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Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox
Dr. Tin Myaing Thein


Original air date: Tues., Jan. 22, 2013


Part 1 Different Shores


Leslie Wilcox talks with Dr. Tin Myaing Thein, women’s advocate, community organizer and executive director of the Pacific Gateway Center. When Dr. Thein was an infant, her family evaded Japanese armies that were occupying Burma (now Myanmar) during World War II. In the first of two episodes, Dr. Thein recalls idyllic, post-war life in the Burmese town of Kalaw and how she made her way to Hawaii.


Download: Tin Myaing Thein, Different Shores Transcript



Original air date: Tues., Jan. 29, 2013


Part 2 Forthright and Strong


Leslie Wilcox continues her conversation with Dr. Tin Myaing Thein, women’s advocate and community organizer. In the second of two episodes, Dr. Thein talks about meeting her future husband, Jack Reynolds, and fellow Burmese activist Ang Sun Suu Kyi. She also describes her current passion: assisting low-income residents, immigrants and refugees at the Pacific Gateway Center.


Download: Tin Myaing Thein , Forthright and Strong Transcript




Part 1: Different Shores


I think back and say, Wow, I really came to America, alone, on a plane, and not knowing anybody. Where did I have the guts do that?


Women’s advocate, community organizer, and executive director of the Pacific Gateway Center, Dr. Tin Myaing Thein came from a homeland ruled by military force to a new home in America; next, on Long Story Short.


Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.


Aloha mai kakou, and welcome to Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Dr. Tin Myaing Thein is the quietly dynamic force behind efforts to improve the skills and economic development of Hawaii’s immigrant refugee and low income population. Her empathy for the poor and disadvantaged harks back to the Christian values instilled by her parents during her childhood in Burma, also known today as Myanmar. One of her childhood friends grew up to be a Burmese Opposition leader, and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi. They remain friends. During World War II, the infant Myaing, along with her three siblings and parents, moved from village to village to escape the Japanese occupation of the former British colony. At war’s end, her family settled into more comfortable circumstances in the idyllic town of Kalaw, where the children attended British schools.


The weather was beautiful, just like Hawaii. It was on the hill, so it was not cold or too hot. We had the most beautiful pine trees in that area, and so, the environment was lovely. And we just walked to school and back, and it was a little town where everybody was safe, we all knew each other.


What did your parents do?


My father was an irrigation engineer. So, he stayed in the Dry Zone, ‘cause he had to build dams. And his joke was, I’m a dam engineer. [CHUCKLE] And my mother was a social organizer, and she founded the YWCA after the war. They had to set up the institutions again, and then she also organized the Girl Scouts in Burma. At that time, outside of the United States, it’s called Girl Guides. And she was very well known in the community, but it’s all volunteer work.


And your father was mostly absentee during that time?


Yes and no. He was posted in different towns and different areas, and he would bring us home, because he felt that being with him, we would learn more about the country. So, we went all the way north to Myitkyina, down to the south, and we would go on boats. It was very well organized by him. And it was, for him, a time of teaching us about the country. So, we learned a lot.


So, were you close to your parents?


Yes. Well, we were a Christian family, and among the Burmese, they are very few Christians.


How did your family get to be Christians?


My father’s side was the third generation Christian. My mother’s side was the second generation. I think my grandfather from my mother’s side somehow during the days of the kings, and the last king who had killed all his cousins so that they couldn’t take the throne; well, he and his family ran away. And he never told us why. So, to this day, it’s a mystery why he had to run away. And he and his father came down from Mandalay and onto the River Irrawaddy, which is the main river in Burma, and on a bamboo raft, pretending to be farmers. And they just came down until they reached the area where the British were. He then converted to Christianity. And my inkling – I mean, I don’t know for sure, is that he was well looked after by the Christian community and saved by them, so that they wouldn’t get into any more trouble with authorities. And I think because of that, he gradually accepted the Christian religion.


Do you have any inkling of what it was that made him run afoul with authorities? Did he question authority, or any idea?


In those days, when the king had power over you, life or death, it’s not something you do, but who you are. So, he was related to some of the families that were in danger of their lives, because the king was getting rid of anyone who would have the power to, challenge him for the throne.


I see. Now, as one of the few Christian families in your village, did that make a difference in how you were treated?


