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Colonial-era pulp fiction portrays 'technicolor' Myanmar

Ask foreign visitors to Myanmar what literary works they associate with the country and the chances are that most will cite Rudyard Kipling's iconic 1890 poem "Mandalay," or George Orwell's 1934 novel "Burmese Days." Yet, many other Western publications have helped shape Myanmar in the public imagination. These include children's stories, plays, travelogues and memoirs.

Colorful colonial-era pulp magazine covers highlight stories related to Myanmar, or Burma as it was then known (from the author’s collection)

Most of these works have painted a mental picture of Myanmar as a remote land of golden pagodas, gilded Buddhas and picturesque villages. The latter were invariably populated by demure "Burma girls"waiting for their European lovers. In Myanmar's steaming jungles, dacoits (or bandits) lurked among a menagerie of exotic wildlife, all waiting to attack anyone who crossed their paths.

Increasingly, scholars are examining how Western literature encouraged such perceptions and what attitudes flowed from them. One genre that is usually overlooked in this regard is pulp fiction. Particularly during the 1920s and 1930s, stories in popular magazines promoted an Orientalist view of Myanmar that emphasized its "otherness" and contributed to some fanciful notions about the country and its people.

The term "pulp fiction" comes from the cheap magazines published during the first half of the 20th century that were printed on low quality (pulp) paper. They had colorful covers, contained short stories and novelettes, and were aimed at a mass audience. At their peak, during the 1930s, there were over 150 separate titles, produced mainly in the United States. The most successful pulps sold hundreds of thousands of copies per issue.

At a time of rising literacy, and before televisions became common, these magazines were popular among boys and working-class men. Pulps exposed them to people, places and action of kinds they could never experience themselves. To quote one observer, the "mix of fantasy, horror, mystery and suspense, punctuated by episodes of torture, sadism, sex and other risque elements" offered them an escape from their everyday lives.

Most authors were hacks, but some well-known writers contributed to the pulps, attracted by the quick payment for copy and their fast turn-around (usually issued monthly or quarterly). To a surprising extent, they made reference to Burma (as Myanmar was then known). An early example was a short story entitled "The Road Home" by the famed suspense writer Dashiell Hammett, which appeared in the mystery magazine The Black Mask in 1922.

A few authors claimed a personal knowledge of Myanmar. For example, S.B.H. Hurst lived in British India for four years. His works included "The Devil of the Chin Hills" (Frontier Stories, 1928), "The Spirit of France" (Adventure Trails, 1929), in which a Muslim rebellion breaks out in Mergui, and "The Ball of Fire" (Oriental Stories, 1931), about a search for "the greatest ruby in the world."

Another old Myanmar hand was Gordon MacCreagh, who had hunted big game there. He wrote "The Jade Hunters" (Adventure, 1912) and "The Getting of Boh Na-Ghee" (Adventure, 1913). In the first story, three Europeans venture into northern Shan State looking for jade and are attacked by Wa tribesmen. These "savages" are described as wearing the shrunken heads of their enemies on their belts.

In 1931, an amateur Asianist named Otis Adelbert Kline wrote a six-part serial for the magazine Weird Tales entitled "Tam, Son of the Tiger." With nods to both Kipling and Edgar Rice Burroughs, it is about a boy who is abducted by a tiger and raised by a monk. He later rescues a princess from a kingdom of giant, dinosaur-riding, four-armed creatures living beneath Myanmar, which is out to enslave the surface world.

Other authors who wrote about Myanmar include C.M. Cross, W.H. Miller and J.S. Fletcher. Their stories tended to focus on tiger hunts, lost rubies or battles with hostile "natives." In 1942, Edmond Hamilton wrote a science-fiction novelette for Fantastic Adventures entitled the "Lost City of Burma," in which an American and a Japanese vie to discover the "Flame of Life" in the jungle.

Myanmar also provided a setting for bizarre flora and fauna. In "Up Irrawaddy Way" (Weird Tales, 1929), Hugh Rankin described giant man-eating plants and flesh-consuming fungi. "Midnight Fangs" by Arthur Zagat (Dime Mystery Magazine, 1924) refers to Myanmar's "tiger-women." Otis Kline collaborated with E. Hoffman Price to write "Spotted Satan" (Weird Tales, 1940), a story about a wereleopard, which preyed on teak workers.

