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Tiger Alley

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“A tiger presents greater difficulties. If he doesn’t run away when you wave your arms and shout, you should poke your stick through his eye into his brain, or get on his back, out of reach of his claws, and throttle him. If that fails, pretend to be dead; if that even fails, you must die.”
– Beth Ellis, An English Girl’s First Impression of Burmah, 1899

In his 1939 History of Rangoon, B R Pearn included the two original photographs above as a before and after, so thanks to his foresight we have our first ever set of three images. Though the location of the first two is unlikely to be exactly the same, the area that became Doopley Street (and today Myaynigone Zay Street) will have looked identical – thick with jungle, with only small paths leading through the green towards the town of Kemmedine and the western river.

This whole area, now the section of U Wisara Road and the surrounding streets just north of Dhammazedi Road, was known as Tiger Alley; named for one of the dangers faced when making the journey.

Tigers were then common in the areas around Rangoon. There is an oft repeated story about a tiger that made its way onto the Shwedagon pagoda platform in 1903. Visitors and monks on the platform panicked and ran down from the pagoda, and asked the British soldiers stationed there to slay it. The tiger was tracked to a hiding spot, and from the roof of a smaller shrine a soldier was able to shoot it.

Once the deed was done however, the monks declared the tiger was in fact being ridden by a nat (guardian spirit) of the pagoda – and lamented that it had been slain by the British, in spite of Buddha’s forbidding the taking of life. Good politics!

This carving of the tiger and nat can be found on the Shwedagon platform today (big thanks to Jo of little-yak.com)

Nowadays, the only tiger within 100 miles of Shwedagon is in Yangon zoo (which we’ll visit in an upcoming post). Tigers in Myanmar are under huge pressure from encroachment and poaching. Large scale logging and mining has taken place even in areas ostensibly designated as reserves. Last year a camera trap survey in the border areas of Karen state captured amazing images of various endangered species, including tigers – but also detected multiple groups of poachers. Unfortunately, the prognosis for tigers in Myanmar seems grim without decisive political intervention.

An image from the Karen Wildlife Conservation Initiative project, done with WWF funding

Doopley street, in the second image, was likely named for Mohammed Imbrahim Doopley, a Surati Muslim and director of the Surati Bazaar company. The Surati were a wealthy and important community in the city, and funded the construction of many buildings around the city. I previously wrote about them here.

Doopley would have been tremendously rich. The Surati Bazaar was the largest market in the city, hosting between 600 and 800 stalls. One British writer enviously noted that “the shares of the Surati Bazaar Company are unpurchasable, and their dividends reach fabulous dimensions”. The majority of stalls were held by Indian merchants, though Burmese accounted for around a third of them.

During the Second World War many of these Indian merchants decided to leave as the Japanese invasion approached. The British government relied on the largest of them for the supply of food to the city, so negotiated and delayed their departure. Eventually the merchants gathered at the docks in February 1942, where a steam boat owned by a British company was waiting.

They had turned their saved wealth into valuable, portable assets – I’m imagining cartoon-like treasure chests full of gold. But the boats were already overladen and arguments broke out about what to do. The problem was promptly solved by the arrival of looters, who stole the majority of the merchants’ valuables and ran away.

Various fires and renovations have over time replaced the Surati Bazaar with the Theingyi Market (original courtesy of chasingchinthes.com)

Back in 1874, such was Doopley’s prominence that he was nominated to the Municipal Committee of Rangoon, which was established to oversee the development of the city. With the core of the city established, the committee turned to development of the suburbs – partly to deal with overcrowding. As of 1911 population density in Rangoon was comparable with the most crowded cities of India.

As with the downtown area, land had to be reclaimed from swamp, and the jungles of tiger alley were cleared. Roads were built, improved, and improved again to deal with the increasing numbers of motor cars. Trams were introduced, and then trains, so that people no longer had to live as close as possible to their places of work. Thousands of housing plots were prepared and populated. The suburbs began to grow.

In the hundred years since, Yangon has grown out to those suburbs and enveloped them. Distinct villages and towns have become neighbourhoods of the city. Doopley Street, and the paths through the jungle that lie under it, is now part of Myaynigone Zay Street – named after the market of what was once a village; now a neighbourhood of the ever-expanding city.

Published inBefore/after sliderNorth YangonThe World Wars

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