No. We were friends with everybody, and of course, we were in the Christian community too. So, that was easy for us to do. And back home, we went to church five times. I mean, Sunday school, then the regular church, then Christian Endeavor, and then Youth Endeavor, and then Women’s Group. [CHUCKLE] So, the whole day was spent at church. And later on, we would have a family gathering and have a meal together. Every night, we had Family Devotion before we went to bed. So, a lot of that, I still privately observe. My sister still observes that back home. My father was a very devout Christian who believed, in of course, reading the Bible and following what the Bible said about a rich man should give away all his riches and follow Him to the Kingdom of Heaven. So, when he retired, he called us and said, I have given you education, and you can now stand on your own two feet. And he planned to give away whatever he had. And he did. And we went from a well-to-do family to nothing. It was the hardest lesson for us. Because he did prepare us; he said, You have to learn how poor people live. And when we went back to Kalaw every summer, we used to travel in the first class section of the train. And a couple of years before, he said, Go in the third class and see what people have to put up with. So, he was preparing us, but we didn’t know, of course. And when you’re traveling in third class and you’re not comfortable, but it’s only for a short time, you can bear it, right? So, after that, when we all graduated and he gave us this notice that he was giving everything away, we lost our chauffeur, we lost the car and I had to take the bus. And I remembered what he had done, and I thought, Oh, he was preparing us for what life would be like when we had to just do with whatever we had.


Any resentment about it?


No. One, it was his money; two, it really taught us what people have to go through. It was a lesson that I won’t forget. I did realize that it was very hard to be poor. Very hard. And you have less resources to fight whatever life throws at you.


In 1948, Burma gained its independence from Britain, and years of nation building followed. A fledgling democracy could not be sustained. In 1962, the military took over the reins of government. Tin Myaing Thein attended Rangoon University at the time, and was vocal in her criticism of the government’s repressive policies. She was strongly encouraged by her mother to accept a grant to study at the East West Center in Honolulu. Twenty-six years would pass before her return home.


1962, March 2nd, the army took over in a coups, and they changed a lot of rules. It was difficult for people to speak out. There was martial law, and there was curfew, and also, people were not allowed to leave the country anymore. And then, they closed the country, and people were not allowed to come in. They gave, at that time, twenty-four-hour visa, one day; that’s all you could come, and you had to leave. Pan Am was flying in at that time, so with the plane routes, you only got sixteen hours in the country if you wanted to come in. The newspaper was censored, and they nationalized all the banks. And we even had a joke that the Nationalist Chinese government who nationalized their bank, their bank was nationalized by the Burmese government. [CHUCKLE] And so, it was a time of tense work and some of the people who were my friends and very outspoken, were disappearing in the night, never to be seen again. And some of our other friends who were against the government were speaking out against the coups, because we had a parliamentary democracy before that. So during that year, I was in the psychology department, and they were watching the psychology department. I don’t know why. And we were having little rallies and so forth and so on, and my mother was very worried that I wouldn’t keep my mouth shut or I wouldn’t be able to control myself.


Weren’t you fearful after your friends left forever, with no notice?


You never think it would happen to you. You think, Oh. And sometimes you say it because of the moment, because it’s something you feel unjust and uncalled for. So, there was a huge uprising by the students, and I was in the department at that time. And by the student union, they were all gathering, and shouting slogans and –


They, and you?

The students. No, I was in the psychology department. They were like, way by the gate to the university. And so, the general came down, the one who had, you know, taken over, and he was watching to see what was happening. And the students, they’re very naughty, and they spotted him and started directing their comments at him. And they would say very unkind things like, Your mother is a peanut seller. [CHUCKLE] And you never passed the exam, you don’t have the right to put a foot inside university property because you haven’t passed the exams to be a university student. I mean, that’s true.


So, was that bravery, or foolishness? I mean …


I think a little bit of both. And so, the general ordered them to be shot. And so, at that time, there were like three thousand students who were shot.


They were shot?


They were shot, and then the army came and took their bodies away in the trucks. It was very, very terrible. So, that’s why 7/7/62 is what we remember as the day, the infamous day. And then, he blew up the student union, ‘cause they were all converging in the student union. And so, I think by that time, my mother was very worried, and so she started looking for ways to get me out. And she probably knew that the psychology department was being watched, ‘cause they felt that psychology had something to do with the West, and we were using Western methods, and so forth.


And when you said you spoke out at times, do you remember what you spoke out about?


Well, it was to get people released. My friends who were in jail that had been taken and people who had disappeared. Around that time, my brother disappeared. It’s something that the family never talks about.


