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Category: Downtown

Custom House

1922

2017

Visitors arriving from the sea would soon experience the two underlying reasons for the existence of Yangon. As the ship approached the city along the Yangon river they would spot Shwedagon Pagoda, resplendent in gold and overlooking the city. Soon after they would reach the bustling docks, where each day ships unloaded goods, tourists and new workers. Shwedagon may have been the town’s original claim to significance, but ultimately it was its port and year-round access to the sea that allowed the town to grow into the city we see today.

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The Old Town and Chinese Quarter

1855

2018

“Here many thousands of people literally swarm by day, and sleep twenty in a single room at night. This portion of the city is called ‘The Town.’ It is almost always very dirty, except when washed by heavy rains.”
– Julius Smith, 10 years in Burma, 1902

Though the exact location of the older photograph here is not recorded, the density of the housing and the presence of Shwedagon just visible in the distance does suggest that it was taken from what is now downtown Yangon. Regardless, it provides a glimpse into what Rangoon looked like around the time modern city was beginning to take shape, versus its appearance today.

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Phayre Street, Lower

1895

2018

This is one of the oldest images we’ve looked at, and pre-dates the colonial buildings we can see in the modern photograph of Pansodan Road: Grindlays Bank, the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, and one of everyone’s favourites: the Sofaer Building. The main focus of this article however will be on something else missing from the older photograph: cars.

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The Secretariat

c.1920

2018

Behind these overgrown trees the Secretariat remains the most impressive colonial building in the city. The grand dome and most of its towers were destroyed nearly a century ago, but the scale of the building alone is still staggering. What truly makes the building special though is how deeply tied its history is to that of Myanmar: almost every chapter of the country’s modern history is reflected in the story of the Secretariat.

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The New Law Courts

c.1870

2018

Recently freed from the scaffolding that hid it for much of the last few years, the New Law Courts building we see today was first completed in 1931. The building housed the city’s district and local courts – part of the rapidly expanding colonial bureaucratic and legal systems, and the Police Commissioners office. Part of a second wave of British construction in the city, it replaced the original court in the older photograph.

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Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, Merchant Road

c.1920

2018

At the south-east corner of Mahabandoola Garden on Merchant Road is the fortress-like Myanma Foreign Trade Bank. This building was previously the Rangoon branch of HSBC bank, and before that a catholic church. It was remodelled in the early 1900s to make the building appropriate to its new, secular role: the spire was removed, along with most of the ornamentation – particularly the decorative stonework around the windows.

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Chettiar Temple

c.1930

2018

One of several Hindu temples around the city, the Sri Nagarthan Sulamani temple is now partly hidden by overpass that leads to a bridge over the Pazundaung creek. Thankfully the road didn’t quite reach the level of the colourful gopurum tower, so at least the legion of commuters making their way in and out of the city have a little something to look forward to along the way.

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Holy Trinity Cathedral

1945

2018

“We fought through the f’ing rain: it’s only right that we parade in the f’ing rain”
– attributed to a soldier of the 14th Army at the parade

This photograph was taken on the 15th of June, 1945, during celebrations for the defeat of Japanese forces in Burma. In heavy rain, troops paraded through the city holding British, American, Burmese and other allied flags. Large guns were towed by military trucks, and the RAF performed a dramatic fly past. On the podium, taking and giving salutes, was Lord Louis Mountbatten, then the Supreme Allied Commander for South-East Asia.

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Fytche Square

c.1900

2018

Named for the Chief Commissioner of Burma, Fytche Square was a last minute addition to the design of Rangoon. The plot was left empty following its reclamation from the swamp that preceded it, and it became a public park around 1868. The initial design seems to have been a fairly low effort piece of work. The terrain was uneven, and a rickety wooden fence ran around the perimeter. The south-east quarter of the park was taken up by an ugly water tank that preserved the original atmosphere of swampland.

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Strand Road, west

c.1920

2018

As with many major cities of the world, access to a river was the engine of Yangon’s economic development. Strand Road, running alongside that river, has been host to various important buildings during that development – though many have also been lost to earthquakes and damage from World War II. We’ll look at three such buildings here: the Imperial Bank of India, which survives to this day, the old Post Office building, and Trinity Church, both of which have disappeared in the last century.

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