Handy Craft—Makeshift
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A market-eye view of Yangon’s shops reveals a web of craftsmen who make, purchase, and adapt tools for flexible production

— Handy Craft

01. Re-culture Dispatches

Businesses scatter the streets of Yangon offering to fix broken wares. A craftsman might have a small formal shop or simply squat on the sidewalk. He might ask to fix your shoes, suitcases, lamps, audio equipment, umbrellas, or electric fans. The great diversity found among these enterprises is matched by the diversity in quality and form of tools they use.

Faced with a mix of challenges—from macro-economic sanctions to managing an informal workplace—a street entrepreneur will be quick to tell you how critical the proper tools are for the success of a business. Purchasers consider many different factors when selecting the proper tool: available storage space, security of this space, portability of the product, and the length of his commute.

Improvised Tools

Since they are not standardized or offered in formal stores, improvised tools differ by industry and vary in cost and complexity. On the higher end, one street entrepreneur fabricated a flexible petrol-powered ice chipping machine, ensuring that he could always process ice without relying on the grid—a feature impossible to find on any factory-produced version. A hand-powered earth mixer, derived from a repurposed oil drum, stands outside commercial purpose. The designer—also a worker at the non-electrified ceramic factory where it is used—said his main focus was designing a tool that was usable without electricity but did not require too much strength. At the simpler end is a silversmith’s repertoire of over 25 unique hand-crafted chisels fashioned from salvaged nails, bolts, and shards of scrap metal. Another metalworker drove a railroad tie through a block of wood to use as a punch. A consequence of Myanmar’s infatuation with sweet tea is the proliferation of condensed milk cans. They are used as standard unit of measure (“I’ll take a can of rice”) and incorporated into tools, such as a hand grater. Some even find their way into engines when original parts like air filters are unavailable or too expensive.

Basic Hand Tools

HandyCraft-2 Usually Myanmar-designed and produced, these tools provide low-cost (and often high-ingenuity) solutions. Domestic examples include tools whose weight makes it cost-ineffective to import, as is the case with many tool heads—hammerheads, hoes, picks, and so on. Shops that sell such tools will sometimes set a junior employee on the task of carving wooden dowels upon which to mount these heads. Items fashioned from reclaimed materials are also common in this class, particularly plentiful rebar. Examples include crowbars crafted from single bars to rakeheads with sharpened lengths of rebar for teeth. A staple for ubiquitous betelnut shops across Yangon is the betelnut crusher. This culturally significant tool—commonly fashioned from rebar—is designed to break the main stimulant ingredient from the betelnut into small enough pieces to be rolled up in a leaf and placed into one’s mouth.

Basic Power Tools

HandyCraft-3 The Yangon tool market is awash in “nameless” and shanzhai power tools brought over en masse from China. Often found alongside higher-end tools in shops, salespeople offer them as affordable alternatives to the genuine articles (“Would you like Singapore DeWalt or China DeWalt?”). They are either obviously fake or otherwise lacking any distinguishing exterior marking, and conversations with both users and repairmen reveal that “you get what you pay for”. One oft-mistaken assumption is that cheaper tools, while not particularly durable, can at least be repaired. This proves to not always be so. Many of this class of power tool are, once broken, markedly more challenging and expensive to repair than bona fide brands due to a lack of a supply chain for original equipment manufacturer (OEM) parts: “China DeWalt” isn’t particularly interested in whether one can fix their drill. One such drill would cost between 13,000 kyat (USD 17.30) and 15,000 kyat (USD 20) to purchase and requires about two days and between 7,500 kyat (USD 10) and 9,500 kyat (USD 12.60) to repair, depending upon labor and the need to fabricate new parts.

High-End Hand Tools

HandyCraft-4 The availability of these unique artifacts of Europe’s Industrial Age is unpredictable. They enter the market via piecemeal supply chains, such as estate sales and wandering trinket collectors. While attractive to Myanmar’s more discerning craftsmen who lack access to reliable electricity, they also catch the keen eyes of Thai antique dealers seeking buried treasure amidst Yangon’s voluminous street markets. European specimens are between 40 and 50 years old and for denizens of developed nations, evoke a time when they could claim their countries “still made things”. Most specimens have been painstakingly restored, with wooden components replaced, fresh coats of paint, and generous dollops of grease applied. Tools that have managed to survive this long are of exceptional quality and demand a correspondingly high price. Besides not requiring electricity, these tools are easier to repair than power tools.

High-End Power Tools

HandyCraft-5If one can afford the 35,000 kyat (45 USD) sticker price, a DeWalt power drill greatly simplifies a craftsman’s work. For those who can afford to pay, odds are also good that they also have access to a reliable source of electricity at their shop or construction site or can afford the diesel generator and fuel necessary to produce their own. Albeit expensive and seldom needed, the readily available OEM spare parts for your top-of-the-line drill should also be within one’s price range.

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  • Steve

    So if I were to ship a container load of old tools to Myanmar what am I looking to pack?

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