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Category: Downtown

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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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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Phayre Street (Pansodan Street)

c.1910

2017

“Sun hats are very necessary”
– Thomas Cook Ltd Travel Guide to Burma, 1912

This set is a favourite of mine, because the three buildings in the foreground are all original, but with varying degrees of alteration. And then looming over all of them is the infamous Shwe Bank building.

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Sule Pagoda

1885

2017

“I might certainly describe the charm of the Sule Pagoda, the creeks choked with teak logs, the crowded shipping, the dingy markets, the yellow-red brick of the Secretariat and the Chief Court, but to what end? Photographs are more accurate”
– Richard Curle, ‘Into the East: notes on Burma and Malaya’, 1923

When Alanpyaya won Yangon from the Mon in 1755, he had taken a small but strategic fort town, on an island that stretched from what is now 30th St to Thein Pyu Road. It was surrounded by swampy marsh, and was inundated with water with each tide. To the north-west, Sule pagoda sat on a small, rocky outcrop attached to the mainland, reached from the town by a footbridge.

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The Excelsior Theatre

c.1950

2017

“Please accept our apologies for the poor quality of the film”
– opening slide of Myanmar’s first ever film

The Excelsior is the last scion of a time when Myanmar’s film industry was a leading light in South East Asia. Despite some initial British censorship, the industry thrived, and by the 70s there were hundreds of cinemas up and down the country showing a healthy mix of imported and Burmese-made films.

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