Back to Mandalay

Joseph Woods

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“On The Road to Mandalay”. Illustrator: FX Leyendecker

Rudyard Kipling visited Burma only once, and for just a few nights at that. En route to England from Calcutta, where he’d finished working for a newspaper in 1889, he was twenty-three. In Rangoon for a day, he visited the Shwedagon Pagoda and stayed at the racially exclusive Pegu Club, now a fenced-off and ruinous teak building. Further south, down the coast, was an unscheduled stop by steamer at Moulmein (Mawlamyine), from where the first lines of “Mandalay” would emanate, finding their way into print the following year:

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ eastward to the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thin

“On The Road to Mandalay”. Illustrator: FX Leyendecker

Rudyard Kipling visited Burma only once, and for just a few nights at that. En route to England from Calcutta, where he’d finished working for a newspaper in 1889, he was twenty-three. In Rangoon for a day, he visited the Shwedagon Pagoda and stayed at the racially exclusive Pegu Club, now a fenced-off and ruinous teak building. Further south, down the coast, was an unscheduled stop by steamer at Moulmein (Mawlamyine), from where the first lines of “Mandalay” would emanate, finding their way into print the following year:

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ eastward to the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
‘Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!’
     Come you back to Mandalay,
    Where the old Flotilla lay:
    Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from
    Rangoon to Mandalay?

    On the road to Mandalay,
    Where the flyin’-fishes play,
    An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer
    China ‘crost the Bay!

The poem had a profound effect on the Western imagination, and Andrew Selth charts its “riff” and examines its legacy and influence in Western music, popular song, hymns, sea shanties and film soundtracks. The book is specialist and scholarly, loaded with references, but is an original and unique take on a country through its mostly “outsider” music.

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ks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
‘Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!’
     Come you back to Mandalay,
    Where the old Flotilla lay:
    Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from
    Rangoon to Mandalay?

    On the road to Mandalay,
    Where the flyin’-fishes play,
    An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer
    China ‘crost the Bay!

The poem had a profound effect on the Western imagination, and Andrew Selth charts its “riff” and examines its legacy and influence in Western music, popular song, hymns, sea shanties and film soundtracks. The book is specialist and scholarly, loaded with references, but is an original and unique take on a country through its mostly “outsider” music.

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“Mandalay” the poem has always owed as much to song and ballad, achieved through the right blend of sentimental longing and eastern clichés or “signifiers”, from the pliant girl to temple bells and palm trees and of course the colonial stance, as befits the “unofficial Poet Laureate of Colonialism”. The poem came to conjure up the East or the Far East for Westerners, and for those who had a notion of geography, it came to conjure up Burma.

Kipling never got to Mandalay, but could claim to be “on the road to Mandalay”, proving that, for the poet, it’s not the destination but the “road” that’s important. Kipling had planted his flag in a poetic sense, after a few days in the country and with a poem that would carry him into posterity; such are the vicissitudes of history, in which bad poetry can characterise an age.

Selth’s opening scene-setting chapter shows an astonishing grasp of the history and culture of Burma. Rounding up the various early Western art forms that drew inspiration from the East since Wordsworth’s “gorgeous East”, he homes in on the imperial century, 1814-1914, in which Britain began to be interested in Burma. Despite the three wars it took to conquer Burma, it was still considered by the British to be an uneventful backwater and often confused with India, which, under colonial rule, it was part of until 1937. George Orwell, writing in 1944, could confidently state that the British public knew nothing of Burma and cared less.

In the climate that predated the composition of “Mandalay”, songs and tunes, we’re reminded, were powerful cultural vectors shaping attitudes to domestic developments but also perceptions of foreign places and events. Music halls were in their heyday, and Selth lists 180 musical works with Burma-related themes in addition to hymns composed in and about Burma by early Christian missionaries. These hymns were said to inspire the preachers more than those preached to. Burma appears as “dark benighted” or “the barb’rous nation”, and a hymn composed by Thomas Baldwin in 1818, optimistically posits:

Burmans bow and own the Lord;
Gaudma leaving,
God alone shall be ador’d.