Some stories tried to convey a more realistic picture, by including descriptions of Myanmar's topography and inhabitants. For example, E.H. Price's "Burma Guns" (Thrilling Adventures, 1940) displayed considerable local knowledge. A few stories even included short passages in the Myanmar language, or used colloquial terms commonly employed by the British colonialists.

Broadly speaking, however, the stories found in pulps portrayed a grossly distorted picture of Myanmar to their legions of readers.

Hard times

During World War II, a shortage of paper and rising prices hit the pulp magazine industry hard. At the same time, it faced growing competition from comic books and cheap paperbacks. There was also an increasing demand for magazines known as "glossies" or "slicks." These were printed on higher quality paper, utilized more advanced production techniques, and carried more illustrations.

Myanmar occasionally appeared in these magazines, usually in sensationalist terms. For example, Tod Jones' story "Burmese Blood Bath" (Cavalcade, 1952) was based on historical fact but was introduced by the line, "In the heyday of its past, under power-mad rulers, Burma was a land to avoid - if you wanted to keep your head." A story about leeches, published in Man's Conquest in 1957, was entitled "Flesh-feast for the beasts of Burma."

By the 1960s, the market for traditional pulp magazines had almost disappeared, replaced by a variety of illustrated publications designed exclusively for men. These ranged from "girlie" magazines, the covers of which depicted anatomically improbable women in various stages of distress (and undress), to the so-called "sweats," which emphasized adventure stories and "true life" reports. Myanmar was also mentioned in these magazines, but in a very narrow context.

For example, several short stories claimed to describe encounters between Allied soldiers and women in Myanmar during World War II. Typical were "Yankee King of Burma's Fox-Hole Girl Army" (Action Life, 1963), "Yank Who Led Burma's Nude Nymph Commandos" (For Men Only, 1964) and "King of a Burma Paradise" (True Adventures, 1965). In 1969, True Action magazine carried a story entitled "He Lived With the Devil Love Worshippers of North Burma."

As the titles of these stories suggest, the physical setting was often less important than their content.

Some stories in the later pulps were represented as straight journalism, but were still written to shock audiences. For example, "Concubine Exchange in Rangoon" (Man to Man, 1961) was about the trafficking of young Myanmar women to regional countries for forced marriages. However, the author presented the practice primarily as a device for businessmen to send funds out of the country, thus evading local currency regulations.

The market for all these magazines was overwhelmingly male. Typically, women were depicted in sexist, even misogynistic, terms. The illustrations were designed to titillate men and often bore little relation to the text. For example, "The Snake-Killer Raiders of the Burma Border" (Real Men, 1966), about Chinese communist incursions into Myanmar, was advertised by a picture of a half-naked European woman tied to a post and being attacked by cobras.

Myanmar women were portrayed variously as innocent maidens, action-oriented "temple-dancing guerrilla girls," or temptresses out to seduce vulnerable white men, as in "Lost Village in the Burma Jungle" (Exotic Adventures, 1958). All were depicted as alluring and mysterious. In these circumstances, it is not surprising that the "mistress of Oriental Crime," in "The Octopus of Hong Kong" (Argosy, 1934), was named "Lotus Burma."

Pulp magazines were also racist, with non-white peoples treated dismissively, or worse. The early Myanmar stories often used terms unacceptable today to refer to people with dark-colored skin or Oriental features. Some compared the "natives" to animals. This attitude extended to members of other religions. A key aspect of S.B.H. Hurst's story "The Spirit of France," for example, was the outrage felt by British and French men over "a white girl dancing for Mohammedans and Chinamen."

Just for fun?

It was not expected that the contents of pulp fiction magazines would be taken seriously. For the most part, they offered fantasies, including in depictions of Myanmar and its population which went well beyond the bounds of common sense, not to mention good taste. However, by emphasizing the exotic and the shocking, these stories and novelettes helped to create potent images of the country in the minds of young and impressionable readers.

The most enduring mental pictures of a country are formed not from a single source, but from the combination of many, often subtle, influences, accumulated over time. The perceptions of Myanmar formed last century derived in part from popular literature. This category must include pulp magazines. For, despite their questionable status, they were rich social documents which portrayed Myanmar in ways that were bound to have an impact on the public imagination.

Andrew Selth is adjunct associate professor at Griffith University and the Australian National University.

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