Inside Yangon’s Heritage Homes

Born in Canton in 1926, Daw Thein Nyunt spends mid-afternoons on her balcony overlooking Anawratha Road, Yangon

AS A WORK of oral history, Yangon Echoes is a rich anthology of fascinating life stories that explores notions and values of heritage and home. This popular history of buildings charts social space and urban folklore, linking past to present via living memories and welcomes readers behind the facades of Yangon’s heritage buildings to offer intimate views of life in the cosmopolitan city formerly known as Rangoon, Burma.

The storytellers speak of joy and tragedy, of life’s simple pleasures and aching issues. They candidly share their thoughts and feelings of living through Yangon’s emergence from decades of stagnation to engagement with a rapidly spinning world and these informal stories record everyday life through domestic connections to old places. Celebrating the contribution of the many different people who have made their homes in Yangon, the research explores the cultural fabric and shaping of Yangon, through stories told by inhabitants who know some of the city’s heritage places as home.

Traditional history concentrates on famous people and their powerful deeds. Dates of wars and revolutions, independence and democracy movements, significant events in economic and political spheres are recorded. But what do these events mean to folk going about their daily lives, feeding families, getting children to school and earning a living? Oral history values personal interpretation, the subjective over the objective. Folkloric, it speaks of events as remembered and told to us by our elders. It is often couched in the intangible, difficult to grasp and quantify, yet full of meaning. In this book, Yangon residents open their doors and share how they have experienced change on the domestic front.

Heritage is frequently described and measured in terms of significance, things that give meaning to our lives, carried from the past into the future. Significance has historical, cultural, architectural, artistic, spiritual and social dimensions. Institutions and governments often charge themselves with the task of deciding what relics are important enough to be preserved. Such selections are contrived to project a national narrative, the story of the day. In authorised versions, the voices, stories and ideas of common folk are frequently unheard.

Where heritage meets human rights, the question is: who values what? Who gets to say what is important and has meaning, in the home, building, city and country? These are questions of power, of individual values and choices. Recording everyday life through domestic connections to old places, Yangon Echoes is a popular history of buildings, charting social space and urban folklore linking past to present via living memories.

What is home? Ideally it is a place to rest and feel safe, to build strength and share. Beyond bricks and bamboo, homes are repositories of feelings and memories, of values and meanings. Home is a stage for household players, entering and exiting family lives. Most homes in the book are more than 100 years old, a mix of humble and grand places, some lovingly maintained, others completely derelict. Private rooms, shacks, apartments and houses, family and government buildings are visited. There are houses that were originally homes but now are not, and buildings that weren’t intended as homes but are today.

The storytellers speak of joy and tragedy, simple pleasures and aching issues. They share thoughts and feelings of living through Yangon’s emergence from decades of stagnation to engagement with a rapidly spinning world. Told with courage and charm, the informal stories of home offer insight into what has happened and is happening to the city. This is a sharing of heart. ‘We Burmese are survivors’, one storyteller concludes.

A gathering point, melting pot and great place to call home, Yangon is heralded as a city of diversity and tolerance. Through waves of migration, the city has absorbed people of diverse faiths bringing their spiritual beliefs and religious practices. People of many nationalities have played their part in Yangon’s development.When the British took over Burma in the 1850s, Yangon was a small, swampy settlement but a strategic river port. Legacies of that rule are lived in the grid layout of the central city and its impressive colonial structures. Merchant houses, banks and insurance companies, many from Scotland and Glasgow in particular, established themselves and built substantial offices designed by leading architects of the day. Rangoon grew into a sophisticated hub of global trade, thriving on exports of rice, teak and oil.

Indians and Chinese reached into Myanmar. The British brought indentured labour from India. Rice field workers came from South India, Tamils from Madras. People from Bihar worked the sugarcane plantations. Wealthy Chettiar moneylenders soon owned seventy percent of agricultural land. Engineers, doctors and most of the high-ranking administrators in the Secretariat, the seat of British administration, were Indian Hindus and Moslems. Much of Yangon’s business community was also Indian. Textiles were managed by people from Rajasthan and Memon. Gold, diamond and jewellery businesses were run by Gujaratis, who also handled rice milling. Hardware was the domain of people from Surat who ran Yangon’s Surti Bazaar, today the central market, Theingyi Zay. Wealthy Chinese migrated to Yangon rather than the Philippines, Singapore or Malaysia. Hokkien traders and Cantonese businessmen were drawn to emerging opportunities.

