Colonial past could be the saving of Rangoon

Burmese city's decaying architectural gems would be a magnet for tourists, but now they are at risk from developers

Rising from Rangoon's cracked and chaotic streets is an extraordinary collection of colonial buildings – some elegant, some imposing, some delicate – but nearly all neglected and threatened by demolition to make way for new office blocks and shopping malls.

When Britain's colonial officers left Burma on independence in early 1948, they bequeathed a messy political legacy but also an array of grand buildings. Stored behind these red brick or pastel-painted stucco facades are secrets from a forgotten era when Rangoon was the most cosmopolitan city in South-east Asia.

Many of the buildings were taken over, perhaps grudgingly, by the military authorities who seized power in 1962 and have governed the country ever since. But the abrupt relocation of the government to a new, purpose-built capital, Naypyidaw, in 2005 has accelerated the neglect of Rangoon's colonial relics. And as a wave of Chinese investment in the country has developers looking for new downtown plots, these crumbling buildings are under greater threat than ever.

"We're at a tipping point for Rangoon's architectural heritage," the Burmese historian Thant Myint-U said. "Some of the buildings have not been properly maintained and are reaching a point where they simply can't be renovated and will have to be pulled down. And with economic growth and the mini-construction boom that's under way, there's also the possibility that developers will want to tear down even the better-kept buildings to make way for new condominiums or shopping centres."

Today, with the street air thick with diesel fumes from decrepit Japanese cars and broken pavements spattered with the red spit of betel nut chewers, it takes a leap of imagination to envisage Rangoon as it was a century ago, when the city boomed on exports of rice and timber and its infrastructure and municipal services put it on a par with London.

Back then, the immaculate shop floors of the Rowe & Co department store, one of the largest and most stylish emporiums in pre-war Asia, were replete with European fashions, home wares and familiar comforts for homesick British colonialists. Now its grand entrance is boarded up, windows are smashed and its listing wrought iron portico houses hawkers selling tangerines or DVDs.

The turreted red-brick Secretariat – scene of the assassination of Burma's independence hero General Aung San, the father of the present-day democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi – is fenced off and used as a barracks for a large city centre presence of police. A few streets away, the imposing police headquarters, with its neoclassical columns, is home to more battalions of officers, its grand rooms used as dormitories or makeshift kitchens, while washing lines for police uniforms are strung up along its carefully proportioned balconies looking out to the Rangoon River.

The variety of styles of buildings constructed from the late 19th century is astounding. Colonial architects brought with them the fashions of the decade, often mixing the latest European styles with oriental influences, creating a dramatic and eclectic cityscape. Sturdy red-brick buildings reminiscent of northern English cities stand near apartment buildings painted pale blue and green, with shuttered windows, filigree balconies and steep wooden stairs.

"The same economic influences that built the grand old mills and commercial firms of Manchester's city centre and Sheffield University's red-brick buildings after the industrial revolution helped to build colonial Rangoon, and the physical resemblances are startling," said Dr Su Lin Lewis, a fellow at the Institute of Historical Research in London. "In contrast, the city's narrow apartment buildings have resonances in downtown Calcutta and Chinese shophouses in Penang and Singapore. The whole of Rangoon is so unique and evocative it could be used as a film set."

The fact that such buildings have survived owes more to Burma's retarded development than a strong will to preserve these gems. The isolationist policies of the country's military rulers restricted foreign business dealings in the 1960s and 1970s, and more recently US and European sanctions have deterred Western investment. So while cities such as Bangkok in Thailand underwent frenzies of development, Rangoon's centre has remained remarkably unchanged.

Conservationists say urban planners now have the chance to turn this period of economic stasis into opportunity, by protecting Rangoon's heritage to attract tourists and new investment.

"There's a tremendous opportunity to renovate the old buildings as part of an urban planning initiative and make Rangoon one of the most beautiful cities in Asia," said Thant Myint-U, author of the Burmese history The River of Lost Footsteps. "These buildings could be a big draw for future tourism and provide critically needed income for tens of thousands of ordinary people."

