YANGON (RANGOON) is reminiscent of a city in tropical Africa or India. Flowering trees and decaying colonial buildings line the wide avenues; beat up taxis, trucks, motorcycles and bicycles, piled high with goods, scurry up and down the side streets; billboards promoting ethnic harmony and advertising Indian action movies and new blood cleansers are displayed at major intersections; and street vendors sell everything from French ticklers to birds that can be set free for a few kyat.
Home to about five million people, Yangon spreads out over 400 square kilometers (223 square miles) and is located in a fertile delta 40 kilometers up the Hinle river from the sea. Few building predate a great fire in 1841. Today its Myanmar’s capital, main cultural and commercial center and main port. It serves not only ocean-going freighters and tankers but also river steamers and country craft that ply Yangon's major waterways. The city is built on flat lowland bounded on three sides by the Pazundaung Creek and the Yangon and Hlaing Rivers. The surrounding countryside consists of rice paddies, patches of brush, and occasional rubber plantations.. Yangon means "End of Strife," a name given to it by King Aluangpaya to celebrate his conquest of Lower Myanmar.
Yangon is the main gateway to Myanmar and the country’s largest city but it is no longer the capital. The new capital of Naypyidaw opened for business in 2005. Evergreen and cool with lush tropical trees, shady parks and beautiful lakes, Yangon has earned the name of "The Garden City of the East". The name Yangon means "End of Strife"—a reference to King Alaungpaya’s conquest of Lower Myanmar in 1755— which was anglicised to Rangoon by the British. Dagon was the name of the small settlement that predated Yangon. The downtown area near the river is busy but the parks and gardens around 1½-mile-long Inya Lake, Yangon University, Kandawgyi Lake and Shwedagon Pagoda are pleasant and relatively tranquil. These are nice places to relax if the weather isn't too hot. The city was designed by Lieutenant Alexander Fraser, an engineering officer who also planned Singapore.
According to “Cities of the World”: Yangon's population is a mixture of Myanmas, Indians, Karens, and Chinese, with a few non-Myanma ethnic groups. The golden Shwedagon Pagoda, dominates the Yangon skyline and landscape. Located within the city are Royal Lake and Inya Lake, the shorelines of which are dotted with large, handsome houses in varying states of repair. Many of Yangon's public buildings are attractive. Streets were widened and public parks spruced up after the 1988 military takeover.
On Yangon’s charms in the mid 2000s, Charles London wrote in the New York Times, “I strolled through downtown Yangon in the rain, trying to absorb everything — the smells of mildew and diesel fuel, fish paste and sandalwood, the sounds of honking, shouting and chanting and the sight of old buses disgorging their passengers into the ankle-deep water on Anawrahta Road in the center of the city. Black market money-changers and digital photo shops clustered around the base of Sule Pagoda, whose golden spire rises 150 feet. It’s a sacred site for Burmese Buddhists, who make up about 90 percent of the population. [Source: Charles London, New York Times, October 21, 2007]
More recently Ceil Miller Bouchet wrote in the New York Times: Yangon "is hoping to become Southeast Asia’s next boomtown. Diplomatic missions, business delegations and tourists have filled Yangon’s hotels since the country’s military government began transferring power to civilian leaders in 2011. The spotlight continues this year as Myanmar, also known as Burma, takes on the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.[Source: Ceil Miller Bouchet, New York Times, February 7, 2014]
"For now, though, as the road map for laws and reforms is being drawn, the city remains in a kind of urban time warp, still awaiting a much-needed capital infusion to fuel what it hopes to be its renaissance. Golden pagodas, colonial-era buildings, traditional shop houses and moldering jazz-age mansions form a low-rise fabric unique to Asia, the whole stitched together by tree-lined avenues swarming with buses and cars. While ethnic and religious tensions simmer along Myanmar’s borderlands, including in remote Rakhine State, where there have been recent outbreaks of religious violence, Yangon is far from these areas. Still, time will tell whether the city will reclaim its former status as a cosmopolitan capital."
