangon City Development Committee, along with a 5,000-kyat (USD 5.60) electricity fee to the theaters to run him a line. During blackouts, the stall relies on the theater’s generator. For moments between grid failure and generator start-up, an “uninterruptible power supply” takes over—a miniature car battery that grants additional minutes of off-grid activity.
While spotty electricity, high rent, and sporadic street vendor crackdowns are concerns, glacial Internet speeds prove the biggest challenge. Vendors rip CDs and DVDs brought over the border from China rather than battle the bandwidth.
Dream World has found a customer—the assistant for a wealthy Yangon executive. While his boss sits in the theater with his family, he loads pirated music onto his phone to fill the downtime. Born in a remote village without electricity or running water, he still marvels at newfound luxuries.
“I know my luck is good. I have a phone and a comfortable job. I think in the future everyone will get the chance to have the convenience of a cellphone like me. More people deserve one, I think.”