“..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.
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.
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.