Vibrant and multicultural, Yangon became one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the British Empire. Lively and diverse neighbourhoods continue to define this city today. Buddhist pagodas, Shia and Sunni mosques, a Jewish synagogue, Roman Catholic and Anglican cathedrals, Hindu, Chinese, Parsi, Jain and Bahá’í temples nestle alongside one another downtown.
Some of the Yangon Echoes storytellers relate family tales of grandparents participating in anti-British strikes during the Great Depression’s attendant fall in rice prices. Others carry lasting imprints of the turbulent 1940s. Vivid childhood memories recall the devastating bombings of Yangon by both Japanese and British forces during World War II, scattering residents and leaving a once fine city in tatters. The signing of the Panglong (Pinlon) Agreement in February 1947 between the Burmese government under General Aung San and Shan, Kachin and Chin ethnic groups signalled progress towards national unity. With Burma on the cusp of becoming independent of British rule, optimism soon turned to tragedy. Everyone of age in this country remembers exactly what they were doing around half past ten on the morning of 19 July 1947, when Aung San and six of his cabinet members in waiting were assassinated.

Fractured shoots of democracy were eliminated by General Ne Win’s coup d’état in 1962. Installing a command economy on a nationalist mission, the socialist government eventually wiped out companies and trading houses overnight, appropriating all buildings, land and chattels listed as the property of private businesses. Many foreigners were obliged to leave the country at short notice. Nationalisation had painful consequences. For decades, citizens were forced to endure harsh living conditions imposed by the regime. Families faced daily challenges to sustain themselves amidst deteriorating infrastructure and ever-dwindling education and health services allocated a tiny percentage of the national budget. Violent army backlashes against the 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations and the 2007 Saffron Revolution remain deeply etched memories.

Confiscations of land have created festering issues of land title, with acrid disputes and prolonged court cases in train. Facing destruction by war, a monsoonal climate and voracious tropical termites making fast food of untended paper stacks, many documents lead a threatened existence in Myanmar. While the British colonial administration was renown for its intricate bureaucracy and meticulous record keeping, management of key land and property deeds over the past 50 years has not been systematically maintained. Enveloped by an inflating real estate bubble, many Yangon residents now must fight to prove rights of ownership and tenure to their homes. While some people dwell in heritage spaces through inheritance, others inhabit once grand buildings that in other cities might only ever belong to those of the utmost privilege and wealth, a knock-on effect of the forced march along the path of Burmese socialism.

When a brief window of open market policies during the 1990s funded new bridges and highways linking the city with outlying industrial areas, daily electricity outages and ineffective garbage collection seemed to counter suggestions of modernity. The cost for built heritage was the demolition of historic buildings for less substantial structures. In a surprise move in November 2005, the military junta relocated the capital from Yangon to Nay Pyi Taw, abandoning many government offices that once occupied former colonial buildings. Today, some of these spaces are kitchens, their hallways now dormitories and stairwells also laundries. The episodic repurposing of Yangon buildings has created some extraordinary living rooms.

Trees growing out of walls, wiring traps, dodgy plumbing, broken roofs, collapsing ceilings, unsound staircases and subsiding foundations are but a few of old Yangon’s afflictions. Natural disasters, such as Cyclone Nargis of May 2008, caused widespread and reverberating damage. With a ‘Dangerous Building’ classification by municipal authorities signalling impending demolition, even sound structures have been declared unsafe in order to generate profit on high-rise constructions. Holding onto one’s home has meanwhile become a matter of survival.

Enduring more than a century, many of Yangon’s antique buildings and the stories that go with them are being erased in the rush to modernise. Storytellers speak of their arrival at a crossroads. Since 2011, Myanmar has awoken from a deep slumber, with a state of great flux replacing stagnant isolation. With international economic sanctions against the State lifted, the doors for investment are wide open. While occupied buildings are cleared for new dreams, remnant natural spaces within the city are also being appropriated. Post-colonial transitions and modernisations unfolding over decades in much of Asia now stun Myanmar.

In Yangon, hotly contested ground has sent real estate prices and rentals rocketing. Demand for apartments, supermarkets and shopping centres now undermines the viability of low-rise heritage homes. Landowners and residents are made offers they can’t refuse. The amenity of the urban landscape is also challenged. As collateral damage of the quest to make it more car-friendly, pedestrians are losing pavement space and the shade of mature trees. A surfeit of advertising meanwhile proliferates wherever space permits. The entire city would appear to be one big ‘greenfields’ opportunity.

