“We fought through the f’ing rain: it’s only right that we parade in the f’ing rain”
– attributed to a soldier of the 14th Army at the parade
This photograph was taken on the 15th of June, 1945, during celebrations for the defeat of Japanese forces in Burma. In heavy rain, troops paraded through the city holding British, American, Burmese and other allied flags. Large guns were towed by military trucks, and the RAF performed a dramatic fly past. On the podium, taking and giving salutes, was Lord Louis Mountbatten, then the Supreme Allied Commander for South-East Asia.
“I suppose you can say I became an odd-job man”
– Louis Mountbatten: First Sea Lord, Supreme Allied Commander, Governor General of India, and President of the British Computer Society (among many others)
Mountbatten was born in 1900, a great-grandson to Queen Victoria. His father was German, and originally gave him the surname Battenberg, but this was later changed to Mountbatten due to anti-German sentiment around World War I. That ill public feeling also forced his father to step down from the position of First Sea Lord; head of the entire British navy.
Mountbatten was not afraid to use his royal connections to accelerate his career and protect him from the consequences of the occasional failure, but he was certainly not lazy or lacking in courage. During the second world war his command ship was sunk by a dive bomber, and Mountbatten spent four hours in the sea with his surviving crew, being strafed by German planes.
Through a mix of effort and the privileges of his birth, Mountbatten climbed the ranks of the navy. Ten years after the war he become First Sea Lord – a lifelong ambition inspired by his father’s humiliating dismissal. In 1979, Mountbatten was killed in a terrorist bombing by the Irish Republican Army, along with two 14 and 15 year old boys, one of whom was his grandson.
Mountbatten has a complicated legacy due to his involvement in the rather disastrous partition of India and Pakistan. In Myanmar however his record is one of largely unmitigated success, overseeing the recapture of the country from the Japanese. His General in the operation was William Slim, who we’ll hopefully get a chance to talk about in a later article. Slim was not present at the celebrations – Mountbatten had dispatched him to take some rest.
In the background of the photograph is Holy Trinity Cathedral. This was the second dedicated building for Anglicans in the city, and construction began in 1886, just 30 years after the already outgrown Trinity Church on Strand Road had been completed. We looked at that church in a previous article here. There were various issues funding the construction, and so it seems to have been built in stages, with the spire being the final addition.
Built into the internal walls of the cathedral are various memorials. There are wall plaques for a police superintendent, a district commissioner, and a dermatoleprologist – a specialist in leprosy. There is an entire chapel dedicated to soldiers killed in the second world war. But perhaps the most intriguing is a stain glass window near the entrance of the church dedicated to a headmistress, Grace Ann Darling.
“Our friend’s name was Grace Darling, and she died worthy of that name”
– Reverend Ellis of St Gabriel’s Church, 1984
In 1894 Darling was headmistress of a school in the town of Amherst, today Kyaikkhami, thirty miles south of Mawlamyine. Some of her pupils were playing in the sea, when one was attacked by what witnesses described as a ‘large fish’ – presumably a shark, though some reports suggested it could also have been an alligator. Unable to stand, the girl began to be swept away by the current.
Darling rushed into the sea to try to rescue her, getting a grip of her hair and trying to pull her out, but was then also bitten by the animal, and also went beneath the water. The girl’s sister had rushed in to help, but could not hold the older woman above water. Some local sailors managed to drag them out, but both Darling and the first girl had drowned.
It’s a rather sad story, and the stained glass dedication certainly seems deserved. It’s ever so slightly undermined however by the unfortunate choice of imagery for the window: Jesus at the sea of Galilee; walking on water.
Another memorial of note is just to the left of the entrance, dedicated to Father William Henry Jackson. Jackson had gone blind as a boy, and later became an Anglican priest and educator. He came to Burma in 1917, where his sister and her husband were running a mission for the blind – providing eye surgery, education and training.
Jackson threw himself into life in Burma, sleeping on a bamboo mat, and adopting local dress and eating habits. While other Europeans spent their time in private clubs, discussing news and gossip from home, Jackson turned down such invitations to focus on studying Burmese, and on developing an understanding of Burmese society – and so of his pupils. He was an excellent role model to them, refusing to be limited by his blindness.
“To pity him was to insult him”
– the former Bishop of Rangoon in 1932, from a biography of Jackson
Probably his most impressive achievement was the creation of the first version of Burmese braille. Though this was updated in 1967 to better reflect the intricacies of the Burmese language, some of Jackson’s original contributions remain today. He travelled frequently, following up on reports of blind children who could be brought into the school, and reassuring their parents that despite what they may have heard, the school was not an elaborate front for cannibalism.
His letters home are full of optimism and good humour, including one particularly entertaining account that will resonate with anyone who has struggled to sleep in a Myanmar village:
“The immediate cause of waking is that one of the ten sleepers has turned over with more than usual violence, and the whole bamboo floor is creaking and groaning in consequence; but there are subsidiary causes. The blanket which has been turned sideways so as to cover three of us, has left the feet exposed to the cool air and the attentions of wandering mosquitoes. The coolness of the lower extremities is compensated, though not mitigated, by the fact that one arm and one leg of the snoring Nicholas on the right are searching sporadically for a convenient resting place on our chest, and in so doing have to compete with an arm and a leg of John on the left, whose grinding teeth and frequent vociferations suggest that his dreams are reminiscent of the toiling day. When we have decided that the rustling in the wall is only rats, that the fifty or sixty crowing cocks are not really ‘crowing in’ the light, that the clamour of dogs is only a canine social and not the notification of robbers, we shall sleep again, lulled by the thought that there will probably be a chance of getting some tea somewhere in the morning, and that there is a reasonable chance of getting some sort of meal in about ten hours’ time.”
Today the area around the church is dominated by Junction City, which opened in 2017. We touched on the mall in a previous article on the older Scott’s Market.
Junction City is the flagship shopping centre of the city – possibly not by size, but certainly by location. In a recent piece of research, Myanmar residents of Yangon chose the mall as one of their top two ‘must see’ places in the city – a choice sometimes a bit confusing to foreign visitors, many of whom were drawn to the city by the older buildings that this project has also focused on.
Decades of relative isolation and limited development have created a fierce appetite for the modern in many residents of Yangon, and Junction City is certainly a temple to all things shiny and new. Though privately owned, the mall essentially acts as a (heavily air-conditioned) public space, in a city without many – and unlike the parks, one that stays open past sunset.
Regardless of how you may feel about the relationship between modernity and consumerism, or the conflation of private and public spaces, the mall is people watching without equal. Families bound for the cinema; the parents in traditional longyis, their children dressed like Korean music videos. Couples in coordinated outfits pose for photos in front of huge adverts for coffee shops opening soon. I once stopped to watch a group in matching t-shirts doing a choreographed dance to a Bruno Mars song, and at the end one performer proposed to the other; their friends forming a circle and firing confetti fountains over the couple.
So although it’s not old, beautiful, or even particularly unique, I would also suggest that visitors to the city take a walk through the mall. Inside Junction City and the people within it is a crucial piece of the puzzle that is modern day Yangon.