Your brother disappeared. I mean, was he sleeping in the house and then, you didn’t find him in the morning?


No; he left early to go to work. And we didn’t … to this day, we don’t know what happened.


Had he spoken out?


I don’t know. [CHUCKLE] He may have, at work, anywhere. We do know that at that time, there were an atmosphere of fear, and you couldn’t trust each other. You didn’t know who was gonna tell on who.


As a news reporter here, I’ve covered families who’ve lost a family member, likely to homicide, but the body was never found. They just never knew what happened, who did what, or anything. And it’s a very difficult thing to live with, that unknown. But you say your family never spoke about it, even to each other?


Yes; to each other, yes, we did. My sister did, and then each of us have our own take on it. My parents never accepted it, that he would be dead. My brother did. My sister waited for him, so did my mother, for a long, long time. And I think we have accepted the fact that he may have passed on. We have rumors that he was seen in the border area, that he was in Malaysia, that he had fathered a child with this woman and that they were living in Penang. I mean, we tried to follow up, but nothing. It would have been just as easy to slip a letter or word of mouth to the family that he’s okay. But not having had any, and it’s over, a long, long time.


Do you seem so composed because this happened a long time ago and you’ve just had to integrate it into your life, or were you always accepting of … this terrible unknown?


I think it’s because of the time. You learn to live with certain things. Time does heal, or rather, time lets you learn how to live with it. And that’s why.


Any advice to people about how to live with something terrible that’s happened?


You can dwell on it, and you can try to make the best of those memories, but you do have to move on. But you never let go. I still look.


When you’re back home, you hope you see him walking in –


No; because the rumors were that he was crossing the border in Thailand and Malaysia, when I was in Malaysia for an East West Center conference, I was looking. In Thailand, when I go, and the plane stops there, and even at the airport, I’m looking. Still.


What a tough way to live. You seem so calm about it. Were you calm at the time?


I was … foul-mouthed at that time. [CHUCKLE]


And no fear of mortality.


Yeah, I wasn’t.


Yeah, I guess teens don’t think about mortality.


Right. And so, my mother said, There’s a wonderful chance for you to go to the East West Center, and also to get a PhD degree.


She didn’t say, Let’s get you out of here?


No, she didn’t. She was very subtle. But she did say, I think it’s time for you to leave, and grow some more. So … that’s what I did.


She meant, learn some discretion.




Or learn a better way to approach this situation.


The situation. Yeah. She was actually sending me to another place where I would be able to utilize all my skills that I had learned from her. Organizational skills, you know, community organizing, learning to speak up for other people. That’s something I think all of us can relate to. It’s so much easier to fight for somebody else. My grandfather, the one who ran away from Mandalay, put education as a very, very important value for our family. Every single one of us must have a degree, a baccalaureate at the lowest level.


And did you want that for yourself?


You know, Leslie, in those days, I just did what I was told. And my mother saw in me a different person. And coming to America and going to the East West Center really changed my life, and for the first time, I found, I had to make my own decisions.


How old were you?


Twenty. I think back and say, Wow, I really came to America, alone, on a plane, and not knowing anybody. Where did I have the guts do that?




I don’t know. [CHUCKLE] I think it probably came from my grandmother, but the other one was my mother. And I think that this experience at the East West Center, finding other friends from other countries, relating to them inter-culturally was a great awakening for me. And my personality really came out after that.


And who did you find out that you were?


My mother. [CHUCKLE]


An organizer, and a speaker for justice?


Yes. My mother and my grandmother.



Tin Myaing Thein’s years at the East West Center provided the very foundation on which she has built her life’s work. In Hawaii, she formed a profound appreciation for the diversity of cultures here, and the strength found in common bonds. She also forged a life partnership with future husband, Jack Reynolds.


When I first arrived, there was a cultural clash. And in Burma, we don’t have dating. So, when young men would ask me out, I didn’t know it was a date that I was going on. And I felt very bad. We have this feeling where you don’t want to refuse anybody anything, so I would go out on dates. I was having a hard time keeping up with my schoolwork as well. And there was one time when the gentlemen were asking me to a movie, and I said yes, and I saw The Sound of Music eleven times.


Because you didn’t want to say no?


