In Burma: Discovering Rangoon’s colonial heritage

If tourists visit just one place when they are in Yangon it tends to be Shwedagon pagoda. “A golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon – a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun,” is how Rudyard Kipling described the temple, which dates back at least the 15th century, but some say it is much older.

This gilded pagoda on the edge of Burma’s largest city – which is said to contain eight hairs of the Buddha and is the country’s holiest shrine – boasts nearly 5,000 diamonds and many gems. As the sunset sets on the glistening pagoda, the surrounding plaza is filled with locals praying and tourists taking photographs of this wonderful gold monument.

Shwedagon pagoda

Some unfortunately miss downtown Yangon (known as Rangoon until 1989, when the country officially became Myanmar), which was laid out in the mid 19th century as a new capital for the British after they conquered southern Burma in Second Anglo-Burmese War. Designed by colonial architects to follow a geometrical grid plan, it was built on an area of recovered swampland, near to a small village. Sule pagoda lies at its very centre.

Today, many of the colonial era buildings are crumbling, a victim of Burma being closed to the outside world for two decades and subsequent western sanctions – an area I’ll cover in subsequent blogs in this series. It is hard to imagine Rangoon was once a thriving mercantile capital that was as important as Calcutta, Singapore and Shanghai, and in 1927 was described as a “world at its zenith.”

“Cinema houses, bearing such names as the Palladium, Excelsior, Globe and Carlton were a great attraction for the inhabitants. Trams and buses… piled the city,” wrote one resident in a memoir of family life in pre independent Burma. “Living in Rangoon meant that one was exposed to the cosmopolitan features of the city and had access too all the amenities of modern-day living – thanks to the presence of an alien ruling class who made sure that this little corner of earth lacked nothing more that they were used to in their own country and, in many ways offered more.”

Myanmar Port Authority headquarters building

One of the best places to visit to get a flavour of the city’s colonial past is at the Strand Hotel, which first opened in 1901. Described by John Murrary in his Handbook for Travellers in India, Burma and Ceylon as “the finest hostelry East of Suez,” it was soon acquired by the Sarkies brothers who also owned Raffles in Singapore and other famous luxury hotels. The author George Orwell noted that “you could enjoy French cuisine and fine wine at the renowned Strand Hotel on the riverfront”. Rudyard Kipling and Lord Mountbatten are also said to have visited.

The hotel was occupied by the Japanese during the Second World War and after the conflict an unexploded bomb was found inside. After independence in 1948 it fell into disrepair, but following a mass refurbishment in the 1989, and again in 2016, this wonderful building has been brought back to its former glory, with chandeliers and charming ceiling fans. The air conditioned eateries are a calm oasis against the chaos of the congested streets outside. Attentive staff serve both local and international cuisine at the fine dining Strand Restaurant and the Strand Cafe. Being the festive season when I visited, after eating I popped into the bar, which is filled with period furniture, for a ‘Santa hat’ cocktail.

Unfortunately, as I discovered on a fascinating walking tour run by the Yangon Heritage Trust – an NGO set up in 2012 with the aim of creating a citywide conservation plan for Rangoon’s historical buildings – not all structures are in such a good shape. Some in the colonial district have been standing empty since the government moved most key ministries to the new capital Naypyitaw in 2005.

Britain in Burma

The first British presence in Burma was in the form of the small colony of Cape Negrais, which was established in 1753. But it was in the 19th century when Britain made its main conquests, beginning during the First Anglo-Burmese War of 1824 to 1825 when the British seized Arakan, Manipur, Assam and much of southern Burma. It came at a cost however – some 15,000 British and Indian soldiers’ lives were lost during the conflict.

In 1852 came the Second Anglo-Burmese War when the remainder of the south fell to the British and they established their new capital of Rangoon. The Third Anglo-Burmese War of 1885 completed Britain’s conquest of Burma and the country became a province of British India. King Thibaw, who had taken the throne in 1878 and and had refused to grant British merchants the trading concessions they demanded, was forced into exile on the west coast of India, where he died in 1916.