In an uncertain new era, chances to generate financial security are especially attractive. Yet conflicting values emerge. What is gained and what is lost? Who are the winners? The losers? Desires for a roof that doesn’t leak, clean surfaces, functional plumbing, safe electricity, and an operational lift are understandable. Many people are eager to embrace renewal, to make a fresh start. On the other hand, some inhabitants cling resolutely to virtual islands perceived as theirs. Through the rise and fall of empires built on rice, tea and cheroots, ancestral connections are maintained. Homes of character and charm, superb ventilation and natural light, with timbers worn smooth by time, nourish the sense of belonging. How does one quantify the value of lived-in spaces?

Entire communities, families, couples and those living alone make homes in Yangon’s heritage buildings. Some storytellers fondly remember lessons learnt from their grandparents or focus on spiritual values, while others cherish their knowledge of building materials, recall the memory of selling an antique to pay bills, or still wonder when an official letter will arrive requiring them to move. Many of the storytellers are elders who have spent their lives in just one place. Some are much younger, briefer visitors to a space with heritage values.  Their occupations include tailor, teacher, cook, station master, photographer, caretaker, fisherman, tour guide, student, cleaner, policeman, glassmaker, soldier, monk, lawyer, unemployed, civil servant, home maker, designer, doctor, delivery man, taxi driver, mathematician, religious scholar, aid worker, politician, merchant and engineer. They are Buddhist, Moslem, Hindu and Christian people with ancestral roots near and afar.

Strength of connection to place is evident as residents speak of their social lives and the births, deaths and marriages within their homes. The fuss and detail of a traditional ear-piercing ceremony attended by dozens of monks, celebrating the feast of Eid with a large extended family, hosting a grandchild’s birthday party or sharing a movie with neighbours. Residents often point out the prominent architectural elements of their homes, a now leaking roof once a source of pride with quality tiles from Marseilles, an intricate parquet floor dislodged by earthquakes, a main entrance never used, the favourite corners of kitchens and dining rooms, a lounge decorated with photos of graduations and religious teachers, a tiny shared bedroom, a balcony overlooking the Yangon River, a garden full of handy herbal remedies.

The gathering of the stories began through the age-old process of knocking on doors and having a chat over a cup of tea. Old abodes around the city were visited and their residents invited to participate. Sites more hidden away were suggested by word of mouth. Growing in breadth, the book embarked on plumbing the depth of Yangon’s character. Conversations were recorded over eighteen months, yielding more than a hundred and forty interviews. Over repeated visits, familiarity was built and friendships have been forged.
Our roles as listeners, documenters and oral historians led us into uncharted territory. Storytellers were naturally unsure of the outcomes of this creative endeavour. They asked, ‘Who do you think is going to read this book?’ and suggested that, ‘Other people have more important stories to tell. I am nobody special. If I talk about myself people will get the idea that I think I am someone.’ In Myanmar culture, ego is not promoted.

Many older folk were particularly keen to have their histories heard and retained for posterity. Even if Myanmar was not yet democratic, they felt the world could not do too much more to them than it had already. Some were initially reticent, conscious of disturbing authorities or even fearful that exposure might lose them their homes. Occasionally, the camera tripod was mistaken for a developer’s surveying tool, something that caused only slightly less anxiety than when it was confused with a weapon. Almost half of the tales were related via an interpreter, although people educated before the 1960s when much of Burma’s schooling was in English were often pleased to relate their stories in this language.
Establishing facts about Yangon’s heritage homes, such as dates of construction, names of their architects and original occupants, confronts an acute lack of resources. Advice to seek and speak with senior people who might remember a property and its previous inhabitants was very welcome. Many of these elders are valuable heritage repositories, their stories representing precious local wisdom, a pool of living memories. While some are detailed, others leave more to the imagination. Read as a collection, these tales sometimes support yet often subvert established versions of history.

Yangon Echoes aims to amplify unheard personal stories of home and change, to explore what has happened in Yangon over time through individual experiences and the lense of domestic life, and to reveal the pressures on this city’s people and its heritage today. It honours an international heritage of humanity that values communal identity, cultural diversity and human rights.

 

BY VIRGINIA HENDERSON

 

Yangon Echoes, published  by River Books, ISBN 9786167339573, US$35/£19.95

The book is launched in the UK on 23 May at the Royal Geographical Society, London. Also in London on 24 May at SOAS, University of London, and26 May at the Cowcross Gallery;
9 June at the British Museum