I recently came across some images from the 1930s that were advertising “giraffe-necked women.” Apparently in the 1930s there were Padaung women from Burma who were put on display at various circuses in Europe and America.
While these advertisements suggest that the Padaung women were a big attraction, there were people at the time who were upset about these advertisements.
In 1937 the Burmese Women’s League passed a resolution that condemned British newspapers for carrying advertisements for the Bertram Mills Circus that featured the Padaung women.
What upset the Burmese Women’s League was not what would upset many people today; that the Padaung women were being put on display like zoo animals, but that these advertisements referred to the Paduang as “Burmese.”
The members of the Burmese Women’s League felt that by referring to the Padaung as “Burmese,” British newspapers were lowering the prestige of Burmese women.
As a report about this in The Straits Times from Singapore stated, “Daw Mya Shwe, Inspectress of Schools, said that the Padaungs were mistaken for Burmese because they were hill tribes of Burma. Actually, however, they were a race apart and with the Kachins could not be called Burmese just as Red Indians were never called ‘Americans.’”
The article further noted that “Daw Ma Ma, honorary secretary to the Women’s League, said that Burma was quite up-to-date, her daughters being barristers, doctors, Government officers, municipal councillors and legislators and legislators. Nor were the Burmese girls behind the times in the matter of athletics.”
So Burmese women did not want to be associated with the Padaung, and were opposed to the way that advertisements for Bertram Mills Circus might lead people to think that the Paduang were actually “Burmese.”
Related to this, I also found a letter recently in the National Archives of Australia from 1941 which contained information about a regulation that the British Foreign Office had passed concerning circuses in Burma.
That regulation apparently made the following point:
“. . . all applications by theatrical and circus artists wishing to enter Burma should be summarily rejected, unless the applicants are in a position either to deposit on arrival or to obtain satisfactory local guarantees for sums sufficient to provide for their return journey, either to the country of origin, or to the country in which their application is made.”
I have no idea what had happened that led the Foreign Office to issue this new regulation, but my guess would be that circus troupes from various places had visited Burma and had then stayed there because they did not have the money to move on.
Colonial governments were not fond of having poor foreigners in their midst, and circus performers were perceived to be on the social margins, so poor foreign circus performers must have seemed like a particular threat to society.
Therefore, the colonial government in Burma and a Burmese women’s group shared something. They were both bothered in one way or another by circuses.
And while the way in which circuses bothered these two groups differed, the reason was the same. By the 1930s the members of both the colonial and colonized elite saw aspects of circuses as a threat to their way of life – the life of barristers, doctors, government officers and their athletic daughters.
This convergence in lifestyle and values is something that was common across Southeast Asia in the 1930s and early 1940s. After decades of colonial rule, there was much that the elite among the colonizers and colonized shared in this “late colonial” period.