Some effort has been made to clean up the city, which have included compulsory repainting and road repairs, Wealthy people, it seems, were pressured to financially contribute to projects such as parks and playgrounds, In the 1990s, the names of streets were changed from English to Burmese. Prome Road, for example, became Pyi Road and Windermere Road became Thnlwin Road, after a large river.
Early History of Yangon and Shwedagon Pagoda
Although it has parts that are said to be 2000 years old Yangon was founded by King Alaungpaya in 1755 and established as the capital of Burma by the British, who captured it in 1824 and again in 1852 and gave the city a modern layout and developed its port. The early history of Yangon and Shwedagon Pagoda are intertwined. The founding story of Shwedagon reaches back to the days of the Enlightenment of Gaudama Buddha when He discovered the cause of universal suffering and the way to its elimination. It was on the 49th day after the Enlightenment when two brothers, Taphussa and Bhallika, merchants from Ukkalapa in the land of Mon people in Lower Myanmar, came before Buddha. A nat (spirit) who had been the mother of the two brothers in a previous existence had guided them to the Buddha. The brothers offered honey cakes. After Buddha had eaten the cakes, the brothers asked for gift. Buddha passed His hand over His head and, obtaining eight Hairs, gave them to the brothers. Buddha, perceiving that the three previous Buddhas had caused their possessions to be enshrined in a pagoda on Singuttara hill in the country of the two brothers, bade them to do likewise with the Sacred Hairs.
The brothers returned home and made landfall at Pagoda Point in the southwest coast of Myanmar. They sent word to king Ukkalapa of their arrival with the sacred Hairs. The King welcomed the Hairs with great ceremony at Asitanzana, northwest of present-day Yangon. The king and the brothers next sought out a man who could tell them the location of Singuttara Hill. No human knew the location but Sakka, King of the nats did, and guided them to the Hill. Singuttara Hill is known by seven names of which one is Trikhumba, meaning 'three pots' and signifying three pot-shaped hills. Tikhumba became Tikun and Dagon and later Changed to Lagun in Mon. When the brothers asked Sakka where the Hairs should be shrined, Sakka could not tell them where the earlier relics were enshrined because they were of such antiquity and he was not that old. However, Sule Nat knew where Kakusandha Buddha's staff was enshrined, Yawhani Nat knew where Konagamana Buddha's water-dipper was enshrined. Hmawbi Nat revealed that he had been assigned to guard the sacred objects. Finally, Gautama Buddha's Hairs were enshrined and stupa consecrated on the full moon day of Tabaung (March 6, 588 B.C.).
A long time after that, there that, there being no one to worship at the Lagun shrine, it fell into ruin and was covered with jungle.Tradition states that 200 years after Buddha's Parinirvana in 543 B.C. Sona and Uttara, two monks from Sri Lanka brought King Asoka to the Pagoda. The King had the jungle cleared and the Pagoda repaired. In the fifth century A.D. King Duttabaung paid homage at the Pagoda. In the 11th century, King Anawrahta of Pagan offered gold and silver umbrellas and built a pagoda near the town of Twante across the Yangon River. Dalla, which is now a town on the bank opposite Yangon, was then located on the Twante Ridge and was more important than Dagon. Dagon at that time lay in low lying often water-logged land. Sule Pagoda, now in downtown Yangon, stood on a small island in the swamp, to the west down to he Hlaing River and Yangon /River to the south .The Shwedagon (then called Kyak Lagun in Mon) was reached across a causeway.