Yeah. And I didn’t want to tell them that I’ve seen it before. [CHUCKLE] But my future husband, he’s the only one who caught on. He said, You’ve seen this movie before, haven’t you? ‘Cause I was already mouthing all the lines. [CHUCKLE] And he said, Okay, something’s going on. But he was a Peace Corps volunteer. He was the first group to go with the Peace Corps in Thailand, and uh, he somehow understood what was happening with me. And so, he helped me and he strategized to go to the study hall every day with me. And so it, in effect, got rid of all the other guys, ‘cause they saw me with him all the time. But he helped me to study, and I got my grades back. There are some other stories. Like when you first came, you didn’t know how to turn the faucet on. Oh, my god, how do you – and I didn’t believe that washing machines really washed clothes.


What did you think they did?


I don’t know; it wouldn’t be clean. It wouldn’t be clean enough.


And you were living at the East West Center dorms?


Right. And I had to watch other girls washing to say, Oh, it really did clean, [CHUCKLE], before I could believe it.


Yeah, there are so many things people must assume, that you didn’t.




How could you?


Yeah. And we didn’t have elevators too, in Burma at the time I came. So, I didn’t know how to get out of the elevator. It was so funny. ‘Cause I went to the boys’ dorm, and the ninth floor and down were boys’ dorm. And then, if we had meetings, it was above the ninth floor, so we were going up to the floor. And I got into the elevator, but then there was nothing that said … how to get off, right? And the buttons that says, push to stop, and pull to run. So, we come from the British English where run is really operate. Right? So, I said, Okay, where do I run? I didn’t know that the word run meant operate here. So, I was thinking, Okay, I guess you push-pull it, and you run out when you get to the floor that you want. And every time I tried to do that, the elevator would go up, and then down again. So, I would pass that floor. So, I was riding up and down the elevator like three times, until somebody came, and then I watched. And the person just pushed the number nine, and then got off. I said, Oh, okay. [CHUCKLE] That’s what I had to do.


How were your English skills when you got here?


It was fine. I went to the Methodist English High School, which was British-run, and of course, we were not allowed to speak Burmese in the school. So my English was okay.


So, going back to the East West Center. You said that was a life-changing experience. In what other ways did it change your life? Obviously, you gained American skills, and you met your husband.


Yes. I learned that they valued you for all the different skills you had. And I was taught classical dance, which my father didn’t approve, but my mother did. So, I knew how to do the classical dance, and when we got here, there were people who were asking about what Burmese dance was like. So, I was able to dance and show them, and my mother had made the dance outfit for me, and so forth.   Back home, you have a certain bias against entertainers and performers, and so, I wasn’t allowed to do that. And all the dance lessons were done in the kitchen, where my father wouldn’t see me. [CHUCKLE] But here, you were valued for that skill. And also, I was able to organize groups and teach people about cooking the food in Burma, and so forth. And I think that really opened my eyes, that you know, people here are valued for anything that you can do.


And when you grow up anywhere, you tend to have stereotypes about other cultures. What were some of the conclusions you made, based on the people you met? What changed in terms of your thinking about other cultures?


Well, that we all had commonalities. We all like similar things, and we can enjoy each other based on those, even if there are differences. And some of the differences are so minor that it didn’t matter. Yeah.



Appreciation for the skills set that each individual can contribute to the community is felt every day in Chinatown at the Pacific Gateway Center, as this nonprofit organization guides and nurtures participants. Under the award-winning leadership of Dr. Tin Myaing Thein, the Pacific Gateway Center assists Hawaii’s immigrants, refugees, and low income residents with opportunities to realize their own dreams of success. In an upcoming episode of Long Story Short, we’ll learn about Dr. Thein’s lifelong friendship with Burmese Opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi. Thank you, Tin Myaing Thein, for sharing your long story short. And thank you for watching and supporting PBS Hawaii. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou, ‘til next time. Aloha.


For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit


Well, Burma has a very strange shape; it’s like a kite with a tail. And it’s right next to Thailand, south of China, and on the west we have India. So, we are squeezed between the giants. And we were under the British for about a hundred years, and then the Japanese came, and we were under the occupation of the Japanese for a number of years. And then, the war ended in 1945, which meant that, life would return normal. And up in the Shan Plateau, there was a hill station which the British had occupied and set up schools there. So, we went to live there; my grandfather was the mayor of that town. And so, I think the happiest memories of our lives were in that town. It was called Kalaw.


Part 1: Forthright and Strong


The kitchen incubator is a very important project, because I think many of them have learned that we have to move away from total dependency on government funding, and there’s such a movement as social enterprise. So, we have projects that will bring in some extra revenue, which we then use into the programs.


