Quiksilver on the Road to Mandalay
Quiksilver recently opened its first store in Myanmar and it chose the location well. Situated in Yangon on the east side of Inya Road, a secondary thoroughfare that separates the historical University of Yangon and its stately faculties with Kamaryut Township, a prosperous upmarket neighbourhood. The United States and German embassies are nearby, as is the University of Foreign Languages.
The University of Yangon has been a centre for civil discontent stretching back to British occupancy. Many anti-colonial agitators, such as Aung San, the honorific father of modern Myanmar and actual father of Aung San Suu Kyi, were alumni. Less than one kilometre east, along University Avenue Road lies the lakeside residence where Aung San Suu Kyi spent 15 years under house arrest. During her imprisonment Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the International Simon Bolivar Prize from Venezuela, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from the United States.
For 50 years, from 1962 to 2011, Myanmar was cut off from the outside world, yet this neighbourhood remained a touchpoint to the world community. And it's into this auspicious environment the Mountain and the Wave have made their latest foray.
"Our distribution partner is very positive with the outlook of Myanmar's economy and society," says Sammy Gosling, Quilsilver's South Asia Marketing Executive. "They have seen our brands blossom when they've travelled to Australia and they see potential for our brands in Myanmar. It feels like it's Bali twenty years ago."
Myanmar has nearly 2,000 kilometres of coastline stretching from the sheltered Andaman Sea to the Bay of Bengal. The coastal alignment, however, stops all but the very largest Indian Ocean groundswells - the same swells that strike Indonesia during winter - from making landfall in Myanmar. When those infrequent groundswells do occur they're greatly attenuated, weakened by refraction and a shallow continental shelf.
In May and June the monsoon batters the Myanmar coastline with relentless short period windswell. During these months even the sheltered Andaman Sea coast can have waves, albeit small, weak, and dirty too. The monsoon coincides with the coming of the wet season when Myanmar's great rivers swell and the mud from highland forests turns the ocean brown. While in the months before the wet season breaks Myanmar swelters under intense heat and stifling humidity.
Although improbable, surf cultures have taken root in less likely environments. The way it's taking shape – or more precisely, the way it's being given shape – here in Myanmar differs from other countries where surf cultures have been free to develop organically.
It's a familiar pattern: first comes the culture - the social assemblage of like-minded people – and then comes the commercialisation of the culture - the attendant industries to service that culture. Yet Quiksilver is reversing the arrangement in Myanmar: a surf industry is being created for a surf culture that doesn't yet exist. The success of this cultural cloudseeding hinges upon the economic growth of Myanmar.
It's easy to draw comparisons between Quiksilver's expansion into Myanmar and past ventures into non-surf countries. When surf companies opened in non-traditional countries - Billabong, for instance, in Russia, Italy and Germany – the move signified the strength of the company. Business commentators observed the robust health of said company as it sought further growth.
The same could be said of Quiksilver though its expansion into Myanmar is best viewed in a different light.
For 50 years Myanmar has been cut off from the outside world. It has been governed by one party operating with the backing of the military junta. Its population were repressed and democratic uprisings countered with violent force. In 2007 the government was ranked as the most corrupt in the world.
Two years ago the military began relinquishing control of the government and the tentacles of international commerce have slowly spread into Myanmar. Last year foreign investment was allowed and for the first time it engaged with the international business community. And just as modern economies use stock market indices such as the Dow Jones to reflect overall health, so too can the presence of Quiksilver be used as an index to reflect the health of the modern Myanmar economy.