The discovery of a votive of the Pagan period at Tadagale to the north of Yangon shows that the laterite ridge at the end of which Shwedagon lay was a scene of activity in the Pagan period and the ridge may have provided a road southwards to the Shwedagon Pagoda and Dagon Village beyond. After the collapse of Pagan in the 13th century and the rise of Mon power in the 14th with the capital at Bago, Dagon became a place of some importance, though not as a commercial port but as a center of religious life. At onetime Dagon was reported to contain thirty-two ordination halls Binnya U (1348-83), Mon king of Bago created a pagoda of height 18 meters. (60'). Dagon was also a place of refuge for princes who did not find Bago safe. Binnya U's son, Binnya Nwe, later King Rajadarit, who had a chronicle to himself, fled to Dagon when he ran away with his half-sister Talamidaw. Dagon at that time was not a walled city but a fort of logs. Successive Mon King of the 15th century raised the height of Pagoda by encasing earlier pagoda and embellishing the new. King Binnyayan (1426-46)cut down the hill and enlarged the base to five terraces to sustain the height but before he could finish the work he died. The work was continued by his successor, Binnyawaru (1446-50) who was helped by his mother, Queen Shin Saw Bu, the only regnant queen of Myanmar. She was ably assisted by the commander of the army, soldiers, attendants and the common people. They raised the height of the Pagoda to 90.6 m(302 feet). Queen Shin Saw Bu was the first to gild the Pagoda. She went on the scales and let them take her weight which was a bout 40 kg.(90 lbs). She donated that weight in gold. She dedicated a vast expanse of glebe lands which virtually covered the whole of modern Yangon. Her successor King Dhammazedi created the stone inscriptions standing on Pagoda Hill. He also donated a huge bell which a Portugese adventurer took away but which fell into the river and has not been recovered.
In 1539, Tabinshwehti, who had conquered Bago, placed a jewelled finial on the Pagoda. Casper de Cruz, a Dominican priest, who came to Myanmar between 1550-60 said that "the Brames (Burmese) were a great people, very rich of gold and precious stones, chiefly of rubies; a proud nation and valiant. They have very rich and gallant shippings garnished with gold which they sail in the rivers; they use vessels of gold silver; their houses are of timber and well wrought. The kingdom is very great." In 1572, Bayinnaung rebuilt the Pagoda to 360' and had it reguilded. The shrine had been reduced to rubble during an earthquake in 1564.Bayinnaung embarked from Bago in a golden barge in the form of the mythical hintha bird, surmountedby a golden spire. The barge was escorted by a large fleet of 300 golden canoes and 1000 war boats which filled the Bago River as far as the eye could see. The grand fleet floated down to Dagon. Bayinnaung repeated the trip in 1581.
In 1583, Gasparo Balbi "came to the fair cities of Dagon, it is finally seated, and fronted towards the south-west, and where they land are twenty long steps, the matter of them is strong and great pieces of timber — After we were landed we began to go on the right hand is a large street about fifty places broad, in which we saw wooden houses gilded, and adorned with delicate gardens, after their custom, where in Talapoins, which are their Firers dwell. The left side is furnished with Portals, and Shops, very like the new Procuration at Venice; and by a street that go towards the Varella, for the space of a good mile straightforwards either under paint houses or in the open street, which is free to walk in." Ralph Fitch wrote about the same time; "It is the fairest place, as I suppose, the that is in the world; it (the Pogoda) standeth very high, and there are four ways to it, which all along are set with trees of fruits, in such wise that a man may goes in the shade above two miles in length. And when their feast day is, man can hardly passe by water or land for the great presse thither of people; for they come from all places of the Kingdom of Pegu thither at their Feast."
By the end of the 16th century the Shwedagon Fair was attracting people not only from Myanmar but also from distance lands such as Laos and Cambodia. The Dagon Fair was one of the chief markets for overseas trade rivalling Bago and Thanlyin. The Delta was effecting yet another change. The Bago River too was silting up off Thanlyin, and sea-going vessels were finding it difficult to navigate the reaches opposite the town. Thus, Dagon was becoming the port of choice.
After the founding of the Shwedagon Pagoda. Alaungpaya's conquest of lower Myanmar is the second most important event in the history of Dagon. May 1775 marks the beginning of the modern town when Alaungpaya, to commemorate his victory, changed its name from Dagon to Yangon, "Enmity Exhausted." Alaungpaya's Yangon was basically a log fortress, with the river frontage in the south, the site of the present 30th street in the west, a line of about 3300' cutting across the modern Maha Bandola Garden, Pansodan and Bo Aung Gyaw street in the north, and Theinbyu Street in the east. The town lay well to the east of the Sule Pagoda. Its area could not have been more than 1/8 square mile. The stockade was built of solid teak piles, rising to a height of twelve feet on average, but to twenty feet in some places. The stockade was protected by a ditch and it did not stand directly on the bank of the river but twenty or thirty yards away at its nearest point.
