The star-patterned tiles are slick beneath my feet. Under a century’s worth of spilt tea, betel nut spit and street grime, the faded colours are still visible, and how beautiful they are. Once home to Rangoon’s most exclusive products — fine liqueurs, Egyptian cigarettes, British candies — the old Sofaer Building, like most of Yangon’s stately colonial architecture, is looking a little worse for wear.
Pausing to inspect a long-retired elevator, the broken wrought iron railings hide beneath piles of disused furniture and layers of dusty cobwebs, it looks like even the spiders have moved on. With only the dim light from a broken courtyard window, I walk carefully across the landing of the 100-year-old building, descending slowly down a rickety staircase. Emerging onto the hot, sunny street, the silent and shadowy interior of the building is swallowed into the chaos of city. Modern day Yangon is bustling.
With the goal of exploring Bagan and trekking the hills of the Shan state, my husband and I embarked on our Tet holiday to Myanmar. Though planning a quick stopover to see an old friend in Yangon, we had given the city very little consideration. “Just another Asian city,” I thought. I was wrong.
The Birth of a City
Founded as a small fishing village in the 11th century, the settlement — then known as Dagon — was centred around Shwedagon Pagoda, a towering golden stupa nearly 100 metres tall and said to contain relics of four previous Buddhas. King Alaungpaya, founder of the Konbaung Dynasty, captured the area from the Mon Kingdom in 1755 and renamed it Yangon, meaning ‘end of strife’.
The moniker did not last, as less than a century later Alaungpaya’s Yangon was burnt to the ground during the first Anglo-Burmese War. Shortly after in 1852, the British seized what remained of the city, transforming it into the commercial and political hub of their new colony — British Burma. Rangoon, the name given to the city by her colonisers, is widely assumed to be the British interpretation of Yangon.
And so began nearly a century of metropolitan development encompassing not only new styles of urban planning and architecture, but also introducing foreign cultures and drastically changing the city’s demographics.
When the British arrived in Yangon, they did so with the intention of building a modern and global city. Starting with an urban grid design, and inserting the ancient Sule Pagoda as the central traffic circle, they went on to build grand banks and trading companies, fashionable hotels and department stores, luxurious villas and clubs. By the beginning of the 20th century, the infrastructure and services of Rangoon’s port rivalled those of London. Every week, ships unloaded new products, new fashions and new people.
Attracted to this fast-paced development, traders and enterprises from around the world flocked to Rangoon. Although the city was already home to foreign enterprises (most notably Armenian), under British rule Rangoon became a cosmopolitan hub. At the height of the colonial period, only a third of the city’s population were Bamar (Burmese). South Asians represented the majority, while Karens, Chinese, Europeans and others made up the rest.
Over two days exploring downtown Yangon, we not only visited the ancient Sule Pagoda, but also passed a Sunni mosque, a Shia mosque, a Jewish synagogue, a Jain temple, a Taoist temple, a Hindu temple, a Sikh temple, a Methodist church and a Baptist church. All were built over a century ago and are still active today.
Around the World in Five Blocks
The smell of sweet frying pastry and barbequed meat wafts through the open window as our taxi crawls through a bustling street market. Eyeing tables laden with fresh vegetables and pickled fruits, we make our way through the throng of pedestrians, shoppers and cars towards dinner.
Sitting down at a streetside table along the busy 19th Street, I feel transported to a long gone era reminiscent of old Hong Kong. Surrounded by crowded streets lined with grimy apartment blocks, the area is awash with flimsy balconies, drying laundry and neon signs glowing in Burmese, English and Chinese characters.
Stopping at one of the many ropes dangling from the balconies, our friend gives the string a gentle tug. “It’s a makeshift doorbell,” she grins “but even better, the morning paper and any other packages can be clipped onto it and hauled into the apartment above.”
We witness this at lunch the next day when a waiter ties a bag of food to a rope, which quickly disappears into an upper-storey window.
The following afternoon we leave old Hong Kong behind for the sights and smells of India. Making our way along Maha Bandoola Road, it’s hard not to stare at the sizzling samosas, weaving rickshaws, and barking hawkers selling everything from TV remotes to knock-off sunglasses.
The sun is setting as we wander among rows of colonial townhouses lining the narrow streets north of Merchant Road. Once single-family homes, these stately buildings in various states of disrepair now house hundreds of occupants. The luxury and comfort may have decreased over the past seven decades, but their faded glory and charm are impossible to overlook. Among the tacked-on satellites, air-conditioners and power lines, the colourfully painted facades with high ceilings, shuttered windows and decoratively adorned balconies stand as a testament to Yangon’s past glory.
Turning onto Bogalay Zay Street, we are greeted by the sight of a stately red-brick building glowing in the evening light. Enclosed behind rolls of barbed wire and overgrown gardens, the city block-sized compound commands respect. We have found the Secretariat.
Once the seat of colonial power in Burma, and subsequently the government compound, this labyrinth of halls, offices and courtyards now lies deserted. As with many grand old buildings once used by government, the Secretariat was abandoned in 2005 when the capital city relocated to Nay Pyi Taw, 380km north of Yangon. With the high cost of renovation, and with bureaucracy surrounding ownership rights, the Secretariat and similar buildings remain in a state of purgatory.
Working to conserve the city’s architecture and promote conservation, Dr. Thant Myint-U, a renowned academic and historian, founded the Yangon Heritage Trust in 2012.
“Yangon’s unique architectural heritage is today in peril, from the effects of long neglect, as well as the consequences of recent commercial development,” he writes in the book 30 Heritage Buildings of Yangon. “If Yangon’s architectural heritage is destroyed, a big part of its legacy as a cosmopolitan, multi-faith and multi-ethnic city will be lost.”
Hoping to preserve Yangon’s architectural heritage and unique buildings — such as the City Hall, which displays a distinctive combination of British architecture and Burmese design inspired by ancient temples — the Trust does not want to see Yangon revert to its colonial heyday. Instead, they hope to “promote and integrate Yangon’s unique urban history into a 21st century vision of Yangon as one of Asia’s most livable cities”.
Walking through the Trust’s public gallery, a poster depicts Yangon’s potential future, one where heritage buildings restored to their former glory sit alongside new developments, influenced by modern and sustainable urban planning. The image shows parks and walkways surrounded by colonial buildings and modern skyscrapers, all centred around Sule pagoda, the heart of old and new Yangon.
“This is Burma, it is unlike any land you know about,” wrote Rudyard Kipling in 1898. What a romantic notion, I thought, as I read those words on the plane to Yangon. Standing next to the crumbling elegance of the Secretariat building, watching the last of the day’s sun illuminate the golden Sule Pagoda, in a city teaming with people from all over the world, I could not help but agree.
The Yangon Heritage Trust is open every day from 9am to 5pm. The office and gallery is located on the first floor of 22-24 Pansodan Street, Yangon. For more information about their heritage tours visit their website at yangonheritagetrust.org