Jul 5, 2011

Thriving jade industry at the heart of Mandalay

Every day thousands of workers, merchants and businesspeople descend on Mandalay’s gem trading centre in Mahaaungmyay township to earn their living from one of the nation’s most lucrative exports.

Built in February 2000, the centre’s compound draws up to 50,000 people a day, mostly to talk, trade and work the country’s finest jade. The centre was set up by Mandalay City Development Committee (MCDC), which collects a monthly maintenance fee of K2500 from shop owners and a US$1 admission fee from foreigners. According to MCDC, about 70 foreigners – mostly Chinese nationals – visit the centre each day, although that rises to 100 or more prior to the state-run gem emporiums.

The centre includes almost 1120 shops or stalls and includes a servicing committee to assist traders, buyers and visitors. The committee was formed in 2001 and has 15 voluntary members.

“We work voluntarily as committee members part time and are not paid. We formed the committee to help traders to resolve problems and facilitate trading. We also make sure that the centre is regularly cleaned and maintained,” said the committee’s secretary of six years, U Kyaw Myint, 50.

“Some of the traders give us money to fund our activities,” said U Kyaw Myint, who also works as a broker.

“When the centre opened it was relatively quiet but in 2004 it started to heat up and began attracting lots of brokers and workers,” he said.

“The centre is good for gem brokers and traders, and means they can work officially in a safe place. A lot of people in Mandalay depend on this centre,” U Kyaw Myint added.

The centre is split into sections that handle jade in various stages of preparation: One zone handles uncut stones; another displays cut stones; and another is finished pieces.

The raw jade blocks are trucked to the centre from mines in Kachin or Shan states.

Everywhere brokers mill around with bags in hand, checking stones, chewing betel nut and chatting on mobile telephones.

“This business is hard. We make good profits dealing in jade but sometimes we have a bad run and lose money two or three deals in a row,” said 34-year-old Ko Saw Min Tun.

“Everything depends on the stones we choose to buy. There are no masters in our field – everybody relies on their eyes and judgement to choose good stones,” he said.

Another jade broker, who didn’t want to be named, said: “We buy uncut stones and send them to cutting and polishing shops so we can resell them. Getting the work done takes about a week.

“Sometimes we work in a group to pool our resources together to buy a particularly good piece and then split the proceeds when it’s finished,” he said.

Broker Ko Min Min, 28, said it was common for that the less affluent dealers cooperate to earn money.

“I can’t afford to buy stones by myself and I’m not confident enough in my knowledge yet to buy uncut stones, so I share the cost and risk with friends,” Ko Min Min said.

“I’ve worked in this compound for 10 years and I’m doing fine. Jade trading has been a reliable job for me and I’m not really interested in doing anything else,” he said.

Working alongside the traders and brokers is an army of jade cutters, polishers and finishers who turn the uncut stones into polished beauties.

“I have worked as a jade polisher since I finished high school. I’ve been doing the job for about seven years, although the first five years were just learning the trade,” said 22-year-old Ko Tun Min Latt.

“I like my job because I work with friends and I think I’m good at it. Normally we charge K500 for polishing a small stone but we earn more if it’s a really good stone. I usually earn at least K5000 a day, which I think is pretty good,” Ko Tun Min Latt said.

“There are so many people here doing different things but most people are quite honest because if you get a bad name here it doesn’t take long for word to spread. Dealers must keep their dignity and be honest to succeed,” said Ko Fatty, a jade cutter.

“If someone breaks the rules or is dishonest, they will only lose later.

“Everyone can get rich in this field if they work honestly. I’ve met at least 20 people who have gotten very rich through trading and all of them came from the countryside with only a small amount of money in their pocket,” he said.

“I worked as a jade cutter for many years and while I don’t make as much money as the brokers, I’m happy because it’s a steady income.”

Source: Myanmar Times