Saturday, April 14, 2018

Walk in the Historical City

Before departing for Bagan on a domestic flight in late afternoon, I spent the morning on my last day in Yangon walking with a volunteer guide at Yangon Heritage Trust, an NGO formed a few years ago to advise, advocate and provide technical assistance in conserving many of the heritage buildings. Part of their work was to bring public awareness to their cause and shine light on the architecture and historical significance of many old structures that remained in the city, so they hosted guided tours twice a week on different routes, covering a good part of the city center.

I joined the one focusing on the eastern part of the city, as that’s the area I have not yet covered previously when I walked around by myself, and together with the group were several westerners, some expats living in the city and some on short-term visits like myself. Our tour began at the Yangon Heritage Trust building in an old house on lower Pansodan Road near to the river bank (The Strand). Over the balcony we looked at the Port Authority Building right next door, built in 1920 and still in use as government’s offices. Though what used to be the busiest port east of Suez Canal in early 20th Century right at the city center has now been reduced to a small container yard with only several berths for barge ships (there are now a more established container terminal slightly off downtown), but just looking at this grand building with the tall watchtower one could only imagine the good old days of Rangoon being an important trading post (for opium export, among other things) and the crème a la crème of the British Empire colonies (while Singapore was still pretty much a big rubber plantation and Hong Kong a fishing village – go figure how things have changed since)

Across the street was an even older building (circa 1907) which was used for Accountant-General's office and Currency Department and now the Divisional Court at the street corner. The building was in a sad run-down condition, with many of the windows broken and patched up, and the damage from Japanese bombing (yeah, that’s during WWII we are talking about) still evident on the side, but the pair of beautiful domes covered with red bricks were still standing – one reminded me of the one at Florence’s Duomo with the similar architecture style and color. There were much more historical buildings just on this street alone – including the old Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China (predecessor of the now Standard Chartered Bank) with the art deco-style building completed just before World War II and being one with the city’s first underground garage (how advanced they were ahead of times), the Rander House in the similar contemporary style finished about a decade before the Chartered Bank building, and the Indian-style old Oriental Life Assurance Building which now houses the Indian Embassy.

One could definitely imagine the influence and commercial success of the Sofaer brothers and their Sofaer & Company 100 years ago when they constructed their namesake building (now renamed Lokanat Building) at the corner of the busiest street junction in Yangon. Looking past the signs of aging and lack of maintenance, I could have thought the building was like one of those on Champs Elysees, with the magnificent structure, elaborate stonework on the façade and neoclassical pillars somewhat reminiscent of those on the “most beautiful street of Paris”. The interiors of the building told a totally different story of its grand exterior – there’s a mix of offices and residential units on the upper floors accessible only by stairs and I felt like nothing has ever done to keep this in livable condition except a few units given a modern retrofit (including the Lokanat Galleries on the first floor which hosts some interesting paintings by local artists), but the glimpse of the original tiled floor imported from Manchester inside one of the shops on the ground floor, gave the hope that it’s not a lost cause restoring this to its original beauty.

We made a detour off Pansodan Street into Seikkantha Street a few blocks down, which was interesting not only for a few heritage buildings on the block but the history behind them. The burgundy-colored Tubantia Building was unmistakable and unique, and said to be built in Dutch style. Once owned by a Dutch trading company as their warehouse and office when it’s first built in early 1900s, it then has become a major branch of “Bureau of Special Investigation”, BSI or the secret police, notoriously known as the government’s apparatus to keep an iron-grip rule and monitoring of its people during the military junta era. The guide told us only until a few years ago, no one would dare conjuring up in a small group looking around and talking like we were doing just now in this neighborhood, without being harassed and interrogated by one of the officers from the BSI. At the end of Seikkantha Street was The Strand, the legendary hotel  which I had the chance to step inside for a quick drink at the bar before dinner the night before. The building was built by the Armenian Sarkies brothers who also founded the well-known Raffles Hotel in Singapore at around the same period with the front of the building facing the Strand which ran along the river bank.

Given the status of the former Rangoon being an important port, there’s no surprise many of the heritage buildings were of the major British trading houses or shipping companies, especially those along the strand giving them direct access to the port facilities right along. The site of the British Embassy was once the headquarter of a now-defunct Scottish shipping company built in 1900, and the red-brick building which was now used as the General Post Office was originally built by a Scottish trading company in 1908 that went bankrupt during the Great Depression in between the wars and re-purposed for its current use since 1930 when the earthquake destroyed the original post office building. The General Post Office is still in operation today though not very reliable, as I was told by the fellow group member who lives in Yangon for 3 years. The interior was surprisingly well-maintained, relatively speaking, and I am most impressed with the stairways and railings still in its original form, evident by the engraving at the foot of the staircase which read “Glengarnock Steel”, the Scottish steelworks which ceased operations for over a century.

Along the way our guide explained more about the history of many other heritage buildings and shared some of the work the Trust has done with the government and private sectors to conserve those valuable architecture. It’s good to see some success in giving new lives in the old structures without having to demolish them along the streets we spent time walking through. Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist country but I am surprised there were quite a number of Christian churches around the city – the legacy of colonial rule I am sure but some are still in operations. The Armenian Church is one of the oldest in Yangon, built in 1862, with the old-school, Orthodox-style altar and arched window inside the building and a peaceful courtyard right outside.

We continued walking through the busy streets and concluded our tour with the stopover at The Secretariat building, the grandest colonial-era building of all of Yangon. It has much significance in recent history of Yangon and Myanmar as a whole, first built as the government headquarter of British Burma in the late 19th Century, then became famous as the ground where independence leader General Aung San was assassinated in 1947 before the country became independent a year later. During the military rule (which went from the 1960s until early 2000s), the building and the surrounding park was off-limit to the general public (except one day per year to commemorate the “Martyr’s day” which fall on the day of the assassination), for fear the place will become the breeding ground for public demonstration, and left pretty much neglected (with some part used as government office) until 2012 when work has started to restore the building with the plan to eventually open the whole compound fully to the public with museums and galleries and other facilities.

While the work is still in progress (at least until next year) and most of the structure still in scaffolding, part of the building is now open with photography exhibition up on the first floor in one of the wings since only a month ago. While visitors are now only given access to part of the building, I was at awe looking over such a vast complex with the red and yellow brick façade, long hallways through the long spiraling staircase with cast-iron railings, and the huge courtyard in the middle – “Just like Louvre, almost”, as I exclaimed looking over the complex from the first floor. And there's the hope that when the project is completed it will really be like Louvre with the ground being used as museum.

I am so glad to have the opportunity to learn a bit of the work done by the Yangon Heritage Trust, and for an enlightening experience learning from the guided tour looking into the history and culture through all these impressive architectural works. My Yangon impression wouldn’t have been completed without this morning walking tour and no one should miss it either.


More pictures from my Myanmar journey:

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