The town had three streets running east-west and two running north-south. The east-west streets counting from the river side were Strand Road, also known as Kaladan, the street of the foreigners because most foreigners lived there. then above that was where modern Merchant Street runs, also known as "Pegu Palace" to the English because the Myowun's residence was there. The northernmost street was the Mingala Bazaar. The main south-north road ran along the line of the present Seikkantha Street. The Sule Pagoda stood on a small laterite pinnacle cut off from the town by a swamp. Yangon itself too stood on a small island surrounded by water at high tide, In 1782, it was reported that the streets were not paved but by1795 they were well paved, and because wheel traffic was not allowed within the town, the paving remained in tolerable repair. Outside the town were three wooden wharfs, the principal one being the King's Wharf which allowed ships to load or unload without the use of sampans. Higher up the River, beyond the limits of the town, was the China Wharf where Chinese merchants conducted business.
According to “Cities of the World”: Yangon (formerly Rangoon) is a British and Indian creation. Although Myanmar villages existed near the great Shwedagon Pagoda for many centuries, modern Yangon dates from about 1852, when it was designated the capital for British-held Lower Myanmar. British firms were brought in to develop the economy of the new colony, and Indian workers and business representatives followed in great numbers. The Myanmars remained a minority in Yangon until after independence in 1948, and even today Yangon's atmosphere is far more multiracial than that of other Myanmar cities.
Yangon’s colonial architecture is a legacy of the British Empire at its height. Most of Yangon's colonial-era Baroque and Beaux Arts-style buildings — the largest collection in Southeast Asia — were erected between 1900 and 1920. After the 1948 independence of Burma they housed government agencies — until 2005, when Myanmar's secretive military government relocated the capital 200 miles north to Naypyidaw.
Denis D. Gray of Associated Press wrote:“There's nowhere in Asia like it any more: a cityscape studded with hundreds of grand and humble buildings from the colonial era amid multiethnic communities that have remained intact, vibrant and colorful for a century and more. Yangon has been bypassed by the rapid modernization that has bulldozed the past in virtually every other Asian metropolis. Yangon is being described as "a city that captured time." [Source: Denis D. Gray, Associated Press, June 26, 2012]
From “The Strand, a legendary hotel built in 1901 along the riverside promenade and near jetties where tourists disembarked to enter a land once known as Burma...in less than an hour's stroll, visitors are treated to a smorgasbord of structures and styles from the British colonial era: Victorian, Queen Anne, Neoclassical, Art Deco and an amalgam of British and Burmese. Many of the buildings are clustered along streets laid out in a chessboard pattern centered on the Sule Pagoda, with its soaring, golden spire.
“Sarah Rooney, author of the just published "30 Heritage Buildings of Yangon," says her favorites include the Pegu Club and the Lokanat Gallery Building. The club, built of teak, is rather derelict, and thus more evocative and atmospheric, she says, than many heritage buildings in Asia that have been subjected to extreme makeovers. Once the colony's most exclusive and snobbish enclave, it hosted the likes of Rudyard Kipling, who is said to have written his rollicking poem "The Road to Mandalay" after drinks with soldiers returning from that city in 1889. The Lokanat building, Rooney says, is "the symbol of Yangon's cosmopolitanism." Erected in 1906 by a Baghdadi Jewish trader, it was once the city's most prestigious business address, housing a Filipino hairdresser and Greek leather merchant along with purveyors of Egyptian cigarettes, German beer and British candy.
“Thant Myint-U, a Western-educated historian who heads the Yangon Trust, noted that within a square mile of The Strand stood Roman Catholic, Protestant and Armenian churches, Shiite and Sunni mosques, a Jain temple, Hindu shrine and a newly refurbished synagogue, once the center of one of the biggest Jewish communities in Asia. Attracted by the country's immense natural resources, especially teak, oil and rice, fortune seekers and poor laborers poured in from around the world, turning Yangon into an international city. At times in the 1920s, it welcomed more immigrants than New York. Then came World War II and in 1962 a military coup, which ushered in a half-century of isolation, authoritarian rule and economic stagnation, which may well have been key in freezing Yangon and its residents in time.
