“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.
After the 1962 coup, the beginning of military control saw mass nationalizations of shops and services. To give the new political regime the desired socialist flavour, everything was suitably rebranded. Beer came from the People’s Brewery and Distillery, hair was cut at the People’s Pride Hairdressing Saloon, the police became the People’s Police Force and the courts the Council of People’s Justices. Toiletries came from the People’s Toilet Industry. It’s unclear until when the Maison Continental itself operated, but at that point the building was still in use as a café of some form, and so became the People’s Patisserie.
‘The People’ don’t seem to have been overwhelmingly attached to their new proletariat patisserie; in 1970 its windows were smashed by protestors angry at not being able to get tickets to the opening ceremony of the Student Games, at nearby Aung San Stadium.
Just south of the Maison were two cinemas, the Palladium and the Globe, which were renamed the Pa Pa Win and the Gon. These were demolished in the mid 1990s to make way for the construction of the hotel. I wrote previously about the Excelsior theatre, renamed the Wizaya Cinema, which survived this period and can be seen nearby. Thant Myint-U of the Yangon Heritage Trust also shared the following image of the two cinemas prior to their demolition.
An Armenian cemetery that had existed since Alaungpaya’s Rangoon was also removed at the end of the 1950s to make way for development. It’s unclear where these burials were reinterred. A forum member here with family ties to someone buried in the cemetery attempted to track down the original grave markers, but reported that they had been broken down for use in road building. Hopefully that’s not the case and they’re still hidden away somewhere.
All of the above was replaced in 1996 by the Traders Hotel, as part of the military government’s plan to develop Myanmar’s tourist industry. It’s a fairly unremarkable looking building, and is now mirrored by the new Sule Plaza building to its immediate south. The Traders brand is used for business hotels owned by the Shangri-La hotel group. Traders Yangon was refurbished and then graduated to their five star luxury hotel brand in 2014, becoming the Sule Shangri-La.
A similar shot from around the same time shows the Sule Pagoda Road tram, and both photos show traffic driving on the left of the road. We’ll talk more about cars, trams, and the change in traffic direction in a later post.