The Book

A Serendipitous Meeting with His Royal Highness Sao Oo Kya

Back in Hsipaw we resumed our search for the ruins of the old palace. This time following the instructions of the boatman, we came to a narrow lane that ended abruptly at an imposing iron gate and a high brick wall that protected what looked to be a large compound with a stately mansion in the middle. This grand residence, most probably occupied, certainly was not the site of the ruins of an old palace. The guidebook I had brought along mentioned no such large building. Finding the gate unlocked, Aung Aung went on a scouting mission, from which he returned with an invitation from the owner, who welcomed us most politely and cordially in impeccable British-accented English. Sao Oo Kya was his name, and he was the Prince of Hsipaw and owner of this stately Victorian mansion on the Dokhtawady River. Although he is still regarded as the prince by many people in and around Hsipaw, strictly speaking he is just an ordinary citizen because his predecessor relinquished all hereditary rights and privileges. But the compound we had just entered was no ordinary home. It was the new palace (or Grand Haw as it is called in Shan State) of the royal family of Hsipaw. That the former princes have fallen on hard times after their land and concessions were expropriated by the Ne Win government was obvious from the present state of the mansion; it was in urgent need of repairs and fresh paint.

In his book Lords of the Sunset, Maurice Collis described his visit to the palace in 1937. He was to have lunch with the then-Sawbwa of Hsipaw, Sao On Kya, whom he called the richest and most cosmopolitan of all the sawbwa in Shan State.

I presently saw what is not to be seen in Burma, namely a Haw. It was the old palace, which the Sawbwa does not use except on ceremonial occasions. Members of the family live there, but the Sawbwa himself resides in the Grand Haw close by, at the gate of which we now arrived. The guard turned out smartly and saluted as we drove into the garden, which was laid out with lawns and flower beds, arbours, and a hard tennis court. The palace itself was wholly in keeping with its setting, being in the style of a fair-sized English country house. On the steps of the hall door was the Sawbwa's private secretary, of Chinese appearance and dressed in the usual Shan costume of loose trousers and Manchu jacket. As we got out, he shook hands with us and ushered us into the hall, where the Sawbwa was standing, a small man of about forty-five dressed in a similar Shan costume. His welcome was very warm and wholly in the best English manner. He conducted us to the drawing room.

Sao On Kya was an Oxford-educated man who died shortly after the visit by Maurice Collis. The old palace was destroyed during World War II, but the new Grand Haw survived intact. It would become the home of his successor, Sao Kya Seng, who had married a foreign woman. Her entry into her new home is related in her book Twilight over Burma.

The vast audience hall was divided by slender pillars into three distinct sections, and each area was given its own character. She had settled down in the east section with a tall oversized bay window and contemporary European sitting room furniture. Soft sunlight flooded through the lace curtains and was reflected in two enormous silver bowls decorating pedestals on either side of the french doors, which opened onto the marble terrace. The middle section set an example in simplicity and served as a reception area for Shan visitors, who traditionally sat on the floor. A thick Chinese silk carpet covered the entire area. The only piece of furniture, a low platform sofa, stood across from the large fireplace. The third section on the west side had at some time housed a large book collection, judging from rows of empty teak shelves, cabinets, and intricately carved small tables. Heavy curtains over the large windows and over a second terrace door lent an air of privacy and formality.

As they entered the exquisitely furnished dining room, the butler, Kawlin, again struck the huge dinner gong, which was held by two tall carved elephants. She could not remember ever having seen table and chairs of such beautiful mahogany; their gracefully curved legs lent lightness to the long, glossy table.

Their dinner service, of course, included sparkling china and polished silver, and they had guards, drivers, maids, a cook, a butler, and a private secretary. They arranged to have picnics in the hills, tennis tournaments in the garden, and large dinner parties at the palace. But those days of comfort, splendor, and luxury are long gone. The present prince lives a very different lifestyle, as we saw when we were invited into the Haw.

We entered through the large but empty hallway, passed a grand staircase that probably led to the private quarters on the second floor, and were shown into the sparsely furnished drawing room. It had only a few armchairs and side tables and some pictures hung on the walls, but otherwise, little else adorned the room, not even draperies.

I asked the prince about an old red tractor I had seen next to the entrance, which he had been working on when we arrived. It turned out to be his most prized possession. The military had expropriated it in the early 1960s, but returned it to him only recently, and only after he had taken a much revered 105-year-old monk from Shan State to Yangon where some of the generals, among them the minister of agriculture, had been eager to accumulate more (religious) merits by meeting with this particular abbott. The minister then expressed his gratitude to the prince by returning the 1957 Massey Ferguson tractor.

Our conversation was interrupted by the entrance of his wife, Sao Sarm Hpong, the mahadevi and daughter of a neighboring sawbwa. She wore a simple but tasteful Western dress and was as pleasant and dignified as her husband. The couple has many foreign friends who visit them regularly, some of whom are ambassadors in Yangon. In honor of these friends, they used to organize elaborate boat tours up the Dokhtawady River to some remote places in the hills; however, the military put an end to such trips. And although they were careful to avoid commenting on politics and history, it was evident that their relationship with the military junta is a particularly difficult one.

After we had looked at some photo albums, sipped some Shan tea, signed the guest book, and made an appropriate donation for the renovation of the Grand Haw, the prince accompanied us to the door, asking me along the way to call him and his wife by their Western names, Donald and Fern. He held my hand with both hands, looked into my eyes, and told me how much he had enjoyed my visit and that I would be welcome at the Haw anytime.

Because the House of Hsipaw was one of the more important and influential royal families among the thirty or so royal Shan families, I will make a digression here to examine the history of this royal house and explore the issue of what happened to the last Sawbwa of Hsipaw.


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