“Some state-owned or fully utilized landmarks appear secure, including the British Embassy, Yangon General Hospital, St. Paul's School and City Hall, a mingling of European design and ornamentation inspired by Burmese temples. So is the most spectacular one of them all, the former Secretariat Building, seat of British colonial power. It was in this vast Victorian edifice that Aung San, revered father of Myanmar's independence and of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, was assassinated in 1947. Bids by a foreign investor to convert the building into a hotel sparked a public uproar, a hopeful sign that Yangon's citizens are prepared to stand up for their heritage.”
The Los Angeles Times reported: “The downtown grid on which Yangon's colonial "golden mile" rests was laid down after 1860 by British planners who demolished local huts and filled in swamps. Over the next 60 years, courts, post offices, police stations and customs and port authority buildings were erected.Although a few Burmese architects, such as Si Thu U Tim, managed to incorporate some Burmese design elements, notably the multi-tier roofs and spires on City Hall and the Central Railway Station, most of the structures were designed by far-off British architects who never visited Yangon, then called Rangoon. [Source: Los Angeles Times, February 11, 2011]
The British Empire had consolidated its position, with key social institutions "civilizing the natives," historians said. But the buildings also carried a subliminal message to locals: Be awed by Britain's power and superiority. Vertical designs that carry the eye upward, together with oversized foundations evoking strength and permanence placed in a symmetrical grid demanding order and control, helped achieve this effect, architects and historians said. "If you were Burmese in 1910, it would be quite awe-inspiring," one conservationist said.
Rangoon in the 1970s
Paul Theroux wrote in “The Great Railway Bazaar”: “ The decrepitude of the buildings in Rangoon is almost grand. The surfaces are shabby, but the shapes are extravagant, and the workmanship is obvious (Corinthian columns support one veranda; another, very graceful, is of wrought-iron lyres); their dereliction has splendor. Some have spires and others a score of ambitious balconies with pockmarked balusters or flowery balustrades, peeling yellow shutters, and lines of motionless wash hung out to dry—the clotheslines strung from the blossom of a cornice to the studs of that ornate pillar. Dates and names are given in medallions at the top of each building: 1903, 1914, 1922, 1927; Irrawaddy Chambers, Dawson's Bank, and The Chartered Bank (both painted out but legible). The defunct Burma Herald Building is high and whitewashed; and black metal urns decorate the parapet of the roof. The General Hospital is a seedy palace with towers and spires, bridges and buttresses and yellow cornices and parked in front are three tongas, a 1936 Chevy, and fifty patients. The High Court and the Secretariat, both with domes and spires, red brick, yellow trim. And dozens with names like The Suleiman Building, The Abdullah Building, Arya Samaj Hall, The Neogy Building; those signs are painted out too, and green government signs in white Burmese script are hung on the porticoes: National Bank, Revolutionary Government Reading Room, National Teak Marketing Board. On Sule Pagoda Road, there is a bizarre three-story building that would have made Wren wake up screaming: mullioned windows, crazily framed and blacked out, lozenge-shaped openings in crenellated towers, red battlements. This building bore two painted-out plaques—J. E. de Bain and The Castle—and one green government signboard—National Insurance Company. [Source: Paul Theroux, The Atlantic, November 1, 1971]
“On Bogyoke Aung San Street (formerly Montgomery) the Central Jail is being pulled down. The workmen were surprised to get a visitor and willingly showed me around the six enormous cell blocks which radiate in clumsy spokes from a central courtyard and administration building. They pointed out scratchings on the cell floors made in the teak planks by bored prisoners, the Burmese equivalent of tic-tac-toe. One man told me the place was one hundred seven years old—the seven gave the date a certain credibility; in fact, I couldn't imagine the Burmese pulling down a building less than a hundred years old. The only market in Mandalay is the Zegyo Bazaar, designed and built in 1903 by an Italian, Count Caldrari (who was also the first secretary of the Mandalay Municipality). I stole a small sign from over a cell door in the Central Jail. It reads: 56' BY 26½' BY 12'—CUBICAL CONTENTS 17967—ACCOMMODATION FOR 28. It is only a short hop from the Central Jail to the Pegu Club, now an Officers' Mess of the Burmese Army.The Pegu Club was to Rangoon what the Selangor Club was to Kuala Lumpur and the Tanglin Club to Singapore (but these two are still going strong). The sentry said that he would have let me look around, but as it happened, a senior officer (the sentry bulged his eyes to illustrate how senior) had just arrived and was inside.
