Login | Create Account Poll Currency Weather Facebook Youtube Search

The rebirth of Rangoon

MYANMAR: Home to Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Muslims and a collage of businesses that burst to life as Myanmar’s largest city wakes up, the colonial-era building known simply as ‘491-501 Merchant Street’ holds a mirror up to Rangoon.


Saturday 18 June 2016, 02:10PM

A worker installs cables on the colonial building known by its address as ‘491-501 Merchant Street’ in Yangon. Photo: Romeo Gacad/AFP

A worker installs cables on the colonial building known by its address as ‘491-501 Merchant Street’ in Yangon. Photo: Romeo Gacad/AFP

It has also just received a $325,000 (B11 million) facelift, sprucing up its grand but crumbling edifice with the support of the community it houses.

Heritage experts now hope that collaborative process will serve as a blueprint for saving the city’s other architectural treasures ravaged by years of neglect under the former junta.

Merchant Street sits at the heart of Rangoon’s historic downtown area, where the roads are lined with majestic but decaying structures that date back to British colonial rule, which ended in 1948.

Scores of old buildings have already been razed by the flood of foreign investment that followed the end of total military rule in 2011 and has pushed the city into a development frenzy.

But with a new government in town, led by Aung San Suu Kyi and her pro-democracy party, conservationists are hopeful that an urban rebirth is within reach.

“We had never seen such renovations before. If a building is old, normally people destroy it and build a new condo block,” said Aung Thu, a resident who runs one of two tea shops inside the building.

The elegant structure has 80 residents, a noodle stall, bookseller, two newspaper-recycling operations, a barber, three printing services and a purveyor of monastic accessories all under one newly-refurbished roof.

Its inhabitants are also religiously varied, something not uncommon in multi-ethnic Rangoon but a positive reminder of interfaith cooperation in a country where sectarian tensions have been fuelled in recent years by anti-Muslim Buddhist hardliners.

That this diverse collective backed the project is also unique in a country where tangled ownership rights, a lack of funding and poor regulation have hampered restoration efforts.

Many families and shopkeepers stayed put while newly-trained local tradesmen worked around them for nearly a year, applying fresh coats of paint and returning the building’s once-chipped columns to their former glory.

“They are happy with the building, the building is looking great,” said Harry Wardill of Turquoise Mountain, a heritage foundation that oversaw the work, which came free of charge to the residents.

“It’s attracting attention from people which is one of the key aspects of a demonstration project – we want to engage people to really think about their heritage.”

The city maintains a list of 189 recognised heritage sites but currently lacks laws to protect them.

Thant Myint-U, a historian who runs the prominent Rangoon Heritage Trust, would like to see the Merchant Street makeover – which the trust helped fund – kick-start the restoration of other sites.

Splash Beach Club

While the city will need to find revenue streams other than donations to pay for future projects, he is hoping the building’s new sparkle will convince locals and officials of the value of preservation.

“For a lot of people in Rangoon, especially if they have never been outside the country, I think it’s really hard to imagine what an old building could be if it was well-renovated,” he said.

The historian described “excellent relations” with the new government and chief city minister, who he has been working with closely.

His group is also pushing for more comprehensive urban planning, aware that Rangoon is struggling to manage hundreds of thousands of squatters, traffic-clogged streets and rapid upward development.

“It is about looking at all the different issues – whether it is affordable housing or mass transit – and having the conservation of architectural heritage as part of this overall design,” he said. -

At the Merchant Street building, residents lacked the resources to coordinate repairs.

Its facade was blackened by the elements and the annual monsoon gushed in torrents through the roof.

But now some homeowners have been inspired to launch their own internal refurbishments.

The building has been “born again”, said 43-year-old Shan Kumar, a Hindu businessman living in a ground floor apartment.

He is excited by the money-spinning potential of the renovations, particularly given the city centre address.

“Now I have many chances. I can rent my apartment or do some business,” he said.

The winds of change are also stirring in Aung Thu’s bustling yet modest teashop.

Friends have advised him to upgrade his clusters of plastic stools to attract high paying customers and foreign tourists.

“The building is perfect now, so I will develop the teashop very soon. My dream will definitely come true,” he said.



Comment on this story

* Please login to comment. If you do not have an account please register below by simply entering a username, password and email address. You can still leave your comment below at the same time.

Comments Here:
Comments Left:
# Characters

Be the first to comment.

Have a news tip-off? Click here


Phuket community
Welcoming HMAS Canberra: Australian Navy head to Phuket for training and community activities

Pascale one wonders why the cereal is allowed. Emails to the Editor get no reply. I think Mr Cereal ...(Read More)

Tour boats blamed for widespread reef damage

Yup, the greedy, selfish locals are moving on to destroy the next beautiful island. They only care a...(Read More)

Phuket residents flame Governor over water shortages

Reservoirs that are empty. PWA having to pump water from private sources. Water pressure so low that...(Read More)

Phuket residents flame Governor over water shortages

A resident said: 'W have not had enough water since March 21! We have spent all our money on buy...(Read More)

Phuket residents flame Governor over water shortages

"“We are holding a meeting right now here at Provincial Hall about solving this problem and f...(Read More)

Mains water supply outage announced

""No water supply,no electricity,by temperatures around 37 degrees....."Silly,couldn&...(Read More)

Hunted seastead couple ‘traced to Tarutao’

If all the thai constructors/builders, and Officials did not acted so heavenly against any thai law ...(Read More)

Hunted seastead couple ‘traced to Tarutao’

Pulling out the big guns over what appears to be the "Mother of all Misunderstandings". Gr...(Read More)

Welcoming HMAS Canberra: Australian Navy head to Phuket for training and community activities

There are those people willing to join hands for a clean up and there are those who prefer to sit on...(Read More)

Tour boats blamed for widespread reef damage

These damages were not caused during the past Songkran, but over years of ignorant and reckless tour...(Read More)