The beautiful Italianate-styled Lokanat building stands sentinel on the corner of Pansodan Street and Merchant Street, dreaming of its glamorous past. Originally called Sofaer's Building, it was the Harrods of its day in early 20th-century Yangon – the place where the city's residents bought their Egyptian cigarettes, German beer and English candies. In the last few decades, the still-occupied building may have been left to decay, but it retains a somnolent grandeur that is slowly being shaken out of its slumber with recent renovation works.
The Lokanat Building is only one example from Yangon's rich collection of pre-war colonial architecture, the largest in Southeast Asia. When the British established Yangon as their capital in 1852, they turned it into one of the most cosmopolitan cities in this region, filling it with grand late Victorian and early Edwardian structures.
Myanmar's recent isolated past has helped preserve this architectural heritage, albeit in an increasingly dilapidated state. But as the country opens up, developers are buying out and demolishing heritage buildings to make way for new projects that are often at odds with their environment. Between 1990 and 2011, it is estimated that 35 percent of downtown Yangon had been destroyed, and more will follow suit if action is not taken.
“Yangon has the largest concentration of colonial buildings in Southeast Asia because of the country's socialist policies. Now, we have the opportunity to make it into a more liveable city by conserving the heritage buildings,” says Thurein Aung, a historian and project manager at Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT).
Founded in 2012, YHT was set up as a non-profit organisation to help steer Yangon's transition into a 21st-century city. The trust is not only advocating heritage protection and conservation, it is helping to develop sustainable urban policy options while facilitating research and training.
At the time of our interview in February, the office was busy drawing up a special conservation-led development plan for Yangon, which the trust will present to the new government. It is a comprehensive plan – conceived by consulting with all the different stakeholders – incorporating protection of historical enclaves and heritage sites, as well as charting out commercial areas and effective transportation networks for a newly emerging modern city.
Yangon has a list of 189 recognised heritage sites, a starting point for conservation efforts. There exist cultural heritage laws to provide statutory protection for heritage buildings and sites over 100 years old, but, according to YHT, it’s not concrete enough to ensure proper conservation of Yangon's diverse urban heritage. Working with the Yangon City Development Committee, the group has submitted a draft law to enable dedicated urban conservation.
“There is a lack of law, so everything is on a case-by-case (basis). It is impossible to monitor everything for a small NGO like us. And once a building has been demolished, there is nothing more we can do for it,” says Thurein.
YHT works closely with different parties on several conservation projects, including the Yangon General Hospital and Waziya Cinema. A prime example of its conservation efforts is 491-501 Merchant Street, a property that is over 100 years old; the teashop on the ground floor has been serving sweet Burmese milk tea for three generations. Working in partnership with the Prince of Wales' Foundation, YHT took on this historic building as an exemplary restoration project.
YHT believes it is crucial to raise public awareness about the historical value of downtown Yangon in order to promote its conservation. The trust often runs public engagement programmes with the city's residents, either to gain feedback about their neighbourhoods or to record oral histories of the places in which they live and work.
Another part of its efforts is organising tours of the city, conducted by trained guides. The tours are free for locals twice a month. One of the routes takes participants along the architecturally rich Lower Pansodan Street towards Strand Road up to Merchant Road and ending up at Maha Bandoola Park. Along the way, the guide introduces historically significant buildings such as the Secretariat where nationalist leader General Aung San was assassinated, as well as lesser-known gems like the corner house where Pablo Neruda had lived when he was posted here.
A walk downtown highlights Yangon's biggest charm – its bustling street life where pedestrians and commerce share the pavement. Food booths sell curries, deep-fried pakoras and a local yoghurt laced with palm sugar. Makeshift stalls are piled high with fruits and vegetables, with the ubiquitous betel nut vendor on almost every street corner. It is a barrage of sights, sounds and smells, backdropped by the elegant and atmospheric, if decrepit, heritage residences and buildings that have housed generations of families and businesses.
For visitors to the city, the simplest way to show support is to stay and appreciate what Yangon has to offer. Says Thurein, “It is a city of great diversity and with lots of character. Yangon has always been a cosmopolitan city, and we need more people to realise its potential.”