“I was in Rangoon at the suffocating height of the Burmese summer, which may account for my impression of the city being one of lassitude and exhaustion. But Richard Curle used those same words when he visited in 1923. In Into the East (preface by Joseph Conrad) he speaks of the city over which hovers "so queerly the breath of stagnation." The rats and pariah dogs wait for the cool of the evening to scavenge; during the day only the crows are active, soaring in the blazing sun, in a perfectly cloudless sky. It must have been a bustling place in the twenties, as those dates on the medallions show and as Curle maintains ("'Boy, give me a chit,' resounds here and there ... "); but the medallions have been painted out, and the green signs of the Revolutionary Government have begun to fade and peel. The city is moribund, flanked by coffee-colored rivers on which there is not a shadow of a ripple; and most of the buildings in Rangoon are demonstrably more decrepit than the eleventh-century temples at Pagan.
“But the people—generous, hospitable, curious, so alert and quick to smile, neatly dressed in a place where all cloth is at a premium—they are in such contrast to the dead city that it is as if they have, all of them, just arrived and are padding down those sidewalks for the first time. Their appreciation of the city's few beauties is acute: the Shwedagon Pagoda, the several lovely cathedrals, the Scott Market, the flowering trees in Maha Bandoola Park—clusters of heavy yellow blossoms hanging in bunches on the trees like grapes on a vine. In Maha Bandoola Park there is an obelisk, the Independence Monument. "Look at it closely," said my Burmese friend. I looked. "Very pretty." "Look again," he said. "You see? It's not straight. It bends." The remark was, I decided, profoundly political. He had said that he drank beer once a year, one bottle. I asked whether he had had this year's bottle yet, and when he said no, we went to the Strand Hotel—both of us for the first time (but he had lived several blocks away for thirty-five years)—and squandered three dollars on two small bottles of pale ale. A few hours later the orchestra was playing Rudolf Friml, and down Strand Road clattered a 1938 Nash.
For the most part Yangon is a flat, neglected city with parks, residential neighborhoods and blocks of dirty buildings that bring a place like Calcutta to mind. There are no skyscrapers and few modern buildings. The only real hill is topped by the golden stupa of Shwedagon Pagoda. One Yangon’s great charms is the large number of old trees that make much of the city seem like a forest with some buildings popping up out of it.
There was virtually no new construction in Yangon between 1948, when the British left, and 1990 when the government began opening up to the outside world a little and some investment money started to trickle in from Singapore and Hong Kong. Yangon experienced a construction boom of sorts in the mid-1990s when some new hotels and office complex were built. But construction slowed in the late 1990s, when they government raised its level of repression a couple notches and the investment money stopped flowing in. In the early 2000s There were still many unfinished buildings.
A new construction boom has begun. It started in the early 2010s when the government of Thein Sein began launching reforms and invetsment money began flowing back in. Fo many this is bad news. Several low- and mid-market malls have sprouted up in recent years, most a few miles from the run-down, old downtown area where the vintage buildings are concentrated, raising concern that Yangon will become just another noisy, ugly Asian city of mini-malls and sprawl.
Decay of Yangon’s Colonial-era Buildings
The Los Angeles Times reported in 2011: “Preservationists fear that Yangon's several hundred colonial-era buildings will succumb to voracious Chinese property developers with a history of building tacky shopping malls for a quick buck. "As more money comes in, particularly Chinese money, we'll see wholesale demolition," said Ian Morley, a research assistant professor of urban history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "Yangon presents itself as a city that time forgot. But I'd say it's a city that captured time." [Source: Los Angeles Times, February 11, 2011]
“Rumors, often the only available information because of the regime's media restrictions, suggest that Chinese investors have purchased several downtown colonial sites to level and redevelop once Myanmar's consumer economy picks up. Few expect the Chinese, who are Myanmar's closest ally and biggest investor, would be interested in preserving a colonial legacy bequeathed by a country with which China fought the Opium Wars.
“The British colonial-era buildings in Yangon are in dire need of repair after years of neglect. Some of the buildings are now caged behind chain-link fences, windows sagging and roofs collapsed, the smell of crumbled brick and rotting wood wafting onto the broken sidewalks. Others still stand proud, like the Immigration Building, once among Asia's largest department stores, and the stately red High Court building with its six-story clock tower, yellow detailing and domed roof.
“Although many Asian cities would welcome such a legacy to distinguish themselves, vision remains in short supply in a country struggling to build basic housing. Nor are all the 200-plus buildings worth saving, most agree, given the longtime deterioration, uneven quality and outdated layouts often unsuited to modern lifestyles. Aung Soe Min, owner of Yangon's Pansodan Gallery, unrolls several British and Japanese imperial maps in his collection, pointing out changes over the years to street names and the cityscape. Far from appreciating a downtown once described as the "garden city of the East," he said, landlords here often underplay a building's age — the facade of his building reads 1995 rather than the 1936 reality — fearful of government condemnation. In March 2010, a 15-year-old girl was killed after a decrepit building on Shwe Bontha Street collapsed.
Preserving Colonial Era Yangon
Denis D. Gray of Associated Press wrote: Now, as Myanmar opens its long-closed doors to the outside world, including a rapidly growing number of tourists, a major effort has been launched to preserve both Yangon's architecture and enchanting atmosphere from rampant development and decay. "We have a gift in Yangon but we need to act urgently or it will be lost forever," Zin Nwe Myint, an expert on urban issues said at conference organized by the newly founded Yangon Heritage Trust.[Source: Denis D. Gray, Associated Press, June 26, 2012]
"In Yangon, we still have a lot of living heritage as well as atmosphere and social networks that have been built up around and grown within these old buildings over many decades," said Hlaing Maw Oo, an official with the Ministry of Construction, urging that this heritage must be nurtured along with Yangon's extensive green spaces, lakes and gracious suburban villas. Other recommendations include setting height limits on new construction, conservation training, an awareness campaign and a listing, with solid legal research, of all buildings that cannot be demolished. The municipality currently provides a measure of protection for 188 sites.
“Also being debated is how best these sites can be utilized for the benefit of both Yangon residents and tourists. There is general consensus that some will have to be turned into profit-making hotels and commercial enterprises while others should house art galleries, museums and schools that would probably need subsidies. "We are at the watershed of this city's history," Yangon Mayor Myint Swe told the conference. "We want to see Yangon as a 21st century city but also want to preserve the best of our heritage. I have no illusions about the challenges we face, but we will learn from the mistakes of other Asia cities."
“Many buildings that used to house government departments have been left vacant since 2005, when the regime moved the capital to Naypyitaw and put them up for sale. Fear is that some will deteriorate beyond repair or be bought and demolished by developers. Many privately-owned buildings, still unprotected, have already been torn down and invariably replaced by ugly, multistory structures that are breaking up the once uniform skyline.”
The Los Angeles Times reported: “The military government placed 189 religious and colonial-era buildings on a preservation list in 2001, but saving old buildings isn't its top priority, given ethnic unrest, criticism over November's rigged election and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's recent release after years in detention. "Anyone can make a list," said Chris Davy, a Myanmar Times photographer. The regime mostly focuses on its new center, Naypyidaw, a shiny propaganda showcase that is largely bereft of history or character. [Source: Los Angeles Times, February 11, 2011]
“Yet local government and civic groups have some interest in preservation to bolster tourism. "There's huge potential," said Aung Myat Kyaw, marketing head of the Yangon-based Myanmar Tourism Promotion Board. "But it's difficult." Those supporting preservation lack money, expertise or approval from the ironfisted regime. "The problem is that orders come from other places," said Si Thu Mying Swe, a principal with Yangon's ST&T Architects. "You have to be careful not to rock the chairs." Cities in neighboring countries, such as Malaysia's Malacca, have seen their restoration efforts energized after obtaining UNESCO World Heritage Site status.”
