Until recently, my favourite evening run through Yangon took me past an old house on the corner of Nat Mauk Street, overlooking Kandawgyi Lake, the serene body of water near the centre of the city. It was an elegant, if dilapidated, teak villa, seemingly abandoned, though I occasionally saw movement on the first floor. My curiosity once took me as far as the gate before a snarling pair of dogs sprang out, their teeth bared.
Then, one evening at the start of last year, it disappeared. Someone had come in and bulldozed the place. Gone were the sweeping wooden staircases and the ornate turreted roof; only a few sad stone walls still stood. Today, nothing is left of the building.
Yangon has the densest concentration of colonial-era buildings in Asia
Yangon, the biggest city in Myanmar and its former capital, has the densest concentration of colonial-era buildings of any city in Asia. Walking around the downtown area, where whole blocks have barely been touched since the early 1900s, it’s easy to imagine when this was Rangoon, a bustling port city and a cornerstone of the British Empire.
On the banks of the river stand enormous structures with high columns and imposing edifices – banks and government offices built with cast iron and steel from Manchester in England. Further north, rows of terraced houses with domed windows and elegant wooden shutters are painted in shades of mint green, yellow, blue and rose, and inscribed with the dates of their construction. The poet Pablo Neruda lived in one during his time as an envoy at the Chilean consulate. “A city of blood, dreams and gold,” he wrote.
After the British left, the buildings became the staging ground for some of the most significant episodes in Myanmar’s recent history. The country’s beloved independence leader, Aung San, was shot dead in the colossal red-brick parliament complex, the Secretariat, built by the colonial regime. For one day each year, the crumbling and overgrown structure – long since abandoned – is opened to the public and crowds line up to pay tribute.
But after decades spent stuck in time as the country endured isolation under successive military regimes, change is coming quickly to Yangon. Since it began to open up to the world in 2011, vast air-conditioned malls have sprouted across the city. KFC and Pizza Hut have arrived. And with the price of land at a premium, there has been little incentive to maintain decrepit buildings that could be replaced with modern high-rises.
Slowly, however, an increasing number of these old buildings – left to gather dust and grow creepers – are being coaxed back to life. There have been signs for a while. Blue plaques have popped up on some of the most historic buildings, instituted by the Yangon Heritage Trust, a local conservation group. Renovation work is finally visibly underway on the iconic Secretariat, as part of a long-heralded project to turn it into a museum.
Over the past year especially, the revitalisation has begun to gather pace, with neglected buildings finding new life as restaurants and galleries, and local initiatives helping residents of colonial-era properties restore their homes. “Things are happening,” says Nico Elliott, the dark-haired British managing director of 57 Below, a hospitality company with several restaurants in renovated colonial buildings. We’re chatting over tea at Gekko, a stylish Japanese eatery.
Elliott opened Gekko in 2013 in one of the city’s best-known locations: the Sofaer & Co Building, a towering edifice named after the Iraqi Jewish trader who had it constructed in the early 1900s. Pale yellow and topped by Italianate domes, it takes up an entire city block. During the colonial era, the building was synonymous with luxury goods – shops selling Egyptian cigars, German beer and English sweets.
Over decades of neglect, the winding teak staircases rotted away and once-glamorous lapis lazuli tiles cracked and faded. But when Elliott walked into a neglected stationery shop on the ground floor, he saw the potential. “I fell in love,” he recalls.
The renovation was tough. Elliott and his partners had to wade through sewage to clean out a back alleyway. They rigged up the electricity. But most of the raw materials were already there: the high ceilings; the exposed steel beams; the beautiful tiles. Today, Gekko is one of the city’s most popular restaurants.
“The key to restoring Yangon’s colonial buildings is peeling back the layers of alterations people have made over the years,” says Amelie Chai, an architect from New York whose firm, Spine, has overseen several renovation projects, including Gekko. “I try to look for the bones behind the clothing, because a lot of times many layers have been put on these spaces.”
According to Chai, there has been an increasing demand for renovated buildings. “That’s in pace with the city developing in general,” she says.
On the same block as Gekko, three other restaurants have set up in restored colonial spaces. Most recently, in May 2017, Asian fusion eatery Sofaer & Co opened in the eponymous building.
“This stretch of road has been my favourite since I was young,” Ingyin Zaw, one of the Burmese entrepreneurs behind the new restaurant, tells me. “A lot of people here love the buildings because these are the scenes that we grew up with. But people have a hard time maintaining these places, often due to a lack of budget.”
But it’s one thing for Yangon’s heritage to be remade by restaurants and hotels playing up the old-world charm, and another for the buildings to be preserved for the people who live in them.
Last year, another of my favourite buildings came close to demolition. Painted a pale yellow, it stands beside the Armenian church on Merchant Road and houses both residences and businesses. Teashops spill onto the pavement, while its signs advertise “monks’ utensils” for sale. Famed writer Ludo Sein Win, a strong critic of the former ruling military junta, lived on the top floor until his death in 2012.
But time took its toll. The roof was damaged by Cyclone Nargis in 2008 and was leaking. The landowner was keen to raze the building, promising new apartments for residents.
After angry opposition, Turquoise Mountain, an international non-profit organisation focused on heritage and cultural preservation, paid for and oversaw renovations. Hundreds of workers were trained in restoration work. Over several months, they repainted and fixed the roof, and trimmed off alterations to expose original details.
Harry Wardill, Turquoise Mountain’s Myanmar country director, says that this is the first of several planned projects in Yangon. “We did the difficult, community-owned building, so we can now go to a big government building with a model for how it’s done,” he says. “We want to spur wider regeneration and train more people.” Wardill confirms that Turquoise Mountain will soon begin work on its first government building, though the details are still under wraps.
At first, residents of the Merchant Road building took some convincing. “We were thinking whether this would be a good thing or not,” says Daw Hla Hla, an elderly woman whose delicate features are coated in a layer of thanaka, a traditional sunblock. “Yes, there were some who opposed. It is in people’s natures.”
But for her, the building, where she has lived alongside most of the same neighbours for decades, holds precious memories. In 1957, her parents moved in and opened a teashop in the building, later running it with their children. “We were five sisters, and we worked together. My life was a happy one,” she recalls.
There was also immense hardship. In the 1990s, a rioting mob destroyed properties belonging to Chinese-Burmese families like Daw Hla Hla’s. “When I found many things damaged, I wept,” she says.
Like many residents of Yangon’s old buildings, she values her home for the political but also personal histories it has to tell. “I feel that we should preserve the other colonial buildings. It will mean that we are maintaining our history.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine