She tells Tatler how she’s bringing flavours of Myanmar to Hong Kong with “culture-forward” cocktails

Myanmar isn’t known for its bar culture. How did you get your start in the business?

In April 2010, I joined the food and beverage industry out of pure curiosity. I studied at the Myanmar International Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management in Yangon. After my studies, I moved to Dubai where I worked as a waitress in the lobby of the Grosvenor House Luxury Collection Hotels by Marriott. During busy periods, I would help out in other venues within the hotel, and saw bartenders making hundreds of cocktails and engaging with guests like old friends. I saw what I wanted to do and how my personality would fit in such a role. Sometimes, being a bartender is like being an entertainer: we entertain the guest with our passion. [Bartending] has transformed me into a confident woman who knows what she loves and loves what she does.

You have worked in Macau, Dubai, Myanmar and now Hong Kong. How are all the bar scenes similar and how are they different?

They are all unique. Dubai is more focused on hospitality, high-quality service, and food and beverage offerings, and this is thanks to the talented bartenders from all over the world who move to the Middle East for a new experience. The Hong Kong bar scene focuses more on trends, techniques and the skill of the bartenders. Consumers are much more sophisticated here. Myanmar is very different due to its turbulent political history. Nightlife was non-existent until recently, and alcohol consumers were almost always men. Women are legally allowed to drink, but it was always considered taboo. Now, I am happy to see that perceptions around alcohol are evolving, further elevating our local cocktail culture. Young bartenders can experience the thrill of bartending, hone their craft and eventually showcase their mixology on an international stage.

What was it about Hong Kong that drew you here?

I arrived in November 2021. Although I came during very tough times, Hong Kong has always been my dream city. I had difficulty applying for a visa, finding a flight and getting a hotel during this hectic period. It was extremely challenging, but these moments made me even more determined to fight for what I wanted, which was to be in a city where I could learn from an amazing community of talented bartenders.

How did the opportunity at Club Rangoon come about?

Last year, [founder] Nelson Htoo reached out to ask if I was interested in the role. I was excited to move to Hong Kong, but I also felt somewhat responsible to be a voice for my country and represent my culture through mixology. There is a greater purpose to everything I do now.

What can you tell us about Club Rangoon’s new cocktail menu, The Poetics of the Pantry?

Joining Club Rangoon gave me the perfect opportunity to share Burmese traditions and culture with the world. I’ve always wanted to create culture-forward cocktails, with each sip being a momentary window into my homeland. The name is a riff on a book called The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard. The book explores the potential of space to evoke memories and emotions. The menu incorporates quintessential Burmese ingredients and positions the pantry as a space of collective experience and memory. 

Each cocktail has a unique experience, inspiration and personality. The three signatures are: Ma-Gyi-Thee, which highlights tamarind, one of the most cherished ingredients in Burmese cooking, making this a unique sweet and sour drink; 3pm in Rangoon pays tribute to Myanmar’s inimitable tea culture through the use of chai spices, tea liqueur and a milk skin garnish; 19th Street is named after the street where the [open- air] Bago Market is located, and is inspired by the flavours and scents of the streetside vendors. It makes use of local produce with the addition of charcoal-smoked cauliflower syrup.

Why is highlighting Burmese women and what they cook so important for you?

Burmese women are the strongest group of people I know. We go above and beyond, and we are more than what society makes of us. I want to highlight the idea of reinventing what society has instilled in us through my drinks.

What do you wish people knew about Burmese food and drink?

Many dishes are inspired by food from India, Thailand and China, but we also have our own unique and authentic way of cooking based on three main pillars of flavour: chin-ngan-sat, which translates to sour-salty-spicy. I would love for everyone to try Burmese cuisine and discover how diverse and varied it is, and get to know how similar—and dissimilar—it is to other Asian cuisines.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as a woman in the industry?

I was told that I wouldn’t be a good leader; that I wasn’t good at what I do; that I didn’t have what it takes— because I have a strong personality and because I am a woman. But I’ve proved people wrong by trusting my gut. Today, I thank those who didn’t believe in me. Because of them, I am stronger.

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Affa Chan

Tatler Asia
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