When New Jersey native Art Hongpong married into one of Myanmar's prominent business families and moved to the country’s commercial capital Yangon in 2012, the future of his ice carving business seemed as fragile as one of his legendary sculptures. While all ice carvers deal with the constant threat of their work melting before their eyes, Art would have to battle the elements in a city where temperatures soar and power cuts strike without warning.
Having come off a gold medal in the arts and culture division of the Olympic Games and a business including custom orders for Will Smith, Bill Clinton and the NBA, moving to Yangon seemed like a bust.
A second-generation Thai immigrant, Art learned the trade from his father, Vivat Hongpong, who carried his equipment to hotels and carved in their walk-in freezers. Art carved his first sculpture, a rabbit, when he was nine. At fifteen, he got his first injury. “It opened up like a chicken breast...I just saw my meat and was like ‘Agh!’,” he remembers.
In the 90s, the duo’s business took off with a spate of celebrity orders, including a life-sized boxing ring for Mike Tyson and a piano for Elton John. When Art was 25, he and his father were selected to represent Thailand in the 2002 Olympics, where they took gold for a glittering ninety-block diorama of flowers and swans.
Upon moving to Yangon, sheer grit kept Art in the game. Within a few months, he began constructing an ice machine and a one-room factory-freezer. A year later, he was producing the country’s only “clear ice.”
“As the ice freezes upwards, we put something to agitate the water so all the impurities come to the top and then we slice that off,” he explained. The “something” is a repurposed water pump from a fish tank, the closest part he could find to the ice machine filters used in the United States.
He soon found, however, that the ice could not withstand the city’s blackouts: when it melted and re-froze, its bubble-free perfection was ruined. “That’s when the problem happened,” said Art. “I moved here, built this ice house with all the money I had saved...and the power goes out.”
He doled out his last cash for a generator the size of a truck.
Art had to adjust his catalogue as well. While bachelorettes in the US had no qualms ordering chilly anatomical designs, of the five such orders he received in Yangon this year, all backed out in favor of the more demure bananas and eggplants.
On the day we joined Art, however, his mind was far from phallic fruit, on the dimensions of a Game of Thrones “direwolf” that would double as alcohol luge for a series-end party. We hoped the sculpture would fare better than the wolves, killed off throughout the series’ eight seasons.
Our first stop was to purchase dry ice, which helps the sculpture accomplish the death-defying feat of reaching its destination during Yangon’s relentless rush hour traffic, in the trunk of Art’s car. Purchase complete, the car crawled forward until we reached his factory, a nondescript cement building where industrial equipment hummed mysteriously.
Along with Art, we were joined by two assistants: Art’s driver and multipurpose helper, who only identifies as “True Man”; and Kyaw Kan Kaung who is in charge of handing Art the proper tools, and turning on the generator when the power cuts. Last year, he won fourth place at an annual competition Art runs for Yangon’s handful of aspiring ice carvers. “I’m gonna make him a star one day,” predicted Art, regarding his young protégé with pride.
Then it was time to begin carving. Art and his two gumboot-clad assistants traversed the sixty-degree temperature warp into the freezer. A common fear in Myanmar is that rapid temperature changes lead to fever – as such, some might view the transition as a death sentence. The pair, however, did not seem perturbed, following Art in and out of the freezer like two icy bodyguards.
As one of the city’s few, if not only, private walk-in freezers, Art’s is multi-purpose, providing relief for a friend’s huskie – “Burma sucks for huskies,” he said – and offering storage space for an all-natural yogurt company’s fruit flavors.
Ready to carve, Art carefully examined his ice block. “There’s hardly any impurities here so…” his voice trailed off, noticing tiny white lines in the otherwise translucent block. “If the power even goes out for half an hour, you’ll see this inside.” With only a few hours to go before Game of Thrones Night began, Art made a flash decision – he would cut off the damaged sections and plow forward.
With a cigarette dangling limply from his lips, Art placed an image over his ice block and began tracing. Ice carving begins with the crudest tool, the chainsaw. As the process continued, Art cycled through progressively more delicate implements, his assistants supporting him in silent rhythm as flecks of ice spattered their plastic aprons. Slowly, noisily, the direwolf took shape, serrated fur and snarling teeth. Asked if he knew what the sculpture represented, Kyaw Kan Kaung looked puzzled. “A dragon?,” he guessed.
Four hours later, aided by the morning’s dry ice purchase, the direwolf reached its destination, the swanky Penthouse rooftop bar, intact, and was just beginning to sweat by the time the first miniskirt-clad guests arrived.
Moments later, a succession of girls offered their lips to the wolf’s throat, guzzling passion fruit shots and posing for photos, a beaming Art looking on with pride.