RANGOON — Standing at the balcony of Yangon Heritage Trust office on Pansodan Street, Laetitia Millois pointed to British colonial buildings on the opposite side and said this: “This street is special. It has a big concentration of big colonial-era buildings.”
“From here you can have a good image of what Rangoon was in the beginning of 20th century— a very important cosmopolitan city.”
But twenty Rangoon residents, all Burmese, who gathered at the Yangon Heritage Trust on Saturday morning for a free Burmese-language walking tour around downtown didn’t seem to fully understand what the researcher from the heritage conservation group just said.
In their eyes, the buildings with Florence-styled red domes and pagoda-inspired white entrance towers, sitting at the corners of Bank Street and Pansodan Street, were nothing more than a dilapidated government’s divisional court and economic bank that they have passed by every day for most of their lives.
“That building with the white tower was built in 1941, and it used to be a Standard Chartered Bank. At that time it was considered the most modern building in Southeast Asia,” the researcher explained through a volunteered interpreter.
“Wow,” some in the crowd uttered.
“The red-dome building was the Accountant-General’s Office built in the 1900s and it used to be a financial center for Burma where the government collected taxes,” she continued, saying that the building was partly ruined during the Japanese occupation in early 1940s and destruction is still visible at the back of the building.
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“It’s the only testimony today of the Japanese bombs. So you see: one building, many stories.”
Organized by the Yangon Heritage Trust, the tour around the lower Pansodan area, where many colonial building are situated, is the first-ever walking tour for Rangoon residents to learn more about their city’s impressive history, which rivals that of some of the world’s greatest cities.
Thant Myint-U, chairman of the trust and a historian, told the Irrawaddy via an email that the tour is part of what the group hopes will be a sustained advocacy campaign over the coming months and years that will preserve the city’s architectural heritage.
“We want people to understand the value of what we have in downtown Rangoon, and to appreciate how important it is to save and restore this heritage and integrate it into a vision of a modern, 21st-century Yangon,” he said.
Since 2012, the trust has been advocating for heritage protection and helping the government develop proper urban land use management laws and policies to ensure that the rapid growth of the city’s real estate sector does not come at the expense of its heritage.
Thanks to advocacy efforts by the Yangon Heritage Trust and several other organizations, a Rangoon municipal committee is now drafting a zoning law that will only allow construction of new buildings no taller than four to six stories in Rangoon’s historic downtown area.
Until recently, Rangoon was considered ‘a city frozen in time’ after it spent nearly five decades in international isolation and economic stagnation as a result of brutal military rule and economic sanctions imposed by western countries against the regime.
But in its heydays in the 1920s, the historian noted, the city became one of the greatest immigrant ports in the world, in one year exceeding even New York in the number of people arriving, turning it into a cosmopolitan city.
Even today, the remains of this illustrious past still line both sides of lower Pansodan Street, including the old offices of Hong Kong-Shanghai Bank, Lloyds, Standard and Charted, Thomas Cook, Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, Bombay Burma Trading Company.
A lack of development under the military regime left entire streets of old buildings untouched in this former capital of the Southeast Asian country, creating one of the world’s best preserved colonial cityscapes today.
But after more than one century, for many Rangoon residents today the historical significance of the buildings their city is famous has been beyond their knowledge.
Many buildings that were used as government offices were left largely empty as the military moved the seat of government to Naypyidaw in 2005; these remain in danger of having to be demolished to make way for looming real estate development after reforms introduced since 2011 have opened the door to economic growth and foreign investment.
Were it not for explanation from an expert, some Rangoon residents might have viewed the old, dilapidated structures as just an eyesore deserved to be torn down for modern development.
This is where the Yangon Heritage Trust comes in.
On Saturday, a group of twenty people aged from 10 to 50 descended on the lower Pansodan area for one-and-half hour long tour to learn more about their city’s architectural heritage.
“This building used to be one of the most beautiful buildings in Rangoon,” said May Thu Khine, the tour leader, standing in front of a visibly derelict red building with a foliage creeping façade, broken windows at Bank Street.
She explained that it was built in 1905 and was owned for many decades by the Armenian Balthazar family and once housed the offices of several companies, including Siemens. It is now partially owned by the Ministry of Rural Development, Livestock and Fisheries.
“There are people living in the building, too. So it’s important that while preserving the building, we need to find a way not kick out those people but have them benefit from preservation,” she said, before heading to other landmarks such as the Renaissance Queen Anne-styled High Court building, the Central Telegraph Office, the old office of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company and the Sofaer building (currently known as ‘Lokanat building’ named after an art gallery on the first floor), the latter once housed the Vienna Café and German photographic studios.
Thant Myint-U said, as his organization will offer a monthly tour and would ideally like to expand the tour, both in area to places like the Secretariat but also in terms of what they can offer, and give people a chance to see inside many of these buildings as well.
“I would like the focus not only to be on the grand colonial-era buildings but also the smaller apartment buildings where many famous Burmese people once lived,” he added.
After the tour on Saturday, Nilar said she hadn’t known that much about the city she was born and has lived in for 50 years.
“Before the tour, I didn’t know how much internationally connected my native city was and that these colonial buildings have a colorful past,” said Nilar, a private company employee.
“Now I felt more sense of belonging to the city and I would like to urge anyone involved to preserve the heritage we have, as most of these buildings are in urgent need of restoration.”