Battle for Yangon

Good Weekend logoSquint just a little and they’re almost visible: the choleric soldiers in the uniform of Empire, shining boots and brass buttons; the twirling women in diaphanous flounces and frills; the Indian servants, and the sweating band in the corner, pumping out a waltz for the ruling expatriates in this tropical corner of the colonies, the golden land of Burma.

In reality, though, the Pegu Club is a ghost of its former self. No-one is sipping a gin Pegu cocktail on the terrace these days. No would-be poets are turning out doggerel in the dining room. The elegant pale blue paint in the ballroom is flaking, the fluted pilasters have seen better days, and some enterprising soul has pried up and nicked a number of the teak parquet floor pieces. Dust, dirt and industrious insects are taking a toll, and it won’t be too many years before the damage is irreparable.


The District Court in Yangon. Photo by Sian Powell

The District Court in Yangon. Photo by Sian Powell

Rudyard Kipling once dropped into the Pegu Club to listen to stories of the battles in Upper Burma where passionate insurgents were fighting the foreign invaders. In “From Sea to Sea” Kipling wrote about the Club, where he heard of “interminable chases after evasive dacoits, of marchings and counter-marchings that came to nothing, and of deaths in the wilderness as noble as they were sad”. Inspired to write his poem “Mandalay”, still, he only stayed one night.


Empty for at least ten years, the Pegu Club is now a prime example of a property slowly dying. There are no developers sniffing around, no architects with big plans – and the insects are hungry. The once imposing building, with its almost indestructible teak staircases and window frames, its high ceilings and tangled gardens, its carriageway and porte cochere; this building is owned by Myanmar’s notorious military forces; those generals who have never been answerable to the public. No-one really knows whether the generals are holding out for an extraordinarily high price, or whether they intend to redevelop the property themselves, or whether they might just continue to let the Pegu Club moulder until it’s too late to save it.


Rupert Mann strides across the dusty ballroom floor to look more closely at the teak staircase rising nobly from the side of the ballroom. “The government here was once known as the Pegu Club government,” he muses. “That’s where all the decisions were made. Over the bar here.”


A co-founder and the one-time president of the energetic Melbourne Heritage Action group, the 28-year-old architectural historian and consultant has been fighting for built heritage for years; lobbying Victoria’s Brumby government, using the press to highlight particular demolition outrages in Melbourne, jolting the public into an awareness of what they may soon lose. Now he has joined the heritage battle in Yangon.


Sofaer's in Yangon. Photo by Sian Powell

Sofaer’s in Yangon. Photo by Sian Powell

“When I came here, I walked around, and I felt like I was in a suburb of Melbourne that I’d never seen before,” he says. “It was so similar; there were buildings and nooks and crannies here that could be Melbourne. But it had this other essence, this exotic essence to it. Suddenly it clicked that the same battle was being fought here. And this was a city that was unique in the world.”


Long-standing international sanctions kept foreign developers at bay for decades and Myanmar’s rich array of colonial architecture has been left largely intact, but dilapidated, neglected and gently crumbling. Yet the Pegu Club is one of many historic buildings still standing. In any other city, say Singapore or Hong Kong, it would have been knocked down decades ago, and skyscrapers would fill the site.


Like so many foreigners before him, Mann has fallen in love with the faded glamour of Yangon. Entranced by the kaleidoscope of Indian, Chinese and Burmese cultures, the golden temple spires, and streets of imposing colonial monuments, he even likes the rampant decay, in a purely aesthetic sense. The winding roots, the flourishing greenery emerging from unlikely nooks, the blooms of mould: all these can be wildly picturesque in a noir sort of way, even as they slowly eat away at the fabric of these city buildings.


It’s easy to hear the admiration in Mann’s voice as he stands in the Havisham-webbed foyer of the neo-classical Balthazar building in the heart of the city. “It’s an incredible building,” he says. “It was built by an Armenian trading family in 1898.” Pointing to the Italian marble floors, and the huge staircase, and perhaps especially, the birdcage lift sitting crashed in the bottom of the lift-well, he shrugs. Negotiating any kind of architectural conservation will take immense time and energy. Used as the headquarters of the Japanese secret police during WWII, the Balthazar is partly owned by the nation’s Ministry of Livestock, and partly perhaps by some of the tenants, including lawyers whose small brass nameplates contrast weirdly with the cascading spider-webs spinning down from the roof.


Around the corner stands the ochre-coloured and ornately encrusted Sofaer building, built around 1906 by a Baghdadi Jew. Sofaer’s once housed a Reuters Telegram office, and shops selling a wide variety of international produce – German beer, Egyptian cigarettes and English sweets. In the early 1900s Rangoon was a bustling port city with a wildly varied population of Madrassi and Bengali Indians, Burmese of different ethnicities, and Scottish, English and European expatriates, with seemingly cosmopolitan tastes. These days the building is home to a number of long-standing tenants, many of whom hang their washing on the curlicued façade, and some of whom even seem to have a sort of legal title. “Yes, it’s a difficult one,” Mann says.


Mann’s work began in Yangon in December, and the Australian government will fund his position at the non-government Yangon Heritage Trust for at least one year and possibly two. Devoted to preserving the city’s architectural heritage, the Trust is compiling a dossier of Yangon’s historic buildings, as well as promoting the importance of architectural conservation and negotiating with the authorities and with interested parties.


The former railways headquarters in Yangon. Photo by Sian Powell

The former railways headquarters in Yangon. Photo by Sian Powell

“Generally I’m here to provide my experience, particularly about the work that I was doing in Melbourne,” Mann says, pointing to the cities’ similarities: both laid out on a grid, with similar colonial-era buildings, and a similar feeling (albeit with an exotic tropical overlay in Yangon).


Mann isn’t at the front line lobbying the relevant members of Myanmar’s parliament, or senior bureaucrats, or even having the important and discreet conversations with foreign investors, say, or with the military. His work at the Trust is more a matter of studying the buildings, and offering reflections on his experience of heritage conservation in Melbourne.


“Melbourne is a comparable city architecturally and pretty much of the same period. So it’s the kind of urban conservation conversation, and discourse and argument that has gone on in Melbourne for the last 40 years, really since the 70s,” he adds. “That experience of 40 years is being compacted into one or two years here. I don’t have experience of all those 40 years, but through Melbourne Heritage Action I’ve got to know the people that did, and got to know their experience. We can see what hasn’t worked in Melbourne. We can see where the developers have found little loopholes and ways around the heritage legislation.”


The heritage battle has a different shape in Yangon, where the fist of military oppression was feared for decades, but the principles are the same: to encourage the conservation and refashioning of historic buildings so they have some modern relevance.


These days, Myanmar is still run by a band of current and former generals. Ruled by a military junta for nearly 50 years, Myanmar is accustomed to rough justice. These generals often dealt with opponents either by locking them up for decades or shooting them dead. Finally staging a quasi-democratic election in 2010, a poll widely and internationally criticised as rigged, the generals deftly catapulted themselves back into office. The nation’s current president, Thein Sein, is himself a former general, and so too are a number of his ministers.


Still, after shedding their uniforms and donning civilian clothes, the ruling soldiers did finally begin releasing political prisoners – including Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. They eased press censorship, and began peace negotiations with insurgent ethnic groups, all while basking in the praise of the west. International sanctions were largely lifted and the long-shuttered nation slowly came out of the shadows.


Western politicians flocked to the new Myanmar. US president Barack Obama, Mann says, fell in love with Yangon, likening it to the Jakarta of his childhood. Bob Carr, then Australia’s foreign minister, visited Myanmar in 2012 (chk) and promised help with Yangon’s architectural heritage, including funding the position Mann now fills at the Yangon Heritage Trust.


Begun by the urbane Burmese author and historian, Thant Myint-U, grandson of a former United Nations secretary-general, the Trust has a mammoth and daunting task of heritage conservation ahead of it, and time is ticking away – the weeds are growing and the mildew spreading. Funded by national and international donors (including the Australian government), the Trust pushes the conservation message, but it can be a difficult argument to sell. Why should the modern citizens of Myanmar’s largest city care about buildings dating from an era when the people of their nation were so mercilessly exploited and their natural resources so ruthlessly stolen?


The colonialists were often unconscionable bigots, as George Orwell saw and described so bleakly in his early novel ‘Burmese Days’. For decades, locals weren’t even permitted to join the Pegu Club. Why should anyone care about preserving that bastion of bigotry now? “’Colonial’ can be very loaded term,” Mann says. “The arrogance of the British towards Burmese in their own country was extraordinary.” And some of these ‘colonial’ buildings have more sinister connotations dating from the years of junta control, when at times snipers were stationed on the roofs of some buildings, when Buddhist monks and university students marching through the city were arrested, beaten and often jailed; or buildings where the police and the military massed in preparation for action.


Before their new lives as democrats, the generals built Myanmar a new capital, Naypidaw, nearly 400 kilometres inland, and ministries and ministry staff began making the big move north in 2005. Offices in Yangon were largely abandoned to vigorous weeds and insect-life.


For many of these buildings, the need for some sort of maintenance is becoming more urgent. If these structures are neglected for too much longer, demolition may become the only option. But in some cases ownership is split between two ministries. In some cases individuals have somehow come to own, or part-own, a part of a government building.


“It’s a headache,” says the Trust’s executive director, architect Moe Moe Lwin. Sitting in her small office in the Trust headquarters, in a narrow and slightly shabby heritage building near Yangon river, she shrugs and laughs. There’s no other way to react, really, to a job as complicated as hers.


Moe Moe Lwin has been fighting on many fronts for years. Under the suspicious and often bizarrely eccentric military regime, the Architects Association of Myanmar was banned for years. The architects met anyway, risking punishment and possibly even imprisonment. She is still battling the generals, but this time for some official recognition of Yangon’s built heritage. As she talks, a small waterfall of overflow spills down outside a main window in the Trust’s office – heritage buildings have their own problems, and privately-owned heritage buildings are even more beset with problems than those owned (or partially-owned) by the government.