Efforts to preserve these buildings as a strategy to boost tourism would be particularly timely given the recent decision by the National League for Democracy – the party of Ms Suu Kyi – to relax its opposition to foreign tourists visiting Burma. Democracy activists have long called for a tourism boycott, saying that holidaying in Burma would only help to line the pockets of the military junta. But since her release from house arrest in November, Ms Suu Kyi has said that some tourism could be beneficial, so long as visitors snub large package tours and cruises.

A walk around almost any part of Rangoon seems to be rewarded with the discovery of a new treasure. Hidden behind a tangle of trees and creepers on a busy thoroughfare leading out of town is the teak-walled Pegu Club, where British imperial officers smoked cigars and played billiards, and whose eponymous cocktail – gin, lime juice, orange curaçao and bitters – is served in bars all over the world. A layer of dust and rat droppings covers the parquet floor, but its magnificent hardwood staircases are still standing and its original black light switches are still in place. A few renovations and a fresh coat of paint would restore it to its former glory.

Such a transformation has already occurred at the Governor's Residence, a 1920s mansion in the city's diplomatic quarter, which has been turned into a luxury hotel. On Rangoon's waterfront stands the Strand Hotel, with its liveried doormen, antique floor tiles and whirling ceiling fans. Built in 1901, it was a required stop on a steamship tour of Asia in the early 20th century, but under the regime of General Ne Win it fell into disrepair. Now, with the help of foreign investment, the Strand is once again a magnet for wealthy travellers.

"Rangoon's heritage buildings are an important part of the city's and the country's history and contain a wealth of cultural capital," Dr Lewis said. "They could become a draw for tourism as well as for creative development – some have already been restored as restaurants and hotels, but there's also room to restore them as museums, galleries and office buildings."

And there is more to the city than its colonial architecture. Rangoon boasts a pre-colonial Armenian church, a historic synagogue, antique Buddhist monasteries and the magnificent golden Shwedagon Pagoda, more than five centuries old.

In 1996, the Yangon City Development Committee (using the official name for Rangoon) issued a heritage list that includes 189 buildings that cannot be altered or demolished without the committee's permission.

This has helped to ensure the survival of many of the city's most important old buildings, the YCDC's chief engineer, Dr Zaw Win, said, although many, especially those owned by relocated government ministries, have been left to decay.

"Some people don't understand the value of these buildings," Dr Zaw Win said. At the same time Rangoon needs to move with the times, he said, and that would require the construction of more modern, efficient buildings. "In a few years time we want to see a more modern city, with new buildings constructed with the latest materials."

Rangoon residents say the city's narrow rows of century-old apartment buildings, which are excluded from the heritage list, are most at risk. "If a developer wants to build on a site, he can easily get the authorities to say a building is dangerous and must be pulled down," said a resident of a high-ceilinged, early 20th century apartment building in Bogalay Zay Street in central Rangoon.

Stone plaques that mark the year of construction, which would be lovingly restored and shown off in London, are kept hidden. "We are always worried that they will label our building as unsafe. We don't want to draw attention to the age of our building. We see beautiful buildings destroyed all the time. They can never be replaced."

Occupation and repression

1852 Britain annexes lower Burma, including Rangoon.

1937 Britain separates Burma from India and makes it a crown colony.

1942 Japan invades Burma.

1945 Britain liberates it from Japanese occupation.

1947 Aung San and six members of his interim government assassinated.

1948 Burma becomes independent.

1989 State Law and Order Restoration Council declares martial law; renames Burma Myanmar, with the capital, Rangoon, becoming Yangon. Aung San Suu Kyi is put under house arrest.

1991 Ms Suu Kyi awarded Nobel Peace Prize.

2003 She is taken into "protective custody" after clashes between her supporters and those of government.

2005 Burma moves seat of government to new site.

2007 Buddhist monks hold a series of anti-government protests. Ms Suu Kyi is allowed to leave her house to greet monks demonstrating in Rangoon. It is her first public appearance since 2003.

2008 Cyclone Nargis hits the low-lying Irrawaddy delta, killing up to 134,000.

2010 Government changes country's flag, national anthem and official name. Main military-backed party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), claims victory in first election for 20 years. Opposition groups allege widespread fraud. Ms Suu Kyi released from house arrest.

2011 February: Prime Minister Thein Sein picked as President.

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