The original tenants of Scott’s Market had previously held stalls in the Municipal Bazaar on Strand Road, between what are now Shwe Bon Thar and Shwedagon Pagoda road. In 1904 the Port Commissioners decided they wanted to connect the various new wharves and jetties along the river-front, which meant relocating the market. Heavily disputed negotiations held up the project, but after 16 years and one world war, eventually an agreement was reached. The Commissioners bought the land from the municipality, but rather than actually pay out any money, it would be used to establish a new, permanent market area.
Scott’s market finally opened in 1926. There’s a common misconception that it’s named for George Scott, the legendary journalist and colonial administrator who brought much of the Shan States under British control – popularised in Andrew Marshall’s brilliant book, The Trouser People. The honour actually belonged to Gavin Scott, who was Municipal Commissioner at time. In 1948 it was renamed Bogyoke Aung San Market after the near-deified independence leader.
The market holds lots of interesting physical history and is really crying out for a dedicated project. The internal streets of the market are named for the winners of the Aung San Thuriya medal, the highest military honour in the country. Later this week I’ll share an interactive map with more information on these men and how they earned their medals.
Around the market you can see sewer grates embossed with ‘Rangoon’, and the company that manufactured them, G.S.Behara and Son. In 1932 Behara and Sons were involved in a court case with the Rangoon Development Trust, the details of which are recorded here. To help fund the development of the city, there were various taxes and levies collected by the Trust, one of which was a surcharge on steamship tickets for every male passenger leaving the country. This was referred to as the terminal tax.
Behara and Son had been acting as the local agent of a steamship company which had gone bankrupt. They had collected the tax, but had given it to the company – the entire assets of which had now been liquidated. Since they couldn’t get it from the defunct company, the Trust was chasing Behara and Son for the proceeds of the terminal tax, the equivalent of around 60,000 USD today. To that effect, they had attempted to seize and sell five houses belonging to Behara and Son.
What followed was a court case based on the many overlapping laws and rulings on how colonial authorities interacted, and the jurisdiction of the Rangoon High Court over the Trust. They essentially argued that due to powers invested in them, their enforcement and collection of debts was outside the remit of the High Court. The court slapped down this audacious argument, noting that if that was the case, they could essentially accuse and seize the assets of anyone – whether ‘a local agent, a local doctor, or a local butcher’. The Trust lost the case, and was obliged to release the houses and free Behara and Son of any debt.
In a real sign of the times, Bogyoke market is now figuratively and (from about midday onwards) literally overshadowed by Junction City, the flagship mall in the city. The space for shops in the older market can be rented or owned, though these days increased prices mean that most are renting. Each year the market inevitably becomes a little more focused on tourists.
But a visit to Bogyoke is still a fantastic way to spend an afternoon, with its slightly suspicious money changers lurking between the archways, and equally suspicious antiques being sold out the back of cars. Inside there are gem shops pushing jade in the shape of tigers and cabbages onto tourists, and jewellery shops where you can exchange your monthly salary for a reliable investment in gold.
Some good galleries sell local art, and cheaper imitations of some of their better artists can be found elsewhere in the market. Real antiques can be found, and with luck, maybe some old photos of the city. The incredibly diverse fabric available is a little more expensive than elsewhere, but is generally seen as slightly higher quality. Tailors within the market can turn whatever you find into clothing – one of them made the shirts worn by world leaders during the ASEAN summit in 2014.