“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.
The first building appears to have a sign for the Singer Company, which produced the beautiful old sewing machines that can still be spotted in regular use around the city today.
The second, taller building, now a bank focused on growing small and medium enterprises, was the office of Thomas Cook & Son, a travel agency which still operates in the UK today. Thomas Cook was a pioneer of mass tourism in the 1800s. He was a also member of the temperance movement against alcohol, holding the radical belief that the lives of working people would be improved by more education and less alcohol. To that end, he began arranging trips for fellow temperance supporters within the UK.
The no alcohol thing didn’t quite catch on, but mass tourism did, and developed into a package tour business that reached Europe, the US, and eventually an annual world tour which included a stop in Burma. His guide to Burma recommended hiring a servant while travelling around Burma, but warned “Travellers should be very careful when engaging servants, as there are many bad characters in Rangoon”.
Following the 1962 coup, Myanmar tourism sector fell far behind those of its neighbours. After repeatedly stating opposition to tourism to the country, the National League for Democracy issued a statement welcoming visitors in 2011. Since then, although official figures for tourist arrivals are artificially inflated, there has certainly been a dramatic increase in tourism. It’s not completely clear if the NLD’s change in position was more due to perceived political changes, or a response to a broader public desire for more tourism.
Indeed the group that seems to most resent this dramatic growth are other foreigners living in Yangon, who love to complain about tourists. This too is nothing new: in 1904 VC Scott O’Connor wrote of a foreign resident of Burma known only as ‘The Signor’ who sold Burmese antiques: “’From my friends,’ he would say, ‘I ask but five per cent; from the friends of my friends, ten; from globe-trotters as much as I can get.’ And as globe-trotters are not popular amongst people who have to ‘stick it’, we were content that it should be so.”
The Shwe Bank building in the background of the new photo opened at the start of 2016 and is probably the most reviled modern addition to Yangon’s architecture, not least because it’s location in the city’s historic centre. Even the architect that designed the building has distanced himself from the result, saying that the outcome was “50 percent contrary” to his design.
The Yangon Heritage Trust has proposed some potential changes to the façade, but even if this doesn’t go anywhere, the strength of the reaction to the building will hopefully have an impact on future developments.
One minor positive has been pointed out – the building did not encroach on the still relatively wide pavements, so there’s still space for the booksellers and other street vendors to set up shop outside. Here you can find quirky old fiction, random assortments of technical manuals, and always something surprising.
If I can find a good quality picture of the old Whitaway and Laidlaw building that originally stood where the Shwe bank is, I’ll do another Time Machine post.