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Category: The World Wars

Boundary Road

c.1900

2018

“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.

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Arthur Phayre statue and Rangoon Zoological Gardens

c.1910

2018

“He never really bit anybody, but the engineer felt it was safest to get rid of Lala. He got off one day at the village near the defile and took the bear a mile and a half away into the jungle and “lost” him. Soon after the villagers petitioned the engineer to take the bear on board again. It seemed that Lala was haunting the village and stole chickens persistently. So there was nothing for it but to take him on to the steamer again. Then he gave him to the Rangoon Zoo.”
– Alfred Hugh Fisher, Through India and Burmah with pen and brush, 1911

The statue visible in the older image is Sir Arthur Phayre, the first Chief Commissioner of Burma. In this article we’ll trace the journey of the statue across Yangon, from Myanmar’s first museum to its first zoo, and then its current home today.

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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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Tiger Alley

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1855
1938
2018
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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.

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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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Rowe and Co. Department Store

c.1920

2018

“..the man being totally ignorant of the shop I wanted, and quite incapable of confessing himself to be so, took me to Rowe at a venture, that place being a large general emporium much frequented by Europeans.”
– Geraldine Mitton, A Bachelor Girl in Burma, 1907

Completed in 1910, this building was the third incarnation of the Rowe and Co. department store in Rangoon. The first had been on Moghul Street (now Shwe Bon Thar), around 1866. The building was a modern marvel, with a steel frame, ceiling fans, and a basement – an unusual feature given the swampy foundations of the city.

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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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“Extract digit”

Disclaimer: ‘Jap’ in a lot of the world, including where I’m from, is a pretty racist term now. It’s included here because of its historical nature.

“For Christmas the Japs gave us a holiday and extra rations, and the cooks excelled themselves and gave us a really good feed. In the morning we had a carol service, conducted by Lieutenant Brian Horncastle, and then a sports meeting. In the evening there was a concert with alternate turns by British and Americans. The Americans had assured us for some months that their General Stilwell, or “Uncle Joe” as they called him, had announced his intention of spending Christmas in Rangoon, so that when one of them appeared in the middle of the concert dressed as “Uncle Joe” with a “Sorry I’m late, you fellows”, he received an uproarious welcome.”
– Philip Stibbe, from an account of his final Christmas in Japanese captivity in 1944, ‘Return via Rangoon’

On the 1st of May, one day after Hitler committed suicide, Operation Dracula was launched. It was a joint operation of British, Indian and American forces, intended to finally retake Rangoon from the Japanese. The majority of Japanese troops had already left Yangon, and the operation was a success.

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