Cover Photos and paraphernalia of founder Nelson Htoo's childhood in Yangon line the walls of Club Rangoon (Photo: Amanda Kho/Club Rangoon)

As Hong Kong's only Burmese restaurant, Club Rangoon found itself in a balancing act as a military coup turned life in Myanmar upside down overnight

Walk into Club Rangoon's Aberdeen Street space on any recent day and nothing would seem amiss—smartly dressed creatives are brunching and chatting with unfettered abandon, upbeat funk mixed with Burmese pop blares over the speakers, and just out the back entrance on the steps of Mee Lun Street, residents from the neighbourhood are gathered alfresco with coffee and craft beers in hand.

But there's a white elephant in the room: a feeling that something much larger and entirely more consequential is happening beyond the restaurant's four walls; a feeling that will be uncomfortably familiar to every person who found themselves in Hong Kong throughout 2019. This time though, the source of the unease is in Myanmar, 2,000 kilometres away.

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"It was surreal to wake up to the news on the 1st of February," says Nelson Htoo, the founder of Club Rangoon, recalling the day Myanmar's military junta seized power and declared a year-long state of emergency in a bid to overturn the results of a nationwide democratic election. "There was a communal feeling of shock, frustration, and uncertainty—feelings that were all too familiar for most Burmese people.”

In the two intervening months of political and civil unrest, the situation has deteriorated beyond the pale: widespread resistance across the Southeast Asian country that took the form of general strikes and street protests were met by the military government, at first with the imposition of curfews and internet blackouts, and later, by lethal force as soldiers began opening fire on protestors.

Htoo, like many young Burmese, has been glued to social media for real-time updates and to share news of the mounting human rights violations. Yet unlike many of his peers, he has lived half of his life abroad—first in Singapore for schooling, and later in Hong Kong, where he now owns and operates the city's only Burmese restaurant. Offering little-known Burmese classics that Htoo grew up with in Yangon—such as laphet thoke fermented tea leaf salad and mohinga, a rice noodle dish in catfish broth widely considered Myanmar's national dish—Club Rangoon often serves as the first physical encounter many Hongkongers have with Burmese food and culture during normal times.

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The authenticity of the food is important to Htoo in representing Myanmar. "Even within Asia itself, it’s harder to find Burmese food around compared to other Southeast Asian cuisines; Myanmar has often lacked representation across the world and across different industries."

In times such as these, however, the restaurant finds itself in the uneasy space between balancing politics and staying open for business as usual. For the most part the restaurant has operated as normal, with Htoo remaining aware of the desire of diners to come to Club Rangoon as a form of escapism. At the same time, he has also implemented avenues for those interested in learning more about the movement in Myanmar, most notably in the restaurant's 'Order for Peace' menu.

Although identical in design to the a-la-carte menu, it replaces the usual dish names and descriptions with a recounting of major events that have transpired so far, as well as ways in which people can contribute—from signing a petition on the back of the menu, to ordering the mohinga, from which 10 percent of sales will be donated to grassroots organisations in support of the movement. 

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"It’s been heartbreaking to see how everything has been unfolding, to see such brutal and violent crackdowns persist against civilians. As someone with the privilege to be living abroad, we have a responsibility to make even more noise for those on the frontlines who are courageously and peacefully fighting for justice knowing that their lives are at stake," says Htoo of his intent.

The situation in Myanmar remains dire, with a restaurant industry already laid low by the coronavirus dealt another blow by street violence and workers' strikes. Despite this, food vendors have offered free food to protestors, alongside civilians who have cooked or bought food in bulk to pass out to those on the frontline. In the midst of the turmoil, restaurants and food businesses have functioned at times as community kitchens, stores of supplies, and even shelters, highlighting their crucial role in the infrastructure of the civil disobedience movement.

To Htoo, this is just a natural expression of Myanmar's culture of sharing and community in the face of adversity, where communal feasting and food exchanges are features of daily life. "Food is essential for nourishment, for strength, for survival—it’s sustenance. At the core of the civil disobedience movement is mutual aid, where we rely on one another and on the community with these acts of cooking, sharing, and distributing during a revolution."