Burma was seen as offering great trading opportunities, particularly with China. “Supposing that the entire commerce of south-west China and independent Burma were added to that of British Burma, we may conceive what a vast opening there would be for the merchants of Great Britain,” wrote one British merchant at the time of First Anglo-Burmese War.

Rangoon did indeed become an extremely rich city thanks to its expanding port. Author Richard Crockett noted in his excellent book, Blood, Dreams and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma, that the value of exports in 1900 were five times what they had been in 1870. And by 1927 it was recorded that they had grown by 20 times in that five and a half decade time period.

Colonial quarter

Pansodan Street, just around the corner from the Strand Hotel, was the most bustling and prestigious of streets when the British ruled Burma. Stretching north from the busy port, it was here that sailors would visit shops, banks and other commercial offices when they first arrived.

The crumbling structure that somehow now operates as the Yangon Divisional Court used to be the British Accountant General, where taxes were collected on products ranging from opium to teak. It stands opposite the wonderful Myanmar Port Authority headquarters building, which is decorated with images of ships and anchors, while also boasting arched windows an imposing tower.

Yangon Divisional Court (previously British Accountant General)

Many of the commercial enterprises in Rangoon were operated by Scottish companies (some have said the city resembles Glasgow) and had their offices on Pansodan Street. What is now the Inland Water Transport office was built in the 1930s as premises for the Scottish-owned Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, boasting classical columns. Some of the space was given over to officers’ quarters. Before the Second World War it had around 600 vessels, but when the Japanese were approaching the British ordered that the boats be destroyed. On the other side of the road is a building that was used by Ascott & Co, a Scottish exporter and importer of a range of good, including wines and spirits.

Formerly Irrawaddy Flotilla Company premises

Nearby were the offices of the Burmah Oil Company, a company founded by a Scot called David Cargill and which had a monopoly on Burma’s oil fields until 1901. In time the country produced over one million of tons of crude a day. Other trading houses in the area helped the British (and other Europeans) make their fortunes from teak (Burma was said to boast the finest and most extensive supplies in the world), rubber and other goods.

Bank Street was where banks opened to serve the port in colonial times. Today most have unimaginative titles (like Myanmar Economic Bank 2), dating from the time when the government nationalised financial institutions in the 1960s. The state seized control of the likes of organisations operated by Standard Chartered, a company which had arrived in Burma in 1862 and was particularly involved in financing agriculture.

“When it opened, the building was considered to be one of the most-up-to-date structures in the East,” author Roger Cockett wrote of the Standard Chartered building (completed 1941). “Apart from its new bank vaults especially made in England, it also boasted the city’s first underground parking lot. The original interior is still preserved, as are the working methods of the of the employees.” The account adds: “Fans suspended from the ceiling still whit noiselessly over polished teak counters as tellers reverently through small pieces of paper.”

One of the most famous banks is now the Yangon Stock Exchange, which recently gave approval for a fifth company to be listed.

But entering a structure, which was once an Armenia-owned trading house, highlighted how restoration is urgently needed. The Italian marble floor remained in place, but the ceiling and walls were crumbling. The rusty elevator looked like it hadn’t worked for years and the cast iron staircase had also seen better days. It now apparently has about 10 different owners, who use rooms for everything from repairing computers to residential accommodation (there was washing hanging on a line in the ground floor hall way), so getting consensus for repair work to be completed will be no mean feat.

Near to Bank Street is Mahabandola Garden, an area of greenery, which used to have a statue of Queen Victoria standing in the centre. The monument was replaced by a Japanese war memorial during the Second World War, which in turn was substituted for the present Independence Monument. Formerly called Fytche Square (named after Albert Fytche, Chief Commissioner), it is a good place to stand and admire many fine colonial buildings.

