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Rangoon University: Convocation Hall

c.1930

2018

“There’s no friend like wisdom”
– Yangon University motto (clearly someone never owned a dog)

Rangoon College was first founded by the British in 1878, became Rangoon University in 1920, and finally Yangon University when the city’s name was changed in 1989. Its style of instruction was modeled on old-world British universities like Oxford and Cambridge, and aimed to instill their values and attitudes into young Burmese elites – but instead became a hotbed of anti-colonialism, and an engine of protest.

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Burma Athletic Association Grounds

c.1900

2018

“I am convinced that the entire secret of the English for keeping well in tropical countries is summed up in the word ‘exercise’.”
– Joseph Dautremer, Burma Under British Rule, 1913

Football and boxing were the two most popular sports amongst British soldiers, and the first organised football league took place in 1894, won by the West Yorkshire Regiment. Games were generally played on teams own fields, or at the local parade grounds. One member of the Burmese Athletic Association suggested that a water tank north of the railway station could be reclaimed and used as a permanent athletic field. Apparently the idea was ridiculed by his fellow members, asking what he thought would be possible beyond swimming or water polo – but he pressed ahead with the plan. By 1909 the reclamation had progressed enough that football games could be held on it, along with cricket and tennis.

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Shwedagon Pagoda

c.1890

2018

“Its spire of gold, touched by the flaming sun, is the first object upon which the eyes of the world traveller rest as he approaches Rangoon, and it is the last of the city he looks upon when his steamer is bearing him away; and the memory of it never fades from the eyes of one who has once looked upon it.”
– The Silken East, V. C. Scott O’Conner, 1904

According to legend, two Mon brothers found Gautama Buddha in contemplation under a tree. Gautama gave them eight strands of hair, and a mission that took them far away from the peace and quiet of his tree: to bury the hairs on a distant hill where those of two previous Buddhas had been buried. They did this in about 600 BC and Shwedagon was built to mark the spot. Other historical sources date the original pagoda somewhere between the 6th and 10th centuries, but either way, the pagoda was added to and extended by various monarchs eager for merit over the centuries, and was first covered in gold by the famous widow queen, Shin Saw Pu.

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The High Court

c.1915

2017

One of the most iconic downtown buildings, the High Court building was completed in 1911. It was built on what had been the site of the dramatically titled Death Gate. This was the north-west entrance to the small town of Rangoon, which at the time sat on an island surrounded by swampy marsh. Dead bodies left the town through this gate, and so did convicted criminals being taken to the execution grounds. Those grounds are now buried somewhere under the middle block of 25th and 26th street. Originally the court had a lake in front of it, taking up part of what is now Mahabandoola Park.

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Sule Pagoda Road, North

c.1930

2017

“All the comforts of living available in Britain were also to be had in Rangoon. The Maison Continental on Sule Pagoda Road and the Vienna Cafe on Phayre Street, and in Maymyo, served continental food. The Rangoon Exchange Gazette informed these distant Englishmen and almost-Englishmen that Iraq had been bombed, that the Prince of Wales broke his collarbone, and that Woodrow Wilson had died.”
– Ruth Cernea, Almost Englishmen: Baghdadi Jews in British Burma, 2006

This photo is taken looking south along Sule Pagoda road, to the pagoda and the fire station. In the foreground is the Maison Continental, a popular place for European food. The Continental was renowned for its confectionery: cakes and scones, melt-in-the-mouth puff pastry, hot cross buns at Easter and plum pudding at Christmas. Today it is part of the footprint of the Sule Shangri-la hotel. Unsurprisingly for such a central part of the city, there is plenty of history in the time period between the two.

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Accountant-General’s Office and Currency Department

c.1890

2017

“The Government of India, under the control of the Secretary of State in Council, is the supreme authority in Burma. All revenue collected in Burma belongs primarily to the Government of India and the Secretary of State; all the expenditure incurred in Burma is spent on their behalf.”
– M.F.Gauntlet, Accountant-General, in 20th Century Impressions of Burma, 1910

Britain’s colonies were first and foremost a business that had to be profitable. Ownership of revenue was divided between the local British administration and the imperial British government in India, to which it reported. Division was generally done by sector; profits from key strategic industries were controlled centrally, and less crucial ones by local government. It was the responsibility of the Accountant-General that revenue was correctly collected and sent to British India, and that rules were followed on how the remainder could be spent. In the grand bureaucracy of the colonial administration, it was a hugely important position.

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Old Town Hall and the Emmanuel Baptist Church

c1900

2017

This view, looking east from Sule Pagoda, takes in three interesting buildings: Ripon Hall, used as Rangoon’s town hall and later replaced by the current city hall, the Rowe and Co. Department Store, which is now Aya Bank, and the Emmanuel Baptist Church, which retains its function today, but in a new structure. Here we’ll talk about city hall, the design of which marks a successful resistance to British architectural dominance, and the Baptist church. Rowe and Co. will have a post of its own in future.

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Wingaba Lake

c.1900

2017

“In the middle of the village is a sacred tank or lake, three sides of which are surrounded by forest trees and creepers; on the fourth is the bazaar, which lined the road, with which it is level, though the rear of the buildings, supported on piles, overhung the water of the lake.”
– Robert Talbot Kelly, ‘Burma, painted and described’, 1905

The years have not been especially kind to the small lake of Wingaba. Its original, roughly horseshoe shape, is still just visible from above. Now mostly dry and grown over with green, a small patch of permanent water remains in the bottom right corner. Information on the lake is scant, but one possible explanation is that the lake would likely have been a water source for the village, but as the city grew and centralised water sources came online there would have been less pressure to maintain it. Given the amount of change, this was a pretty challenging shot to try to line up – so please forgive any discrepancy!

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Shwedagon, South Entrance

c.1885

2017

“The platform upon which the pagoda stands is approached by four great flights of stairs at the cardinal points. Of these, the southern stairs are the most frequented, facing as they do the immemorial road which leads up from the banks of the river, straight through the heart of the town to the pagoda.”
– The Silken East, V. C. Scott O’Conner, 1904

Each entrance of the Shwedagon has slightly different characteristics and histories. The west was closed off during British control of the pagoda, as the area was used to store munitions and arms. The east, my favourite, passes through a busy street of vendors, monasteries and temples, before ascending through two levels of covered steps. The north has the longest approach on the platform itself, and will be covered in another post. And then the south; considered the primary entrance, and certainly the most photographed over the years

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Surti Sunni Jamah Mosque

c.1895

2017

The oldest original mosque in the city, the Surti Sunni Jamah Mosque was built in the 1860s by the Sunni community from Western India. It’s apparently on the site of the first ever mosque in the city, built around 1826 but destroyed in the second Anglo-Burmese war. Surti Sunni Jamah sits on what was then Mogul Street, now Shwebonthar, at the heart of the traditionally Indian section of downtown.

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