[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 March, 2004, 02:00 GMT 03:00 UK
Burma maintains bygone buildings
By Steven Martin
Rangoon, Burma

With the temperature in the mid-30s on a muggy day in Rangoon, U Myo Thein is still able to relax in the cool interior of his "shophouse", despite the fact that the electric fan is not working.

The building dates back some 70 years to when U Myo Thein was just a boy.

Colonial-era architecture

"My daughter lives in a new apartment on 30th Street," U Myo Thein said: "When the electricity is off, her family suffers".

It is a case of the old surpassing the new, as Rangoon's Anglo-Indian architecture still provides the ideal living environment for the climate.

Built in an age when air conditioning was unknown and architectural knacks kept the elements at bay, these structures are still performing the functions for which they were designed.

Colonial Rangoon, laid out on a grid around the ancient Buddhist stupa known as Sule Pagoda, dates to 1852, when British troops seized a village near the mouth of the Irrawaddy River during the Second Anglo-Burmese war.

Known colloquially as Yangon, the name of the settlement was corrupted to Rangoon by the colonisers, and the capital of British Burma was moved there from Moulmein after the war.

However it wasn't until the early 20th century that most of Rangoon's grand public buildings were erected.

These include the High Court, a red brick extravaganza by the architect John Ransome built in 1911. The impressive building sports a clock tower whose four faces are lighted at night, and can be seen floating above the city centre.

The adjacent Government Telegraph Office was erected the same year as the High Court - though a fresh coat of paint ensures that it looks as striking as architect John Begg intended.


In 1996 the Burmese government put some 70 buildings on a heritage list, the idea being that they would get some kind of official protection. The list has grown over the years to include nearly 200 structures, including colonial-era buildings of a religious or official nature.

However, privately owned buildings - such as U Myo Thein's Anglo-Indian shophouse - are not included on the list. Yet among these rows of shophouses are some rare glimpses of little-remembered architectural trends that swept Rangoon - and the world - in the early 20th century.

On Shwebontha Street sits what is possibly South-East Asia's only example of Egyptian Revival architecture, which was inspired by a mania for all things Egyptian after the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb by Howard Carter in 1922.

A Rangoon window
Rangoon has the most colonial era architecture in South East Asia

Sadly, this building was given a ruthless facelift two years ago - most of the faux Egyptian stucco ornamentation was chipped off the facade and replaced with glazed tiles. The only bit to survive the renovation was a winged scarab high up the building.

Opponents of Burma's military regime accuse the government of destroying these vestiges of British colonial rule in an effort to modernise the capital before the Asean Summit, which Burma will host in 2006.

Ironically, if it were not for decades of ruinous economic policies, the buildings would probably never have survived in the first place. For many years residents of Rangoon were simply too poor to build anything new.


Rangoon now has the largest collection of colonial architecture of any South-East Asian city. For first time visitors to the capital, the sheer number of colonial buildings is likely to dazzle.

"We were in Havana on vacation last year and that's what Rangoon reminds us of - the pastel colours and the people lounging in the windows", remarked a visitor from Canada.

Less likely to attract attention are the vacant lots surrounded by high sheet-metal fences that tell of yet another structure to fall victim to modernisation.

While visitors may be charmed by facades, residents of these old buildings find they are difficult to maintain - sometimes for surprising reasons.

"Birds drop the seeds of trees and these sprout on the building", said a barrister whose offices occupy a decrepit colonial building.

"The problem is that some of those plants you see growing from the buildings cannot be removed. That is to say, people do not want to remove them. They are a type of banyan, Ficus religiosa, and this tree is sacred to the Buddha and so too sacred to Buddhist people," he said.

If nothing else, the present state of much of Rangoon's British colonial architecture is a lesson in the Buddhist concept of universal impermanence.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific