Four years ago, behind the corrugated iron shutters of an old riverfront warehouse, was a flurry of fashion, art, food and local craftsmanship—a pop-up space known as ts1, or Transit Shed No1. Two doors to the right was Port Autonomy, the complex’s bar and restaurant.
Over the next year this space became the unlikely beacon for a city on the move, a glimpse at a new, trendy, cosmopolitan Yangon. The man behind it was Ivan Pun, a scion of the Myanmar-Chinese Pun family whose patriarch, Serge Pun, heads a sprawling real estate and finance empire.
Through his lifestyle agency Pun + Projects, Ivan followed ts1 with fusion bistro Rau Ram, café-cum- furniture store Paribawga, healthy Locale and the purchase of Yangon stalwart 50th Street bar. The entrepreneur spoke with MYANMORE about his latest ventures. Photo by Rasmus Steijner.
What does Pun + Projects have going on right now?
We’re working on a project called Wah Tea Shop, which is a play on words for the Burmese ‘War Dee’ [meaning ‘let’s eat.’] We’re opening the first branch in Star City and the idea is a traditional Burmese tea shop, but a Cantonese hybrid that you’d find in Hong Kong. There’s definitely a market for fresh design-orientated tea shops, but at the same time I wanted to make it slightly different from what’s already available in Yangon. I wanted to fuse the elements—something that is familiar with something that is quite surprising. We have another outlet in Star City called Locale, which we incubated down there with the idea that we would bring it to downtown and make it into something that could potentially be a chain serving Western comfort food; salads, wraps, sandwiches, that kind of thing. At the back of my mind is Port Autonomy. The search for a new site has gone on for about 18 months. We haven’t really found anything yet, but it’s something I would like to get done soon.
Which of your projects in Yangon are you most proud of?
Obviously the first one a lot of the times is going to be the one you probably have the strongest relationship with. For me, for sure Port Autonomy because it captured a moment in time and the spirit of the city at that time. There was really good energy—it’s all about alchemy. For that particular one we really achieved something quite unique. I’m particular proud of that and proud of the things we have done originally with TS1 and then later on all the pop-ups we have done since we left the physical space. We support one project a year. This year we are bringing an exhibition curated by Cosmin Costinas that debuted at the Dhaka Art Summit in June and next year we are working on a potential fill festival. I’m proud of the contribution we do to try and add to the contemporary cultural landscape in Yangon.
With such a varied mix of businesses and projects, where do your ideas
From everywhere, really. Some ideas come from a desperation for things that don’t exist. Others come from when I travel. Travel inspires me a lot, I travel quite a bit. I see things and then do something on it. Maybe not an exact replica, but I would find a way to translate it to something that is applicable to Yangon.
Do you have a favorite place in Myanmar to travel?
I really like Inle Lake. I know everyone has been there and it’s not a new discovery. But there’s something very special about Inle, both in terms of the Shan food, the landscape, and on the lake, where there’s a real sense of serenity that I have not experienced elsewhere.
What differences are there between starting a business in Yangon now and
when you first started here in 2014?
It’s getting progressively easier to set things up. We keep on doing things so I can’t think off the top of my head what is particularly different, but I imagine it has gotten easier. Restaurants, for example: the whole process of getting permits and licenses has become easier. Liquor licenses, opening hours. Although I do remember when we first opened Port Autonomy it was very unclear what the restrictions were, especially on opening times. We don’t really have those issues anymore. Hiring has probably become easier as well.
Are they any restaurants or businesses in Yangon that you admire?
Lots. It’s really interesting to see what everyone is doing here, especially because I am aware of the challenges of doing business here. It’s always really admirable when you can see entrepreneurs build businesses from scratch that overcome these challenges and create successful workable businesses. There’s quite a few; they range from everything from the food business that we’re in to a diverse range of others. But particularly these smaller independent companies that have managed to find a niche and exist, because it can be difficult here.
Your father has a reputation for his adherence to clean business in a country marred by corruption. Is his approach to business spreading in Myanmar?
Absolutely. More and more it’s becoming the norm where people don’t expect to have to do anything. I get the sense people are more inclined to do things correctly and legally and by the books. I can see that shift happening now.
You have helped develop the F&B industry in Yangon. Are there any other industries that need improving here?
I think everything needs improving, very frankly speaking. That’s not to say that things haven’t come a long way but we should always try to improve, that applies across the board. I can’t think of a single business here that has no room for improvement, we can all do better.