Skip to content

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.

The premier shopping experience to be had in the city, Rowe and Co. was referred to by one famous customer as the ‘Harrods of the East’; a reference to the famous London department store where given enough money and time, anything could be purchased. Rowe and Co. issued a quarterly illustrated catalogue of its goods and services, which was supposedly 300 pages long. For something produced so prolifically, I haven’t yet found a copy – hopefully a surviving edition will emerge at some point.

Finally a solution to the scourge of shrinking underwear

This was the golden age of the department store. In London, customers browsed the crafts and goods of far flung British colonies. Indeed, British citizens were encouraged to support the empire through purchasing its products. Back in those colonies, department stores like Rowe and Co. brought British products to the world, and gave a comforting taste of home to the Europeans living there.

During World War II it was extensively looted, and damaged by bombing. The image below is from 1945, after Rangoon was retaken from the Japanese. Two British aircraft are being exhibited to the public to show their role in the victory, and in the background is the Rowe and Co. building. The metal portico appears to have survived, but all the windows are missing, the inside looks derelict, and past the top floor balconies we can see that the roof also appears to have been misplaced.

The store recovered though, rebuilding and retaking its place as the most luxurious shopping experience in the city. It survived until the mass nationalisations in 1964, at the start of the socialist period. Since then it has hosted a library, the Department of Immigration and Manpower, and then stood empty for some time. Around 2012 it was bought by a local business magnate, Zaw Zaw. After some discussion of it becoming a luxury hotel, it was finally converted for use by the Ayeyarwady Bank.

The building was restored for the purpose, and painted a simple white. The restoration is beautifully done, and I’m particularly pleased that the original style of the metal portico was retained. It’s perhaps a shame that the striking horizontal lines have been lost, but maybe these will re-emerge in a future renovation.

The previous colour scheme (via travfotos)

I owe a special debt of gratitude to the Rowe and Co., as many of the older pictures I’ve used for this project come from photo albums they printed, presumably as souvenirs or promotional materials.

Don’t forget to follow Yangon Time Machine on Facebook or Twitter to see new posts

Published inBefore/after sliderDowntownThe World Wars

4 Comments

  1. Dr Bob Lewis Dr Bob Lewis

    In the 1920s/1930s one of my wife’s aunts worked there as a seamstress. It is nice to see it restored from the state it was in when we first visited Burma/Myanmar.

    Whereabouts was the branch in Moulein?

    • Will Will

      Greetings! I’ve looked into the Moulmein branch, with mixed results. The store was on Maingay Street, but I’ve yet to find a old map of the town, so all I can say for now is that it was one of the horizontal streets coming off Lower Main Road. Maingay may be a corruption of a Myanmar road name, or it may be named after a fellow doctor, Alexander Carroll Maingay. He was a surgeon with the army and was one of the many Europeans who spent much of their time here collecting and cataloguing plants. He later became the Superintendent of Rangoon Prison, and was shot dead during a riot. Apparently his plant collection then ended up at Kew.

      If I find a decent map of Mawlamyine I’ll be sure to share it. Cheers!

  2. Agnes SJ Agnes SJ

    Historical building which give me sad n nostaligue feeling
    of our old colonial days sujucated by British rulers.★

  3. Love your work. Hopefully you’ll compile this information together one day and write a book.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *