Let history judge: saving Rangoon’s heritage for posterity?
I grew up in a no-nonsense, blue-collar town in Canada that never really cared much for architecture or city planning. It’s called Thunder Bay – an evocative name for a community never really lived up to its own billing.
It’s got a fascinating story – of fur traders and forts and railways cut through the wilderness – but anyone tempted to pull off the highway will struggle to see past the strip malls. The community’s links with the past have been paved over – or bulldozed to smithereens.
Still, I remember a wonderful old building, built of milky-grey stone, tucked away on an alleyway running parallel to the main street. It must have been one of the first buildings put up in Thunder Bay when Europeans settled in the area, with its muscular walls and narrow, wood-framed windows. It could have been turned into an atmospheric bar or restaurant and I nursed a fantasy that I would somehow spearhead its transformation – but on my last visit I noticed it had been razed to the ground and replaced with a parking lot.
I thought about Thunder Bay’s luckless heritage building on our last trip to Rangoon, the largest city in Burma. Its place in the empire was far more significant than my hometown of course – it was seized by the British in 1852 and transformed into a commercial and administrative hub. From humble shop fronts to the grand edifices of empire, an extraordinary array of buildings were thrown up – and one of the amazing things about Rangoon today is that the vast majority of these buildings are still standing.
In other Asian cities, these colonial relics have been swept aside in the race for growth and progress – but Burma’s military generals, who ruled the country for fifty-odd years, were never able to engineer themselves an economic boom. In fact many of these British-built hand-me-downs were used as government offices until the men in uniform decided to relocate the capital. In 2006, the Generals trooped north to a collection of villages now known as Nay Pyi Taw, leaving their former premises in Rangoon empty.
Without occupants to maintain them, the city’s grandest colonial buildings quickly deteriorated. The city’s government has tried to help by placing a number of them on a ‘protected buildings list’ – but the list won’t do much good unless someone comes up with some money and expertise to preserve them.
The situation is particularly pronounced in relation to the city’s most spectacular colonial-era building – an imposing, Victorian complex called the ‘Secretariat’. It was from here that the British ran their Burmese possessions and they gave themselves plenty of space to do it – the Secretariat takes up 16 acres in the middle of Rangoon. It is in a terrible state now though, slowly submitting to the damp and the weeds and the weather.
All is not lost for this over-sized time capsule however. I met an inspiring group of local artists who just so happen to be the new owners of the Secretariat. A few months ago the government put the whole site up for action and to everyone’s general amazement, ‘the artists’ won, triumphing over half a dozen companies and their plans for new offices and hotel rooms.
When I asked one of the artists, Nay Myo Say, why he thought the government had chosen them, he laughed out loud and said, “I don’t know”. But it probably has something to do with their lack of ambition – their decision not to view the place as a naked money-making opportunity. Nay Myo Say told me his ‘Anawmar’ group want to restore it bit by bit, opening an art gallery and a museum along the way.
Still, it has got rank as one of the biggest restoration projects in the world and people are going to ask whether the artists can pull it off – the group’s leader is a (charming) 27 year old accountancy graduate who seemed a little overwhelmed by it all. When I asked her how many rooms the Secretariat had, she said she wasn’t sure.
Nevertheless, they are a serious bunch, committed to the project and mindful of the Secretariat’s deep historic significance – independence leader General Aung San, the father of current opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, was assassinated in one of the building’s upper rooms for example. They say they are open to help from conservation experts world-wide (British specialists have promised to assist them) – and given the choice on offer, I think they represent the Secretariat’s best hope of survival.
Speaking of survival, I think the fate of Rangoon’s other historic buildings is going to depend on folks like the ‘Anawmar group’- local people who think their communities are more interesting and more attractive when the past is preserved – and if they needed further motivation, I’ve got a couple of pictures of parking lots I can show them.
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