Burmese native and champion of Hawaii minority small business owners, Dr. Tin Myaing Thein; next on Long Story Short.


Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.


Aloha mai kakou, and welcome to Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Born and raised in Burma, or Myanmar, Dr. Tin Myaing Thein’s amazing journey has led her to Hawaii’s Pacific Gateway Center, where as its executive director, she has empowered thousands of immigrants, refugees, and low income residents on their path to self sufficiency. Back in her student days at Burma’s Rangoon University, Myaing was a vocal critic of the repressive regime that had toppled the nation’s democratic government in 1962. The following year, at the strong urging of her mother, Tin Myaing Thein left her own country to study at the East West Center in Honolulu. Because of the dictatorial policies of the new regime in Burma, Myaing would not return for the next twenty-six years. Her childhood friend and fellow Girls Scout, Aung San Suu Kyi, stayed in the country and would become a political prisoner for years, later to emerge as a Nobel Peace Prize winner and Burmese Opposition leader. When Myaing left Burma, she took with her two powerful legacies of her mother and her grandmother; perseverance and resourcefulness.


The influence of my mother is tremendous, because she is a self-starter, and she and my grandmother, both of them fought for other women who didn’t have the same privilege. And the famous story that we have about my grandmother was, in that little town where we grew up, my brothers were walking home with her, and they came across a couple around the corner where the husband was abusing his wife. And my grandmother didn’t know them at all. And in Burma, the culture is that you respect elders. So, that was the only thing she had as a shield, right? And she went up to him and she said, You stop this, this moment, don’t you dare lay a hand on her, or I will come and get you. And my two brothers were trembling, because if he turned on her, they had to protect her, and they were too young to. But, the man obeyed her and apologized and said, I’m so sorry, and they went home together. It seemed like they made up. But my grandmother had guts. And we got a lot of that from her. Burmese women are, in their own right, very forthright and strong. And in the five duties of a wife and five duties of a man, the women are supposed to handle the finances in the house. I know in America, it’s different. The man likes to handle the finances. But over there, the woman does. And she has to make sure that the children are well fed and educated, and the relatives are also cared for. But she holds the purse strings. So, it’s quite an honor. We came out of a time when we had major problems with the Colonial powers. The British were our masters, so to speak, for a hundred years. When they had the Nationalistic Movement to fight the British, which we couldn’t conquer militarily, we fought them culturally. We never gave up our dress, our language. Even though we can’t speak Burmese in schools, we were speaking at home. We were to have English names in school, so we had our own Burmese names at home and we had different name at school. The British symbolized the West and the Caucasian race. To marry a Caucasian was … somehow betraying them.


You weren’t keeping the bloodline strong.


Yes; exactly.


What was the thought process on that? I mean, love isn’t really logical, for one thing. [CHUCKLE]


Love isn’t logical. He was a very handsome man. [CHUCKLE] And he had the traits that my mother would approve of. And he also was one of the most organized men I know, and he could do work that would be the same work that ten people could do. And when I first met him, I thought, Oh, my god, we will never, ever, in the Southeast Asian cultures, ever catch up with the West, because if they work like that, and can produce like that, we will never catch up. But then, I found out he’s very rare. There are lots of other people who are not organized like him. And my parents accepted him, but I think to this day, people still feel the pain of me marrying a foreigner. They call it a foreigner.


How long were you at the East West Center?


I was there for three years.


And then, what?


Then, my husband was in Thailand at that time, he was doing his master’s thesis. And I went back, and we realized that if I went home — at that time the country was closed, I couldn’t get out again, and he wouldn’t be able to get in. So, we decided that we would get married, and we went back. We did get married, and we came back, to a school that accepted both of us. So, I could get my master’s, and he could get his PhD. And that was in Pittsburgh. And we arrived in Pittsburgh in the middle of the night, and then in the morning we thought, Oh, let’s see it. And it was a horrible looking place. It was not like Hawaii at all. I had imagined all the places in the United States to be like Hawaii, as beautiful, right? And there was soot all over, and we lived in housing. And of course, at that time, I was still wearing my native dress, my sarong and slippers, and it was so cold. The good part of it was that because it was such a horrible atmosphere, we both studied real hard, took extra courses, and got out of there [CHUCKLE], and we went to New York.


For your PhD?


For my PhD, and he was working at Columbia University also.


