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Andrew Selth -- Colonial Burma, as seen through collectible cards

Over the centuries, popular perceptions of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, have been remarkably consistent. The mental pictures of the country formed in Europe, North America and elsewhere have invariably been of a land of golden pagodas, swaying palms and rich gemstones, populated by demure "Burma girls" and colorful "hill tribes." Even when various wars painted a darker picture, and the crimes of Myanmar's military regimes became well known, such romantic notions were hard to shift.

Images of colonial Burma, or Myanmar as it is now called, in old postcards are now eagerly sought by collectors

These idealized images developed over many years and in many ways. Particularly during the colonial period (1824-1948), Western populations relied heavily on picture postcards and illustrated magazines for their knowledge of the country and its people. They also drew on stories in newspapers and, to a lesser extent, novels and artworks. Others heard about it through popular entertainments, such as musical revues, and formed their views accordingly.

The impact of popular culture on international attitudes towards Myanmar is now receiving greater attention from scholars. However, one source of stereotypical views is often overlooked, namely trade and trading cards. These small illustrated slips of pasteboard have been powerful vectors of images about Myanmar, its people and place in the wider world. They have not only reflected views of the country commonly held by Westerners, but have also helped shape them.

Trade cards have a long history. Before the advent of daily newspapers and national magazines, they were a common form of advertising. They came into their own in the 1800s, when the development of lithographic printing techniques made it possible to mass produce cards in color. They typically had an illustration on one side and a printed text on the other, and were included in containers of produce.

During the late 19th century, businesses in Western countries began issuing series of numbered cards with specific themes. They were intended to promote sales by encouraging people to acquire complete sets, if necessary by swapping duplicates with other collectors -- hence the generic term "trading cards." There were many variants, but of particular note were cards used to stiffen soft packets of cigarettes. These soon became known as "cigarette cards."

By the 1930s, card collecting was an international phenomenon, with hundreds of millions of cards being produced annually, in many countries. Special albums were often provided in which to store them. Rare examples now fetch millions of dollars at auction.

At first, trading cards were cheaply produced and carried simple messages. As their influence grew, however, they became more sophisticated. Some were printed on silk. There were even cigarette cards based on "real photographs." One set produced by Cavanders of London was entitled "Peeps Into Many Lands." Released in 1927 and 1928, these cards could be viewed through a stereoscope. The set included several scenes of colonial Burma.

Flags and celebrities

Cards found in packets of cigarettes, chewing gum and similar products were quite small (measuring about 37mm by 67mm). However, some cards, like the six making up a set about Rangoon (now Yangon) produced by the German chocolate manufacturer Gartmann in 1914, were much larger. In a few cases, they were the size of playing cards, as in a set of six about traditional Burma issued by the French meat extract company Liebig in 1909.

The subjects covered by trading cards varied widely. Many series were devoted to the celebrities of the day, such as sportsmen, actors and world leaders. Other popular sets depicted national flags, coats of arms, military medals, historical figures, ships, aircraft, animals and birds. British trading cards often covered aspects of the empire, such as "national races" and "typical" scenes of particular colonies.

As already noted, many cards made reference to Myanmar. For example, one large trade card produced by the Singer Manufacturing Company in 1892 depicted three Myanmar women, sitting around a sewing machine, a device that the card stated was introduced to Myanmar in 1874. Another trade card, issued around the same time by the Chicago coffee company W.F. McLaughlin, showed a Myanmar girl in formal court dress.

Several series of cigarette cards included illustrations of the crest of colonial Burma and of flags flown before and after its annexation by Britain. Others showed medals issued to British and Indian servicemen who had fought in the country. A series on colonial regiments portrayed a member of the Burma Rifles, while another, about colonial police forces, showed a Myanmar policeman in his distinctive uniform.

Such cards added to Myanmar's allure, but the most powerful impressions were created by cards purporting to show typical scenes and people. These included views of pagodas, "native villages" and national costumes. Portraits of girls were common, as were pictures specifically of Myanmar's ethnic minorities. Several companies, such as the New England Confectionary Company in 1930, issued cards featuring "giraffe-neck" Padaung women.

While most cards carried simple descriptions, some tried to educate collectors. Several gave brief histories of the country, such as those issued in 1910 by the German shoe polish maker Diamantine. Others described local industries. For example, in 1916 Will's Cigarettes produced a series on mining that included two cards about Myanmar's rubies. In 1938, the Typhoo Company put a card about the colony's teak forests in its packets of tea.

Another popular subject was Rangoon, the capital of colonial Burma, pictures of which were usually accompanied by brief descriptions of its main attractions. Almost all referred to the Shwedagon Pagoda. A Typhoo Tea card produced in 1933, for example, called Rangoon "The City of the Golden Pagoda." A card in the "Ports of the World" series, produced by the Mills cigarette company around 1959, described the city as "a strange blend of the ancient East and the modern West."

While many cards provided useful data, some were quite misleading. The 1892 Singer trade card mentioned above, for example, stated that the Burmese language was "similar to the Chinese." A "Burmese" girl portrayed in a series of cards about "Dancing Women," issued by the Kimball cigarette company in 1889, wears an Indian sari. A "typical" Burmese shown in the "Types of Nations" series issued by Recruit Cigars in 1910 was a bearded Sikh.

Dancing girls

Some depictions of colonial Burma were completely fanciful. For example, one card in the series "Dancing Girls of the World," also issued by Kimball in 1889, was entitled "Mandalay." Yet it showed a woman in a costume that would not be recognized in Myanmar. Similarly, a dancing girl at a '"Burmese" festival depicted by Duke's Cigarettes in 1890 wore a dress that owed more to an artist's imagination than to Myanmar tradition.

Inevitably, cards reflected the attitudes of the time. For example, a 1904 Players cigarette card depicted a Kachin "chieftain" with the caption: "As long as he has a well-thatched roof he is content." A Recruit Cigar Company card issued in 1910 stated that Burmese were "not good factory workers." A card produced by Major Drapkin in 1929 stated that Burmese girls "always look dainty and charming." A Churchman's cigarette card claimed in 1934 that the country was annexed because of "outrages" committed by its monarch.

During World War II, paper shortages curtailed the production of trading cards. However, in other ways it stimulated their use. In the early 1940s, for example, U.S. bubble gum manufacturers issued cards with themes such as "America at War" to encourage patriotism and help sell war bonds. They depicted scenes such as "Truck Convoy on the Burma Road" and "Ambush in Burma." In this way, they drew attention to the China-Burma-India theatre, the war's "forgotten front."

Taken together, these cards gave a distorted picture of colonial Burma and its people that strengthened the stereotypes already created in the public imagination by poems such as Kipling's "Mandalay" and other forms of popular culture that referred to the country. Trading cards were particularly potent vectors, however, as the images they conveyed were readily absorbed by impressionable children, who made up the vast bulk of serious collectors.

The last 25 years have seen a resurgence of interest in trading cards, but few modern examples refer to Myanmar. That said, the same romantic images are being peddled by the picture postcards currently on sale to tourists, and the increasing number of coffee table books being published. There are exceptions, when photographers have managed to look behind the attractive facade offered to foreign visitors, but in many ways these products follow the same pattern of myth-making set by trade and trading cards more than a century ago.

Andrew Selth is an adjunct associate professor at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University, and the Coral Bell School, Australian National University.

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