Traditional papier mâché cow toys seen as last hope for saving a traditional Myanmar folk art


A child gazing at cow toys.
A child gazing at cow toys.

While demand for some traditional animal papier mâché toys is falling fast, papier mâché cows are still handily beating out imported plastic toys and stuffed animals at pagoda festivals.
“As long as farmers and children exist in Myanmar, our cow toys can dominate other imported toys,” says U Kyin Soe, a papier mâché toy maker, “because farmers use oxen and cows and their children are familiar with them.”
He learnt the art of making papier mâché toys at the age of 9 and toured around pagoda festivals along with his art master to sell their home-made toys.
The 60-year old papier mâché artisan rejected the recent report in a weekly-journal that the Burmese folk art of papier mâché is facing extinction because the toy market in Myanmar is increasingly dominated by imported plastic toys and stuffed animals.
Myanmar’s papier mâché toy artisans, including U Kyin Soe, who consider the demand for papier mâché toys at pagoda festivals as a reliable barometer for the future of the traditional folk art have seen a decrease in demand for papier mâché animals, but not cows, at the festivals.
Some traditional toys such as jockeys, dolls, nurses, zawgyi alchemists with supernatural powers, zebras, dogs, and elephants have even disappeared from the markets.

 U Kyin Soe paints small-sized cow toys to supply to his customer who place an order for 200 toys from him.
U Kyin Soe paints small-sized cow toys to supply to his customer who place an order for 200 toys from him.

But the papier mâché cows are in greater than ever at pagoda festivals that attract mostly people from rural areas, said U Kyin Soe as he worked his wonder with waste paper from a weekly journal and home-made glue to transform a wooden cow into a work of traditional art.
The artisans now generally make their papier mâché toys with used paper from weekly journals because it is easier to find that raw material than paper cement bags, which have also been used.
U Kyin Soe still clearly remembers that a member of the Pagoda Board of Trustees of Kyaik-khauk Pagoda about 4 miles east of Yangon telling him about a decade ago that the pagoda festival had turned into a festival of cow toys due to the high demand for the toys at the festival.
And demand for cow toys at the shops at the famed Shwedagon Pagoda remains as high as ever, said U Kyin Soe who supplied his art works to the shops there before he moved to Bago, about 50 miles north-east of Yangon.
The traditional cow toys attract not only local children but also children from diplomatic schools and others in Yangon.
U Kyin Soe was invited even by a diplomatic school in Yangon to entertain the school children and after the show the headmaster hired him to teach making papier mâché cows to the children for 15 days
Now settled at Bago’s Hinthagon Pagoda, which attracts both local and foreign visitors, the hand-made toy art master has been delivering his products to several toy shops near the pagoda and to customers who order custom-made toys directly from him.
“I have to store cow toys from U Kyin Soe during the rainy season to sell them to visitors in the opening season because the demand is high then,” said U Maung Hla, who has opened a souvenir shop near the Hinthagon Pagoda and is one of the main customers of U Kyin Soe.
Children from rural areas prefer the cow toys to other toys, but children from the cities are not quite as enamoured with them, he added.
But U Kyin Soe doesn’t mind the varied tastes.
“I challenge foreign-made toys. Cow toys continue to keep beating them in Myanmar because majority of our country’s population are farmers,” said U Kyin Soe with confidence.

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