Thursday, May 24, 2012

Saving old Yangon

BANGKOK - Mr Thant Myint U's mother would take breakfast to his grandfather in the big red brick building where he used to work.
Now the historian and author, and grandson of the late U Thant, the United Nations' first Asian secretary-general, has formed a group to save and restore some of the colonial-era buildings clustered in Yangon's old business district.
'Ideally, we would like small, protected neighbourhoods,' says Mr Thant, 46, whose Yangon Heritage Trust has a team surveying the structures.
The idea is to save them from demolition or redevelopment that destroys the aesthetics of the stately landmarks that were once the reference points of the British empire in the East.
The buildings in Yangon's old business district are said to constitute the largest number of their kind left in any South-east Asian city today.
Standard Chartered, Lloyd's, the Irrawaddy Flotilla company, Rowe and Co, The Bombay Burmah Trading Company and Burmah Oil were all there, in what was one of the great cosmopolitan cities of the storied Asian coast.
Most had to abandon operations and leave the country during the late dictator general Ne Win's 1960s nationalisation spree.
Some were offices of colonial Burma's Accountant-General. Others were, and in some cases still are, courts of law and lawyers' chambers, clustered on the busy Strand or around Maha Bandoola Park, named after a famous Burmese general.
There are 188 structures on Yangon's official heritage list, but most are old churches, temples, pagodas and monasteries. Many of the downtown edifices with high ceilings and columns are not listed.
Now, with Myanmar opening up, investors pouring in literally by the plane-load, and property prices soaring, one way or another they are going to be sold off - some by auction, some in outright sale.
Yangon's architectural legacy may not survive its newest capitalist spring.
The going price for real estate in the historic district is around US$1,200 (S$1,600) per sq ft - the same as prime property in San Francisco. Escalating demand, limited supply and speculators moving into the market have fuelled the boom.
Rowe and Co has already been bought by U Zaw Zaw, one of the richest men in Myanmar and chief executive of Max Myanmar, with interests ranging from toll roads to football.
Others will go on the auction block soon. Some are being eyed by big hotel chains looking to cash in on the booming market.
While global chains with deep pockets and heritage branding may preserve the character of the old buildings, there is the issue of whether downtown Yangon will become a preserve of the well-heeled, driving out locals who give the area its character.
'We accept that investment is needed as well, and there won't be a problem getting buyers,' says Mr Thant. 'But there should be a sustainable business plan within a regulatory environment.'
'And there should be a mix, with big establishments as well as small shops. We are now beginning to consult the local people who live here to ask what they would like to see happen.'
The Secretariat and the Pegu Club across town are the jewels in the crown on the auction list.
The Secretariat is where on July 19, 1947, a jeep full of armed men in military uniforms was waved through the gate. The men walked into a Cabinet meeting and opened fire, killing six ministers and General Aung San, democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi's father and hero of Myanmar's independence.
Today, it is surrounded by a high double fence. The building is more than 120 years old and not in good condition. A few policemen camp in the sprawling grounds, hanging their washing out on wires stretched between the pillars of the late Victorian building.
Other buildings are still in use by various government departments - like the Post and Telegraph building on the busy Strand, a short walk from where the Chilean poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda once lived.
The Pegu Club, abandoned in the 1960s, is one of those in imminent danger. The basic teak structure with a concrete core is intact, but the atmospheric building where author Rudyard Kipling spent a night in 1888 before travelling up the road to Mandalay, is in a decrepit state.
A few staff members live there, manning the gates. Wooden walkways on teak verandas skirting unkempt courtyards have collapsed in places. The wood is peeling off its doors and the windows are encrusted with cobwebs.
Mr Thant is in a loose alliance with other organisations, including the Myanmar Architecture Association, that have the same goal of preserving such heritage buildings. Investment proposals periodically reach the government - including a plan to convert the Secretariat into a hotel and museum.
But time is running out. The buildings are at immediate risk from both developers and old age. A conference in Yangon next week will produce recommendations to be sent to President Thein Sein.
Yangon stands on the cusp of a new relevance and the return of the cosmopolitan culture of more than 60 years ago. It could become one of Asia's most beautiful cities if its architectural heritage is preserved, reckons Mr Thant. But the window of opportunity before the rush to redevelop gathers momentum is small.
'The clock is ticking,' he says. 'In perhaps a year or so, it will be too late.'