At the bar with… Hnin Pwint Aye

We talk to the Myanmar native and bar manager of Club Rangoon about her new bar programme, how she started in the industry and getting back to competing.

The last time we met in person was at the World Class top ten competition in Hysan Place in 2019. At the time, you were working at the RendezVous Lobby Bar at Sofitel hotel in Macau. Tell us what you’ve been doing since then…
Yes, when I last saw you I’d only been in Macau for two-and-a-half months after moving from Dubai, and couldn’t believe I was actually representing the whole of Macau at the competition.

Then the global pandemic hit and everything in Macau shut down. So, I decided to go back home to Myanmar [Burma], even though I was in the top eight of the Bacardi Legacy competition.

In April 2020 I was due to return to Macau, but there was a massive outbreak of Covid in Myanmar and I couldn’t leave. So I stayed at home, continuing to promote my Bacardi Legacy drink and working for Sofitel remotely.

The F&B industry is all about being face-to-face and I’m a very active person so I didn’t find working from home very easy. So I resigned from Sofitel and was lucky enough to join Rangoon Tea House, one of the leading F&B companies in Myanmar.

I stayed at Rangoon Tea House for about 10 months. But it was hard to do business because of the Covid restrictions and Myanmar’s turbulent political situation.

Is that when you decided to come to Hong Kong?
Yes. But Hong Kong had always been one of my dream cities to live in no matter what. I actually had multiple opportunities to go back to Dubai, but I was like, ‘No! I’m going to Hong Kong.’

In a previous interview with Bar Talk, you told us you were “a born competitor who loves new challenges”. The pandemic has been a challenge for everyone. What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?
First, I like to compete. By being in cocktail competitions we gain more knowledge, get to meet more people, see what they’re doing, and learn more about the industry.

But, at the end of the day it’s about how I compete against myself; what am I doing now and how can I do it better tomorrow? I actually look forward to the challenge of competitions again.

On a personal level, it’s been challenging because I just got to Hong Kong three months ago and joined Club Rangoon, one of the most amazing venues in Hong Kong, where I wanted to showcase what I can do to my colleagues and the community – and now our venue is temporarily closed, although for good reasons. [It is due to reopen on 7 April.]

To overcome this, I make sure that every day after I wake up, I get dressed up, put my face on, and pray. Then I try to get out into nature because it gives me inspiration.

Can you share the “good reasons” why Club Rangoon is currently closed?
A little… We’re working on a new bar programme based on Burmese women and what they cook in day- to-day life.

I’ve had to study this as well as remind myself of what my mum cooks and what ingredients she uses – like tamarind or tomatoes – on a daily basis. Burmese cooking is more vegetable-friendly and has three main flavours: sour, salty and spicy. Our new cocktails will feature these.

The changes we’re undergoing are a team effort and everyone at Club Rangoon is involved. We want to continue to showcase our culture to Hong Kong.

Are you trying anything new with the extra down time you currently have?
Yes, cooking – and I never cook. I’m not following recipes or anything, just using whatever ingredients I have in my kitchen to experiment with. I’ve been making things like stir-fry, lemon chicken or pan-fried mackerel with olives.

What are you missing most about not being behind the bar?
Meeting and talking to customers. When a guest walks in and sits at the bar it means they trust you. And you get a chance to interact with them, make conversation and showcase what you can do; my creativity, my cocktails. I miss interacting with customers.

Have globally disrupted supply chains affected Club Rangoon?
As the only Burmese restaurant in Hong Kong our kitchen uses authentic ingredients that come straight from Burma, and getting these can be a bit tough. But for the bar I can still get most of the ingredients I want in Hong Kong. The biggest issue right now is rising costs.

What first attracted you into bartending and how did you get into it?
Prior to 2010 I worked behind a computer doing admin at a travel agency in Myanmar. On my way to and from work every day I’d pass a hotel, and I got curious about what the people in it actually did.

So I started to investigate options in hotel management and took up studies at a local institute in Yangon. After studying there for six to seven months I was lucky enough to get a job at the Grosvenor House hotel in Dubai working as a waitress in the lobby bar.

By nature, I like to be active and try different things. So, I went to my manager and said I’d like to go and work in the hotel’s Buddha-Bar and study what they’re doing, and they agreed.

It’s a huge, busy place with like 365 seats and I started out just clearing up plates and glasses. But behind the bar there were five Indonesian bartenders all doing flairtending, and I thought, ‘Oh my god, they look super cool. Why don’t I study to do something like that and be behind the bar?’ So that’s what initially attracted me to bartending.

After that, I went to another of the hotel’s bars, Bar 44, and learnt basic bartending skills under the mentorship of Russell Sanchez. I’ve been in bartending since 2011.

How would you compare the Dubai bartending scene to Hong Kong’s?
The customers in Dubai are totally different to those in Hong Kong. I would say there’s more of an appreciation for cocktail culture here, and bartenders are more technology-and- eco-friendly.

Hong Kong bartenders and consumers are quite sophisticated, and because of this, the bartending scene is constantly and naturally evolving.

The Hong Kong bartending community is known for being supportive. Could you share an experience of how it has supported you?
Yes, they are. The community may be small but the heart is huge.

The second time I came here from Macau was for a guest shift at Tell Camellia as part of a competition. The guys working there were telling customers, ‘This girl is from Macau and you have to try her cocktails,’ never mind about pushing their own cocktails.

They also took me out and about to different bars so I could get to know the local community. Gagan [Gurung, co-founder of Tell Cameillia] and his team were really supportive.

What are your thoughts on following drink trends?
Following trends can be a good idea because you get to understand what customers are looking for. But that doesn’t mean you actually have to follow what others are doing.

Personally, I like to be different. I don’t like to do what everybody else is doing. My everyday motto is: look, learn and be different.

Name your go-to drink and where you enjoy it most in Hong Kong?
I couldn’t say where I enjoy a drink most because there are so many great bars here.

My go-to drink is gin and tonic. Or tea. To be honest, I don’t drink much alcohol. I prefer creating drinks to drinking them. I never usually finish an entire cocktail.

Having said that, I recently visited Agung [Prabowo] at Penicillin and tried four different cocktails, including their version of the Monte Carlo, which is very spirit-forward and I completely surprised myself by finishing the whole drink!

As we move out of this pandemic and into the future, what are your hopes for the Hong Kong F&B community? And what are your sights set on?
There is always hope and the chance for us to move forward. For our community, this will take some time. But there is hope for us to get the good we deserve.

No matter how bad things are, my thought is that whatever you believe, you can achieve – just have faith in yourself.

Me? I’m currently eyeing the #HennessyMyWay 2022 cocktail challenge. I haven’t committed to it yet, but I am totally committed to being back in competitions this year.

1948 Ingredients

  • 15ml Gin
  • 30ml Homemade tamarind liqueur
  • 5ml Creme de cacao
  • 10ml Citrus solution
  • 30ml Sparkling water
  • Method – Shaken and double strained
  • Garnish – Homemade tamarind candy and brown sugar rim
  • Glassware – Old fashioned