The most prominent is the City Hall, a white-painted Neoclassical building dating from 1924, with oriental decorative motifs added the following year. It is fascinating to compare black and white photos showing the plain, original structure and contrast it against the later features, including pagoda-topped roofs and depictions of peacocks and serpents.

On this side of the park is also the colourful Sule Pagoda, the centre point of downtown Yangon from which all other streets converge. Lit up at night, it is enclosed by a ring of shops. Some say it dates back to the Mon period in the 10th century, but the 43-metre high stupa was enlarged in the mid-15th century. To the right of City Hall, the building which is now a branch of AYA Bank was built in 1910 as the Rowe & Co. Department Store. Known as the “Harrods of the East” it survived until 1964 when it was taken over by the army.

The Neoclassical Supreme Court building in 1911, with a red-brick clocktower, is a popular place for people to get married today. It is next door to the Immanuel Baptist Church, a replacement for the church paid for by an American missionary in 1885 (the original was destroyed in the Second World War).

George Orwell, who was aged 19 when he arrived in Burma to join the British government’s police training scheme, was quite dismissive of the country as a whole – “five boring years within the sound of Bugles,” he said. But he had more positive words to say about Rangoon specifically. Posted in the city after a year in the Delta. As well the ability to “listen to the latest dance records at the Gymkhana Club” he recorded: “The rush to Smart and Mookerdum’s bookshop for new novels out from England, the dinner at Anderson’s with beefsteaks and butter that had travelled eight thousand miles on ice…”

The most famous social venue for British officials was the Pegu Club, but sadly became virtually derelict in recent years. Here guests could drink cocktails and play snooker. But like most colonial clubs, the Burmese weren’t allowed to enter.

“Drink is what keeps the machine going,” said John Flory in Orwell’s Burmese Days of the colony’s club culture. “We should all go mad and kill one another in a week if it weren’t for that.”

It was also about creating a place that reminded them of home. “Whether it was a well-equipped compound in the capital or a one-room shack in the mountains, the club retained its status as a fortress within which the British inhabitants of Burma re-created for themselves the comforting and unshakeable mores of English society,” journalist Emma Larkin wrote in her book, Finding George Orwell in Burma.

The most impressive of all colonial buildings in Rangoon has to be the vast former Secretariat, which occupies a whole block in downtown and was built to house the seat of colonial government. The red-brick Neo-Classical structure boasts the 37,000 square metres of floor space and the first phase was completed in 1902.

Former Secretariat

It was also here where General Aung San was gunned down and after independence, as the Minsters’ Building, it was used to house the newly formed Burmese cabinet. But it was vacated when government left in 2005 for new capital and has been standing empty ever since. Plans were announced to turn the building into a hotel, but locals weren’t happy and its now earmarked to be made into a city museum.

Buildings at a crossroads

When Burma opened to international investment again from 1989 many of Rangoon’s older buildings started to be demolished to make way for modern apartment blocks. But if you explore the busy backstreets – where what seem like endless food stalls occupy the pavements – some of the remaining, but crumbling tenement blocks survive from the British era. They may have noisy air conditioning units clamped on their front and many are in need of painting, but they have tended to keep the idea of shops on the ground floor and apartments on upstairs.

Rangoon’s old colonial buildings, once again now stands at a crossroads. With Burma taking a further step forward following reforms introduced from 2012 (more of which in a subsequent blog), there is a rush to accommodate the international firms wanting to establish a presence. The new money should on paper be good news for the city, but it often cheaper to build glitzy new modern structures than renovate old ones.

The Yangon Heritage Trust is playing an important role in arguing that restoring old colonial buildings can be good for tourism. Much of the city’s port activity will move to a new location, away from downtown Yangon, which will open up a vast area of open space. The lucrative option would be to fill it skyscrapers, but the Trust has generated computer images of what it would be like if at least part of the vacated land was opened as a riverfront park. This could be just the catalyst that modern Yangon needs.

Mahabandola Garden (formerly called Fytche Square)