Witness crumbling Colonialism in Myanmar
Crumbling colonial buildings, a proud remnant of Myanmar’s years as a British colony, compound the streets of downtown Yangon. It is said that this city offers the greatest number of remaining Colonial buildings in Southeast Asia. And the claim is no exaggeration. Street after street remain untouched by the bulldozer of modernisation. They seem somehow incongruous in the heat. It’s as if their steady columns and plastered archways belong cloaked in grey and screened in drizzle, washed by the never-ending patter of an English climate.
And yet these buildings have stood amid humidity and chaos, fronted by barrows selling betel leaf to black toothed locals and knocked together stalls pressing sugar cane into dust ringed glasses. Great imposing buildings which fill entire blocks, columns intersecting the pavements and archways that frame windows so crusted in dust that that to open them would no doubt destroy them. I pause to take a photograph. People look up at me from the child sized plastic chairs and tables of a street food stall in open bewilderment. Why would anyone take notice of a simple street?
The wider streets are home to many of the buildings on the grandest scale; the City Hall building with its white arches and latticework, fronted by green palm trees standing to attention; the High Court building, an almost gothic extravaganza of red brick and yellowing stone; the Customs House, red and white and topped with a pinnacle of columns; the Inland Water Transport building, an all white, multi columned building that stretches elegantly along Kannar road; the famous Strand hotel, renovated and still functioning as a hotel, looking as if it has fallen straight out of a film set. All these impressive buildings stand firm, a monument to the control that has always been so strictly enforced here. These people have never really been free. There has always been a ruler’s presence felt, an alien set of rules and values as foreign as the stones that now crumble majestically in the grid of streets.
These massive structures are impressive, but the buildings on the side streets are even more striking. They are imbued with more character. Tall and narrow, jostling shoulder to shoulder, they are less stately and more lived in. Women hang their washing from curling iron balconies, the colourful shapes hanging motionless with no breeze to stir them. Satellite dishes adorn their majestic facades, mingling with hot pink blossoms like drops of ink on water, growing from cracks in the ancient plaster, filling every forgotten crevice with life. They are painted in a rainbow of seaside colours – pastel blue, burnt yellow, ice-cream pink, soft mint green. You could easily be in a British seaside town were it not for the incessant heat and the bustle and dust rising up from the streets.
The architecture itself is beautiful, but it is the grip of decay that makes these streets fascinating. There seems to be no effort made to restore or maintain them, no care spared to preserve this living museum as a window into a far removed past. And, indeed, from the local people’s point of view, why should there be? It is not a museum and nor is British domination a time to be revered. These are living, working streets with homes, and businesses operating out of whatever building happens to be there. These people aren’t wealthy; they just want to make a living, to survive. While the walls stand and the roofs stay above their heads, they will use them. It is only to us that these fallen giants with crumbling faces are beautiful and fascinating. To those that live and work here they are merely home; what they are used to and what they see every day. No more than a backdrop.
And yet a visitor can’t help but endow them with an imagined romantic charm. It is like a time capsule that was never closed to protect it from the effects of time. It has nevertheless withstood the modernisation of our time, remaining dust blown and dirty, strewn with cobwebs and torn at the edges. It is this very decay which makes it beautiful and its contrast with the loud, hot life lived around it which makes it strange. Every street has character and, despite the noise and the open manholes, the motorbikes and the hawkers, somehow it feels relaxed. Simply walking around these streets is an education, an insight into the nonsensical nature of colonialism, a glimpse back to a regime that has been overgrown and melded with a new one.
There’s something so beautiful about old buildings. The passage of time has left its mark and they stand like solid ghosts, hinting at the hidden stories of lives lived within, a tantalising glimpse of the richness of the past which is always just out of reach. Limited to the imagination only, these memories are contained within the hulking walls, walls which bore witness to passing decades, to happy families and political upheaval, to happy marriages and broken hearts, to births and deaths and much, much more. They now stand broodingly mute, watching our lives and keeping their secrets securely bound within their crumbling bricks.
A good place to start when exploring the downtown area is the Sule Pagoda. Located in the middle of a roundabout, the pagoda itself isn’t much to look at from the inside, but its busy location at the hub of colonial streets make it an ideal starting point. The white city hall building is right beside the pagoda. From here you can either walk down towards the river on Sule Pagoda street and then turn down strand street which runs along beside the river. Mahabandula park is just across from city hall, a manicured and slightly browning rectangle of grass surrounding the needle like independence monument. Maha Bandula road and Bo Aung Kyaw street are also both worth a look, but the joy of these streets comes from getting lost in them. Wander down some side streets and turn whichever way takes your fancy. It is the atmosphere and character of the smaller buildings that are still functioning as homes and businesses that really give a feeling for the city.
By Bonnie Radcliffe