How did you decide what you would get your PhD in? Did you have a plan at that point?


Well, what happened in Hawaii was that when I came to the East West Center, although it was a US government scholarship, the Burmese government, the new military government had come in ’62, and I was the last group to leave the country. They had decided that I’ll go for a master’s in microbiology instead of psychology, which was my major.


Were you good at science, by any chance?


No, not at all. And I don’t know why they felt that I could do it. And when I got here, analytical chem was the worst part. And so, East West Center was very kind, and they allowed me to get a bachelor’s. That’s why I have two bachelor’s. And then, when we went to Pittsburgh, we were trying to not waste our years for the microbiology course, as well as get back to my people-oriented school. So in Pittsburgh, I went to the graduate school of public health and tried to keep the people in my line of work. And then, when I went to Columbia, there was a very special program in graduate studies where you had to have a master’s in public health or science, and you had to have a master’s in a social science. And the other social science I chose was medical anthropology. And it was wonderful, because then I got my two master’s. And the teacher there was a wonderful woman named Margaret Mead. And I was so thrilled to be in her class. Oh, she was … feisty woman. And she had us take chances. For our group project, we studied the Hell’s Angels. We had no idea what we were getting into. [CHUCKLE] And she did call us in and said, Okay, end your project now, because I don’t think I want you any more in danger. But she just pushed us to the limits. It was really, really neat. So, we did, in the second semester, focus on another group, the Harikrishnas. [CHUCKLE]


That’s a change in scope.


Yeah. We got the difference in how the groups went about what they did in their mission, and how they got to being what they were.


Do you remember any real concise takeaway from Dr. Mead’s classes?


Well, it’s just that there are different groups, and there’s a lot of things that they do for different reasons, but you have to look at it from their perspective. And then, you begin to understand.


A former British colony, Burma lived with an authoritarian military rule for almost five decades. Tin Myaing Thein’s childhood friend, Nobel Peace Prizer winner Aung San Suu Kyi, is at the center of a political reform movement. This conversation took place in 2012, some months before Aung San Suu Kyi visited Hawaii, and the two saw each other in person again.


Along the way, you also knew Aung San Suu Kyi from your home country.


Yes. She was in New York at the same time. She was working for the UN. But Aung San Suu Kyi and I know each other on a social basis. We went to the same school, although I was older than her, and she was in my Girls Scout troop. We had fun. Of course, we had a camping trip which was nothing more than in her compound. It’s like camping out in your yard. [CHUCKLE] That’s what we did. And it was a lot of fun.


What was fun about it?


Well, actually, ghost stories, and then getting scared that somebody would come. Actually, we were very, very safe in that little hut that we were in. We learned songs the Girls Scout songs, and so forth. And we would be yelling at the top of our lungs. [CHUCKLE] She must have been five, I must have been nine. Right, something like that. And then, she went away and we met again in New York. At one point, she thought that she could stay in our guest bedroom. But we were on the West Side, and the UN was on the East Side, so it didn’t work out. We hung out and talked, and whatnot. And then, of course, we went away from Columbia to Trinidad in Tobago to do some studies there in family planning. And then, she went on to England.


Do you have a close connection, would you say?


Yeah, we did. I haven’t seen her for a long, long time. Yeah.


What’s she like?


She knew the path. She had decided what her destiny was going to be, and it had to be intertwined with Burma. There was no doubt about it. And she had her chart all planned out. And she wanted to do whatever she could to help the country move forward.


Did you ever imagine she would spend all those years under house arrest and, you know, isolated and kept away?


Yeah. That was a long, long time. But I’ve been following her speeches, and she said that during the years there, she did a lot of meditation, she read a lot of books. She was able to think, and follow through the radio what was happening in the world. And she said she had more time to do that, than if she was outside.


Do you think you’d still have that kinship, if you were to see her today?


I think so. Yeah. Those are bonds of childhood that you never actually sever.


What do you think the future of Burma is? You’ve seen so much from the time you were moving around, escaping the Japanese invaders, to the military Junta taking over. What now?


I think that watching what’s happening, there is tremendous amount of room for optimism. The country has a very farsighted president who released Aung San Suu Kyi, released a lot of political prisoners, demolished the censorship board so that all the newspapers can print whatever they want to do. And the man who was head of the censorship board does not have a job anymore. That’s good news for many of us, and I’m sure he is happy too, to be retired. The US also have dropped the sanctions of importing goods from Burma to the US. So, with that I think there’s going to be tremendous growth.