The ownership of the colonial-era non-government structures in Yangon is rarely certain, Moe Moe Lwin says. The shifts and surges of Yangon’s population, post WWII, post military coup, post pseudo-democracy; these have left a wonky patchwork of title deeds that could consume the time of any land and environment court for decades to come. Some buildings are full of tenants, living in more or less squalid conditions, but there is no clear owner. Or the owner left the country decades ago. Or ownership is now being contested by those whose title was ‘nationalised’ following the 1962 coup.


“Many Indians were forced to leave the country (after the coup),” Moe Moe Lwin says. “But they still have the ownership. You wouldn’t know, but it’s in the deed, it’s an Indian name, but they never come back. The tenants, though the ownership is the name of someone else, they have been there for forty years, fifty years, then they can claim ownership, they can apply.


“So if the neighbourhood local administrator agreed, or certified it, then they can transfer the ownership, so that they can sell, because they are existing, current, ownership holders. They don’t own the land, and the deed is still in someone else’s name, but they can transfer it somehow. Those kinds of buildings are quite big. Sometimes there are at least 20 different people claiming different pieces. It’s very complicated.”


And so, in many cases, the heritage battle is stalled. No government would be happy to unleash the fury of these tenant-owners; and especially not an administration readying itself for a 2015 election. The attempted sale of the faded red former High Court building, an imposing edifice with a domed clock-tower, prompted bitter street protests by lawyers wearing their legal gowns. The sale was subsequently abandoned. Moe Moe Lwin sighs. “That’s why (there is little movement on the conservation front); yes.”


Yet there are some hopeful signs. The elegant turquoise exterior of the still-functioning district court, across the road from the Yangon Heritage Trust office, was once notable for the flourishing vegetation sprouting around the edges of the roof domes. Now the weeds have been removed, and although the building is still stained with mildew, those marks may well be the next to go. Moe Moe Lwin says members of parliament have been allocated some long overdue funds to clean up their districts.


So negotiations continue with the various interested parties, with their varying agendas, and meanwhile, the Yangon Heritage Trust (with Mann) is compiling an inventory of every colonial-era building in Yangon. Four photographers spend every working day shooting the façades of colonial buildings, with the intention of creating a complete dossier of the city’s architecture. Many need substantial renovations.


Wholesale conservation efforts are underway with a few buildings, but a couple of those projects, too, have attracted controversy. The business tycoon and long-time regime crony Zaw Zaw bought the former immigration department, which in colonial days was the Rowe department store, near City Hall.


It seems Zaw Zaw managed to avoid submitting many, or any, of his conservation plans to the authorities in Yangon. Now, although the building is a gleaming cream and looking particularly elegant, some critics are annoyed by Zaw Zaw’s presumption. He has plastered over the exterior’s original bands of tuck-pointed brickwork, and who knows what he has been doing inside the building? Mann, though, thinks the newly renovated building could work wonders.


“Strictly, it’s not what you’d like to see,” he says. “At the same time, that building will form a very important example of a heritage building that’s been restored. This is a building that’s right in the heart of the city. It’s looking very spectacular, and it will look spectacular. It’s important for local people to see that these buildings can look very different to how they have looked for the past fifty years, and that there’s another vision for the city.”


Work has also begun at Yangon’s former railway ministry headquarters building, a little distance inland from the river. Built in the 1800s, the elegant faded-red edifice is constructed from laterite stone, and it’s a rarity in modern Myanmar. Yoma Strategic Holdings, a firm founded by Myanmar business tycoon Serge Pun, plans to transform the building into the luxury Yangon Peninsula hotel. The renovated and refurbished railway headquarters will anchor a massive ten-acre (more than four hectare) development site with new office buildings, a business-oriented modern hotel and serviced apartments, and a retail mall.


Andrew Rickards, Yoma’s chief executive officer, says there is a crying need for modern office buildings in Yangon. “There’s only three office blocks, pretty much, in town,” he says. “So the total square footage of business space in the city is about a third of one building in Bangkok.”


Yet the development of colonial buildings, he says, is moving slowly perhaps because too much is expected, too quickly. The Serge Pun group has held the railways building for about 15 years, he adds, and times have changed. “Now people are somewhat belatedly coming to the party and trying to get hold of some of these other buildings, at a time when perhaps the ministries are holding out for very high sums of money, or maybe a little bit reluctant because they’re not sure what they should be doing.”


Cost, too, is always a factor. The conservation of the aged railways building continues to be a tricky and expensive project. At some point or other there was a plan to excavate under the entire four-hectare site, including the railways building, to make room for a massive underground basement. Critics were particularly concerned about this idea, which they feared could do untold damage to an elderly and fragile building. But the plan may have been shelved for the time being. “I would say nothing is set in stone,” Rickards says. “We have all sorts of experts crawling all over it to make sure that whatever we do doesn’t disturb the integrity of the old building.”


After all, the world is watching now. The story of Yangon’s heritage conservation has been told in newspapers and magazines in Europe, the US and Asia, and broadcast on global television networks. Nations and corporations have donated to the Trust, and tours of the city’s historic heart have been introducing interested tourists to the architecture of the past.


“There’s one chance to get this city right, and it will happen in the next few years,” Mann says. “It’s a privilege to be a part of that.”