A Keyhole into Burma – Goldfinger

The majority of Burma’s impossibly thin tabs of gold leaf – a fixture at all pagodas (temples) – is produced out of several shops in a neighborhood just outside central Mandalay. The tabs are sold in packets of 10, 50 or 100, with each tab being about one square inch, which worshipers apply to Buddha figures and other religious relics as a spiritual offering.

I tooled down a bumpy dirt street on my bike, skidding to a halt in a cloud of dust in front of a non-descript short building, home to the “Gold Rose”. I was greeted the instant I dismounted my bike by the shop’s “tour guide”.

The guide fed me cold water as I recovered from my ride and gave me some tissues to stem the flow of sweat gushing off me. In time I was led to the shop’s ‘hammering area’ where four men rotated through hammering duties, beating hair-width gold leaf down to microbe-width gold leaf. Tabs of gold sheet are packed into bundles of 400, separated by a layer of bamboo paper, then beaten with a six pound sledgehammer for 30 minutes. The newly flattened and enlarged leaves are then divided into four pieces, re-bundled into packages of 1,200 and beaten for another 30 minutes. Finally the tabs are divided again, re-bundled into stacks of 750 pieces and hammered for an astounding five hours.

Despite what seems like pure grunt work, the hammering is a carefully monitored, meticulous process, with adjustments being made depending on subtle variants such as air temperature.

Just as I was commenting on how arduous this work appeared to be, I was led into the air-tight cutting room. Here a team of very young girls worked 10 hour days, sitting on thin bamboo mats, cutting and dividing the gold leaf for the hammering process, then packaging the final product into painstaking piles of perfect square tabs. The youngest girl was 11 years old. Each girl has to go through three years of training before being trusted with leaf cutting duties, meaning they were starting work as young as seven or eight years old.

The cutting room was stifling hot – no fans, no A/C – because any air flow would cause the feather-light gold leaf to blow around in an expensive hurricane. A pencil length, flat edged tool made from buffalo horn and some talc to keep their fingers from getting sticky is all the girls use to do the remarkably precise cutting and shaping of the gold leaf.

The guide explained that virtually the entire workforce in the Gold Rose was from the same extended family, so there was no fear of people pocketing a little something for themselves, because to so would be stealing from the family. In theory, the girls earn up to 2,000 kyat (US$2.17) per day for their work, but they never see this money as it is dumped directly back into the family pot to support the household and keep the shop going.


Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, contributed three stories to the upcoming anthology “To Myanmar (Burma) With Love: A Connoisseur’s Guide” published by Things Asian Press. His personal blog, Killing Batteries, and his staggeringly vast travelogue could fill a lifetime of unauthorized work breaks, if one were so inclined.