Which means it’s far past time for us to know how to pronounce the new name of Burma, which is …






Yes. Myanmar, has become politicized, and people will say, Oh, it’s what the new government put in. But it’s always been spelled with the M alphabet in the Burmese language. And what people don’t bring to the discussions is that the Burmese alphabet has certain letters that have more than one sound. The Fa letter has two sounds; an S and a T-H sound. The letter Ma, which is the M sound, has both M and Ba. So, you write it with M, but you pronounce it with a B. So, I’m sure when the British were there, it wasn’t that they were stupid, they heard B, so they called it Burma instead of Mynmar.


Oh, it’s always been the same name, essentially.


It’s the same name.


Oh, I didn’t know that.


But Myanmar, if you say it in Burmese, it’s Burma. So, if you said Burma, I’m sure the British heard it as Burma. And that’s why they called it Burma. But then now, it’s twisted into, one group saying, No, it’s the regime calling it Myanmar, and another saying, No, we don’t want what the regime does, and so forth, and so on. But actually, it’s all linguistics.


Do you think you can tell something about someone from the country, based on how they pronounce the name of the country?


I can tell their age. [CHUCKLE] Yeah.


After years spent earning two bachelor’s degrees, two master’s degrees, and a doctorate in medical sociology, Dr. Tin Myaing Thein worked to improve the status of women, and was honored nationally for her work. Along the way, she and husband Jack Reynolds raised two children. Dr. Thein has spent the greater part of her career serving as executive director of the Pacific Gateway Center, a Chinatown-based nonprofit in Honolulu that offers health and social services programs, giving a jumpstart towards self sufficiency for low income residents, immigrants, and refugees.


This particular job, where it was almost like case management, was doing what I was doing naturally anyway, helping people. And it’s not just with businesses, but also social services, helping them with new skills, English skills, occupational skills, and so forth. I have the most wonderful board, in the whole, wide world, I think. Because they totally go along with my wildcat ideas, scatterbrain ideas, if you want to call it. But the Kitchen Incubator was conceived through many community discussions with our clients. The refugee women said, We’ll never get off welfare — this was a long time ago. And we don’t have enough English, and we don’t have the education to get a good job. But we can cook; and we’ve tried, but we haven’t been able to do anything, because we have to have a certified kitchen. And they tried to work with Pizza Hut and cook during the hours that Pizza Hut wasn’t using. They tried to use bars, because the bars are shut down during the day or in the morning. And it didn’t work because of the insurance. And I just tucked that idea in the back of my mind, and when we went to the mainland, I found out that there was such a thing as kitchen incubators. And so, I did more further research on it. And I’ll tell you, Leslie, people come to you because everything is the right timing. I was looking for funds, but I didn’t know where to look. And along came this wonderful woman named Gail Fujita from EDA, the Department of Commerce.


Economic Development Agency —




Something like that? Okay.


Economic Development Administration; yeah. And she said, I heard that you’ve been talking about this kitchen incubator, we want to fund you. And I almost fell off my chair. And she helped me look for other funders, because it wasn’t enough what she could give us. And she looked for other partners that we could partner with, and just walked me through the whole process. And we had so much support. Central Pacific Bank was also key, and so was the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation. And we were able to build it. That money today would be triple if we build it today.


How much did it cost then?


Five million.


And when was that?


  1. So, we have been very, very lucky with all the support that everybody’s given us, to help people start their own food-related businesses.

Well, what kinds of foods are they cooking in the kitchen incubator?


Oh, tremendous. There is a lady who’s making children’s lunches for private schools. There’s a Korean man who’s cooking Micronesian food, and he’s selling it at a Micronesian store. There is a couple who have moved out, and that’s what it’s all about. They should start their businesses and then move out at a certain point in time. They made these wonderful cakes that won awards, and they’ve now moved out to Kailua. There’s Aunty Nani, who is making cookies. And then, there’s another lady who makes Hawaii’s Best Brittle. Oh, it’s out of this world. And her name is Mary, and she’s trying to supplement her social security income and get some extra income for her needs.


And do they all block time in the kitchens?


Yes, they do. So, they can come in the morning, or afternoon, or evening; anytime that they want.


Oh, you must feel so wonderful, knowing that you had a hand in getting that going.