“Over at the 5th Street Bar in the dilapidated old downtown area, plaster has been stripped away to reveal original brickwork and expansive ceilings as part of one of the few completed renovations. Other reconstruction projects include the elegant white Strand Hotel with its columns and elaborate covered walkway near the waterfront, reported to have cost $38 million, and $150,000 in renovations to the interior of the white Myanmar Times building, once a government printing office, opposite St. Mary's Cathedral. "Chinese trading companies would rather destroy these and make a bright shiny office building," said Anthony Alderson, the 5th Street Bar's owner. Renovations are expensive, and the government's stingy lease and visa policies with regard to foreigners discourage smaller investors from opening boutique hotels and up-market restaurants, Alderson and others said.
Local opinion on the buildings, difficult to gauge precisely in a nation without free media or any form of polling, seems ambivalent. "They're all right, but many are a bit old-fashioned and unsafe," said a teacher in front of the fenced-off red-brick Railway Administration Building. Nor has Myanmar placed much value on preserving even its own traditional structures, some said, with new rulers frequently razing and rebuilding capital cities. That's led some to question the "we know what's best for you" tone of preservation supporters. "As foreigners, we really have to think about our own motives," said Davy, who hopes to photograph the structures before it's too late. "Admiring a run-down building is a lot different than living in a run-down building."
Foreigners who fear Myanmar will repeat the West's urban planning mistakes, including ugly highways and slapped-together structures, say neighborhood groups, tourism companies, developers and the government should cooperate to save this valuable legacy. But optimism, along with the requisite budgets and political will, is difficult to come by. "In reality, no one's really offering up an effective plan," Davy said. "I don't know anyone who holds out great hope." "People must recognize that life moves on and not try to turn this into Disneyland," said Amelie Chai, American co-principal of Yangon-based Spine Architects who, with her Burmese husband, oversaw the renovation of the Myanmar Times newspaper building.
Saving Yangon’s Colonial Buildings in the Face of Rapid Development:
Kate Linthicum wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The lack of Western investment had an unexpected benefit for preservationists: Much of Yangon was left an architectural time capsule... Scores of Victorian, Art Deco and neoclassical buildings still line downtown Yangon's noisy streets. These relics tell the story of Myanmar's modern history, he said, of its decades under British colonial rule and fight for independence. [Source: Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times, January 7, 2014]
Hundreds of colonial-era structures have been destroyed in recent years to make way for modern ones like the Centrepoint tower. Completed last year, the glassy 25-story skyscraper looms over a historic block that includes the dilapidated 100-year-old Supreme Court building and City Hall, which, with its white paint and intricately tiered roof, draws easy comparisons to a wedding cake.
The condition of many older buildings makes them targets for tear-down. The Corinthian columns have crumbled at the building that once housed Sofaer's department store, and mildew has sprouted from its domed tower. Other once-grand buildings have been subdivided into crowded apartments, with residents stringing laundry across staircases.
Developers from Thailand and China helped lead a building boom here in the 1990s, when sanctions against the ruling generals kept European and American firms out. Those strictures were dropped in 2012 after President Thein Sein loosened government reins on the media and free speech and released Suu Kyi, who had been confined to house arrest.
A gold rush has followed, with investors seeking to profit from Myanmar's oil and natural gas riches. In Yangon today, rent in air-conditioned office buildings is higher than in downtown Manhattan as international firms flock to build power plants, develop telecommunications networks and improve Myanmar's notoriously bad roadways. Coca-Cola and Nissan are among the major brands opening plants.
Dinis Madaleno Rodrigues, a Portuguese hotelier with slicked-back hair and a booming baritone, relocated to Yangon this year to explore investment opportunities. Over drinks in the smoky bar at the Strand Hotel, he cited a recent report from McKinsey & Co., a U.S.-based consulting firm, that predicts nearly 20 percent growth in the tourism industry in coming years. "There's a certain excitement to go to a place nobody has ever gone to before," Rodrigues said. "Basically this is the last frontier. If you want to be modern, you want to go somewhere nobody has ever been."
Text Sources: Myanmar Travel Information, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books and other publications.
Last updated August 2020