“In Kokine there was not a single house until about 1874, when Mr. Alexander Watson of the Chartered Bank built a small bungalow there, though his action in living ‘so far out in a thick jungle’ was viewed with astonishment by his friends”
– B.R. Pearn, A History of Rangoon, 1939
Dhammazedi Road was originally known as Boundary Road, because it defined the upper limit of the city. Past this point was jungle, with just tracks leading to other nearby villages and towns. Through the 20th century new developments expanded the city past Boundary Road, eventually filling the gaps between these various urban centres, and making them part of the present day sprawl of Yangon.
One of these developments began in 1907, just north of Boundary Road. It was called Golden Valley, because although the land in question was at that point snake and tiger infested jungle, investors were invited to imagine ‘the excellence of the property, hidden, like a buried treasure’ beneath it. Today Golden Valley still refers to the area north of Dhammazedi, centred around Golden Valley Road, and is one of the premier addresses in the city.
Within this leafy expanse are mansions belonging to wealthy business types and military elites, international expatriates searching for some garden space for children to wear themselves out in, and offices of local and international businesses. Many of these mansions, like the one pictured in the newer photograph, have an extravagant and rather Disney-like neo-classical style; seemingly competing to see which can have the most columns and balconies.
There also appears to be an arms race taking place over the height of fences and gates, and the amount of razor wire draped on them. A Burmese friend once asserted that despite the low crime rate, no one wants to be the least fortified, as in the rare event of a burglary their house will be the inevitable target.
Despite the wealth of the area, the roads in Golden Valley are often in poor condition, and in heavy rain flooding is common. Impossibly expensive sports cars with bumpers inches from the ground – built for racing the smooth roads of Monaco, instead creep nervously along uneven and potholed roads. House numbering is the most chaotic and confusing in all of Yangon, and online maps of the area are rarely accurate. At night the resident street dogs are also particularly terrifying.
A hall on Boundary Road also regularly hosted meetings of Freemasons – a kind of private society club. Though today they are fairly open about their activities, they were historically very secretive, and their use of ritual and symbolism led to many conspiracy theories. These range from Freemasons in the police ignoring the crimes of members, to grand Illuminati conspiracies, casting the Freemasons as a secret society controlling governments and shaping history.
The main ‘lodge’ in Rangoon was called The Star of Burma, and officially began meeting in 1853. At first they met in the offices and houses of their members, and then from 1864 in a hall on Boundary Road. In 1884 they moved again to what is now the eastern end of Bogyoke Aung San Road – but then the railway company acquired part of their land. I like the idea of them trying to complete their secret initiation ceremonies with the constant interruption of steam trains whistling and sounding horns.
Enough was enough, and they commissioned the building of Freemasons’ Hall on Sympsons Road, now Pan Tra Street. This was a serious upgrade, with two large halls, a library and an office for the Secretary of the lodge. Interestingly a ladies’ cloak room and retiring room were included, though women were not permitted to join the Freemasons. Presumably this was so the hall could also be used for other, non-masonic purposes.
During the war the secretary of the lodge left by boat, as part of the evacuation in advance of the Japanese invasion. He took with him all of the lodge’s records, and apparently also all of its furniture. They were never seen again – presumably the boat was lost and the secretary and his possessions were drowned. Unless he actually disappeared on purpose and started a new life somewhere, with lots of chairs.
At its height, Freemason chapters were meeting in all the major colonial towns. Today there are none. In 1964 the Law for the Protection of National Solidarity was passed, banning all political parties except for the military’s own, and made illegal any organisation that was not officially approved. The registration of the Freemasons was later blocked under this law, formally ending its presence in the country. Freemasons’ Hall was later demolished, and I believe its site is now part of the military complex at the top of Bo Yar Nyunt Road.
One Rangoon chapter technically does still exist however: the same year that the Law for the Protection of National Solidarity was passed, two lodges (one from Rangoon and one from Shwebo) merged together and formally relocated to London. The ‘Rangoon and Ormond-Iles’ lodge still meets there every two months at the main Freemason’s Hall in the city – though it’s unclear if the chapter remains any link to Yangon or Myanmar beyond its name.
Thanks again to Sharman Minus of the Chasing Chinthes blog for the original photograph.