Gaudma or Buddha was not for leaving, and conversions were few, since for devout Buddhist worshippers the very idea of singing was sinful, breaking one of the ten Theravada Buddhist precepts. In contrast, the Karen people, who loved song, converted to Christian faiths in their droves along with — after the fall of Mandalay — the Chin, Kachin and Shan peoples.

During this period there was of course secular music, which came with the occupying forces; regimental songs etc, which would have been known to Kipling. A surprise to this reader was the number of Irish songs sung by the various regiments, from “The Revel” to “St Patrick’s Day”, played on the arrival of the British fleet during the Second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852. “Garryowen”, a drinking song, was the signature tune of the 18th Royal Irish Regiment of Foot. The song surfaced again during the Vietnam War when sung by soldiers of the United States First Calvary.

Selth takes the composition of “Mandalay” in 1890 as the critical turning point in his study. The poem was printed at the beginning of the “Buddhism-steeped Nineties”, and Kipling was gifted with the euphonious place name, Mandalay. Like Samarkand, Babylon or Timbuktu, it conjured a semi-mythical place or city. In the period of Kipling’s composition, it was within a few years of the fall of Mandalay (1885) and the arrest and exile of the royal family and the annexation of Upper Burma the following year. Its “lilting syllables” were already redolent of something lost and lamented, which tugged at the heartstrings of Burmese and Westerners alike. When Mandalay fell, it was not yet thirty years old as a city, and when the military regime changed the names of other cities and even the country, Mandalay was left unchanged.

Orwell is regularly cited throughout, but he remained ambivalent and in two minds (Selth sides with his positive comments) as to Kipling’s achievement, calling him a “good bad poet” and “his verse a byword for badness”. He regarded “Mandalay” as “worse than a jingle”, but, grudgingly, it “stays by one”. More damningly, on Kipling’s death, Orwell wrote that, had he not come under the influence of “offensive imperialism”, he might have been a writer of music-hall songs, even “a better more lovable writer”.

“Mandalay” spawned endless copies in song, especially from Tin Pan Alley on, and in many cases led to direct or partial plagiarism. Selth captures and assesses them all. Just as Kipling’s geography was misplaced, so are the many derived and derivative “Mandalays”, with claims in song being made for it to be a “country”, “a Land of Love”, “an island”, “a coastal city” and even under a “desert moon and caravan[s]”. Mandalay might be in the dry zone, but a desert it is not. A song about a “Hindu moon” above Mandalay is simply wrong, and yet by a curious collision of circumstance, one theory of the city’s name is that it’s derived from Mindara, a mountain in Hindu mythology.

Edward Said’s work is acknowledged early on, and one suspects he would have had a field day with Selth’s song harvesting and the versions and vagueness of the “Easts” they proclaimed.

Maurice Collis, the finest late-colonial chronicler of Burma, is called upon for his observations on club life in Burma and clubs as places for the appreciation of Western music and visiting performers. As a musical aside, Collis and his family lived in a horribly haunted deputy commissioner’s house in Mergui (Myeik) in the early 1930s. Collis would sometimes take his family on his work tours of the archipelago, leaving his butler to move into the house as watchman. The butler was so terrified of the hauntings, he would play hymns on the gramophone during the dark hours.

Selth’s musical survey encompasses recent developments up to the past few years; it amounts to a comprehensive discography and an invaluable and ingenious portal to discovering versions, interpretations and misconceptions of Burma. He cites a more recent Western response to a Burmese situation, in this case, the incarceration of Aung San Suu Kyi and U2’s song “Walk On”, which corralled a powerful sentiment and response to her incarnation in the West. In contemporary Myanmar, however, this song — not helped by its banning — would largely be unknown. Instead, young Burmese prefer karaoke and “copy thachin”, homegrown “copy songs” in which Burmese lyrics are put to popular pirated pop songs. It’s another interesting “borrowing”, and this time Myanmar is borrowing from both the East and the West.

This story appears in the latest issue of Mekong Review. Please tap here to subscribe

Burma, Kipling and Western Music; The Riff from Mandalay
Andrew Selth
Routledge: 2017

Joseph Woods is a poet who has lived in Myanmar and is writing a book on Maurice Collis.
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