Well, I like food. [CHUCKLE] And people at my organization, we like food. And so, I always tell the story that when we were outlining our values with a workshop leader, we came up with the usual, integrity, spirit of aloha, so forth, teamwork. And the staff came up with food as one of the values. For refugees, it’s the only way they can go home. For immigrants, that’s the way they go home. For different immigrants of different cultures, we share food, we like each other’s food, and that’s how we can relate to each other. The kitchen incubator is a very important project, because I think many of them have learned that we have to move away from total dependency on government funding, and there’s such a movement as social enterprise. We have projects that will bring in some extra revenue, which we then use into the programs. That’s how we’ve been able to fund our program.


And do you know how many businesses have been created as a result of the incubator?


Oh, yeah; at least four to five hundred, over the years.


And you do more than the incubators, as well.




You mentioned social issues.


Yes. We help immigrants who want to get their citizenship. We help fill out their forms, we help tutoring them for their citizenship classes.


Don’t you have an English as a Second Language Class too?


Yes, we do.


I sat in, years ago, on one of your classes. I never knew how they did that, how the teacher couldn’t know any of the languages, but would still be able to —


Be able to teach.


— teach English.




It’s amazing.


Yes; it is something like an immersion, but on the other way. So, it’s been very, very rewarding to have English classes. We did have Punahou Schools come and volunteer to help the children and their families with English language practice. Among our refugees, we also help the human traffic victims and their families. And we help to get them settled, get them jobs, and get their kids into school, and so forth. We have a project called The Hawaii Language Bank, and we provide on-the-spot translation, as well as translation.


How has your program changed over the years? You have anything new happening?


We are converting a gas-powered car into an electric car. One of our staff donated his car, and we have got a kit, and it’s now ready, to have the car on the streets. Our rationale was to help our clients who are not well-to-do, because they can’t afford a thirty-two-thousand-dollar car from Nissan. But with a kit that’s like three or four thousand, and then the labor that’s given, maybe couple more thousand, maybe with five, max six thousand, they can get an electric-powered car.


And they could help convert other people’s cars.


Right; exactly. So, we would have teams learning how to do that, more and more people will learn how to do it. Another project that we have is the farms. We were able to get farmland. We leased farmland from Hawaii Ag Foundation, and many of our human traffic victims who are farmers are able to farm on the land. Because they were having trouble getting leases, and so, we stepped in. It’s almost like an agricultural incubator. Each of them got five acres, and we’ve worked with CTA from University of Hawaii College of Tropical Ag and Human Resources, and they said that with the new technology of agriculture, you can live very well on five acres. So we used the five-acre model, and everybody got five acres.


And these are truck farms; they just pull up and cultivate it every day.


Right; right.


They don’t live on the property.


Oh, no; they don’t. But we’ve had our first harvest, and now they’re on to their second harvest.


What are they growing?


They’re growing cucumbers, tomatoes, … peppers, eggplant, sweet peas.


There you are, back to food again.


Yes; yeah. [CHUCKLE] And along with that, we have pop-ups, where we’re helping chefs who want to start their own restaurants. So, they get to use our Lemongrass Café in Chinatown. They cook there, and then people will sign up to come to their pop-up, and they will test out their recipes to see if they can get a following.


So, it’s restaurant for a night kind of thing?


Yes; restaurant for a night.


Dr. Tin Myaing Thein’s commitment and passion for her work have been recognized by many organizations. Honors include the East West Center Distinguished Alumni Award, and the Hookele Award for Nonprofit Leadership. Married for forty-six years at the time of this taping in 2012, she and her husband Jack, who’s now retired from his management consultancy, are the proud grandparents of two. They’re also close to their extended family that includes Myaing’s sister, cousins, nieces, nephews both here in Hawaii and in Burma. Thank you, Dr. Tin Myaing Thein, for sharing your long story short. And thank you for watching and supporting PBS Hawaii. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou, until next time. Aloha.


For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit


What’s the budget of the Pacific Gateway Center?


It’s about two million.


You make a lot happen with two million dollars, don’t you?


Yeah; we have to, because my staff, they are very dedicated, and they’re very motivated, and they know that ours is not a nine-to-five job. When there’s a problem with an immigrant who has a domestic violence issue, you just can’t say, Oh, it’s five o’clock, time for me to go home.


Right; see me in the morning at nine.


Yeah, right; take two aspirins. And so, we have to go and extract the wife or anything that needs to help save somebody else. There are issues when somebody’s life is at stake or their welfare is at stake, and we have to continue on.